Eric Carlson: Supporting Grand Visions for Disabled Vets
Kayaking more than 220 miles down the Colorado River within the Grand Canyon is a pinnacle achievement in adventure sports.
Violent rapids can flip a kayak in a split second and overwhelm even experienced paddlers. Lack of access to supplies — or even an easy exit from the canyon — increases the mental and physical challenges of a trip that can last weeks.
Eric Carlson, an Allstate agency owner in Lakewood, Colorado, has completed four trips down the river. On his latest in 2018, he helped lead a blind military veteran on a one-of-a-kind journey through the churning water.
Team River Runner
Carlson volunteers with Team River Runner, a nonprofit founded in 2004 to help wounded and disabled veterans realize the social, physical and emotional benefits of paddling programs. He joined the group in 2014 and typically helps two or three times in a month in a pool at a local recreation center, teaching the veterans how to roll a kayak. Team River Runner has more than 60 chapters across the United States and offers both pool or open water sessions for learning and therapy, as well as select trips for qualified paddlers.
In early 2020, the Allstate Foundation gave Team River Runner a $500 grant to further support Carlson’s volunteerism.
“When I was looking at [Team River Runner], I thought it would be great,” Carlson said. “I don’t regret not going into the service, but I kind of feel I should have. If I can give back to veterans, I feel like that’s the next best thing to serving my country.”
An ambitious effort
In 2013, blind kayaker Lonnie Bedwell convinced Team River Runner to tackle a more ambitious journey on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. That successful effort led to the 2018 trip, in which five blind kayakers would attempt the journey led by 15 sighted kayaking guides and supported by off-water staff.
One of those blind veterans was Spc. Steve Baskis. Baskis joined the U.S. Army in 2007 and was deployed with the 4th Infantry Division. On May 13, 2008, an improvised explosive device hit his armored vehicle. The explosion drove shrapnel through his optic nerve, causing permanent blindness. Baskis also lost his sense of smell and suffered nerve damage in his left hand.
Upon recovery, Baskis plunged into adventure sports. He has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro; biked from Ottawa, Canada to Washington, D.C.; and run half-marathons.
“I wanted to pursue some kind of normalcy and life, and I was pursuing a lot of different things that first year,” Baskis said.
He connected with Team River Runner in 2009, paddling only on flat water.
“I had a hard time with it,” Baskis said. “I wasn’t sure I was going to continue to pursue it. I was just trying to remind myself to rehabilitate my body.”
Over time, however, Baskis improved and began to tackle some whitewater rapids. The 2018 trip came into focus, and Baskis began working with different guides through rough waters.
“[For] a blind athlete or recreationalist like myself, everything’s a team effort,” Baskis said. “Every time I go and do these things, there are key people you’re on the same wavelength with. Some people just understand and are calm, relaxed, and can provide good instruction and communication in situations where it’s imperative to have clear, concise communication.”
Baskis and Carlson met on the South Platte River near Denver and quickly formed that bond on the water.
“He said, ‘As a blind person, we really feed off other people’s voices. If a guide gets nervous, you can tell in their voice,'” Carlson said. “Even if we got in a tough situation, he never felt like I got nervous or scared.”
Invited by Baskis to be one of his in-water guides on the Grand Canyon trip, Carlson couldn’t agree quickly enough. For two years they crisscrossed the country, training together.
“We chased big water to get him ready for this trip,” Carlson said.
Sections of the Colorado River can be smooth, but others are extreme. American Whitewater, a nonprofit representing whitewater enthusiasts, classifies rapids by their complexity from Class I, the easiest, to Class V. The latter are “extremely long, obstructed or very violent rapids” where “rescue is often difficult, even for experts.” Both Class IV and V rapids are found on the Colorado River trip.
“The raging water and the uncertainty of where it’s going to pull you, and how you’re going to react, it can make you think twice about what you’re doing, especially if you don’t have the right (guide),” Baskis said.
The trip took place in September 2018. Sponsors helped defray the $150,000 cost, a cost made greater by the need for significant support. A journey down the Grand Canyon segment of the Colorado River typically requires adventurers to take everything with them into the canyon. In this case, large commercial rafts, manned by expert rafters, hauled supplies.
Carlson was impressed by the team-first attitude, as 32 people navigated down the river for 14 days without any major conflicts or accidents.
“I have to put a lot of trust in the people I work with,” Baskis said. “Some people might think I’m doing something reckless, as a blind person. But ultimately, we spend a lot of time training and doing what we need to do to work together and be safe.”
Carlson continues to volunteer for Team River Runner in his local rec center. He has a young child at home with his wife in addition to operating his agency, but under the right circumstances would welcome the opportunity to participate in another trip.
“If it were to happen, I would throw my name in to be a guide again almost instantly,” he said. “But the stars would have to align.”
Photo credits: Google/Sandy Russell Creative