By Eric Jackson
Learning to see better through the vision of a blind man…
It can be said that you don’t have to go somewhere new to do something new. I have been to
the Zambezi River quite a few times over the past 18 years. I have gone where my goal is to run every hard line and try to accomplish new things in my kayak, and I have gone where my goal is to simply introduce my kids to the river in a way that they’ll like it. I have filmed two instruction videos here before and watched people with quite an array of skill levels make it down the river.
This year was a different experience for me from the day I arrived until today, the day I am leaving. This year I am part of Steve Fisher’s instructional team for his video “Dreamline” that will debut in 2016. Steve raised $83,000 with Kickstarter to allow this video to be filmed with professional equipment, cameramen, and the staff get paid appropriately. It was a dream of Steve Fisher’s and one that I am very proud to be a part of. My son, Dane, as well as Benny Marr, and Pat Keller were also part of the instructional team, and of course, the man himself, Steve Fisher will narrate the film as well as star in much of the instruction. For me the experience was different because I am used to being the boss, calling the schedules, the shots, etc.. It was both a much easier experience in that my job was simply on the water and Steve and his production manager, Alexa, had the hard job of organizing everything. The filming of the instructional video was challenging, but it worked out well and the end product will take kayak instructional films to a new level. However, this isn’t the main topic that I want to tell you about today….
At the Gauley Festival this fall, Blind Kayaker, Lonnie Bedwell, came up to get a burger from me at my Jackson Kayak RV and he was excited to tell me that he wanted to kayak the Zambezi River. This was in September. He knew that I frequented this amazing river and was fresh off of the Grand Canyon, where he and Eric Weihenmayer, another blind kayaker, completed the entire run together. Lonnie was hooked on exploring new, big water rivers. He kayaked the Gauley, both the Upper and Lower during his Gauley Festival stay. Knowing what he had done already, I told him that I was heading the Zambezi in December and would try to find a way for him to join me. Since I was on Steve’s project for filming the instructional film, I knew that during that it would not work during our filming period. The week after the filming was when people who wanted to kayak the Zambezi would join Steve and Ben Marr for a week of instruction and guiding as part of the KickStarter. We got it sorted out for me to stay an extra week here in Zambia to guide Lonnie. With Lonnie came a nice bonus for me as Timmy Oneil joined Lonnie and came as a second guide for him. I have known Timmy for many years through the Outdoor Industry at trade shows, events like the GoPro Games, etc.. I have never been able to kayak with Timmy, however. Lonnie has lots of experience with Timmy and I didn’t have any real experience with him. This trip was a full on immersion with hard travel, shuttles, big hikes in and out of the river, camping in different locations each day along the river, hot weather, strong sun all day, no shade, etc.. Everything you would imagine would be tough for a blind person, was right here on the Zambezi River. Lonnie welcomed it all as a challenge to overcome, and enjoy as an adventurer breaking new ground.
I did some guiding a blind person training with Dane the week before, by having Dane blindfolded and then leading him down rapids. The first rapid was #4 and it didn’t go well. Dane was pinned in the first 30 seconds and it went downhill from there. Eventually we started having some success, but I was reinventing a wheel and really needed to hear from Lonnie about how he likes to be lead. I knew he must have a better way than me staying behind him and telling him what is coming up and where to go.
Lonnie arrived on a shuttle and everything arrived with him. He and Timmy were tired from the trip but excited enough to stay awake through dinner. I got to watch Timmy guide Lonnie around the Faulty Towers lodge (backpackers place) , guide him during dinner, etc.. and it was an eye opener for me. I have never been responsible for a blind person before and it was clear that in a new location, with a new culture, new ways of organizing buildings, roads, bathrooms, etc., etc.. his most basic living is a challenge without a guide. With that said, Lonnie only needed to be shown how to get to the spiral staircase one time by Timmy before he could find it and navigate to his room without any assistance. The “walking stick” was explained to me as a way to feel every location of every step by a back and forth motion that is perfectly timed with every step. I was learning a lot and paying attention as I felt responsible for getting Lonnie into and out of the gorge and down the rapids, not to mention the normal daily needs. Luckily for me Timmy came along and had a good 6th sense about when Lonnie needed assistance and when he could be left to sort things out himself. Timmy took the lead on our first decent into the gorge and had Lonnie follow him down into the the bottom of Rapid #10. It is a steep trail with home made ladders, loose rock, cliffs, and other dangers that loom for even the fittest and non-blind paddlers who come there. Timmy set the pace, which was faster than some of the sited people who were walking in to the river with Lonnie on his trail. Lonnie keeps his hand on your back and feels as you step down, left, or right. He uses his walking stick in his other hand to feel for foot placement and off he goes, balancing on 2” diameter sticks, rubble for rocks, and steep grades. I got a new sense of confidence in my decision to lead Lonnie down the river when I saw how proficient he was at handling the hike in. There is no way I could have done that without years of training as a blind person and a real desire to do so. I was super impressed with Lonnie and I hadn’t even gotten him on the water yet.
