150 Years After Powell, People With Disabilities Still Find Adventure and Healing in Grand Canyon

May 24, 2019

John Wesley Powell set off to explore the Grand Canyon 150 years ago today. He’s remembered as a scientist and explorer, but not often as a person with a disability. Powell lost an arm during the Civil War but that didn’t stop him. Today Grand Canyon outfitters invite people with disabilities of all kinds to experience the Colorado River, as Powell did, from a boat. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Fred Thevenin, owner of Arizona Rafting Adventurers. 

John Wesley Powell on horseback near Flagstaff, 1891
Credit Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection


Melissa Sevigny: When did Arizona Raft Adventurers first start thinking about accommodating people with disabilities on the river?

Fred Thevenin: I’m not sure there was an actual thought process in it. People just started coming that had some disabilities and we had to accommodate them. It’s easy to mainstream a lot of people and put them on a normal trip…. But the more help they’re going to need, we might encourage them to go on a charter trip where they book the whole trip or rent the whole trip, and bring other people, and we can bring extra equipment down there to accommodate their needs, for their abilities.... I think if we have the ability to make it accessible that we should, we should try hard to make it accessible for everybody. It’s a national park, it’s wonderful down there. You’re fully committed to a 8 day trip or a 14 day trip and you’re camping and experiencing the Grand Canyon in a different way than all the rim viewers do.

Are there any particularly memorable trips that you’ve taken?

We’ve been doing visually impaired and hearing impaired youth trip every year for quite a few years now. Those trips are pretty darn neat. A lot of them are city kids. We have the opportunity to take them to big huge beaches, where they can run. I’ll run in front of them and call out sounds and they can chase my sound and there’s no rocks in the way, they can just run and run and fall down on the sand. They’ve never experienced anything like that, where they’re free to stretch their legs. It’s a neat experience to watch them get out there and just be a teenager.

I wonder if you can talk a bit about how river trips have changed in the last 150 years. It must have been a very different experience for Powell.

Yeah, 150 years ago Powell was the first Wounded Warrior to come down the Colorado River. He was missing his arm. He had a great crew that went with him. Today we still do Wounded Warrior trips, we work with a few different companies. It’s a completely different experience for them now, they’re coming down there to do some healing  more than anything. The young men and women that have been hurt during military experiences, during war, they’re bringing a lot with them. They bond totally different than any other commercial trip I’ve ever been on.

What do you think is healing about the Grand Canyon?

I think it’s so big and vast it gives you the opportunity to reflect, and think about yourself and your significance in life, or insignificance in the whole grand scheme of things, and it puts thing in perspective of who you are and what you can do…. People talk about it being a lifechanging experience. That’s statement is true. Not that I want my life to change or other people’s life to change, but it brings  perspective to it that feed your soul, and leaves you with something you can take home and have a new perspective on your everyday doings.   

Fred Thevenin, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

You’re so welcome.