The Americans With Disabilities Act and Whitewater Therapy

Peter Winn

Rebecca Lawton, a Grand Canyon River guide and recipient of the first annual Ellen Meloy Desert Writers award in 2006 describes the value of outdoor activity in her essay “The Healing Power of Nature”: ‘Healing happens for people almost without exception.’In 1978, Vaughn Short wrote a poem in his anthology “Raging River Lonely Trail: Tales Told by the Campfires Glow” called The One Armed Boatmen Who Rowed In Circles.  Today, computerized waterproof prosthetics make it possible for amputees to row and swim as well as anyone else, and reduce or eliminate phantom pain.

According to a 2009 Harris poll, “people with disabilities who indicate that they are physically active are more likely to be employed, to believe that being physically active has helped them advance in their jobs, and to lead to a healthier lifestyle. Those physically active report a greater life satisfaction and are more sociable and positive about their life prospects.”2 Team River Runner (TRR) is a chapter of MoveUnitedSports (MUS).  When I volunteered for TRR (2008-2013), it was a chapter of Disabled Sports USA (DSUSA), which merged with MUS after I retired.  At that time TRR had chapters in all 50 states, associated with VA Hospitals located in river towns, many of which my grandfather had commissioned in WWII.

Jimmy, an Iraq war veteran trained to kayak by TRR, at the mouth of the Little Colorado in the Grand Canyon in 2010. Photo by Marc Huster.

Not only was Jimmy missing a leg, he had a bad case of PTSD and an incredibly foul mouth.  The 16-day kayak trip though the Grand Canyon changed his life, and he later admitted it saved his marriage.  A trip though the Grand Canyon, or down any river, changes people’s lives, but for people with disabilities the change is dramatic.

One of the largest rafting companies in the Grand Canyon, Arizona Rafting Company (AzRA), was originally called the American River Touring Association (ARTA).  It was started by Lou Elliott in the 1960s.  His son Rob changed the name to AzRA after Lou passed away, and Rob’s daughter Alex is currently a co-owner.  Lou was a good friend of David Brower and Martin Litton and active in the Sierra Club’s efforts to stop the Echo Park Dam in Dinosaur National Monument.  He also believed that whitewater boating was a form of therapy for everyone, including people with physical and mental health problems.  The first year I worked for ARTA (1967), Lou asked me to volunteer on a couple of two-day river trips on the Stanislaus River in the Sierra foothills.   On one, our “passengers” were boys from a home for juvenile delinquents (read “Down River” and “River Thunder” by Will Hobbs).  On the other, we had a young blind man and a paraplegic guy.  By the end of this trip, the blind guy was rowing and the paraplegic guy was telling him which oar to pull.  A few years later, several ARTA guides formed a non-profit called “Etcetera” that focused on taking people who are mental and physically challenged on river trips.  There’s a fun story of one in “There’s This River,” a collection of stories written by Grand Canyon river guides, including the editor, Christa Sadler: “Jumping with Mice,” by Shane Murphy (available at the Bluff library).

In the early 1970s, the whitewater rafting business nationwide was expanding so rapidly it was difficult to train new guides fast enough.  Lou and several other company owners came up with the idea of hiring Vietnam War veterans – they were comfortable with risk taking, strong, and good at taking orders.  Many also had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it wasn’t called that until 1980. Before then it was called “shell shock,” just as it had been in WWI, WWII and the Korean and Vietnam wars.  Studies since then have shown that less than 20% of people who experience severe trauma suffer from long term PTSD, so it’s really a recovery dysfunction3 and one very effective way to accelerate recovery is whitewater therapy.

Towing Troy up the Little Colorado in 2008.  Photo by Ralf Buckley.

