The River Warrior

Robert Fuller, living with cancer, thumbs his nose at life’s curveballs and canoes 1,503 miles from Dahlonega to the Gulf of Mexico — and back again


DAHLONEGA — The journey began quietly, the scuff of Kevlar against soil, the swish of water below. Robert Fuller’s new canoe slid into the Chattahoochee’s currents. It picked up speed and soon vanished in a bend just below Helen, the September sun winking through the hardwoods.

The journey ended five months later on a louder note, with scores of people cheering as the canoe — battered now, and filthy — came ashore on a beach on the Etowah River near Dahlonega.

From the Chattahoochee to the Etowah, the 1,503-mile excursion took the lone paddler downstream to Florida, west to Alabama and back upstream in a succession of rivers, concluding at a friend’s riverfront home. Along the way Fuller, a professor of geoscience at the University of North Georgia, conducted numerous water-quality surveys. He also chronicled his trip on a blog written on his iPhone as he traveled.

His trip may be unprecedented. The Georgia River Network, a nonprofit that safeguards Georgia streams, has no record of anyone completing such a circuit.

Small wonder. Fuller dealt with infection, hunger, exhaustion, the threat of hypothermia. He lost 30 pounds. Just days from completing his trip, Fuller faced the real possibility of drowning in a flooded river filled with logs and other debris.

“I tell you, this trip took every ounce of strength I had,” he said.

And he’d do it all over. In heading downriver and returning, Fuller, 64, fulfilled a life dream.

“A friend asked me if I had fun,” said Fuller. “I’d guess it comes under the heading of ‘deeply satisfying.’ It was the trip of a lifetime.”

Life-changing, too. In his watery sojourn, Fuller confronted his own fears — the fear of failure, of drowning, of not completing what he started. He returned with a renewed belief in the inherent good that exists in most of us.

He came away knowing he is greater than a disease that will never go away.

 

2
Adventure-prone
He’d always liked water. When Robert and his big brother, Buck, were growing up just north of St. Petersburg, Fla., in the late 1950s and 1960s, they spent untold hours on Tampa Bay. They bought used mullet boats from fishermen who no longer trusted their leaky crafts.

“It was mostly about adventure, poling about in the bay.”

Further adventures took young Robert to Clearwater Beach, where a billboard caught his attention: “The Marine Corps Builds Men.” Robert figured he needed building. In 1966, a few weeks after graduating from Largo High School, he shipped off to Parris Island, S.C., for Marine Corps basic training. A year later, he was in Vietnam, where a young man got an age-old lesson about mortality.

He was at Con Thien, on the demilitarized zone where South and North Vietnam shared an uneasy border. He was running a radio relay station and was an irresistible target to a North Vietnamese gunner. Boom! At his feet landed a 75 mm shell — remarkably, a dud.

Forty-five years later, the memory still gives Fuller pause. “Life is finite,” he said. “I’ve known that since I was 19.”

Fuller returned from Vietnam and entered Georgia Tech with plans to become an aerospace engineer; flight fascinated him.

So did Kathy Crawford, an 18-year-old architecture student from Hampton. They married in 1970, the young bride’s mother convinced the union wouldn’t last.

They dropped out of Tech when money got tight and moved to Florida. The newlyweds bought a single-wide trailer and put it on a pine- and palmetto-dotted tract belonging to

Fuller’s mom and dad. The young groom was a diver for a firm that built seawalls and laid underwater cable; his bride worked with an accountant.

In 1974, Robert graduated from the University of South Florida with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering. The Fullers returned to Atlanta the next year.

A succession of jobs followed for Fuller: construction manager, engineer, dad. In 1980, their son, Alex, was born; daughter Erin came along two years later. He also got his commercial pilot’s license and established an aerial photography company. It was good work, paid good money.

In 1985, the Fullers bought 126 acres about 10 miles east of Dahlonega. They moved into a tired old ranch house on the site, with plans to build something better. Those plans bore fruit in 1996, when they moved into a two-story, post-and-beam structure Kathy designed. It is a handsome place, lots of wood and glass, with a rock fireplace that stops conversation.

