Some of you know I celebrated my birthday in the Grand Canyon during our No Barriers expedition. What an amazing place to have a birthday party. That night, the team gave me some very meaningful gifts. Rob Raker laid out an exhibit with crazily-shaped pieces of drift wood he’d been carefully collecting throughout the journey; one piece felt like an old man’s staff , another like a bent arm and another like a cello.
After that we sat in a circle singing and playing the drums, guitars, and shakers brought by our band leader, Timmy O’Neill. The acoustics of music bouncing off the canyon walls was a treat for the blind. And lastly, Katie Proctor, one of our AZRA leaders, wrote a heart-felt poem that speaks poignantly to the No Barriers message of our adventure together. The poem was surrounded by artwork of the canyon done by Seth Dahl, one of Lonnie’s guide. My wife says it’s absolutely beautiful. The boils, often the worst when least expected, represented the unpredictability and hardship on the expedition. The canyon walls, massive and confining, forced us into some of our greatest challenges, like Lava Falls. In many ways, the Grand Canyon uniquely captures, in reality and metaphorically, the journey to live a No Barriers Life.
I’m sharing it with you here:
Some say seeing is believing.
But I’ve been a witness.
To truth being felt.
The unseen is understood when experienced.
The open-heart policy.
Paddle in hand.
Each stroke leaving a wake of inspiration behind like currents expanding out to distant shores.
You will never know the magnitude of their impression.
The momentum of possibility.
You will not be eddied out in your quest for experiencing the fullness of current.
Strange how having the courage to live from a place of nonsense can lead to the living of your wildest dreams.
Through the journey, children will ask you about faith. Just trust and ah……give it a whirl.
Barriers dissolved under a star bear sky.
My recent No Barriers Grand Canyon expedition was my most physically and mentally challenging experience yet. It was a big stretch for me and my team. Throughout, there was plenty of fear, intensity, even some panic. However, there were also moments of joy and celebration. Now with the expedition behind us, it’s time to celebrate the journey and all the barriers shattered along the way. Many of you joined us by following along through our dispatches from the river, and some of you supported us by taking the No Barriers Pledge yourself, committing to your own No Barriers Life. So let’s take a moment and all celebrate together. Check out this video which speaks to that celebration Grand Canyon style. Learn more about the expedition at KayakingBlind.org
Our expedition partner, Nature Valley just put together an incredible short video clip as a summary of the expedition. Of course there is lots more to share but this encompasses a little bit of everything from the adventure. It even has the surprise finish that Ellen wrote about yesterday. Enjoy!
Written by Ellen Weihenmayer:
It’s fun and rather easy to surprise a blind guy. The kids and I hopped on a plane and flew to Flagstaff, Arizona. From there, we got on the raft guides’ bus and drove 6 hours to the take-out at Pearce Ferry. My friend, Kim, came along. Kim is our family’s cheerleader, starting with her film work at base camp while Erik was on Everest. Also, Erik’s lead climbing Sherpa and friend, Kami, met us in Flagstaff.
Kami is “Uncle Kami” to our family. He helped us in the arduous adoption process for our son, Arjun. He’s always up for an adventure.
Rolling my TravelPro suitcase to the take-out, I found myself in the middle of nowhere. This take-out is not yet Lake Mead but definitely out of the Grand Canyon. What was once under water is now a tamarisked land of sand resting on sand dunes. Separating the dunes is a stripe of fairly mellow water that had earlier boiled with power but now seemed tired. This is where we met Erik. We knew the drill. Our surprise celebrations at his extraordinary finishes have occurred before:
1. Cessna plane landed at their basecamp on the Kahiltna Glacier, Denali. ‘95
2. Climbed the backside of El Cap. ‘96
3. Primal Quest Lake Tahoe (4am finish with three-year old Emma). ‘03
4. Leadville 100 – kids ran with Erik across the finish line. ‘10
The surprise went like this. Everyone heard about our arrival and kept very quiet. Harlan Taney led Erik to the shore, giving his last commands after 21 days of incredible guiding. “Paddle forward. Little left. Forward.” Harlan’s strong voice cracked with emotion as he saw Erik’s kids inching their way towards the water. When Erik stepped out of his kayak, 277 miles after entering this mighty river, we were there to rush and shout and hug. So awesome. Kami simply said, “Namaste.” Erik struggled with reality as the dream-like voice repeated itself. “Kami??” Then, more hugs all around.
