Alumnus Paddles 631 Miles Away from Chronic Pain

Bastyr alumnus Trevor Clark carrying a canoe down a suburban street.

A decade ago, Trevor Clark faced a grim diagnosis of a life dealing with fibromyalgia and chronic pain after breaking his back during his senior year in high school.

“I was in such terrible pain that I was basically stuck in bed for about four years,” he says. During what should have been his college years, Clark was walking with a cane and taking 11 prescriptions a day that his doctor said would likely destroy his liver in 10 years.

But these days, you’re more likely to see Clark carrying a canoe around his Greenwood neighborhood in Seattle as he prepares for a 631-mile solo paddling journey down the Alabama Scenic River Trail.

It’s a trip he’s wanted to do for more than a decade, and also one he never would have dreamed he could accomplish until his own research led him to the herbal remedy that would help him heal, and eventually bring him to Bastyr University.

Finding His Way to Herbs

Clark was living in Alabama in 2003 when he suffered a fractured spine in a car accident. A subsequent spinal fusion eventually led to fibromyalgia, neuropathy and a prescription cocktail including painkillers, muscle relaxers, endocrine medications, uppers and downers.

“My doctor told me that he could only give me palliative care at that point,” he says. But his medical doctor (MD), who had grown up in Guatemala and seen residents there using plants as medicine, also suggested Clark do his own research into herbal remedies.

“So in my horribly stupored state on tons of drugs, I started reading ethnobotany reports,” Clark says. Just three herbs into his research, he came across Pau d’Arco, a tree bark that, although not normally used specifically for it, can be taken as a tea to treat fibromyalgia and other ailments.

“It healed me until I was about 70 percent back to normal,” Clark says. “I withdrew off of all my prescription medications, stopped using my cane, and eventually walked like normal into the doctor’s office. He was shocked, to say the least.”

A Passion for Plants

Healing was only the beginning of Clark’s journey. “I immediately began trying to learn more about herbs and how I could study them,” he says.

His research led him to Bastyr University’s Bachelor of Science in Herbal Sciences program, a multidisciplinary program that combines the study of herbs with current research, plant identification, botany, pharmacognosy, ethnobotany, analytical botanical testing methods, quality assurance and quality control and the history of herbal medicine.

“Bastyr’s herbal sciences program attracted me because it is the only accredited bachelor’s program of its kind in the country,” says Clark, who graduated from the program in 2011.

After taking a year off, he returned as a researcher in the Bastyr University Research Institute working for Dr. Leanna Standish. He works on the NCCAM clinical study of breast cancer integrative oncology and on an ethnopharmacology study to develop a standardized whole plant extract for an FDA Investigational New Drug license.

He also found time for his own research, and will be presenting his findings May 13-15 at the 10th International Congress on Complementary Medicine Research in Jeju, Korea.

“I discovered a medicinally significant chemical in a vine in Alabama that was not known to exist in that plant family or in North America,” Clark says of his study on Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata).

His passion for plants and for research will then take him to the next level, as he pursues a doctoral degree in pharmacognosy, the study of medicinal chemicals in plant and animals, while also co-founding the botanical supplement company Tap Root Tonics.

“Trevor has this great enthusiasm and curiosity about plants and the natural world that has driven him to find answers for himself, for research and for the herbal industry,” says Sheila Kingsbury, ND, RH (AHG), who teaches a number of the herbal sciences classes and is chair of Bastyr’s Department of Botanical Medicine.

“We look forward to having his expertise after his PhD to help guide the industry in making research and product development choices that are grounded in a strong foundation in herbalism.”

Training for 631 Solo Miles

But before Clark hunkers down for five years of hard study, he decided he needed to take a good, long break.

Ever since he first learned about the Alabama Scenic River Trail, he’s wanted to paddle it. “I’ve been waiting more than 10 years to do it, but all of the stars had to align,” he says. “Now is the time.”

As an Eagle Scout Clark grew up hiking, camping, rafting and fishing. “I’ve always been really into the outdoors,” he says.

His first extensive canoe trip took him to Canada where he paddled more than 100 miles at age 16. “I just loved it,” he says. However, that trip also included 30 “portage” miles of carrying the canoe and all of the gear, a feat that isn’t so easy for a one-man crew.

That is one of the draws of the Alabama Scenic River Trail, which has only six dams he has to get around. But with a 90-pound canoe and 80-pound backpack, Clark still will have his work cut out for him.

His training regimen includes intense cardio sessions to prepare him for the portages and for paddling 10 to 15 miles a day, and both upper- and lower-body weight training. “My training also includes core exercises so that I don't injure my back again,” he says.

But he’s also doing more practical training, which is where you’ll see him carrying his canoe and waterproof backpack around his Greenwood neighborhood. “I’m slowly adding weight to my backpack to simulate what it will weigh on the trip,” he says. “Eighty pounds is my training target goal, but hopefully it will weigh less than that on the trip.”

Additionally, Clark is using his training time as a testing ground for blood sugar control and insulin adjustments since he has type 1 diabetes.

“I’m really needing to make sure I have the right calories per meal since I’ll potentially be burning 4,000 to 6000 calories a day,” he adds.

Adding to His Materia Medica

The record for paddling the Alabama Scenic River Trail is a mere 14 days, but Clark isn’t planning on trying for any records on his adventure.

“I’m taking it easy and giving myself two months,” he says, with the dates set for May 18 to July 18. “I plan to take some relaxation days to get fishing in and spend time identifying plants.”

Although he’s only doing an informal survey of the plants on this trip, he’ll be taking pictures and making pressings as part of his ongoing research of plants.

“The end goal is that I would like to add new herbs to my materia medica [a collection of therapeutic properties or substances used for healing],” Clark says.

He’s also getting a bit of help from the nine sponsors he has reached out to, including the Bastyr alumni behind Zing bars, which donated 90 nutrition bars for his journey.

“It’s going to be a serious treat on the river to have those,” Clark says. “To be perfectly honest, it was not in my budget to buy something that nice.”

Enmeshed in the world of grants, he decided to reach out to potential sponsors when he realized how much money the trip would cost him, especially weighed against the fact that he wouldn’t be making any money during that same time.

He found that his story is a big draw, and two of his sponsors will be showcasing a blog he is writing outlining his trip – cell phone service pending – about once a week. You can follow his journeys through Eagles Nest Outfitters or Johnson Outdoors Watercraft.