A Good Way To Go: Michele Baldwin Will Spend Her Final Days Paddling
"I'm going out with a bang," Michele Baldwin told her professor as she handed in her books this past August, only two months after learning her metastatic cervical cancer was untreatable. Baldwin had just rejected her scholarship to the University of New Mexico's EMS Academy and was preparing to attack the sobering news head on. With less than a year to live, the 45-year-old mother of three decided she would embark on the journey of her lifetime: standup paddling down the holy Ganges River.
The canoe and kayak guide from New Mexico, and a practicing Buddhist, said the idea came to her like "a little secret" whispered in her ear. With an estimated 250,000 women dying every year from cervical cancer, Baldwin is using her final mission as an opportunity to raise awareness about the cancer that is taking her life. The journey will also be a pilgrimage for Baldwin, as well as her final legacy to the world. She hopes to raise $100,000 for the Global Initiative Against HPV and Cervical Cancer (GIAHC) and "to inspire others to live to the end," she said.
Paddling 700 miles down one of the most polluted rivers in the world that's full of dysentery, opportunistic pirates and deadly snakes, is a feat in itself. But after an Oct. 3rd PET scan, Baldwin learned that her journey would be even more difficult, as the cancer is now spreading through her lymph system, from her pelvis up to her neck.
"The experience will be greater than anything (I've ever done) but I'm starting to feel more pain, nausea and fatigue, so I worry I won't be able to complete the journey or raise the funds for GIAHC before I get too weak," she said. "And although I am prepared to die during the expedition, I don't want it for my kids- I don't want them to have a negative view of India…I just want to inspire them to live in a way that is strong."
Baldwin will be paddling two 4-hour sessions a day from the Himalayas in Rishikesh to the holy city of Varanasi, while also taking time to meditate on the water. She hopes to cover about 25 miles a day and speak to Indian women about the importance of getting regular check-ups to prevent cervical cancer.
Accompanying Baldwin in a custom-rigged sculling canoe will be friend, Nat Stone, who will be her navigator, cameraman, gear handler and tow boat when she gets tired. Baldwin will be paddling a custom 12'6 inflatable SUP by ULI, and despite an estimated daily temperature of 85 degrees and unrelenting humidity, she'll paddle wearing a scarf and a long Nuu-Muu dress or Muslim-modest swimsuit (rather than a bikini) to respect the Indian culture.
By Oct. 21st, Baldwin will be on the Ganges, beginning her final adventure. "It's not so much as want, but something I feel I must do," she said. "I have maybe 6 months to live—maybe less, maybe more—but if I do live long enough to come home—if I have a miracle, I'll continue to fundraise and maybe even plan another trip." – Shari Coble