And it was in that home that another bombshell, this one metaphoric, landed at his feet.

It came in early fall 2010, signaled by a telephone’s ring. On the other end was a doctor from the Veterans Administration. He had compiled a local registry of veterans exposed to Agent Orange, which had been linked to cancer. Fuller was on that list; the military had used the defoliant extensively while he was in Vietnam. The doctor wasted little time. Tests, he said, showed “trends” in Fuller’s blood stream. Could he come to the VA for more tests?

Follow-up tests left no doubt. He had chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL. It’s a form of cancer in which some lymphocytes, or white blood cells, become deformed. They overwhelm the healthy cells, which makes the patient susceptible to infection or other forms of cancer.

For someone who’d lived fearlessly — who’d flown over a war zone, who’d dived in the black depths of Georgia lakes, who’d prowled jungles — the news was hard to accept.
“It really upset me for a few hours,” he said.

While there is no such thing as a good cancer, some forms are less unwelcome than others. Leukemia, Fuller learned, can move slowly; a sufferer might succumb to some other infirmity before the cancer got him.

“I told myself, ‘What I need to do is get busy with the business of living,’” he said. “It was a turning point; it helped me focus on what I want to do.”

That brings us back to that sunny morning of Sept. 23.


3
Southward bound
Kathy Fuller kissed her husband goodbye and watched his 17-foot canoe, dazzling white, bob in the Chattahoochee’s currents. Inside it was 350 pounds of equipment, including 10 gallons of red fluorescent dye. Fuller’s plan: periodically inject dye into the river and trace its progress with a hand-held fluorometer, which scientists at the state Department of Natural Resources let him borrow. He’d take samples and, later, study the water’s quality.

Kathy Fuller pondered other possibilities. What if a gator got her husband? Suppose he got sick? Drowned? Standing on the river’s edge, Kathy pushed away her worries. She would wait for his calls.

The first day on the river was a treasure, golden and warm. The canoe passed silently through shadow and sunlight. That night, he slept on an island that belongs to Gov. Nathan Deal, whose daughter, Katie, gave the OK.

“I haven’t measured, but I think I paddled about 12 miles today,” he wrote.

Fuller slept 10 hours that first night. The next morning, he shoved off again, the world full of promise and mystery.

He fell into a routine: paddling, dropping dye and collecting samples, paddling again.

When he entered Lake Lanier, Fuller “paddled like mad” to cross it before dark. He didn’t make it and stopped at a lake campground, taking a few days from traveling to tend to other business. It was one of just a few breaks he’d take in his sojourn.

Canoeing is sweaty work, Fuller wrote in an early-October blog entry. Near Morgan Falls, he took an “inside the pants” bath:

“It may look a bit strange when one is washing inside the pants,” he wrote, “but probably less traumatized to someone than seeing a naked old man in the river.”

Also at Morgan Falls, Fuller scratched his right leg and big toe while dragging his canoe out of the river. He scrubbed it hard, then moved on. At the time, it didn’t earn a mention in his blog — but would, a month later.

He met helpful strangers along the way. Just below Atlanta, Fuller cracked his paddle on a boulder. A man named Don gave Fuller a ride to a Home Depot; epoxy for the paddle, a Snicker’s bar for the paddler.

A few days later, near Whitesburg, Fuller was trudging along a highway headed for the nearest store. A pickup truck slowed, then stopped. “Hey,” said the driver, “I saw you paddle past my house and thought you might need a ride somewhere.”

The land offered gifts around every river bend. He saw herds of wild boar, rooting under leafy canopies. He surprised deer lapping at the river’s edge. One night, sitting in his dark tent, Fuller heard visitors: Slap! Slap! — beavers, whapping their flat tails on the water, a territorial warning to their two-legged interloper.

He made good time. “I saw the first Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) and the first palm trees,” he wrote on Oct. 18. “... The Spanish moss, more than the palms, made me feel like the Gulf coast is not that far away.”