My first TRR trip was a private Grand Canyon trip in 2008, led by my son Travis.  I rowed a support raft on the trip, but had kayaked the Canyon several times and knew it was technically easy but the big rapids could be very intimidating.  Travis, Ralf Buckley (an Australian kayaker who been on several trips with us on rivers in western China), Gordon Bare, who had also kayaked on a trip in China with us and was on TRR’s board of directors, and Joe Mornini, the president of TRR, were the safety kayakers.  Rob had a traumatic brain injury (shrapnel) that damaged his short-term memory, so he couldn’t remember the run after scouting and had to follow Joe, and Brandon was a total naysayer. Troy had a partially paralyzed leg so he swam a lot and had to use crutches, which were OK on sand but not rocky slopes, and was scheduled for an amputation and a new leg after the trip.  Joe asked me to apply for a special administration permit for TRR in 2009 because commercial support trips were too expensive and getting a private permit was a lottery, and there weren’t any other options.

The River Unit at GCNP denied the TRR application, so I sent it to the Superintendent, Steve Martin, an old friend from the 1970s when we were both commercial guides.  I mentioned the fact that both Dinosaur National Monument and Canyonlands National Park had given out special use permits to organizations like TRR, and considering the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, amended in 2008, it would be very bad PR to deny this permit.  He agreed, and gave TRR permit for the next few years.

In 2013, Lonnie became the first blind person to kayak every rapid in the Grand Canyon, sponsored by TRR.  My daughter, Carmen, was the trip leader.  The book is available online.

Joe asked me to start up a TRR chapter at the VA Hospital in Grand Junction and I quickly learned that Colorado Discover Ability (CDA), also a DSUSA chapter, was already running river trips for veterans.  I volunteered for them, both as a ski and kayak instructor, and was soon sucked into grant writing and a BLM river permit problem.  Like the NPS, the BLM had no permit category for non-profits, and they didn’t qualify for private permits so CDA had to charter a commercial trip.  CDA couldn’t afford this, so its program manager, Martin, applied for private permits.  He finally got caught on a trip where I was one of his “friends.”  Fortunately, the river ranger was an old friend of mine and let us run the trip, but after that we were blocked.  We wrote a letter to the Director of the UT BLM state office explaining that NPS, also an agency of the US Interior Department, issued special use permits to organizations like CDA, to no avail.

Next step: we drafted a letter for the president of DSUSA, Kirk Bauer, a disabled Vietnam vet, to send to the US Secretary of Defense, the US Secretary of the Interior and the Director of the USBLM with a cc to the Director of the NPS and the Utah congressional representatives.  It worked, in a big way.  All of the DSUSA chapters in UT and CO, plus TRR, which had river programs on BLM managed river segments, were included in an omnibus permit that included the Green in Deso-Gray, the Colorado through Westwater and the Moab Daily, the San Juan from Sand Island to Clay Hills, and the Colorado and a few other rivers in CO (see list below).

Double amputee in wheelchair in camp on the San Juan River.

Nowadays, many commercial outfitters offer major discounts to non-profit organizations who don’t have their own river equipment and volunteer guides so they can give their mentally and physically challenged patrons the experience of a lifetime.  Maidee DeLorme, Bluff’s librarian, has been a river guide on a couple of these trips.

If you enjoy whitewater boating, please consider making a donation to one of the charities listed below.

Adaptive Adventures, Colorado & Illinois –

Adaptive Sports Association of Durango, Colorado –

Adaptive Sports Center, Crested Butte, Colorado –

Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, Colorado –

Challenge Aspen, Colorado –

Colorado Discover Ability, Mesa County, Colorado –

Common Ground Outdoor Adventures, Utah –

Move United, International –

National Ability Center, Utah –

National Sports Center for the Disabled, Colorado –

Team River Runner, National –

Telluride Adaptive Sports, Colorado –

Warriors on Cataract, Utah –

Whale Foundation, Flagstaff, Arizona –



2.  “DSUSA Participants Have Doubled Employment Rates”, The O&P Edge, May 20, 2009.

3. “Culture and PTSD,” edited by Hinton and Good (2016).