Keep Paddling

A champion to those with chronic conditions

January 2022 Multimedia Heather Magda Serrano

In 2017, Traci Lynn Martin became the first person to circumnavigate the three largest Great Lakes by kayak: Superior, Huron and Michigan. She also paddled the entire south shoreline of Lake Erie and portaged her boat around the Niagara Falls, getting all the way to Toronto. She ended up paddling 3,592 miles.

“I was really close to the world record,” added Traci. “I was about 220 miles shy of the Guinness World Record for the most miles paddled in the type of boat I was using, and I was really close to having all five of the Great Lakes finished.”

Not only did Traci paddle over 3,000 miles on all five Great Lakes, but she did it while fighting against the intense pain of rheumatoid arthritis. Despite the ache of her joints, she pressed on and accomplished something extraordinary against all odds, becoming a champion to those with chronic pain and illnesses.

Since Traci came so close to attaining the world record and circumnavigating all five Great Lakes by kayak in 2017, she decided to take what she had learned and attempt it again this year in 2020. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, her attempt ended before it barely began.

Trip Cut Short

Traci had started her second attempt to circumnavigate all five of the Great Lakes in Buffalo, N.Y., on March 1 of this year. From the time she started paddling, it always seemed she was just a few days in front of the pandemic. In fact, she barely made it into Pennsylvania as New York started closing its state line.

The same thing happened in Pennsylvania as the country ground to a halt. As Traci paddled, she had her support truck driver follow her so she could kayak during the day when it was warmer and have him pick her up in the evenings when temperatures dropped below freezing.

As they continued their journey, Traci’s support driver began to find it challenging to locate places to park since they were closing down boat ramps and state parks. By the time Traci reached Presque Isle, it was shut down as well. The following day was storming so she couldn’t paddle on the water. She ended up having to carry her boat a mile and a half to get out of the state park since there were no cars allowed.

From there, Traci made it all the way to Cleveland, Ohio, before making the decision to end her trip. She began getting messages from people on social media that discouraged her from continuing to kayak during the pandemic. Additionally, Canada had closed its borders. Traci asked her friends living in Canada if they thought the borders would open by her estimated arrival in June or July, but she received negative responses.

On top of that, she and her support driver would hear horror stories of people dying from the coronavirus in Detroit, Mich. Traci knew it would take a few days to travel against the current of the Detroit River and while she paddled her support driver would have to make stops in Detroit to get gas and supplies.

At this point Traci knew it was too high of a risk and she made the decision to stop paddling in Cleveland on April 1. Although she had poured a lot of time and resources into this trip, she still felt lucky since she was able to get her job back as a registered nurse at Truman Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo.

Future Plans

Originally, Traci had planned to complete her circumnavigation of the Great Lakes this year; paddle the entire Saint Lawrence Seaway in 2022; and then paddle Channel Islands National Park in 2023. The pandemic has brought all her plans to a screeching halt.

As of right now, she still hasn’t decided if she’s going to push everything back a year and do the Great Lakes in 2021. It’s about a year-long commitment to try to get all five lakes done in less than a year, including time and resources. Traci will make plans for her future trips once she gets a better idea on how the pandemic will play out.

Soldiering On

Although her 2020 trip was cut short this year, Traci is far from discouraged and she thinks fondly of all the time she has spent kayaking on the Great Lakes. When she thinks of her 2017 trip, her mind often wanders to a particularly remote area on the north shore of Lake Superior.

She never saw another person for almost six days while she was kayaking through the area and camping by herself. There weren’t any roads and it was just completely remote wilderness. She describes the experience of being alone in nature as something spiritual and completely phenomenal.

“I think of those times and being able to watch the stars,” shared Traci. “It was like looking out over another universe. You had the stars shimmering off the lake and there was no light except for these stars. It was nothing like I could describe—the whole sky was lit up and you could see the galaxy.”

A Powerful Message

One of the main reasons Traci did her first trip was not only because she loves kayaking, but because she wanted to show people with disabilities and chronic health conditions that life is not over.

