Blinded by a hunting accident 19 years ago, Lonnie Bedwell today sees life more clearly than most.
Sitting at the edge of the riverbank he listens and feels the ground pulse as whitewater peaks crash against the gorge walls. It’s day three of his journey. Only two rapids remain. In front of him looms “Morning Glory,” a class 5 rapid, its emerald waters concealing jagged rocks in the pools below.
The plan is easy enough. All he has to do is cut the wave horizontally, left, right, then over the backside. If not, he’ll hit a hole and be washed out into another by the thrashing rapids.
He paddles hard and charges forward. But he hits the wave too low. The sheer force of the water flips the kayak, pinning him upside down against the wall. Struggling, he sticks his paddle against the rock and tries to push himself off, but the water forces him back.
He strains his head upward to get air. The waves roar around him but he manages a breath before going back under. He’s been underwater for 45 seconds.
Should he pull the spray skirt and bail? No. He’s come this far. He’s not swimming. He’s going to finish it.
Down river his teammates can only wait, fearfully eyeing the kayak’s upturned hull in the white foamy waters, the camera still rolling.
In south-central Africa, near the thundering Victoria Falls in Zambia, former Navy Petty Officer Lonnie Bedwell is kayaking the Zambezi River, known for its high-volume waters, steep drops and punishing rapids.
If only he could see where he was going.
After a hunting accident blinded him 19 years ago, Bedwell, 50, a former power plant supervisor from the tiny town of Dugger, has tackled some of the world’s most challenging natural wonders. He’s kayaked the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and hiked up Mt. Kilimanjaro. He’s been featured on the “Today” show and in Canoe & Kayak Magazine and was a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2015.
And, yes, he did manage to flip his kayak right side up and finish his journey down the Zambezi last summer. Though it wasn’t easy. The Zambezi, he says, was a step up from the whitewater he’d tackled before.
And he’s only getting started.
I first met Lonnie at his home in Dugger, just up the road from his parents’ house and not far from the old house he grew up in.
Dressed in leafy camouflage coveralls and his signature black Oakley sunglasses, he was standing in his gravel driveway with his cousin David Bedwell, ready for a day of coyote hunting.
In front of the garage stood a dark green pickup truck with a flat rear tire. To the left lay a small pond. This was where Lonnie practiced Eskimo rolls, the act of righting a capsized kayak by body motion or a paddle, in preparation for the Grand Canyon three years ago.
He was told by guides with Team River Runner (TRR), an adaptive sports organization that provides paddling opportunities for wounded veterans, that he wouldn’t be allowed to paddle the Colorado River unless he rolled a kayak 1,000 times. He stopped counting at 1,500.
Hunting novice that I am, I arrived in a white North Face jacket and UGG boots. I was swiftly provided with a pair of camouflage coveralls and size 8 men’s boots.
The trail was slick and soggy. “It’s sloppy today,” Lonnie says, listening to the soft squish of our boots.
Lonnie still hunts deer and turkey regularly. He was turkey hunting the day his friend Tim Hale accidentally shot him in the face. Now a guide helps him aim, looking over his shoulder before giving him the signal to pull the trigger.
David walks up ahead, signaling audial clues of things on the path Lonnie can’t see. He kicks a log. Smacks a tree.
With short staccato taps, Lonnie feels for the edge of the path with his red walking stick and hears the click of the point on gravel and the swish of the long grass off to the side. The stick’s red paint is shedding from wear and tear. He listens to the breeze rustle, and he knows we’re surrounded by trees. Open fields are the hardest to navigate.
But through it all, he manages to find his way.
It was still dark when Tim picked him up that Sunday morning in 1997. Lonnie had shot a turkey the day before and was going along to sound the calls for Tim. He didn’t have a gun with him.
They’d been walking in the woods less than a mile from Lonnie’s house when they separated so he could do the calls.
All at once he felt a presence around him. The birds stopped singing. The wind quit rustling the leaves. He could tell something was wrong.
Instinctively he ducked, going to his knees as he brought his hands up to his face. Then he heard the gun go off.
The impact flipped him onto his stomach and everything went black.
