I have dreamed of a canoe trip like this for quite a few years, largely as a result of a comment by my friend, Ken Watkins, who suggested some ten years ago, that we ought to paddle canoes from his home on the Etowah River in Lumpkin County, Georgia to his parents’ home on the Coosa River in Alabama. Georgia’s Etowah River flows into the Coosa River in Rome, and the Coosa, in turn, flows into central Alabama, where it becomes the Alabama River and, eventually, the Mobile River, which empties into Mobile Bay. That seemed like a nearly impossible undertaking at the time, but it has become a major piece of my current undertaking (sorry ’bout the pun), although in the opposite direction. Eventually, examples of other, more accomplished paddlers inspired me to take on longer and longer paddling trips and eventually the trip I am about to undertake.
The story really begins when I was a kid growing up on the shores of Tampa Bay, Florida. There were brief periods when my family could afford a small power boat, but for most of our childhoods, my brother, Buck, and I traveled Tampa Bay by rowing or poling open skiffs. These were often used boats purchased for five or ten dollars from local mullet fishermen, who had decided that the boats were pretty well used up, and they were right. Buck was the more adventurous and enterprising of the two of us, but we both had a lot of great adventures in those boats. But the first time I saw someone traveling by canoe, I was taken by the image of the apparent ease and grace of paddling that type of boat, and canoes certainly are easier to paddle than old, leaky, water-logged, mullet boats. I set my sights then and there on saving the approximately fifty dollars that a middle of the road canoe cost in those days. That was shortly before I discovered how wonderful girls were. Actually, it was a particular wonderful girl named Diane, who was my first real love and who remains a dear friend to both me and to my wife of 41 years, Kathy. Diane never discouraged me from pursuing my canoe dream, but I don’t recall mentioning it more than in passing a time or two, so I doubt that she was aware of how strong it was.
I never seemed to be able to save more than five dollars at a time in those days, but I never lost the dream of paddling a canoe all the way to the other side of Tampa Bay, which was about as far as my imagination would take me at the time. I have made that trip and many far longer since then, but that initial image of exploring the shore and numerous inlets along that shore has stayed with me and driven a lot of my adventure dreams
A couple of important things happened during my high school senior trip to Vietnam that played into this story. The first was when a highly skilled North Vietnamese gunner put an explosive 75 mm shell at my feet. It was a most impressive shot with what must have been a rather old, direct fire, recoiless rifle fired from somewhere inside the so-called Demilitarized Zone. Luckily for me and unluckily for him, the shell was a dud. The second one that he fired was not, but I was no longer standing there looking foolish. That event, more than any other in my life, taught me about the fleeting nature of our lives and has been behind a lot of my decisions to go for things while opportunities are ripe. The other really important event was that I joined the Marine Corps’ Third Force Recon Company, also known as the eyes and ears of the Third Marine Division. That led to a lot of missions with three or six other Recon Marines and a couple of unauthorized solo missions. There was probably no other outfit in the Marine Corps where that would have been possible, but the feelings of total independence and total self-reliance that came with those solo missions were so appealing that they have stayed with me my entire life.
Don’t get me wrong: I love people and I love canoe trips with others, particularly my family, but I also still enjoy solitude and the feeling of self-reliance that is always a part of a solo paddling trip. Yes, I have a cell phone and an iPad, but I still must rely on my own wits to stay right-side up or, failing that, righting myself after a spill, and there is a level of satisfaction that comes with choosing when to paddle, when to rest, and where to camp that is very difficult to achieve any way other than paddling or hiking by oneself.
I have paddled a little off and on over the years, including paddling some very cumbersome rubber rafts on the rivers of Vietnam in the late 1960s, but I didn’t learn to love paddling until my friend Ben LaChance, owner and operator of Appalachian Outfitters in Dahlonega, introduced me to paddling the Chestatee River. I have bought boats and other equipment from Ben, but most of what I have received from him came as gifts. Ben has taught me some finer points of paddling, and he has taught me about environmental stewardship. His idea of a fun afternoon is to get in a canoe by himself and patrol five miles of river, picking up trash as he goes. Ben has also introduced me, through his tales of family trips and other adventures, to other rivers in this country of ours. I remain in his debt. Shortly after Ben rekindled my love affair with canoes, another friend, Mike Saunders, took me under his paddle-wing and began to teach me more about paddling and reading the river. Mike also introduced me to the Kruger Sea Wind, the decked, expedition canoe that has become my boat of choice for nearly every paddling trip, including this one.
The late Verlen Kruger paddled boats of his own design over 100,000 miles, a record that still stands. The Sea Wind was the result of all that he learned in those years and miles of paddling. His protege and the current owner and master craftsman of Kruger Canoes is Mark Przedwojewski. Mark has built two Sea Winds for me and I have had the privilege of paddling with Mark in Michigan and learning some finer points of long distance paddling from him. My original Sea Wind is still in great shape – they are practically indestructible – but Sea Wind number two (actually serial number 262, but my second) is two inches deeper than my original and better suited to the mass of gear that I am taking on this trip.
One other thing that I got in Vietnam plays a role in this story, and that was exposure to the dioxin-laced herbicide known as agent orange. The Veterans’ Administration maintains an Agent Orange registry for those who were exposed and has been providing my healthcare for several years as a result of that exposure, for which I am deeply grateful. One evening a little over two years ago, I got a phone call at home from a very fine VA doctor (fine VA doctors and nurse practitioners are the norm, in my experience) saying that he was concerned about a trend in my blood work and he wanted to do some more tests. Based on my reading and the experience of other Vietvets, that sent a cold chill through me, but I didn’t share my suspicions with Kathy or anyone else at the time. My suspicions were born out, unfortunately, and after quite a few tests, I was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that has a strong correlation with dioxin exposure. There is a saying about CLL that if you are going to get cancer, this is the one to get, as if that were a conscious choice. I get the point, though, since it is usually very slow in its progression. Two years after being diagnosed, I still am asymptomatic, unless you count the frequent pneumonia, which may or may not be related.
I’m probably telling you more than you want to know about my health, but I do so to illustrate why I chose to undertake this expedition when I did. With CLL lurking, I am still probably going to live as long or nearly as long as I would have without it, but it has helped me focus on the big things that I want to get done while I still have the ability to do them. That is why I applied last year for a year’s professional leave (what most of the world calls a sabbatical leave) and began planning this trip. I am very excited about the adventure, and I expect to gather some interesting and potentially useful information about the rivers in the process. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Environmental Protection Division, has taken a strong interest in the project, and has provided technical support and the loan of a key piece of equipment. The US Geological Survey and Georgia Power Company have also helped me a great deal. My colleagues and administrators at North Georgia have been most supportive. I am privileged to have a family and friends who encourage me, help me, and strive to keep me focused. My literary friends urge and instruct me on how to record the details and share them. So, now I just need to go do it!