Southern Illinois chapter of Team River Runner starts with a big splash

By Jacob Lorenz, Staff Reporter

Veterans and their families were invited to a weekend of hiking, canoeing and games along with free overnight lodging, breakfast and lunch at the Touch of Nature Center in Makanda.

Southern Illinois got its own Team River Runner chapter, and it partnered with Touch of Nature for its Team River Runner-Southern Illinois Kickoff event on Aug. 31. 

Southern Illinois became the 73rd chapter of Team River Runner. According to their website, their mission is to provide veterans and their families with health, healing, community purpose and new challenges through paddle sports and adventure.

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Around 10 a.m., a group of roughly 50 individuals went down to the beach of Little Grassy Lake to kayak and canoe. 

The Team River Runner instructors and Touch of Nature employees were helping with disability accommodations on the kayaks and canoes. 

There was a large campfire with a ring of benches at the end of the beach for people to sit and socialize. 

Even though not everyone participated in the water events, people seemed to emphasize the social aspect. 

Southern Illinois chapter head, Ethan Blumhorst, a recreational therapist at the Marion Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Army airborne medic veteran, was there leading the event along with other nearby regional chapters. 

Todd and Terra Mckenzie, from Decatur, were helping with check-in and members from St. Louis were there to help with any needed accommodations.  

The veterans and their families were sent out in the water in groups of 15, along with an instructor. 

The groups were open paddling through the lake and its canals. After, some got right back into the water and swam. 

After the morning water sports, the day was scheduled with more games and then dinner was provided by Quatro’s Pizza, capping the day off with some nighttime kayaking. 

Blumhorst said he’s trying to get a weekly program started in late September to continue to get people from the community in the water. 

Blumhorst said he already has plans to partner with the SIU Student Recreation Center during the winter, so his weekly program can continue. 

Blumhorst said he reached out to Touch of Nature to host this event. When he was at SIU getting his master’s degree, he always wanted to do stuff like this. 

Robert Gertsch, an attendee and retiree from military security in 2014, said he was very impressed with what SIU was doing with its Veteran Affairs. 

Gertsch said if he hadn’t already finished his schooling in Tennessee, he would’ve considered SIU. 

Gertsch along with Russell Lea, a Vietnam veteran who served in the infantry from 1968-1970 and drove a combat truck in Iraq in 2006, spoke about the importance of socializing with others at these events.  

Lea and Gretsch said when vets get together, they usually talk about everything but war, like, their families. 

Lea said even though the wars they fought in may be different, their experiences are still the same. 

After the event was over, Gretsch talked about starting his own Team River Runner chapter in Tennessee. 

Staff reporter Jacob Lorenz can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @jtlorenz6.

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