He struggled upright and reached up to wipe his eyes so he could see. Nothing. He tried again. Nothing. That’s when he knew.
By that time, Tim had found him. Tim, an emergency room nurse, began to pick Lonnie up and put him over his shoulder.
“What are you doing?” Lonnie asked.
“I’m gonna carry you out of here,” Tim replied.
“You can’t carry me out of here.”
“I got to. You’re gonna be dead.”
“Tim, put me down.”
“I can’t leave you. You’ll be dead before I get back.”
“Tim you gotta leave me. I’ll be dead before you get me out of here. My best chance is for you to leave and go get help.”
Tim obliged. He set Lonnie up against a tree and stuck a finger down Lonnie’s throat to clear the blood. Then he left.
Alone in the woods, Lonnie pictured his three daughters: Courtney, Ashley and Taylor. He didn’t want to forget their faces.
Lonnie ‘Pooch’ Todd, Tim’s cousin and Lonnie’s childhood friend, was off duty that day from his volunteer position at the local fire department. He heard about the shot on the radio before he got the phone call.
He drove to the woods and got to Lonnie first. Lonnie’s camouflage clothing was soaked with blood. Pooch was sure he was looking at a dead man.
He took a deep breath and paused before signaling the other responders.
“I found him.”
They loaded Lonnie onto a stretcher and carried him to the shore of a nearby lake where a boat waited to transport him to a helicopter. His dad arrived on the scene. Jerry Bedwell, a stout former welder and coal miner, known by everyone simply as “Birdie” for his trademark wave of a heartfelt flip of the bird, climbed in next to his son.
Lonnie was still conscious but couldn’t speak. He wanted to let his dad know he was thinking about him. Mustering all his remaining energy, he squeezed Birdie’s hand.
“Yeah, yeah, what’s going on?” Birdie said, swallowing hard.
Lonnie flipped him off.
Miraculously, Lonnie survived a full shotgun blast to the face. The first x-ray showed 85 pellets. He doesn’t know how many he still has left.
“You can still feel some that didn’t go through my skull,” he says. “I know I have some up into my throat and nose.”
When he woke up in the recovery room at the hospital, the doctor told him he didn’t know how he hadn’t bled to death. Fifteen more minutes and he wouldn’t have made it.
Lonnie struggled with the recovery. He lost 50 pounds, and his eyes were in excruciating pain. Local doctors suggested removing them and replacing them with prosthetics. But Lonnie wanted a second opinion.
He flew to the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where they recommended he keep his eyes in as long as he could. To help numb the pain, they gave him a syringe full of alcohol in both eyes to deaden the optic nerves.
“It hurt worse than getting shot,” he says. “I could feel the doctor’s tears dropping on my hand as she gave me the shots.”
That night back in his hotel room, he lay there in silence. No TV. No sound. Just sitting in the darkness with his thoughts.
He didn’t know what he was going to do, or how he was going to do it. He just knew it wouldn’t be easy.
“Your mindset, it takes you places,” Lonnie says. “But I didn’t really ask ‘why’ too much.”
The alcohol block eased some of the pain so he could start focusing on recovery. But trying to do the small everyday things proved the hardest, and often times most frustrating – things like regaining his balance and dealing with carsickness.
Then one day, about three months after losing his eyesight, Lonnie was sitting around his house when he decided he’d had enough and wanted to go outside.
Grabbing a broom handle from the closet, he ventured out toward his barn. He had no clue where he was going. Slowly he walked to the edge of his field, running straight into overgrown weeds. Frustrated, he turned back.
His 5-year-old daughter Taylor, known as “Bug,” was standing on the porch. She was wearing a sundress, rubber boots and a backwards ball cap over her blond hair.
“Daddy what’s wrong?” she asked.
“I’m a little frustrated.”
Stomping her foot, with her hand on her hip she asked, “Daddy, why are you frustrated?”
“Well, I can’t get into my barn without walking through chest high weeds, and I can’t see no more.”
“I’ll help you,” she said.
With that, she took his hand and led him to the garage. Inside, she helped him find the riding lawnmower. With Bug sitting on his lap, Lonnie rode out to the yard as she gave him directions, and then he mowed a small patch of grass.
