Kayaking with Vision Impairment

Team River Runner’s OuttaSight 

Lonnie Bedwell (left) and his guide Joe Mornini on the Yellowstone River in MT.

program is a nation-wide paddle sports training program for Veterans and members of the community with vision loss, ranging from low vision to total blindness.

These kayakers, along with guides and safety boaters, are a part of a national nonprofit, Team RiverRunner (TRR). TRR started in 2004 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington D.C. as a volunteer organization offering kayaking lessons as physical therapy for combat wounded and disabled veterans. Fourteen years later, it has grown to over seventy chapters across the country, serving more than two thousand veterans annually. The Susquehanna Valley chapter (SVTRR) serves over 100 Veterans with nearly the same number of non-Veteran volunteers and participants, several dozen of whom paddle in the OuttaSight program.

You may ask, “How can a person who is unable to see able to safely paddle a kayak?” The answer is simpler than you might think – a sighted kayaker receives specialized training on how to guide the OuttaSight paddler using simple verbal cues. This guide simply uses his or her voice for the OuttaSight kayaker to home in on. The guide often simply says “On Me” while also giving pertinent descriptions of maneuvers, river features, timing, and so forth. On flat water, a simple conversation may be all that is needed to accurately guide an OuttaSight paddler. However, on moving water, things become more technical.

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Kids are OuttaSight (KAOS) Coordinator, Jenn Eaton, in whitewater on the Lehigh River, PA

As the OuttaSight paddler’s skills increase, they may decide to tackle more challenging waters with large rapids and more technical maneuvers. This presents new challenges beyond the water itself. The guide’s voice competes with the roar of the water and what was a simple “go left” might now need to be pre-briefed. For example, “When we enter this rapid, there is a large rock on the left; once past it, I need you to paddle hard to your right three or four strokes, then quickly turn left. I’ll say, ‘ROCK’ then ‘HARD RIGHT’ then “LEFT TURN.’ Ready to go?”

Take a look at some simulated kayaking videos with five of the most common vision impairments.

Lonnie Bedwell, the original TRR OuttaSight paddler, not only built the OuttaSight mold, image1-5but broke it! He became the first blind person to kayak the Grand Canyon in a single-cockpit kayak in 2015. He has since kayaked it twice more as well as tackling some of the most technical whitewater on the planet, including the Gauley River in WV, the Upper Youghiogheny River in PA, and the Zambezi River in Zambia and Zimbabwe, Africa.

The only barriers are those you set for yourself. If you are interested in breaking some of these barriers, contact us and we’ll help you get started on a new, amazing journey.

TRR is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization incorporated in the state of Maryland. Federal Tax Exempt ID # 20-3838651. Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) # 36703