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North Georgia professor paddles to Gulf in water quality project
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Robert Fuller sits in the shade at Gainesville Marina while taking a short break Wednesday afternoon after paddling for much of the day. The North Georgia College & State University professor will spend the next few months traveling by canoe and sampling the water along the length of the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola rivers as part of a research project. - photo by Scott Rogers | The Times

Keep up with Robert Fuller’s daily adventures here

Robert Fuller is no stranger to adventure.

It started when he was a child growing up on Tampa Bay in Florida, traversing the bay in well-used boats he and his brother bought for $5 or $10 from local fishermen.

At 17, he joined the Marines. By 19, he was shipped to Vietnam.

One adventure there involved a 75 mm shell landing at his feet. It didn’t go off.

He also did reconnaissance missions there, a few being not exactly authorized solo missions.

For 24 years, he worked as an engineer, and supervised construction of oil pipelines in Nigeria.

He was a commercial pilot doing aerial mapping, flying all over the U.S. and into Central America.

He also spent some time as a commercial diver, working for two different companies in Florida and doing underwater inspection in Georgia.

His latest adventure, though, may be his grandest.

Big plans

Fuller, professor of geosciences and director of the Environmental Leadership Center at North Georgia College & State University, began a trek last Saturday at the tiptop of the Chattahoochee River, hiking along the spring that begins the river system that is vital to Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

He’ll be paddling the river and testing its water quality all the way to the Apalachicola River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. And once he’s reached that destination, the focus changes from science to fiction as he researches a novel while paddling along the Gulf then back up the Mobile, Alabama and Etowah rivers home to Lumpkin County.

He’s been on paddling trips of 150 miles or so before. This trip will be about 1,500 miles.

“I really decided for sure to do it about two years ago,” Fuller, 64, said of the trip. That decision came not long after he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a disease that can be linked to his exposure to Agent Orange defoliant in Vietnam.

He has no symptoms of the slow-moving cancer, but he said it puts life in perspective.

“It has helped me focus on the big things that I want to get done while I still have the ability to do them,” Fuller wrote in his blog detailing the trip. “That is why I applied last year for a year’s professional leave.”

After getting the OK for time off from the university, where he has served a full-time professor for 13 years, he began preparing.

He worked with the Veterans Administration to make sure he could withstand the trip healthwise, and began an exercise plan with a fitness trainer at the university.

“I figured getting myself built up and in shape a little bit would help me weather any disease anyway, and it also would make it easier to do this kind of trip,” he said.

He also began looking at exactly what kind of research he would do during the trip.

“They want you to do something productive that will further the profession,” he said. “And since I do water quality work, I thought, ‘what better thing to do than to follow some water downstream and see what happens to it, see how that water changes over time?’”

He worked for months training faculty and students to take over his other research, which includes water quality research on Lake Lanier as well as heading up the predator beetle lab, a project aimed at saving hemlock trees from the harmful woolly adelgid.

In planning for the trip, he consulted with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to gather background information and gain a better understanding of the tracing dye he planned to use.

He calculated that he’d need 10 gallons of dye at a whopping $2,400. And he bought a new canoe — a 17-foot, 2-inch long Sea Wind that will carry 500 pounds, including him and his equipment.

A few people along the river agreed to receive shipments of food that Fuller will pick up along the way. He also arranged for a friend in Dahlonega to bring him more dye at some point down the river.

On Sept. 22, the adventure began.

How it works

Fuller set off on foot from Jack’s Gap at Ga. 180 and Ga. 180 spur.

At Chattahoochee Spring, he poured a carefully calculated dose of red dye into the water and then followed that specific portion of water, tracking the peak of his dye cloud.

“I’m looking at the dye cloud for the mixing characteristics of the river,” he said. “But I’m also following it so I can monitor various water quality parameters of that one mass of water as it moves down the system.”

He takes measurements from the boat, looking to document where the quality of that water changes.

To track his dye cloud, he uses a device called a fluorometer, loaned by the EPD, to detect the dye once it has become diluted. The dye becomes visible again under that fluorescent light.

Once the water reaches a reservoir like Lake Lanier, Fuller takes a break, only to start over again with more dye below the reservoir.

So far, he’s found that the water coming out of Helen looks fairly clean. Where the Chattahoochee and Soque rivers mix, the Soque carries more dissolved material and less dissolved oxygen.

“I’ll collect all this data when I’m back in December. I’ll start doing the number crunching and try to figure out what it all means,” he said. “And I hope there will be a couple of publishable pieces of data out of this.”

He’s also added a couple of other projects onto the trip.

He’ll look at how the water disperses, when he has time, as a favor to the EPD. For that, he must watch the entire dye cloud pass him. The data then helps the EPD understand what would happen if there were some sort of pollutant spilled into the river — how it would disperse and how far downriver it would still be considered dangerous.  It’s extra time, but valuable data, he said.

Fuller performed that measurement near Smith Island, north of Buck Shoals State Park, watching the water move past him for much of the day.

“And then I had to go catch my dye cloud because now it’s six hours downriver from me,” he said. “So paddle, paddle, paddle like a madman to try to catch up with it and get back ahead of it.”

He said he’ll try to take that measurement at least once per free flowing section of the river.

He’s also collecting water samples for the EPD to analyze for biochemical oxygen demand, a measurement of the material that will consume oxygen, a resource crucial for organisms living in the water.

Traveling the river

It’s not all science on the river, though.

Since he’s chosen to travel by canoe, Fuller also is camping along the shore.

Timing on the trip is difficult, and with little idea of where he might end the trip on any particular day, he has not planned exactly where he will camp.

So far, he’s gotten permission to camp at Smith Island and at Buck Shoals State Park, which is closed.

Meals are composed of anything that can be combined with hot water from his small camp stove to create something edible — oatmeal for breakfast, freeze-dried meals for dinner.

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but Fuller said he enjoys it.

“Just paddling, being able to sit there and paddle hard for nine hours a day at my age — it’s very satisfying,” he said.

He has encountered a bald eagle, dozens of wild turkeys and a highlight of the trip so far — a bunch of monarch butterflies that flew overhead as he paddled across Lake Lanier, a good omen in Fuller’s mind as the monarch is the emblem used on his brand of canoe.

He’s also made a few human friends along the way, one who helped him through a rough part of the river.

“Having Jerry Taylor ... come out, seeing me struggling in some nearly dry rapids and offering to help was fantastic,” Fuller said. “And then he invited me into his home and fixed me coffee and just was a great new friend that I met on the river.”

Fuller is not entirely leaving old friends behind. He’s traveling with an iPhone, iPad and a large battery charger. With those devices, he can update his blog of the trip and keep in touch with his wife, Kathy, and others.

“We miss each other. We call each other. I’ve been calling her two or three times a day,” Fuller said.

He hopes to reach the Gulf in about a month and after traveling back up the Etowah river system, be home in time for Christmas.

It’s a lot of work. But Fuller calls that work fun.

“We have a great country, and so many people have built this country up to the point that it’s really not hard to make a living,” Fuller said. “To me, the challenge is doing something that you just thoroughly enjoy doing and getting other people to pay you to do it. And I think I’ve been pretty successful at that.

“I’m 64 years old and having the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.”

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