Minutes later, Birdie pulled into the driveway. Furious, he told Lonnie that if he needed help, he would do it or find someone who could.
But to Lonnie that wasn’t the point. It was much more than that. Bug had helped him see that he wasn’t helpless. He could still do things on his own.
“You see that little girl right there?” Lonnie told Birdie. “Well, to her and her two sisters, my name’s Daddy. It hasn’t changed.”
To those three girls he was still the man.
From that day on, Lonnie slowly began to improve. He began walking on his own around his property and through the neighborhood, pushing himself a little more each day. He helped out with construction projects on family members’ houses.
“It was just that powerful of a moment to me,” Lonnie recalls, “to make me realize that I was still wanted, was still needed, was still loved and still could.”
For years following his accident, people tried to get him to go to a rehab center for the blind. But Lonnie refused. His main focus was caring for his three girls, who were 5, 9 and 11 at the time. He and the girls’ mother divorced after the accident, and he was a single father. He vowed he wouldn’t go until his girls had graduated from high school.
About 13 years after the accident, in 2010, Lonnie finally went to a rehab center for the blind. Two years later, he was invited to an adaptive winter sports clinic in Colorado. There Lonnie first met with Team River Runner. His first time in a kayak
His first time in a kayak was in a recreational swimming pool. If you attempted a roll, you could win a t-shirt. He got one.
That July, he joined the “Out of Sight Clinic” with the team on the Yellowstone River in Montana, his first whitewater trip. It was then that team director Joe Mornini brought up the idea of the Grand Canyon.
Fast forward one year.
Lonnie is waiting on the shore of the Colorado River. The water thrashes at 19,000 to 21,000 cubic feet per minute. Before that day, he hadn’t kayaked anything larger than 2,000. What had he gotten himself into?
“I didn’t have the confidence that I could do the canyon,” Lonnie says. “I just had the desire to do it.”
Whether he’s kayaking or walking around his land, he maintains an attitude of relaxed contemplation. Controlled chaos, he calls it. “Personally, I think all the training I had in the military helps me with that.”
Lonnie spent 12 years in the service -- nine as a nuclear machinist on a Navy submarine and three in the National Guard. Part of his training was knowing what to do in the dark. His mother, Sherry Bedwell, believes that was an omen of his future.
That day on the Colorado River, it wasn’t until he made it through his first large rapid that he began to feel like he could do it. He’d been told to expect to swim several times and maybe even ride in the raft. Mornini had told Lonnie’s guide not to let him run some of the tougher rapids. But Lonnie ran every one, paddled every mile and only swam twice.
On the last four miles, he glided down the river, an American flag flying out the back of his life jacket.
When he called Mornini after completing the trip, Mornini broke down.
“Do you realize what you’ve just done?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Lonnie said. “I had a heck of a great time kayaking the Colorado River.”
When Lonnie’s in the kayak, he steers his own ship.
The three things he misses most in life are driving himself where he wants to go, viewing the beauty of nature and seeing his children and grandchildren’s faces.
What comes closest to giving him back the first of those things is the kayak.
Kyle Thomas has guided Lonnie on many outings through Peace of Adventure, a program for disabled veterans. Thomas also helped Lonnie get ready for his Grand Canyon trip at the Olympic whitewater training center in North Carolina.
“Kayaking is generally an individual sport, but working with Lonnie it quickly becomes a team sport,” Thomas says.
Being a guide forces you to become a better communicator, he says. But the ultimate reward comes from helping someone reach a goal. “Seeing him excel to the point where he’s surpassing those of us who are guiding him – there’s something intrinsically valuable about that.”
For Lonnie, the greatest satisfaction comes from helping veterans like himself overcome personal barriers in their recovery. He says that dark period after an injury is like a prison where you are surrounded by metaphorical walls with no way around, under or through. Then, someone comes along with a vision of what is on the other side of those walls and helps lead you through.
“Now, I’ve been led there, so it’d be selfish of me to stay on that side without going back through and helping someone just like I was,” he says. “That’s my duty now.”
