The partners founded Team River Runner in September 2004 with the vision to create a healing and empowering program for veterans.
STORY AND PHOTOS BY SETH DAHL
From the 10,915-foot summit of Emigrant Peak, serrated mountaintops loom in all directions. Far below, the great Yellowstone River flows among green cottonwood trees as it cuts through Montana’s Paradise Valley. It’s July and the golden-brown landscape surrounding the river corridor appears brittle and thirsty in contrast to the green, irrigated fields nearby.
On the summit and facing the wide-open valley stands Lonnie Bedwell, who sports a graying and well-trimmed mustache and black sunglasses. Beside him is Dustin Sene, a local who lives outside nearby Gardiner and offered to guide Bedwell up the mountain that day.
Sene describes the named mountain ranges: Crazy Mountains to the north; Tetons to the south; Absarokas to the east; Spanish Peaks to the west.
From this vantage, Montana holds true to its name and Bedwell breathes deeply the cool mountain air. The sun is high in the sky and in between wind gusts against his face he hears the unpolluted silence that high places offer.
Bedwell’s senses are heightened atop this lofty perch. All save his vision. He can’t see the mountain peaks, valley or wildness around him. Bedwell has been blind for 20 years.
But this doesn’t slow down the 51 year old, who in 2015 was named among National Geographic’s Athletes of the Year. Bedwell is a kayaker who, as a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, now introduces other blind vets to the sport. On this Montana summer day, however, he wanted to climb the prominent mountain he’d heard so much about.
"That is the ultimate act of trust: sending [blind kayakers] down a class three [rapid] on your voice commands. Once you establish that trust, the rest is cake."
Joe Mornini is tall and especially fit for his 63 years. His former career is evident when his voice booms across the yard as he shouts dry-land kayaking instruction to Team River Runner’s Outtasight participants. Mornini retired in 2014 after working 40 years as a Maryland public school teacher and special education program coordinator. He stays active by kayaking the Potomac River three to four times a week and has been doing so for about 30 years.
In the summer of 2004, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan well underway, Mornini and his kayak partner Mike McCormick began noticing scores of soldiers recovering from battle injuries at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center just down the road from Mornini’s current home in Rockville, Maryland. By fall, the duo decided to pitch in the best way the knew how: on the water.
“We felt we could outfit and adapt boats for them,” Mornini says. “Get them out of wheelchairs and into paddling.”
Around 2.5 million service members have deployed to the Middle East since the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. To date, roughly 52,500 service members have been physically wounded in action and out of those, 1,645 came home missing limbs.
The partners founded Team River Runner in September 2004 with the vision to create a healing and empowering program for veterans. “Moving is living,” Mornini says. “Most individuals in the military love the outdoors, they love adventure and they love excitement. Kayaking involves all three of those.”
Currently TRR has over 55 chapters in 31 states, and during its 12-plus years has worked with more than 10,000 veterans. Mornini’s mantra is “butts in boats,” and he often visited injured vets at the Walter Reed hospital to chat with them about his program.
It was at Walter Reed in 2005 when U.S. Army infantry veteran Mackay Mathiason urged Mornini to start a program in Mathiason’s home state of Montana. With few rocks choking the rapids and numerous access points, Mathiason said the Yellowstone River was the ideal waterway to learn basic kayak skills. The program that followed aligned sighted wounded-veteran guides with their visually impaired comrades.
“That is the ultimate act of trust: sending [blind kayakers] down a class three [rapid] on your voice commands,” says Mathiason, who today lives in Billings, Montana, and runs a custom metal fabrication shop with his wife, Leslie. “Once you establish that trust, the rest is cake.”
In 2010, the current TRR Outtasight Clinic was born, and Mornini discovered the kindness of area residents. “The Paradise Valley community is active and engaged in the needs of veterans,” Mornini says. “Word travels fast … and any needs any group or program might have results in support.”
Folks in the communities lining the Yellowstone donate food, time and housing, and hold an annual pig roast fundraiser at the River’s Edge Bar and Grill to keep TRR coming back.
“Among my friends and family in the valley there is extremely strong feelings of support and gratitude for these guys,” says Sene, Bedwell’s guide who was raised in Paradise Valley. “Not only for what they have done and sacrificed for our country but for how they are living their lives today and moving on.”