Lonnie’s blindness was from a hunting accident 18 years ago. He and a friend were turkey hunting and somehow his friend mistook him for a turkey and blasted him in the face with a shotgun and turkey shot. Both of his eyes were shot out and to this day he has lead pellets in his gumlines, forehead and even some in the back of his head that went straight through. Lonnie has zero sight in either eye, which, today, are shrunken into his skull due to the accident and atrophy. He wears black sunglasses to cover his eyes and his ability to “echo locate” you when you talk to him is so good that when you meet him you would not know he was blind unless he had his walking stick.
My first coaching on how to lead Lonnie was on the water at the eddy below Rapid #10. While Steve was organizing everything at water’s edge, I got Lonnie in his 2015 Zen Large (Steve’s boat) and me in my 2015 Fun. Lonnie explained to me that he “echo locates” his guide through a long series of verbal commands that he liked to hear. What he wanted me to say loudly, and ever 2 seconds was “On Meeee” “On Meeee” “On Meee”….. At first I wasn’t sure how that would get him down the river, but he could follow me around the eddy great and following my sound was his comfort blanket, he told me. He said that he felt vulnerable if he couldn’t hear me. That made sense, finally, as I realized that sound was his only way of knowing somebody was there guiding him, and you can’t guide him in any way but sound. We practiced peel outs and eddy outs and rolls. His roll was rock solid but his peel outs and eddy outs were rarely at the right angle and he had to fight the eddy lines constantly.
When we finally went down the river, we walked the first rapid we came to, Rapid #11 to avoid a nasty seam-line that can deliver blackout length meltdowns to swimmers. I figured there was no reason to start the trip on that rapid. 11b, c, 12a, b, 13, etc.. were all going great. I was figuring out my timing of my command “ON Meeee” (while i was already getting annoyed at that saying) by taking Lonnie’s coaching which was basically “Say it louder and longer and more frequently. I was also learning when to give Lonnie boat angle commands, like “Turn right to 2 O’clock” or “Move right” “Move Right Hard” “Hold that line” etc.. I had to learn what Lonnie would do after I gave each command, almost like learning how to drive a remote control car by voice. What I imagined Lonnie would do and what he did were not always the same thing. I also made a few mistakes by mixing up my 2 O’Clock and my 10 O’Clock on him several times. We agreed that I would say turn right or turn left first and that was how he would gauge my commands.
Lonnie had an amazing attitude. If you have ever heard the saying “Attitude is Everything”, and want an example to prove it, Lonnie is that example. Everything you hear about winning human beings can be summed up or demonstrated by Lonnie. “If you think you can, or you can’t, your right” “If you can conceive, and believe; you can achieve” Zero complaints about anything. Smiling and laughing at the face of danger. Always ready to take the next step. Capable of long hard strenuous physical activity. He will try to do it himself if nobody is there to guide him. Things like finding his boat, going to the bathroom, packing and unpacking dry bags, etc.. If you were there, he would seek your assistance, but if you were off somewhere, he would just start the process himself.
On Day 1 we paddled from Rapid 10 to 25. We had one major river running screw up at rapid 15 which is a big wave train into a big hole at the bottom that you can sneak on the sides. Lonnie busted over a diagonal while following me but his bow got caught on the eddy line and spun and flipped him on his head immediately. He rolled right up but started charging with forward strokes and accidentally ferried out into the middle of the river on 2 strokes. There wasn’t time for me to verbally guide him out of trouble and he was lined up for the left side of the hole where there are no rocks. He dropped backwards into a really big pour-over and his boat dissapeared, popped up, and then front looped out of the hole on the corner. A quick cool up and I was back on him and guided him into the eddy. The rest of the rapids went unbelievably smooth and as Lonnie caught his last eddy of the day at Rapid 25, and paddled to shore, we knew this was a river he could do. He could pull this off.