On Oct. 31, Fuller passed into a lock at the southern end of Lake Seminole. When it opened, he paddled onto the Apalachicola River, and into Florida. Helen, which he’d left five weeks earlier, was more than 400 miles behind.

Things would have been perfect, but for a building pain in his right knee.

On Nov. 3, Fuller beached his canoe on a sandbar on the Apalachicola. He was feverish, shaking, his knee joint aching. He built a fire, trying to keep warm.

Charlie Pettis smelled its smoke. He’s a north Florida boy, raised in and around Wewahitchka, where he still lives, and knows the land, the big river that splits it. He stepped off his houseboat, a base of operations for the next day’s hunting, and took a seat in his aluminum skiff. He headed downstream to investigate.

Pettis traveled as far as the sandbar, where he saw a tent, the canoe and Fuller. Fuller, he saw, was heading into a stand of trees, so Pettis waved. He gunned the boat and was gone, trailing a watery V.

The next morning, Pettis was on his houseboat, fixing breakfast, when the guy in the canoe paddled past. The stranger slowed. Could Pettis direct him to the nearest medical clinic? Pettis invited the traveler on board, where he learned the man’s story.

“Shoot,” said Pettis, “I ain’t staying on the houseboat. You stay here.”

After nights in a small tent, sleeping on the ground, Pettis’ 32-foot boat was a floating palace. Fuller didn’t argue.

On Nov. 6, Pettis loaded his feverish patient into his boat, then his truck, and took Fuller to Wewahitchka’s medical clinic.

The next day, fortified with antibiotics, Fuller resumed his trip. “Charlie Pettis,” he said, “is now a good friend of mine.”

Fuller reached Apalachicola the next day, where his anxious wife met him. They spent four days relaxing — Fuller with a new-found appreciation for hot water and cooked meals, his wife relieved that he was in one piece.

The interlude, Fuller wrote, was “relaxing, rejuvenating, romantic and healing.”

“It was truly a glorious weekend,” his wife responded on his blog, “and I will miss you terribly.”

On Nov. 12, Fuller entered the Gulf of Mexico, hugging the shoreline in a westward run toward Mobile, 200 or so miles away. When the wind was right, he rigged a sail to his canoe and steered with his feet, reading a James Patterson thriller as the land slipped past.

Nearing Mobile, Fuller came across a pod of dolphins. Gray-backed and grinning, they rolled in the water. They grew closer, as if playing a game. One surfaced at the bow. Whap! The creature smacked the canoe and dove. In an instant the pod was gone.

“They reminded me of a bunch of teen-aged boys playing ‘I Dare You,’” said Fuller. “It was one of the funniest and most magical moments of the entire trip.”

But the trip was about to change. Paddling downstream is one thing. But going the other way?


4
Upstream battle
On Nov. 26, at Mobile Bay, Fuller pointed his boat north, paddling against the flow. “This last phase will probably be the toughest, but I feel like I’m up to the challenge,” he wrote. “We shall see.”

It didn’t take long for him to see what lay ahead. “I am tired, sore, hungry (skipped lunch), but pleased with how well the day went,” he said two days after heading north, into the Alabama River.

Paddling upriver is a skill. The wise boater learns to paddle near the edges, where the current isn’t as fast, and to use eddies, whirling pools of water, to hurl the craft forward. Even so, it’s hard work.

Fuller managed to find time to appreciate his surroundings, despite wind and current. “The sky is beautifully clear,” he wrote on Dec. 6, a frigid Alabama night, “which makes the stars seem suspended in perfectly clear liquid.”

Three days later, at Selma, Fuller took a quick break to visit the Edmund Pettis Bridge, scene of the 1965 Bloody Sunday confrontation between police and civil rights marchers. “As I walked across the bridge, I could feel some of the fear and resolve that those marchers must have had,” he wrote. “Their courage and restraint still amaze me.”

