Blind veterans kayaking the Grand Canyon
By James Q Martin
The bottom of the Grand Canyon, on the Colorado River, is a place I have been many times, but this time I try to see it from a new perspective: the perspective of not seeing it at all. As we roll into another huge rapid, I close my eyes and try to sense with only feeling and sound. But the first big wave hits me unexpectedly, and my eyes are startled open. Even riding high and relatively dry on a large raft, I’m too afraid to keep my eyes shut in the thick of it. I can only imagine the bravery of the five disabled veterans on our trip, who are taking on the Grand Canyon’s massive whitewater completely in the dark.
That was in September 2018, when I had the opportunity to join Team River Runner and Google Street View on a record-setting river trip in the Grand Canyon. Team River Runner is a unique NGO that uses kayaking to provide veterans with community, healing, and adventure. They brought experienced blind kayaker Lonnie Bedwell—a military veteran who in 2013 became the first blind person to paddle the Grand Canyon—back to the river with four other blinded vets. This would be the first time that so many blind kayakers took on this challenge at once. Google Street View joined to document this historic journey in top-quality visuals, so the rest of the world can see what these blind heroes have accomplished.
As a photographer familiar with the Grand Canyon, I was asked to come along. Being there to capture these moments was inspiring and heart-opening. I found myself crying behind the lens multiple times. I recall one experience that was especially powerful for me. The Grand Canyon is always humbling, but this was one of the most profound moments of my entire career:
The entire 32 person team arrived at Redwall Cavern, a place that always leaves me in awe because of the perfect curvature of this massive geological feature. We of course had the typical wonderful moments you have with any group here—climbing the walls and running in the sand, even playing an impromptu game of assisted wiffle ball with the vets. But they could do something I couldn’t. I watched and learned about echolocation. They would actually use clicking to speculate on the depth of the cavern as they walked in and out of it.
As I was standing in awe of their ability, Lonnie asked all the other kayakers and me to come over so I could take a picture of them. They gathered near the edge of the cavern moments before we needed to get back in the boats and head down river once again. They grouped together and smiled at me, guessing my general location correctly with some call and response.
It was an awkward and fun moment. They were all so proud and I could feel their positive energy beaming. I felt an intense bond they share in my soul, it was energized, but left me extremely raw, feeling their realities in a palpable manner. Trying my best to maintain composure, I choked a soft “Hey team look over here,” but I didn’t have to say ‘smile.’ I didn’t have to say anything. They knew where I was and they were smiling so big. Thank goodness, because my tears were flowing like the river behind me and I could barely speak. I simply clicked a handful of shots, overwhelmed by the realization that I am truly just a tiny cog in a much bigger movement—one that will inspire countless people to face their fears, accept their realities and become greater versions of themselves.