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Doug Pace, left, embarks from Diamond Head Park in Bemidji Friday afternoon along with Outdoor Program Center employee Jerry Smith. Pace, 52, of North Bay, Ontario, is legally blind and plans to kayak all the way from Bemidji to the Gulf of Mexico by himself. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Legally blind kayaker going down Mississippi solo

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BEMIDJI -- Doug Pace had wanted some adventure in his life.

"I'd always wanted to do something big," the North Bay, Ontario, native said.

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Kayaking the Mississippi River solo certainly qualifies. Especially considering he's legally blind.

Pace, who was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in 2000, isn't totally blind. He has 5 degrees of central vision -- something he describes as the equivalent of a light beam on a flashlight.

He started his ambitious journey Friday at Diamond Point Park in Bemidji. A guide will take him as far as Cass Lake, but from there, Pace intends to complete the rest of the nearly 1,500-mile, 10-week journey to New Orleans by himself. He's going to paddle by day in his 10-foot kayak and camp by night.

He's calling his trip "Paddle For Blindness: Changing People's Perspectives."

Pace's original "big plan" was quickly dashed when he was diagnosed.

"I had planned to do something like ride across the country on a motorcycle," he said.

That's not possible anymore, as his limited vision makes him extremely photosensitive (he wears sunglasses at all times) and totally night blind. He has no peripheral vision.

With motorcycling out of the question, Pace, 52, discovered kayaking. He says he took it up on a lark but found it was a way he could still stay active. It wasn't motorcycling, but it was fun.

"You could say this was Plan B," he said.

His idea to kayak the Mississippi took "Plan B" a whole step farther.

"I read about a guy, Buck Nelson, who did it in a canoe," he said. "I just got hooked on the idea."

Nelson, who chronicled his journeys online, isn't blind. But the idea of getting out there in the wild and discovering things on his own appealed to Pace. In 2010, he backpacked Arizona and Utah solo. He has also hiked the Grand Canyon by himself.

Of course, Pace knows that kayaking the Mighty Mississippi isn't quite the same as hiking. For one thing, water moves. Rocks don't. He's planned for this.

"I've got all the maps, and have studied them pretty extensively," he said. "Northern Minnesota is going to be pretty rough, because it's a bit narrower."

Once he gets past the Twin Cities, contending with locks and other river traffic will be the toughest challenge. He says he's made contact with the lock operators farther downriver, and although his condition might prevent him from seeing all that's in front of him, he doesn't plan on straying too far from the river's edge.

Ultimately, he plans on reaching the Gulf of Mexico in about 10 weeks, give or take a week or two.

It's a daunting task, to be sure. But it's his goal to let people know that blindness -- or any disability -- doesn't prevent a person from living a full life.

He says it's important to let both his blind peers and the general public know that his condition isn't a deterrent.

"I didn't know much about blindness before I was diagnosed," he said. "So I'd like to let the general public know that people who are blind or disabled can do anything.

"I also want to encourage my peers, to let them know that they can deal with it in a constructive way.

"What are you going to do? Sit around on the couch all day and mope? No, you can do great things with your life."

For more information and to follow Pace's journey, visit his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/blindkayaker.

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Jack Hittinger
Jack Hittinger is the sports editor of the Bemidji Pioneer. He is also the Bemidji State beat writer. He hails from the Great State of Michigan. Read his Bemidji State blog at http://thebeaverblog.areavoices.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @Jackhitts.
(218) 333-9772
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