That’s why he returns every year as a mentor at the Yellowstone clinic where he got his start. And while his family isn’t always keen on some of the trips he takes, all agree it’s where he belongs.
“Every time he goes, I’m a nervous wreck. That’s the mother in me,” Sherry says. “But I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
As Birdie puts it, Lonnie already has a big enough obstacle in front of him for the rest of his life. Why add to that burden by saying he can’t do something?
“Sometimes I don’t understand, but then I’m not supposed to understand, I’m dad,” Birdie says with a chuckle. “You at least have to give him the credit for having the fortitude to go out and do it.”
His daughters aren’t surprised by his adventures anymore, but Courtney, now a mother herself, and Ashley, still worry from time to time about the danger.
But Taylor, who doesn’t remember when her father wasn’t blind, tells him to go for it. She doesn’t want him playing it safe. “He’s living,” she says. “He’s doing his thing now. He put his life on hold, and now it’s his turn to live his life again. If he can go full throttle and have fun until he can’t do it anymore, that’s all I care about.”
In March, Lonnie completed a week of kayaking in the Florida Keys with friend and fellow blind veteran Steve Baskis. The two sailed alone in Hobie tandem kayaks, navigating with the help of voice commands on iPhones and iPads. When they weren’t on the water, the pair hosted speaking engagements, engaging with visually impaired children and young adults as part of Baskis’ foundation Blind Endeavors.
In May, he’ll host his first event. Five blind veterans, including Baskis, will join him for a guided turkey hunt in his hometown. As for his next adventures, he plans to do more kayaking and climb the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Other international excursions are in the works, but due to sponsor involvement, he isn’t authorized to talk about them.
Today, blindness does not define Lonnie. “Blindness is a part of me. It will always be a part of me,” Lonnie says. “But I see better now than I ever have.”
Acceptance is a cornerstone in his life and his principle in overcoming adversity.
“How do you overcome it? You break it down,” he tells veterans and kids.
A, acknowledge it and then accept it. Accept what?
D, the difficulties and the differences.
Then you move on to the VER, visualize every road you can take and realize there are multiple routes.
Next, S, stand up and step. Where?
ITY, in to you, who you are and who you can be.
“I really think we as people are blinded by our eyesight. Our eyesight blinds us from our true vision. What I mean by that is that when you see something, you get so focused on it that you miss out on everything around you.”
Losing his eyesight gave him that opportunity to slow down, think more and really appreciate life.
His childhood friend Pooch sees that. “When he started doing all this stuff – kayaking, climbing – he wasn’t out to prove to anybody he could do that. He was proving it to himself,” he says.
And though at times it was difficult, Lonnie never quit. It wasn’t an option.
“Not only do I have a family, an extended family, but I’ve got a community,” Lonnie says. “If I would’ve decided to quit, I don’t think they would’ve let me.”
But Lonnie says there were and still are frustrations.
“Today, if I start to get frustrated and say, Gosh if I could just see, I instantly stop what I’m doing and think, When you could see, you couldn’t do this, this and this. So what’s the difference? You’re no different.”
And even in those early days, he never lost his sense of humor.
About a year after the accident, Lonnie was visiting his cousin’s house with his brother Larry. He decided he wanted to drive home. After all, it was his truck, and his license was still valid.
So he did.
Larry sat in the passenger seat, occasionally tweaking the steering wheel a bit, telling him to slow down or move left or right as they drove down the rural highway to Lonnie’s house.
Coming up the road towards them was Birdie’s old truck.
“Uh oh, here comes Dad the other way,” Larry said.
“Tell me when to wave,” Lonnie answered.
What Lonnie didn’t know at the time was that Larry ducked down when they passed Birdie. All Birdie saw was Lonnie, alone behind the wheel, smiling and waving as he cruised past.
Nearly 20 years after the accident, with everything lost and gained, Lonnie says he wouldn’t change a thing.
“There’s been too many things going on in my life, too many good things, gifts given to me and to others. How could you go back and take those away to change it?”
Instead, he quotes a Garth Brooks song.
“I wouldn’t want to miss the dance.”