There are people in Erik’s life who belong in my mind and in my heart forever for achieving something that is too hard to even define, much less describe. The Everest team is God-like for their courage, perseverance, and patience. On the El Capitan climb, Hans Florine led with talent, strength, and confidence. When this Grand Canyon team stepped out of their boats and onto solid ground, I knew that they had all emerged profoundly changed by their experience. They had formed a noble brotherhood that time won’t diminish. Upside down in a rapid, Harlan’s one main thought during Lava Falls was not of danger for himself but instead, “I wish I could talk to Erik and tell him I’m upside down.” Rolling up quickly, his first thought was of Erik.
It may be too conceited to speak of Erik alongside Major John Wesley Powell. It has been said about Powell that throughout his life, he maintained the “incarnation of the inquisitive and courageous spirit of the American. He wanted to know and he was willing to risk his life that he might know.” Both Lonnie and Erik truly wanted to know as well: was it really possible to ride an avalanche of angry waves down the Colorado without ever seeing a single drop of water? After checking out the recent footage, I can tell you the risk was real. There is not a way to distinguish, in my eyes, the elements of air and water. Only water. Everywhere. Powell would have been very proud.
Pulling my little carry-on suitcase through the muck after an epic overnight storm, we found that all roads abruptly washed away at the take-out. We were stuck for another 6 hours while we waited for the water to recede and the dirt road repaired. It was time for the kids and me to sit a spell beside our grand Colorado River and hear a story or two before the water flowed its secrets downstream. Scorpions on kayak skirts, a mouse inside Erik’s kayak, hugging lessons (no pats allowed), drum sessions, waterfall jumping, booty beers, carping for air; we had heard just the very beginning of stories. While the team slept hard during their long 6-hour ride back to Flagstaff, I saw legs twitching and arms stretching upward, still holding their imaginary paddles. Their dreams were developing into stories. Just you wait. You’re going to love them!
You can learn more about the expedition by going to KayakingBlind.org
Now that I’m home, I’ve had a little time to reflect on our No Barriers Grand Canyon Expedition. Lonnie and I embarked on this journey as part of our No Barriers Pledge, our commitment to live a No Barriers Life. As two blind people, we understood that choosing to kayak 277 miles through the Grand Canyon and through some massive white water, wouldn’t be easy. Choosing this kind of path is never easy! It’s like paddling forward into darkness, into the roar of whitewater below, consciously choosing to enter the chaos, a storm that overwhelms the mind and the senses, and will most likely pummel you before you emerge on the other side. Who would choose this life? It sets us up for struggle and even some bleeding from time to time. However, I also believe this choice offers a depth and richness of adventure, friendship, love, beauty, joy and purpose that cannot be experienced in any other way.
Moving forward in this uncertain way is hard, but in the case of Lonnie and me, we came to the expedition equipped. Although we both have obvious challenges, we came with a toolkit built through preparation on many rivers and life experiences. We were also equipped with an outstanding team of friends and guides who shared our vision and to whom we trusted our fates. In my case, a vital part of the toolkit was an innovative high-tech communication system discovered after two years of searching and experimentation. But I believe the most important tool is something very hard to describe; let’s call it an internal light. For some, those who have experienced major adversity and have been shoved into a dark place, that light only flickers and is in jeopardy of burning out. However, fueled through our hard choices, that light ignites and becomes the energy to propel us forward, through the barriers that try to knock us flat, towards purpose and fulfillment in our lives.
