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.
Lonnie and Erik warming up the day before launch. Photo credit: Skyler Williams
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.
Erik wearing the special Neptune Waterproof Bluetooth communication system, custom fitted to his Sweet Protection helmet. Photo credit: James Q Martin
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.
The team embarking on the journey, approaching Navajo Bridge. Photo Credit: James Q Martin
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.
Erik nailing a hard right brace in some turbulent whitewater. Photo credit James Q Martin
The aftermath of Erik’s first run on Lava Falls, Harlan’s paddle snapped in half . . . Photo credit: James Q Martin
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.
Lonnie digging in, ready to punch through a big wave. Photo Credit: James Q Martin
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 – whatever 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. 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: