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Missouri woman takes on 'feisty' Lake Erie in Great Lakes paddling odyssey


That's how Traci Lynn Martin described Lake Erie in November as she tries to circumnavigate all five Great Lakes and hopefully break a world record in the process.

Since March, the nurse from Kansas City, Mo., has paddled thousands of miles on her surf ski, a variation of a kayak, around lakes Huron, Superior and Michigan. Then she met Erie.

"People have been asking me if the hardest lake was Superior and I've been telling them no, the hardest lake has been Erie," she said Tuesday night after arriving in Dunkirk. "Erie has absolutely been the most challenging."

Colder temperatures leave her feeling "like an ice cube" and prevent her from paddling at night. Fewer daylight hours have cut her progress to an average of 20 miles a day, down from 35 over the summer on Superior and Huron. And the lake's shallowness means even calm winds of 8 mph from the north can generate huge waves and force her to shore, like they did one day early this week.

"I've paddled in waves that big before, but I had something to prove," she said in a video on her Facebook page where she chronicles the journey. "I have nothing to prove now and I thought, 'Why am I doing this?' So I just pulled off on a cliff."

Still, she slogs through the agony as she approaches Buffalo.

She paddled Wednesday from Dunkirk to the beach at Hamburg Town Park and planned to take Thursday off due to forecasted gusty winds. On Friday she expects to travel the remainder of the way to a boat launch near the Peace Bridge in Buffalo. And on Saturday morning about 8 a.m. she'll set off up the Niagara River to the Niagara Falls portage at the north Grand Island Bridge.

From there beginning at about 11:30 a.m., she'll have to push her 19-foot-long surf ski on a two-wheel cart for 13 miles around the falls to Lewiston, according to the Guinness Book of World Records rules. Then she'll paddle clockwise around her final Great Lake, Ontario, before paddling along the north shore of Lake Erie and finishing sometime in December at Lake Erie Metro Park in Michigan.

Martin, 50, said she wants to be a role model and inspiration for people with chronic disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, which was her diagnosis in 2010.

"If I can paddle 3,600 miles with rheumatoid arthritis, then if you have a chronic illness you can get up out of bed and do the things in life that you love, whether it's walking your dog, gardening or painting," she said.

As an intensive care unit nurse, she cared for dispirited patients who found little reason to get up out of bed and moving.

"You can lay in bed and hurt. You can sit in your chair and never move and hurt," she said. "Or you can get up and do the things that you love. In the beginning you're going to hurt but once you start doing the things you love it takes your mind off the physical pain and mentally you feel better."

Traci Lynn Martin paddles her surf ski in Lake Erie after launching in Dunkirk. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Another inspiration for undertaking the arduous journey was her mother, who, in 2015, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

"Before she passed away she told me if I had any dreams or anything I wanted to do, to do it now and not to wait or put it off because you never know when your life's going to be over," she said. "People put off what they want to do because they think they have all this time and suddenly they're passing away with all these regrets."

An experienced kayaker, Martin decided to tackle the largest collection of freshwater lakes in the world. She cashed in a portion of her retirement savings and set off in March from Port Huron, Mich., with a goal of 5,800 miles. That's been cut to 3,900 by Dec. 31, still enough to break the Guinness world record for longest nonstop solo trip on a surf ski in a calendar year.

Created by lifeguards in Australia and popular on the West Coast, a surf ski is longer and thinner than a kayak, she said. While the ends of a kayak flare up out of the water, a surf ski's entire length is in the water, making it sleeker and faster, and, like a sailboat, it has an understern rudder controlled by foot pedals.

"What you give up on maneuverability, those really sharp turns, you gain in speed," she said. "They're designed to surf the ocean waves. They're really good in the big waves."

She recruited Bill Noble, a friend from their paddling club in Kansas City, as driver of her support vehicle and trailer. He's watched over the months as fatigue set in, and her arthritis in the cold makes it more difficult to paddle.

"It's hard to watch her go through that," he said. "You want to encourage her on one hand and yet you're concerned about her overall long-term health on the other hand. It's been tough to help her negotiate that and decide what the best route is."

The sun shines over Lake Erie as Traci Lynn Martin paddles her surf ski near Dunkirk. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Highlights from her trip include a day spent exploring the sea caves of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior, and paddling along the huge cliffs that stretch for miles along that lake.

"On a calm day paddling along these cliffs with the sun, it's just beautiful," she said. "It's just breathtakingly beautiful."

Pukaskwa National Park on the Canadian side of Lake Superior was another highlight. "It's remote and you have waterfalls and little islands you can weave in and out of," she said. "You don't see another person there."

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan was "absolutely spiritual and beautiful and some place I'd like to go back," she said.

While Lake Erie has been the most challenging body of water, its shoreline inhabitants have also been more welcoming than the other lakes combined, she said. A man in Dunkirk paid for her hotel room Tuesday night.

"The amount of people here on Lake Erie who have been so kind and generous, it's just mind-blowing," she said. "It really makes me just want to sit and cry."

Martin said she's required to collect certain documentation for Guinness, including 15 minutes of video every day on her GoPro camera, as well as a logbook. In addition, she asks strangers she encounters to sign a book attesting that they've seen her at a specific location at a given date and time. She also carries a GPS tracking device that records her route.

"She's so close now that I think she's going to certainly give it everything's she's got to keep going, but some days are just harder than others," said Noble.

During her many hours paddling anywhere from 100 yards to 2 miles offshore, Martin said she often daydreams, listening to the sounds of ducks, swans, geese and loons around her. Occasionally she turns on her iPod shuffle, or focuses on her paddle stroke and breathing.

Other times, she reflects back on her life, choices made and relationships.

But she's not stuck in the past.

"You just can't let life pass you by," she said. "You can't sit in your chair and just exist. You have to be active and continue doing the things in life that you love."

This is the route Traci Lynn Martin plans to walk, pulling her surf ski on a cart, to get around Niagara Falls.

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