Sometimes I meet people and they call me “inspirational.” Of course this word is meant as a compliment, but I secretly wonder if it’s a word that actually separates us. It says, you are the inspirational blind man and you exist over there, but I’m just a regular person and I exist over here. I think this is a defense mechanism that prevents us from looking inward and tapping into our own inner light. Lonnie and I fully intended the story of our descent to be a universal one. It’s not just about two blind people kayaking. It’s about you and what’s possible for all of us when we choose a No Barriers Life.
One of the personal highlights of our past trip was my experience in Lava Falls, head and shoulders the biggest rapid in the Grand Canyon. As I paddled into the massive roar, with my friend/guide, Harlan, yelling directions through our comm system, I flipped on a surging boil-line and was upside-down floating into the tumult. Over the last several years, I’d dreamed and worried about Lava, and floating into it upside-down was never part of the plan. I did manage to roll up and avoid the crushing “Ledge Hole,” but the crashing lateral, “V-Wave” below flipped me again. As I rolled up, another crashing wave hit me sideways, and I was over again, trying to roll up with it’s weight pummeling me from above. After a couple attempts, I pulled my skirt and swam out of my boat. Unbeknownst to me, Harlan had lifted his paddle to brace against the same wave that flipped me, and the power of it, snapped his paddle in half. So now he was also upside-down. Harlan managed to roll up with half his paddle, and our safety boaters were right there at the bottom pulling me to shore.
That night, camped right below the rapid, I listened to its thunder and contemplated what the river was trying to tell me. To swim through one rapid didn’t make me a failure. A story-book ending is only a human contrivance; the river is in charge and tells the story it wants. However, half of me felt like my story with Lava wasn’t finished.
Lava is one of the very few rapids on the Grand Canyon that you can repeat. I tossed and turned that night, wrestling with what to do. The next morning, I’d made my arduous decision, and we slowly hiked up a winding trail, dragging our boats through Tamarisk bushes slashing at our faces. Then a difficult paddle up a series of eddies, a tricky ferry across the river, another scrambling hike, and we were at the top again. Harlan asked me if I wanted to warm up with some paddling, but I said, “No, let’s do this.”
My second run was much like the first. I almost flipped again on the same boil-line, crashed into the laterals and was knocked over. I rolled up sideways, flipping again. This time, however, I rolled up in the middle of the chaos, got flipped again, rolled up a third time and heard Harlan’s voice, “You’re through it. You’re through it,” and then the cheers from my team waiting below. There was a lot of kayak hugging and some tears, mostly from me. I told Harlan that I’d been scared to try it again, but had trusted in an open-heart policy: commit, let go, and have faith you will emerge on the other side stronger.
So back to the message of our expedition. Please don’t write it off as a story of inspirational blind guys or adrenaline-junky pursuits. It’s about you and your own No Barriers story – what ever that looks like. Don’t let yourself off the hook. Wrestle with your own important and difficult choices; employ your open-heart policy and trust that you will ride that storm towards a new and beautiful and unexpected place. And most importantly, believe that what is inside you is stronger than the challenges in your way, and commit to growing that internal light. No matter what our background, ability, or circumstances, we have much to contribute, and we owe it to our families, our teams, and most importantly to ourselves. So keep paddling and allow your light to shine.
As part of your journey, join Lonnie and me and take the No Barriers pledge:
Please share with your fans, friends, and families. Learn more about the expedition at KayakingBlind.org and join the social media buzz by using #KayakingBlind on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Side hikes in the canyon are one of the highlights of any trip. Check out this gallery of some of the favorites from the expedition.
We have a new action-packed kayaking video to share with you! The team arrived home late Monday night, and they have been working hard on creating some new videos to share with the community. We hope you enjoy learning about how the team experienced white water on the Grand Canyon in the excerpt below.
“For a sighted adventurer, the Grand Canyon is a visual masterpiece with huge chaotic rapids surrounded by steep rock walls tiering upward for thousands of feet. However, for a blind person, the view is close up and personal, reduced to what you can touch with your hands and feel beneath your boat. And when you can’t see, there’s no way to truly understand the white-water, . . . without going into it.”
