EMIGRANT, Mont. — Eric Marts had never touched a kayak, let alone fathomed paddling the one-man boat through raging whitewater rapids — until, strangely enough, he lost his eyesight.
“To be honest, if I could see, I’d probably look at that water with 3- to 6-foot waves and boulders and whirlpools and said, ‘Aw, hell no, I ain’t going down there,’” the Moorhead , Minn., man said with a laugh.
But Marts, an Army veteran who suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2007, said it may have been his blindness that gave him the courage to jump into the water.
“Every time I go for a walk, I never know where the path is exactly going to go,” he said, “but you have to have that courage to take that first step in life. Otherwise, you’re not going to go anywhere.”
Marts was one of five blind veterans who took part in the fifth annual “OuttaSight” kayaking trip down the Yellowstone River in Montana earlier this month. It’s organized by Team River Runner, a Maryland nonprofit that focuses on therapeutic paddling for disabled veterans.
Five blind veterans and four disabled veterans from across the country participated this year, along with Joe Mornini, the nonprofit’s executive director, and a documentary film crew.
All of the veterans paddle their own kayak. The blind kayakers, like Marts, are guided through the water by the voice of another disabled veteran who isn’t blind.
“We are very invested in guiding blind veterans on rivers because it’s a great way for them to feel much more in control of their own movement,” Mornini said. “They’re on their own, in their own boat being guided by sound alone, and they feel very free. It’s an individual sport that they can actually take part in.”
‘I was in control’
The trip started out in the calm waters of Dailey Lake, where the vets learned to sit in the boat and use their core and knees to maneuver. Next, the kayakers dropped into a moving river, then onto Class I and Class II rapids, dodging boulders and 1-, 2- and 3-foot waves.
On the final day of the trip, the kayakers went through Yankee Jim Canyon, with 3- to 6-foot foot waves crashing down like you’re strapped into a washing machine, Marts said.
He admits he flipped the boat a few times and had to wait for another vet to come near him and tap his boat so he could reach up and right himself.
If all else failed, you’d slip out of the kayak and swim to the surface of the raging waters, all made more difficult without the power of sight.
“I drank a little Yellowstone River water,” Marts said with a chuckle.
In all, the group did 10 paddling sessions in six days. It’s about building skills and independence in disabled vets, Mornini said. Now the veterans can pass these skills along to others who are disabled, including kids and adults who are not necessarily veterans, he said.
“To all the sudden learn how to paddle and to be able to take someone else out who’s disabled, a kid with cancer or another individual, how powerful would that be to have that kind of purpose?” Mornini said.
It was more than just a bucket list check mark for Marts, who also has a Saturday morning radio show on veterans issues on 970 WDAY. The Forum and WDAY are both owned by Forum Communications.
Marts said it’s about proving to fellow veterans and disabled persons that they aren’t as limited as they may think.
“I was in control in that kayak, for better or worse,” he said. “I was doing that. It wasn’t a taxi cab taking me. It was me fighting that whitewater and flipping upside down and trying to get myself back up again.”
Marts found out about the trip through a friend, Lonnie Bedwell, the first blind man to kayak the entire length of the Grand Canyon.
It was also important for the veterans to get together and realize many of them were dealing with the same post-traumatic stress issues, Marts said.
“I’m no longer combat effective and that broke my heart, to leave the military,” he said. “So that’s why I do the (radio) show and do all these other crazy things, because I want to be able to help other veterans.”
‘They changed our lives’
The story of these disabled veterans inspired filmmaker Jason Ross, president of Trusun Media in Orlando, Fla.
Ross and a small crew made the trip to Montana to shoot a documentary of the veterans using several GoPro cameras strapped to kayaks, camera operators on boats and quadcopter cameras flying overhead.
Ross and his crews typically don’t get too involved with the subjects of the film. That was not the case this time around.
“They changed our lives,” Ross said. “Watching these guys progress and learn and be scared and overcome their fears, it was amazing.”
During one solo interview, Marts had the production crew in tears, Ross said, and many of the veterans told similar stories – tales of significant others or friends treating them differently because they’re blind or disabled.
“Their whole points were, ‘Just because we’re blind, don’t make us sit in a room and do nothing,’ ” Ross said. “They were freaking inspiring man, just ridiculously inspiring.”
Team River Runner will be holding another OuttaSight trip in October in Charlotte, N.C. When the group returns to Montana next year, Mornini hopes to have the funding to do it for two weeks and allow some alumni to come back.
The nonprofit has 45 chapters across the country, with the nearest in Minneapolis, Mornini said.
Marts hopes to find others who want to start a paddling club for the disabled or veterans in Fargo-Moorhead. After all, he said, it’s better than living the life of a couch potato.
“I know that I need assistance and help at times, and that’s the way my life has changed, that’s the way it’s going to be,” he said, “but it doesn’t mean I can’t push that envelope and get the same exhilaration and rush out of life that everybody else wants to go and do.”
“I can go sightseeing, but it would just be through somebody else’s description,” Marts said. “I got to feel this.”