"It’s the most independent thing that I think I do since losing my eyesight."
Every July, Lonnie Bedwell packs his kayaking gear, cowboy boots and overalls, and flies to Bozeman, Montana, from his southwest Indiana home in Dugger. Occasionally he boards the plane wearing his lifejacket, just to get a rise out of travelers. A former Navy submariner, Bedwell feels teaching other blind vets to kayak is his duty now.
On May 4, 1997, Bedwell was turkey hunting a mile from his house when his partner accidently shot him in the face, blinding him instantly. The recovery road was long and dark, but with the help of his three daughters Bedwell relearned how to negotiate day-to-day life. A year later, he shot a turkey under his friend’s guidance.
Bedwell first tried kayaking in 2012 at a TRR pool event at the Disabled American Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, Colorado. In July of that year he attended his first TRR Outtasight Clinic and brought a natural athleticism and iron will that caught Joe Mornini’s eye. “Right from the start line he showed no fear and took to kayaking like a duck takes to water,” Mornini says.
It wasn’t long before Bedwell was setting ambitious goals for himself. In 2013, he became the first blind person to kayak the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River, a total of 226 miles. He only swam twice. He paddled the Grand again the following year with sightless adventurer Erik Weihenmayer, who in 2001 became the only blind person to summit Mount Everest.
Then, in 2015, Bedwell traveled with guides to Africa and took on the massive rapids of the Zambezi River. “I like running whitewater just about as much as anything that I do,” Bedwell muses. “It’s the most independent thing that I think I do since losing my eyesight.”
Mike Malarsie recalls the amazement he felt after hearing of Bedwell’s first Grand Canyon trip. “He’s an example setter,” Malarsie says, “not just for people that are blind and visually impaired but for everybody.”
On January 3, 2010, Malarsie was on foot patrol as part of a U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Control Party in Afghanistan, when an Improvised Explosive Device, known as an IED, blew him backward and into a canal. The ambush killed four men in the patrol and Malarsie returned home completely blind.
“When I woke up and heard that they weren’t coming home I knew I had no right to feel sorry for myself,” he says. “I vowed to … live my life as a tribute to them.”
Malarsie had never kayaked before attending the 2016 Outtasight Clinic, but was Eskimo rolling his boat in the pond on day one. As the clinic progressed, so did the vets’ skill levels and in a few days they entered Yankee Jim Canyon, the biggest whitewater they had ever encountered. The roar of the river crashing through the canyon is amplified by sheer Precambrian rock walls, and deafening. The whole experience intimidates new kayakers, even the ones who can see.
“It’s kind of run the whole spectrum of emotions and sensations,” says Malarsie, about kayaking a river blind. “Once I’m in the middle of it, all those sensations are gone and I’m literally just present. I get to the bottom … and feel on top of the world, like I just did something kind of remarkable.”
"Once I’m in the middle of it, all those sensations are gone and I’m literally just present. I get to the bottom … and feel on top of the world, like I just did something kind of remarkable."
The Yellowstone River flows with a steady and natural pull, undisturbed for 692 miles. It’s the longest undammed river in the Lower 48 and a highlight of the region. It doesn’t discern between sighted recreationalists and those who see only the scars that war leaves behind. And neither do the residents of Paradise Valley.
“When I think about that community,” Bedwell says, “I think about the peacefulness of the valley and the acceptance of the people. They’re constantly thanking us for our service and they never treat us like we’re blind.”
The Outtasight Clinic, which now has branches in Florida, Michigan and North Carolina, is a platform for recovery; a program for personal growth. For a moment in time, a kayak and a river offer veterans freedom from their dark worlds. Carried by the Yellowstone’s wild and free current, these vets push into the darkness one paddle stroke at a time. At the takeout, their grins and stories shatter misconceptions of what is possible.
Watch the TRR Outtasight Kayak Video:
Raised in Great Falls, Montana, Seth Dahl served in Iraq with the 1-163rd Infantry Battalion. He currently lives in Boise, Idaho, where he shoots and edits videos and short documentary films under his company name, Big Cedar Media.
This article is dedicated to the four service members killed in the IED explosion that blinded Mike Malarsie: Sergeant Joshua Lengstorf, Specialist Brian Bowman, Private John Dion, and Senior Airman Brad Smith.