Please share with your fans, friends, and families. Learn more about the expedition at KayakingBlind.org and join the social media buzz by using #KayakingBlind on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Day #16: Monday, September 22, 2014-Post Lava Falls
We heard from the team this morning via text. They camped out below Lava Falls, relieved to have this section of the river behind them. The resting spot is called Tequila Beach. Go figure. Lava presented the team with some unexpected drama that can only be described as chaotic success. Michael Brown, our film director, has assured us of some good entertainment as he works to tell this story on film.
Meanwhile, Skyler reports, “The last week or so has been very walled in, so dispatches have been guerrilla operations. Additionally as with any expedition, we are getting some weather and with production taking a lot of our efforts we have little time when it is safe to pull computers out.” Stay tuned for more updates.
Lava Falls is one of the biggest rapids on the Colorado River. The team certainly took on all that No Barriers USA defines as the No Barriers Mindset. Since the start of the expedition, 52 people have pledged to live a No Barriers Life. Lets double that to 104 people this week. His own employee and teammate, Skyler Williams took his own No Barriers Pledge: to run thirty miles on his 30th birthday. We hope this blog written by Erik inspires you to take your own No Barriers Pledge. Take your No Barriers Pledge at: http://kayakingblind.nobarriersnetwork.org/take-the-pledge/ Look forward to more pledge stories like Skyler’s throughout the week.
Skyler’s No Barriers Pledge:
One of the crazy things about life is the number of barriers that are placed in front of us as we live out our lives each day. They could be uninvited barriers, or barriers that we choose to put in front of ourselves. Losing my eyesight was an uninvited barrier. Climbing big mountains, and kayaking fierce rapids is a chosen barrier. I like to think that I am living a No Barriers Life by not letting my blindness stop me from experiencing big adventures in the outdoors. If you choose to conquer that monstrous barrier that has taken up residence in your mind – that thing that seems incredibly daunting, that you fantasize about, that makes you feel wonderful when you finally overcome it- you, too, are living a No Barriers Life. It could be anything: quitting smoking, running a marathon, paying off your debts, writing a book, climbing your first mountain, traveling the world, or even taking that dreaded trip to visit your in-laws – the sky is the limit… and it may change the trajectory of your life.
Nothing inspires or motivates me more than hearing about others choosing to live a No Barriers Life. That is why the primary goal of my upcoming kayaking expedition in the Grand Canyon is to motivate 1 million people to take a Pledge to live a No Barriers Life – to reach out a little more, take a risk, and challenge yourself to do something that would help you live a more purposeful life. One of the first to take the Pledge was one of my own teammates, Skyler Williams, who pledged to run 30 miles on his 30th birthday. This run took him on trails in the high Rocky Mountains, from Aspen to the iconic Maroon Bells to the picturesque ski town of Crested Butte. He was inspired to tackle this challenge after his friend did a similar 30-mile run for his 30th birthday. The run was very rewarding for Skyler, as he had a chance to connect with friends who ran with him. Of course, the rewards did not come without a fair share of challenges – aches and pains on the body, and mental and physical fatigue that inevitably occurs with running a long distance. Not only did Skyler finish this run, but when asked if he plans to raise the bar on what he just accomplished, he admitted that he would not mind taking on a “decade run” for as long as he can continue running – 40 miles at the age of 40, 50 miles at the age of 50, etc. When asked why he thinks others should follow his lead and take the Pledge to live a No Barriers Life, he reminded me that we do not need to have forced barriers in our lives to take on a challenge, and the challenges we choose to take on do not have to be physical in nature. Skyler says it best:
“Do something you can do and choose to do it. The No Barriers Mindset is not about saying that anything is possible, rather that despite each of our unique challenges, if we engage the inner strength that has always been there, the courage to take action, then amazing transformation can and will happen. I want everyone to know that “what’s within us is stronger than what’s in our way!”
Again, what’s within us is stronger than what’s in our way. That’s the No Barriers motto, and I want you all to remember that, whether you choose to take the Pledge or not. If you want to join Skyler, Lonnie Bedwell and myself in pledging to live a No Barriers Life, please visit our website www.kayakingblind.org. After you accomplish your Pledge, come back and tell us about your journey toward living a No Barriers Life. We would love to hear from you.
Grand Canyon Expedition: Day 6 – September 12th
The early part of the Canyon is a good warm up for the harder rapids to come. The river cuts more easily through the softer layers of sedimentary rock, like the red sandstone of the Redwall formation in Marble Canyon, making the topography of the river bed smoother and thus more flat water. Rapids are interspersed as side canyons cut in and during flood events rock debris is deposited into the river, creating a dam effect that then flows over the rocks, forming a rapid. The canyon is continually changing, but these massive scale events are rare. Yesterday, we had a chance to hike up a side drainage called Carbon Canyon and then down Lava Chuar Canyon to make a loop that brought us to our camp. The hike was incredible with massive sheer walls that echoed every voice and click of my trekking pole tip hitting a rock. We hiked up the dry river bed, up and over boulders the size of houses wedged for eons in the confines of the walls. Seemingly with every few hundred feet we encountered a new formation, razor sharp limestone and then softer, even crumbling sandstone carved with deep pockets from erosion. We finally emerged on a plateau high above the river and then descended the dry and cobble strewn riverbed of Lava Chuar.
Yesterday, the owner of our outfitter, AZRA, Fred Thevanin was kind enough to hike down Tanner Canyon from the South Rim with a much-needed delivery of software to hopefully help fix our dispatch issues. He’ll spend the next two nights with us before we drop him off to hike out at Phantom Ranch. The next three days, we pass through harder geologic layers, creating bigger and much meaner rapids. Today begins the Inner Gorge: Hance, Sockdolager and Grapevine rapids . .
September 7, 2014-
Today, I’m launching on a long awaited adventure, to solo kayak the Grand Canyon, 21 days, 277 miles from Lee’s Ferry to Pierce Ferry. Joining me is Navy veteran Lonnie Bedwell, an accomplished kayaker, who like me is also blind. Together, the two of us hope to make a powerful and authentic statement about living a No Barriers Life and the belief that this is possible for each of us.
Follow our journey at KayakingBlind.org
Nature Valley is sponsoring the expedition and created a teaser, check it out:
The expedition is hosted by No Barriers USA, a nonprofit organization I co-founded that empowers people with the message, “What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way.” With solid rock walls carved a mile deep by the mighty Colorado River, the Grand Canyon is one of the great natural wonders on Earth with a fearsome reputation as one of the most daunting whitewater venues in the world. Lonnie and I have spent the last several years training and developing innovative systems for kayaking rapids with the help of high-tech radios and verbal commands from experienced guides. Even with many past successes, kayaking hands-down is the hardest and scariest thing I’ve ever done. However, this project isn’t just about the adrenaline; it’s about everyone’s journey to live a No Barriers Life, to use our internal tool kit to harness our challenges and live the best versions of ourselves.
Lonnie and I are using the platform of this adventure for an even more ambitious stretch goal: to encourage one-million people to pledge to live a No Barriers Life. Pledging doesn’t mean signing up for a big physical activity, but it should be something that makes you reach, stretch, and even risk a little bit. For one of our injured veterans, it might mean pledging to climb a flight of stairs for the first time after being hurt. For you, it may be pledging to lose weight, stop smoking, run a marathon, or volunteer at your local nonprofit an hour a week for the next year. When you accomplish your goal, hold your No Barriers banner proudly, snap a photo at your “summit” and make this the first step in joining our powerful community of pioneers who continually motivate each other to climb higher.
You can join us in taking the pledge and follow our expedition at:
- Erik on Grand Canyon Expedition: Day #6 September 12, Photos & Update
- Michael Dean on Kayak Training
- Joe on No Barriers Grand Canyon Expedition Reflection
- Danna on No Barriers Grand Canyon Expedition Reflection
- Kathleen Archuleta on Kayaking Blind Grand Canyon Expedition Recap Video
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