On Day 2 we went further up the river to Rapid #6 and would run to Rapid #13. As we progress up the river the rapids get bigger. I was extremely nervous about leading Lonnie down Rapid #7 as it is a long technical rapid with big water and a few bad places. Timmy and I scouted the rapid so Timmy could also guide Lonnie down. Obviously scouting is a waste of time for Lonnie. We started into Rapid 7 with a long ferry across the river with small holes, seam-lines, and boils dotting the river like landmines for blind guys, or even sited people. Just a few feet from where we were going to turn downstream a boil caught Lonnie’s boat and spun him backwards and dropped him in the seam. Timmy passed him accidentally and I was yelling commands “turn towards me, turn right, turn right” and as I hit the first crux move the diagonal wave, I did a back ender and had 2 seconds where I couldn’t watch or give Lonnie commands. Timmy picked up the ball and got Lonnie back on track, more or less, and Lonnie made it over the diagonal but flipped, washing by the crease upside down but rolling up. Timmy and I were literally on top of each other as we entered the “land of the giants” set of waves at the bottom of the rapid. Lonnie was online again as I was screaming “On Meee” as loud as I could. Timmy and I ran through the waves without hurting each other somehow. It wasn’t pretty, but we had Lonnie on the right lines for the most part, but also out of control for some of it. (I was out of control twice as I was trying to guide and kayak at the same time)
Lonnie was getting more comfortable and so was I. I was now getting a feeling for how this should go. The biggest challenge was getting his boat angle correct and timing the charges over diagonal waves, etc.. Moving across the current while going downstream was the weak link. He could hear me, but not see the waves, breaking waves, eddylines, boils, etc. that would affect how he got to my voice. Paddle to my voice doesn’t do any good if you are angled the wrong way and/or the water won’t allow a straight line path. This would be our nemesis.
By Rapid #13 Lonnie had already gotten in some great rapids and if he didn’t do any more of them he had already accomplished so much. Of course he was looking to complete the descent of this river from rapid #1 to the end at “Dam site” 65 kilometers below.
The sun was getting to Lonnie as his forearms and the backs of his hands were getting sunburnt and sun poisoning. We would have to do a better job making sure he wears sunscreen.
Timmy lead Lonnie up the hill at 13, which was another hot, hard, hike out for anyone, but I still can’t imagine how challenging it must have been for him. A short shuttle back to the Faulty Towers and a dinner that included deep fried Mopani Worms, Croc Bites, etc.. Everyone was having a good time in our group which included Lynn, Jason, Sam, Steve, Ben, Davey, Lauren, Lucas, Alexa, Lonnie, Timmy, and I.
Our next phase would be the total descent of Botoka Gorge in three days. We would start at 1, camp at 9, then go to 25 and camp, and then finish at Dam Site.
Lonnie packed his overnight gear and brought it down to the truck. Everyone was in good spirits, but we lost Lynn due to a few swims the day before and she swallowed too much water, which at 85 degrees and in Africa, means getting the stomach bug for most people. Lonnie packed his off road walking stick, a small dry bag, and he had a small tent and thermarest. We brought a raft from Safari Par Excellence and a cool Scottish guy named Rue was the guide. Rue brought down the tents, food, etc.., and the all important ammo box full of whiskey and gin.
I didn’t remember to bring my headlamp, but luckily the Goal Zero Venture 30 power storage units have LED lights on them. It tucked neatly into my Speedo that Emily gave me for my 50th birthday. Our plan was to camp at Rapid #9, then #25, and then take out at the Damsite rapid, which is in the middle of nowhere. Camping at #9 is in a tight spot in the gorge with bedrock filled with potholes. The fishing at the bottom of the rapid is top notch for Tigers and Vundu. But first we have to get there.
Our first move of the day was to paddle across the jet of 20,000 cfs of massive water to get to river left where we could walk up above #1 and get up to the bottom of the Falls. We got a relatively early start and Lonnie made it across the current on his first try. He flipped up against the wall, but flushed out on the right side of the river and rolled up and caught the eddy by following the sound of my voice. The walk up the river bank includes rocks the size of small trucks and lots of scrambling. Lonnie is good at that. What I never realized, or thought about, is that Lonnie is super sensitive to sound, since he replaced his sense of direction from being site based to sound based. The roar of Victoria Falls made Lonnie uncomfortable. We spent a little time up by the falls, but eventually headed out to “quieter rapids” downstream. Rapids 1-3 went really well for him. Number 4 was one of the rapids that concerned me and that didn’t go well for Dane when I was leading him down it blindfolded.
