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Traci Martin paddles into Grand Marais Harbor

Brian Larsen


Traci Martin of Kansas City, Missouri, hopes to become the first person to paddle a surf ski around all five great lakes in one calendar year. Bill Noble, who drives her camper to specific locations and meets her when she is finished for the day, is assisting Martin. She suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and is hoping to use the trip as a way to inspire others who have chronic health care conditions to not give up doing the things they love to do. 
Photo courtesy of Traci Martin Traci Martin of Kansas City, Missouri, hopes to become the first person to paddle a surf ski around all five great lakes in one calendar year. Bill Noble, who drives her camper to specific locations and meets her when she is finished for the day, is assisting Martin. She suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and is hoping to use the trip as a way to inspire others who have chronic health care conditions to not give up doing the things they love to do. Photo courtesy of Traci Martin Traci Martin’s hands were swollen. Her rheumatoid arthritis (RA) was hitting her hard, and even though Lake Superior was calm, lying flat like a blue silk tablecloth across the harbor, she didn’t know if she could paddle her surf ski to Grand Portage.

“I will try to do at least 20 miles. Who knows, there’s a full moon, so maybe I will get some miles in tonight,” she said Sunday, August 6 at 8 a.m. at the Coast Guard Station boat launch.

If her body is breaking down, her spirit isn’t.

With 1,900 miles under her belt, when Martin landed in Grand Marais she was exactly half way in her pursuit to cover more than 3,800 miles and break the Guinness Book of World Records for surf ski paddling in one calendar year.

The night before, guided by a friendly moon, which was rising slowly from the southern horizon over the lake, Martin docked at the Coast Guard station about 9 p.m. She was tired from a long day on the water. She had covered 35 miles in her surf ski, starting in the morning from Taconite Harbor. Her friend Bill was there to meet her when she docked at the boat launch.

Another day done, but many more are to follow if she is able to continue on and meet her goal to paddle all five great lakes and set a world record.

Martin, age 50, is from Kansas City, Missouri. She works as an RN and has two children at home, an 11-year-old and 15-year-old boy. Her ex-husband is living in her house and taking care of the boys while she attempts this feat she started March 9 from Port Huron’s Lighthouse Beach.

A life long paddler, first in canoes and then kayaks, Martin has a world of experience on the water. Still, she has encountered many challenges along the way.

“I thought because I had raced kayaks for so many years that I could average more miles in a day than I have been able to get in. That was my first surprise. Part of that was because of the way my RA will kick in. Some days I get out on the water and have to call Bill and tell him I can’t go.

“My second surprise was kayaking on Lake Michigan. It wasn’t like paddling on the Missouri River, where I train. Lake Michigan was a wicked mistress with her currents, winds and waves. Paddling Lake Michigan was a steep learning curve. I swamped more times than I can count. It’s been three months now since I have swamped.”

Traveling on the St. Mary’s River in the fog, Martin was nearly run over by a large ship. “I looked over my shoulder and there it was, right behind me. I barely got out of the way in time. When I train on the Missouri I can hear freighters. I discovered on Lake Michigan that large ships barely make any noise at all.

“I also had some close calls in the Chicago Harbor. Pleasure boaters would come right up to me. I don’t know if they were trying to swamp me or just get a closer look. But I know they could see me because they would wave at me.”

Because of these close calls Traci stayed out of the Duluth Harbor and other large harbors, cutting across the open water. “That has cut down on the mileage I thought I would be getting in, but I feel safer. So far, paddling Lake Superior has been a great experience.”

Her one great fear with Lake Superior is the water temperature. “I wear three neoprene layers, two if it’s really hot. I went swimming in the lake with three layers on and I was warm enough. The lake is so cold that I’m afraid if I swamp, I could get hypothermia.”

When her surf ski does turn over it only takes about one minute for Martin to right it and continue on.

“My boys asked me why I was leaving them for a year. I tried to explain to them that this is probably going to be my last chance to do something like this. They came and stayed with me for five weeks when I was completing my trip around Lake Michigan and then they understood.

“I started having RA symptoms in 2009. Doctors diagnosed my condition in 2010. I still competed in triathlons, 5k and 10k running races, kayak races, but in 2013 I did my last triathlon. Now I can’t run anymore, can’t compete in triathlons anymore, and that hurts. I am losing my ability to do things I love, my boys understand why I am attempting this now, and their father is doing a great job of caring for them. He has been tremendous through this.”

Traci takes three doses of 800 milligrams of medically prescribed ibuprofen a day. That’s what she needs to do to help her propel her 25-foot, 25-pound surf ski through the water for a day’s paddle.

Martin began her journey March 9 in Port Huron, Michigan. Twice she had to be rescued after swamping. A local sheriff told her if she swamped one more time, he was going to confiscate her kayak. She didn’t tip over again, at least not anywhere near where the sheriff lived. A surf ski is a racing kayak. You don’t have a back rest and keep it up with your abdominal muscles. “You keep your back straight and your body just moves with the waves.”

Martin doesn’t mind paddling open water in 3- to 4-foot waves. “My ski-surf is meant to paddle in that kind of water. It’s very stable.”

Larger waves than 3-4 feet will chase her off the water. When she stops, she camps or stays in a camper Bill pulls. Or, as she has discovered, many people offer to let her stay in their homes.

“In the beginning this was about wanting to empower women and individuals to show them that they can conquer whatever limitations life throws at them,” said Martin. “What I have learned so far, from all of the kind words people have emailed to me, telling me I am an inspiration to them is that they are an inspiration to me.

“At one stop we were having issues with the camper and truck. A man and his wife took us in and he spent two days underneath the camper fixing it. He had worked in that field before retiring. People have taken me in, fed me, let me shower and then stay at their houses like I am family. This trip has turned out to be far more about the generosity and kindness of people than what it started to be.”

As for Bill, Traci didn’t know him before she started this journey. “I am retired, I was looking for something interesting to do,” Bill said. “When I was younger I paddled 4,500 miles through Canada, following the Voyageur route. I paddled to Grand Portage as part of the route. I guess I could identify with what Traci was attempting to do and I decided to come along and help her.”

If you are interested in following Traci, you can follow her on her website. She plans to finish in December in Detroit, Michigan.


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