In an effort to study a river system from beginning to end, Fuller conducted research on his journey from the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River to its terminus at Apalachicola, Fla., in the Gulf of Mexico. After reaching the gulf, Fuller sailed and paddled his custom-built canoe to Mobile Bay and began the upstream leg of his journey on the Mobile, Tensaw, Middle, Alabama and Coosa rivers.
Some 2 1/2 years ago, the 64-year-old North Georgia University professor of engineering and geography faced a lukemia diagnosis from Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. While long-distance paddling had long been a dream, the diagnosis acted as a catalyst to pursue a passion. Taking a professional sabbatical, Fuller trained for a year before taking off on his journey from Chattahoochee Springs north of Dahlonega on Sept. 22, nearly four months ago.
“I love adventure, I love a good challenge and I love canoeing,” Fuller said Wednesday at a lecture in Rome. “About 2 1/2 years ago, I got a call one night from my doctor and calls at home from doctors are never a good thing. This was a VA doctor that told me I had lukemia and that was not good news, but it got me off my backside and it made me realize I need to get busy.
“I’m a scientist, I love to really delve into things and know what’s going on. I care about the environment and I care about the rivers. ... I think, by pointing out some of the problems I found, maybe I can make more people a little bit more aware — and that’s sometimes the best we can do.”
The first leg, about 553 miles down the Chattahoochee, was Fuller’s research expedition — using a fluorescent dye and a fluorometer to measure a water system as it flows from the mountains to the sea.
”I started at the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River at Chattahoochee Springs,” Fuller said. “I did some sampling there, I did some tests, and I injected a tiny amount of fluorescent dye — one that is approved by the EPA for use in water — and then I used a machine called a fluorometer to try and track that dot and the whole idea was to track a mass of water as it moved down the system and I wanted to measure what happened to that water as it encountered different environments going down the river.
“That became a real struggle on this trip. What I was doing was really a proof of concept. I’ve wondered for a long time, ‘Can one person do reasonable, meaningful water testing going down the river?’ And I can tell you the one thing I have learned so far, is yes — sort of. ... It’s just too much, frankly, to follow that water and do testing and paddle and oh, by the way, sleep somewhere along the way. It is very time consuming.”
His results are already showing some promise in the areas of conductivity and nitrate levels. As part of his professional sabbatical, Fuller will author academic papers and give on-campus presentations, but he also has plans to write a novel and possibly two books on the journey, including one chronicling the journey and another on the art of paddling upstream.
Fuller has spent most of his nights away from home in a tent, camping where he can along the way. He spent some time with friends at Thanksgiving and made one trip home for Christmas. Along the way he has gained stories of wildlife, botany, environmental injustices and a reassurance of human kindness.
In Florida, Fuller contracted an infection in his knee and was cared for by a stranger who put him up in his own home and eventually took him to the doctor when the infection worsened. Just days ago, on Weiss Lake in Alabama, Fuller was looking for directions through a mudbog and found unexpected hospitality when the owner of a camper he approached insisted he stay the night and share a meal.
“Part of this trip was about being self-reliant and that goes back to as a young man I was in a recon unit in Vietnam and I had an occasion to go out alone and I like that. I like the solitude,” Fuller said. “But I have met more nice people on this trip — and that wasn’t the point, it was never the focus — I’m a scientist.”
Currently sidelined in Rome, Fuller recently experienced his most dangerous day on the water as he approached Rome on the Coosa. With three days of solid rain, the river had swollen above its banks and the trees he would have normally paddled under to avoid the current were now an obstacle, as was the debris being pushed downstream. Baring anymore foul weather, he hopes to return to the river Saturday making his way up the Etowah for the final 164 miles of his journey.
Coosa River Basin Initiative Executive Director Joe Cook hosted Fuller Wednesday evening for a guest lecture. During his presentation, Fuller revealed that Cook had played a role in inspiring his trip after reading an account of Cook’s own journey down much of the Chattahoochee.
“There’s no better way to better understand a river than to follow it from its source and see the entire river,” Cook said. “So people like Robert who have actually been out there and experienced the entire river can give the rest of us a unique perspective and help us understand that if I throw a plastic bottle on the ground in Cartersville, it’s going to end up on the backwaters of Weiss Lake.
“Adventures like this just help us understand how rivers work and how what happens upstream, affects what happens downstream. And I think it inspires all of us to get out and explore. Despite all the development and our changes to the landscape around us, the rivers still remain wild and for the most part free, except for dams. So rivers remain those places in our backyard that are still wild and exciting places that are worthy of our exploration.”
For more information and to follow Fuller’s progress, visit his blog at www.blog.ung.edu/rcfuller.