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North Georgia professor completes 1,500-mile paddling adventure
The University of North Georgia’s Robert Fuller greets a crowd of friends, family members and university staff as he arrives at a friend’s home along the Etowah River.

Few know what it’s like to travel alone down a long and twisting river, with just your own resolve and best-laid plans to get you through the tough spots. Fewer still know what it’s like to make that trip paddling upriver.

In fact, Robert Fuller may be the only one who has ever traveled up the Mobile, Alabama, Coosa and Etowah rivers and also traveled down the entire length of the river system that begins with the Chattahoochee and ends in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Smart people go downstream,” Fuller’s friend Richard Grove joked. And Grove would know; he’s paddled the length of both systems.

Fuller, professor of geosciences and director of the Environmental Leadership Center at the University of North Georgia’s Dahlonega campus, completed the 1,500-mile adventure Wednesday evening, pulling up to a welcoming crowd on the shore of the Etowah River in Lumpkin County.

Wife Kathy met him first, then his daughter, Erin, who came from Alabama to surprise him.

It was a sweet ending to a trek that began in September and took only one real interlude for the Christmas holiday.

His daughter, no stranger to adventure herself after through hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2010, said she knew it took an incredible amount of endurance to pull through to the very end. And the river only got steeper and tougher as Fuller approached that end.

“I never dreamed it was going to be this tough. I was really kind of shocked the last three weeks how tough it was,” he said, sitting at his friends’ riverside home with a glass of wine. “But I found something inside myself, some toughness, some grit maybe, to get these last three weeks done. And really the last three days I was out of the boat more than I was in the boat. Pulling it, wading in water up to my chest — 43 degree water. That was brutal.”

And though Fuller was focused just on moving upstream toward the end of the trip, his time on the river was about a lot more than paddling.

Much of the first portion included scientific work, as Fuller tracked a specific portion of water to measure its quality as it moved downstream. When he reached the gulf, he dispensed with the scientific gear and moved his thoughts to writing. He’s planning to write a novel using research from the upriver portion of the trip. He also plans to write a nonfiction book about the experience and is considering a book about upriver paddling techniques.

Sickness and flooding occasionally deterred his progress, meaning days off the river and falling behind schedule. Cold weather and numbing water, occasional injuries such as third-degree burns sustained in a cooking mishap and tough river conditions, often requiring that he carry his boat and gear around rapids, would have deterred many. Fuller, though, without hesitation, said he’d do it again.

Sailing in the Gulf with a pod of dolphins playing so close alongside his boat that one finally slapped the front end of it was one of the more magical experiences of the trip.

And people he met along the way made a special impression, too. Both his daughter and his friend, Grove, spoke of that experience.

“These people, however short you know them, just crawl right into your heart,” Grove said of his own experience.

Fuller’s blog, which he updated throughout the trip, is full of such examples of good conversation and helpful strangers — “people with whom I would have tremendous political differences, philosophical differences, but they’re fundamentally good, decent people,” Fuller said.

Some of those experiences came as a surprise to him, but the discoveries of the trip are what he enjoyed and hopes to bring back to enrich his classroom and life in general.

“The trip was far more than what I expected it to be,” he said. “It was harder and also more rewarding.”

Fuller has a lot of data to analyze and papers to write in the next few months, but he hopes to take another paddling trip in the next year or so. He’s planning a trip to the Okefenokee Swamp and Everglades and also wants to trek from Tampa Bay to the Florida Keys.

Whatever the case, though, the next trip will be downriver, he said.