As a registered nurse at a hospital, Traci saw a lot of people come in with chronic conditions who had simply given up. Before her diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, she would give the proper nursing care to these people but since they had already written themselves off she would have a tendency to do the same.

“After my diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis,” described Traci, “I had a lot more empathy and I could get down on their level and help them see that life isn’t over.”

Traci’s message is to show people that life doesn’t end after a difficult diagnosis. They can still do amazing things just as she has done and continues to do. With modifications, people can still do the things they love in life.

Traci approaches everything in her life this way and never lets her chronic pain get in the way of doing the things she loves most in life. For example, she is unable to run anymore, but she can still walk so she continues to sign up for 5Ks and 10Ks, but instead of running and trying to be competitive, she walks so she can still have fun.

“You just have to modify,” encouraged Traci. “With my rheumatoid arthritis and kayaking, I’ve had to modify my paddle and the technique I use. I have to keep my elbows in tighter instead of up high.”

In this way, Traci’s message is quite simple: Never give up. If you love it, do it. Something else Traci noted is that when she forces herself to go out and do thing she loves and enjoys, her focus shifts from her chronic pain to what she is doing. Although the pain is still there, she is not focused on it which helps it recede into the background while she enjoys things that bring her happiness.

Written On The Heart

People from all over the world continue to respond to Traci’s message of hope for those suffering from chronic conditions. She explained that she got more random messages from people with chronic pain conditions than from kayakers while she was on her trip in 2017. They would explain to her how they would get up and do the things they used to love—things they didn’t think they’d ever be able to do again—because of her.

“People would send me messages about how I was inspiring them,” added Traci, “but on the flipside, their messages inspired me to keep going. Meeting people who connect with my message and feel inspired makes me feel inspired and encourages me to keep going.”

This mentality of encouraging others is even written on Traci’s kayak. Traci got a new Stellar SR Racing Kayak for her 2020 trip, and she told people that if they wanted their names on her boat that she would print them on. Now she has around 15 names on the boat which include people with rheumatoid arthritis and other types of chronic conditions. These people come from all over the world including the United States, Canada, Australia, England, and South Africa. Traci also printed the names of some organizations dealing with chronic pain who reached out to her to put their names on the kayak.

Lifting People Up

As Traci continues to inspire others to keep going and live their best lives, they inspire and encourage her as well. This manifests itself quite perfectly in one instance during her 2017 trip.

Traci was walking her boat around Niagara Falls to continue circumnavigating the Great Lakes, and walking has become quite challenging and painful because of the arthritis in her knees. It was a 13-mile walk and she did alright for the first 8 miles but by the tenth she was in excruciating pain and limping.

The Buffalo News had written an article about her, so a bunch of people had shown up to support her randomly. Someone had given her an umbrella to use as a cane, but even with the support, she felt like she could not make it. She sat down on the curb, knowing she still had about two miles to go. She was in too much pain and she remembers saying that she didn’t think she could finish carrying her boat to the lake.

No sooner had the words left her lips when a man drove up and stuck his head out of his window, asking if they were the Traci Martin group. Someone told him they were and pointed her out. The man said he and his wife had driven two hours. His wife had rheumatoid arthritis like Traci and a lot of other chronic conditions, so she wanted to come and meet her.

However, he said that he didn’t want to bother Traci while she was still carrying her boat and that he would meet her at the boat ramp on the Niagara River where she was headed. Before anyone could tell him that Traci had decided to stop, he drove off.

“So I got up and made it those last two miles because I knew that those people were waiting for me,” explained Traci. “When I got there his wife couldn’t get out of the car because she was not mobile, so I actually sat in the car with her and we talked for around 45 minutes.”

It was a very emotional and inspiring experience for Traci and since then, she’s had the opportunity to connect with many more people that resonate with her message. Being able to encourage and motivate people like this is what keeps her going.

Even though her 2020 trip was cut short, Traci is not giving up on her dream to circumnavigate all five Great Lakes. As she moves forward and spreads her message of hope for those with chronic conditions, she continues to touch countless lives, helping people to know that they can still do the things the love no matter what.

See what Traci’s up to on her website and social media:

Just Around the Pointe

Just Around the Pointe


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