The entrance to Rapid #4 is a narrow window, or band of water that goes into a big diagonal wave called the “Dragon’s Back”. If you don’t make it over the Dragon’s back you go into a massive hole in the middle of the river. If you punch over too fast and straight, you go into another pour over on your right and then come out of that with no speed and on the right bank. There is a deflector wave that helps push you back to the middle of the river, but it isn’t very strong. The goal is to drive your boat left after coming off of the dragon’s back to punch through the final diagonal that comes off the bottom left eddy and feeds into a fast hole that feeds into a nasty pocked eddy on river right which has claimed a kayaker’s life in the past.
Lonnie was getting good at lining up on me and we made the Dragon’s Back move great with him on my tail. Unfortunately he flipped right after on the little deflector wave and got kicked right and dropped into the main hole upside down and it caught him and typewriter’d him right into the pocket eddy on river right. He swirled around upside down in that crazy eddy for 10 seconds before it sucked him to the top and drove his bow underwater trying to ender his Zen back upright. The force of the water kicked him clear of the eddy but rode him along the river right back for another 10 seconds until he finally rolled up clear of the wall. This was exactly what we didn’t want to have happen to him, but his perseverance and determination to stay in his boat improved his experience by 100 fold. He was in the eddy catching his breath and asking about Rapid #5 already, versus being stuck and going deep while swimming. We all discussed how we might prevent a repeat of the experience if we were to do it again. It was agreed that this type of thing can and will happen from time to time if Lonnie decides to run hard rapid with hard moves on them. Getting the occasional fine tuning feedback versus the constant feedback that a seeing person gets is a big handicap for getting your boat to the right place.
Rapid Number #5 was interesting as well. This is where I practiced with Dane for 4 runs and each one went very well. My plan was to get Lonnie set up in advance and then have him take three hard strokes and then brace his way down the rapid. This worked really well for Dane. In Lonnie’s case, I lined him up yelling “On Me!” and then when he was past the first two waves I yelled “Three hard strokes!”. At that stage I was in oblivion, after I hit the second wave I could see him again and he was way on river right. I coaxed him into the eddy at the bottom of the rapid where he announced that he “got air on that run”. Sure enough I didn’t see it as I was on the backside of the first big wave when he apparently put in a few extra hard strokes for good measure while being at 2 O’Clock to the current and drove straight over the big boof! Steve and Davey were filming and said he was head dry on the landing!! I have a feeling that this will be the winning shot of the Outside TV Show! Lonnie was so fired up on that rapid at the bottom! He suddenly got a shit eating grin on his face and we couldn’t figure out what it was. He just realized that he had now run every rapid from 1-25, except for #9. He was no longer on virgin territory. We were repeating rapids he had already done! Lonnie, who is 100% blind, had successfully ran all of the rapids of the river! It was a moment that we all celebrated and it dawned on us just how epic he was. The realization that we still had rapid 6, 7, 15, 17, and 18 to deal with before getting getting too excited. I was definitely the most stressed about Rapid #7 as it is long and there are plenty of places to challenge a blind man, or someone with perfect sight! We decided to eat lunch at #5 and Lonnie started struggling with sun poisoning. He was getting tingling in his hands and arms and could feel the sunburn. We found him an overhanging rock to crawl and sit under during lunch. Lonnie is like me in that he doesn’t eat much, if anything, on the river. I prefer to keep paddling and others prefer to fill up and take a break. Once everyone finished eating we went down to rapid 6 and everyone did great. Our idea for 7 this time was to start upstream and do a direct line without eddying out. The entrance went until he spun out. He rolled up and got to the “director’s Wave” in good form, staying upright for most of it and coming out the bottom. I had to eddy out to wait for him in the slow water as his spin out dropped him back right as I entered the meat of the rapid. Timmy Oneil picked up for me and yelled out commands to Lonnie who followed the perfectly to get back into the flow. I felt such a sense of relief once we got below #7. If you asked me last week if I thought we would run 7 once during this trip I would have said 10% chance. If you asked me if we would run it 2 times, I would have said no way. However, after paddling with him for a couple of days I got a better feel for what he was capable of. I am so happy that he was able to enjoy that rapid as well.
Rapid #8 “Star Trek” delivered a great punch at the bottom of it even though we attempted to run the tongue. This is a straight move that is easy to set up and run. That doesn’t make the hit at the bottom any smaller, however, and Lonnie got his share.
