Kayaker aims to be first to circumnavigate Great Lakes

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By Barb McKay

Traci Lynn Martin began her journey of circumnavigating the Great Lakes in a kayak to achieve a dream but also to encourage others to reach for theirs. Now, those who she sought to inspire have become her driving force.

Travi Lynn Martin, second from right, stopped at the north end of Kincardine last week on her journey around Lake Huron in a surf ski kayak. With her are George and Christine Schiestel, her hosts in Kincardine, and travel companions Marv Kuziel and Bill Noble. (Barb McKay photo)

Since she was very young, Martin, of Kansas, Missouri, has been an outdoors enthusiast with an ambition to become an explorer. She put her dreams aside in her 20s to pursue a career in nursing and raise a family. She continued her active lifestyle – canoeing and then in her 30s trading a canoe for a kayak. When she turned 40, Martin bought a surf ski kayak, built for racing and endurance, and began competing in on-the-water marathons – winning several.

Martin put her life on hold a couple of years ago to care for her mother, who was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer. She needed something to fill her time during the long stretches when her mother slept so she began looking into how she could put her experience as a competitive endurance kayaker to use.

“I did some research and it became my pet project,” she said. “Right before my mother passed away she told me that if I had any dreams don’t wait until the end of my life.”

Martin’s mother owned a beautiful grand piano but had never learned to play it. It was her one regret. Her mother’s advice stuck with her and Martin recalled reading that no one had successfully circumnavigated all five Great Lakes before in a single year. She set her sights on becoming the first. Not only that – she was determined to break the Guinness World Record for the farthest documented non-stop paddling expedition in a kayak.

The current record was set back in 2002 by Gerhard Moolman of South Africa, who paddled 6,152 kilometres from Hout Bay, South Africa, and Lamu, Kenya. If Martin is able to complete her journey around all five Great Lakes by the end of December she will have travelled more than 6,400 kilometres.

Martin began her expedition on March 9 at Port Huron. She is using a Stellar Surf Ski kayak – a long, narrow boat that is fast and built to handle big water and rough conditions. Now 50 years old and suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, Martin knew the journey would be a difficult one and it was not an easy start. When she put her boat in the water at Port Huron the lake was still frozen.

“There was a lot of ice,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting the ice. It was very challenging.”

Martin travelled significant distances each day – as many as 65 kilometres in a single day. Some days the paddle was a pleasure; other days it was terrifying. One day in Big Bay, on the south side of Lake Superior, a storm blew in. The bay was bordered by steep cliffs and there was nowhere to pull in for miles.

“There were huge waves and thunder and lightning – it was really scary,” Martin said.

Martin began her journey in Lake Michigan and completed her circumnavigation by mid-June. She travelled under the Mackinac Bridge and through the Soo Locks and began her voyage around Lake Superior on July 1, completing the route by Aug. 31. Martin then travelled through the North Channel to Georgian Bay and began her circumnavigation of Lake Huron.

Last Tuesday, Martin was on schedule to arrive just south of Underwood where she would stay the night with Christine and George Schiestel. But when winds picked up she was forced to pull in at Oliphant and drive down. She is accompanied by friend and fellow kayaker Bill Noble of Kansas and Marv Kuziel of Port Austen, Michigan. Kuziel heard about the expedition and took an early retirement to help out. Although she has had intermittent travel companions, only Martin has completed the expedition entirely on the surf ski.

Christine Schiestel learned about Martin’s expedition from her cousin Joan Karstens in Zurich, who had been following the journey on social media. She knew Martin would be stopping in the Kincardine area and asked Christine if she would be willing to host them. Christine suffers from osteoarthritis and was fascinated and inspired by Martin’s attempt.

“I was really concerned with her leaving in March because they don’t have lakes this size in Missouri,” she said. “I’m surprised and happy that she’s made it this far.”

Martin said a big part of her endeavor is not only to achieve her goal but also to encourage others to not give up on their dreams.

“My message to people with chronic illness is to never stop doing what you love because once you do you stop living and that is no way to live your life.”

Now two-thirds of the way through her journey, Martin has amassed thousands of followers who offer her words of encouragement and also share stories of how her journey has inspired them to overcome their own obstacles and live their lives to the fullest. The messages have filled Martin with a sense of purpose.

“Originally, I did this for me, but now my whole perspective and focus have changed. When I’m sore, when my hands are bleeding I think of all the people who say I’ve inspired them. They inspire me to keep going.”

Martin has met many people since she started her journey in March who have met her at her stopping points to cheer her on and several, like the Schiestels, who have offered her a place to stay.

“The generosity of people has been absolutely heartfelt,” she said.

Martin expects to complete her circumnavigation of Lake Huron within a week or so and will then travel through the St. Lawrence River to Lake Erie. If the weather co-operates, she said, she is on track to complete Lake Erie and Lake Ontario by Dec. 31.

Anyone who would like to follow Martin’s expedition can check her out on Twitter @StellarTourD4ce, on Instragram at JustAroundThePointe, her Traci Lynn Martin Facebook page or by visiting her website at www.JustAroundThePoint.com.