American Story

First blind man to kayak the Grand Canyon: 'I couldn't quit'

July 3, 2014 at 9:35 AM ET

What would you try, if you believed — truly believed — you could not fail?

Lonnie Bedwell is lights-out blind. He lives far from fast water, yet he decided to do something no blind person has ever done: paddle a kayak the entire length of the Colorado River — 226 miles through the Grand Canyon, some of the most treacherous rapids in the world.

There's not much white water near his home in Dugger, Indiana, so Bedwell practiced in his farm pond. "If it gets really windy," he laughed, "I might see a whitecap."

Colorado River guides told him he'd have to learn to save himself whenever his kayak rolled over. They suggested he practice that a thousand times before heading down river. Bedwell did it 1,500 times.

"We've got two choices in life," he said, "Live in fear and pity and go nowhere. Or just live."

Perhaps that's why the blind man volunteers to work as a roofer. We watched him sorting bags of shingles on top of a house. "Behind you, Lonnie," called the foreman.

Bedwell turned and climbed to the top.

"I've actually had homeowners who almost want to argue with me," company manager Mike Mair said. "They don't believe he's blind."

After all, they've seen him use a power saw and ski down mountains. Bedwell has never let a handicap handicap him.

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A former chief petty officer first class in the Navy, Bedwell teaches other disabled veterans how to kayak. He served on a submarine. Survived a war, only to lose his sight in a hunting accident three years to the day after he left active duty.

His best friend, Tim Hale, shot him. "I'm sure it was the worst day of my life," Hale said.

The former Marine medic, an emergency room nurse, tried to carry his wounded friend through a dense forest. "I said, 'Tim, I'll be dead before you get me out of here," Bedwell recalled.

Hale propped Bedwell against a fallen tree and ran for help. "Lonnie told me, 'If I don't make it, tell my kids I love them,'" Hale recounted. Bedwell has three daughters, then aged 5, 9 and 11.

"My eyes gone," Bedwell sighed. "I burned the vision of my children's faces in my mind."

Another face, a childhood friend, fireman Lonnie Todd, led the rescue squad that saved Bedwell's life. "All I could think of was, 'I'm going to lose him,'" Todd said.

How you handle loss makes a big difference in life. Bedwell became more than a victim. The blind man became a beacon, guiding Tim Hale from the darkness of what he'd done.

Video: Lonnie Bedwell is blind and lives far from fast water, but that didn’t stop him from paddling a kayak the entire length of the Colorado River: 226 miles through the Grand Canyon, some of the most treacherous rapids in the world. NBC’s Bob Dotson reports.

"He doesn't know it," Hale said, "but he's helped me by just watching him go on." Living life on his own terms.

Bedwell refused rehab until his daughters were grown. He would have had to go to Chicago, a 10-hour round trip by car: Too much time away from his kids.

Taylor, his youngest, graduated from college in the spring. Finally, the single dad had time to do more than dream. He shoved his kayak into the Colorado River with a team of disabled veterans scouting the way. Their voices, like foghorns, kept him off the rocks: "Hard left! On me. On me!"

Bedwell grinned. "I told them not to tell me about [the rocks]. I'd just follow their commands."

How much white water experience had he had before starting out? "14 days," Bedwell said.

"Two weeks?" I sputtered. "When did you start second-guessing your decision to ride those rapids blind?

"I didn't," Bedwell said.

"Not even when the waves spun you over 30 times?"

"No. I couldn't quit," Bedwell sighed emotionally. "Couldn't do it."

Because he remembers those first frustrating days after he lost his sight: Crouching in the darkness of his mind, he was afraid to even mow his lawn. His 5-year-old daughter Taylor told him, "I'll help you." He said, "All right girl, if you've got the guts, let's try.'"

Together they cut the grass. "To that little girl," Bedwell said, "I can do anything in the world."

He would even make it into the history books. His blindness was not an excuse: It helped him see more clearly than most.

Visit Lonnie Bedwell's Facebook page.

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