Rapid #9/Camping: We set up camp at number 9 and Benny did a couple of laps. Rue got the kitchen set up and Alexa made us some gin/tonics. It was still an hour until dark and Steve and I did a little fishing, after we got a nice camp fire going. Lonnie wanted to find a spot WAY upstream so he would not have to “echo locate” all night long, which he says is really hard on him.
As morning came we did some interviews for the Outside TV Show before setting off downstream. Rapid #11 got easier with slightly higher water levels. Lonnie almost got stuck in the river left eddy but it is pushing out in the higher water. He got though and rolled up with a big smile on his face. 12-14 went well but he was anticipating #15 which he didn’t get right the first time. Redemption run! His second run had him push over the diagonal and this time punch over enough eddy to get in the safe zone. A quick roll and he was getting some intense “instruction” from me, trying to capture his attention before he did anything that would put him back in front of the massive hole. The rest of the run down to 25 went pretty smooth. Lonnie was wiped out from the long day and as we pulled up to the beach the sense of accomplishment welled up in him as he grinned a big, happy, tired grin. We got him out of the sun and comfortable as we set up camp and begin to fish and open a few cold beers.
James and Megan cooked up some awesome stew on the open fire in traditional cast iron pots from South Africa. One thing lead to another and a few games ensued, that put a few people face down in the sand before morning. The “African Whistle Game” that includes a whiskey bottle was the main culprit. I managed some late night wrestling with James, egged on by Steve and Benny. I thought I was doing well until James nearly choked me out and somehow didn’t know what it meant when you tried to tap out. By normal wrestling rules James was flat on his back, but, and not the first time I got suckered into this, James switched over to choke out rules and right as the world was almost completely dark and silent, Somebody got James to release me and blood and air started flowing again. In the morning both James and I were comparing wrestling injuries, but we were glad to have the good humor together.
Our final day on the water started at 25 where I did another Strokes and Concepts clinic with everyone before heading down. More virgin territory for Lonnie. The first major rapid was “open season” which is a bit like a big Dragon’s tongue on the Ottawa, but with a much bigger hole at the bottom. Timmy and I scouted so that we could both help Lonnie be on the right line to punch a diagonal wave at the top, the only crucial move. Lonnie was on my tail for the lead in, but somehow got a few feet behind my line hit the diagonal a little too far downstream and didn’t make it over… it blew his skirt and rejected him into the big hole, which then kicked him hard left into another recirculating eddy which was not in our calculations. A sudden feeling of helplessness as I was eddied out on river right charging upstream in hopes of making a hard ferry to the gnarly eddy Lonnie was rolling with a boat full of water. Blind and going in circles Lonnie couldn’t do much but to try to get upright. Luckily, just like in #4, he kicked free by a boil and headed downstream. I managed to get to him and hold him upright while he paddled to shore. I gave him clear instructions to stay in his boat no matter what and he was taking that to heart. Reading this, or being there, you might suggest that this entire thing was irresponsible. That Lonnie shouldn’t be in that environment. There is no question that there is risk of injury or even death if things went really bad. This risk is one that is up to Lonnie, and up to us to describe the challenges in such a way that he can have the appropriate say. however, it was up to Timmy and I to tell Lonnie if we thought he could handle it. I don’t think Lonnie would say he regrets running a single rapid, and would love to run each one again. I got a similar feeling with Lonnie that I get with my kids on hard runs where I feel responsible for their safety and decisions. The rapid “Open Season” was stressful for everyone. Steve put Lonnie in the raft for the next rapid, “Narrows number 2”. However, Lonnie wanted out and jumped back in the boat for the rest of the day, running everything but upper and lower Mowemba.
When we finally got to the take out of our third day on the river, Lonnie had his hands wrapped up in shirts taped on to him to keep the sun off of them. Timmy began the long trek out of the gorge, leading Lonnie and describing each step to him on the way. I gave my vocal chords a rest whenever possible as I had almost completely lost my voice from yelling for 5 days straight as loud as I could in each rapid. Timmy took the easy rapids and dry land leading so I wouldn’t run out of voice before we got to the take out.
Our final truck ride home was awesome. Timmy and I stood up on the back, just having a ball, in perfect weather, watching the sunset, and reflecting on the day, while Lonnie sat at our feet, no need to look out at the blackness he sees in every direction, but instead, to listen to our chatter and draw his own visions of what that looks like in his mind’s eye. Tired, dirty, and a feeling of accomplishment welled in each of us for our own part in this historic journey of a blind man, who no longer is a name, or a blind man; now, Lonnie is a dear friend, and a hero.