On Dec. 15, Fuller took a two-week break to spend Christmas with his family. His daughter, Erin, picked him up near Montgomery, before Fuller entered the Coosa River, whose headwaters are in Rome. They returned to Lumpkin County, where Fuller rested and readied for the last leg.

It began Dec. 29. Fuller struggled against a river that seemed intent on pushing him back to Florida as the land rose and the water moved faster. Some mornings he awoke to see icicles hanging from trees framing his tent. Even paddling hard, and keeping his body temperature warm, his hands and feet got numb.

“I thought I’d be home quicker,” he said. “But I hadn’t counted on the floods.”

Rain came hard to North Georgia. It cascaded down hillsides and into creeks. The creeks uprooted small trees and yanked big logs from the forest floor. Some boiled into the Coosa, turning it into a hazardous waterway.

On Jan. 15, with the daylight fading, Fuller tried to make shore, where a man on a boat ramp waited to help him secure the canoe. Logs and limbs whipped past in the current. He persisted, guiding the canoe past things that went thump in the dark, until he reached the ramp. That night, he stayed in a motel.

“The last two hours that I was on the river were tougher than any I have ever endured,” he wrote.

On Jan. 19, he entered the Etowah. Home was about 140 miles upriver.

He crossed Lake Allatoona in one day. Then the going got progressively worse.

On a day with temperatures hovering in the 20s, Fuller broke his paddle — this time, for good. He had to use a kayak paddle, which splashed water into his canoe. That night, cold and disconsolate, he called his wife from a frosty campsite. “If somebody comes here and tells me to leave because it’s private property,” he told her, “I’m just going to tell them to arrest me.”

No one told him to beat it. Three days later, a new paddle in hand, Fuller made his final push toward home.

It was tough. On Feb. 8, Fuller totaled three days of traveling: slightly more than 35 miles. Heading downriver, he’d occasionally gone that far in one day.

“As I approach the river’s headwaters, the river gets steeper and steeper, and the paddling gets tougher,” he wrote. “I haven’t counted, but I think that I’ve averaged having to get out of the boat seven or eight times per day these last three days.”

The next day, he got out of the canoe 15 times, dragging it up rapids and past obstructions.

On Feb. 13, with the sky threatening rain, Fuller came around a bend and a roar greeted him. Standing in the yard at the riverfront home of Elvin and Nancy Hilyer were academics, friends and colleagues who’d followed Fuller’s journey. They held glasses of wine and cameras.

The journey ended as it began, with a scuff of canoe, the swish of water. Kathy Fuller greeted her husband with a kiss. Daughter Erin planted a smooch on him, too.

And then everyone fell in with congratulations and best wishes. One was Bonita Jacobs, the university president who had OK’d his request for the floating sabbatical.

“You know, Robert,” she told the professor, “somebody should have told you it’s easier to paddle downstream than upstream.”

Fuller has yet to fully analyze his samples, which he hopes will help improve water quality in the river that serves Georgians, Floridians and Alabamans. But that’s in the future. For now, he’s appreciating his wife, his life.

“Good luck has followed me all my life,” he said. “It still does, I guess.”

Fuller has always followed adventure, too. The little boy who poled around Tampa Bay has merely grown older, not necessarily up. He’s planning more trips, but that’s another story for another time.

This one, like Fuller’s journey, has come to an end.

 

HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Since we launched Personal Journeys last year, I’ve encouraged AJC readers to send us ideas about people in our community whose lives we should feature. The story of Robert Fuller landed in my inbox in February, just as Fuller was paddling the last of his 1,500-mile journey. AJC reporter Mark Davis followed up and agreed that Fuller’s river float had Personal Journey written all over it. Davis spent time with Fuller to recapture the highs and lows of his trip, and immersed himself in Fuller’s blog, which chronicled his experiences. Davis also interviewed some of the characters Fuller met along the way. The result is today’s inspiring story about setting personal goals and persevering to reach them.

Ken Foskett
Assistant Managing Editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com

 

About the reporter

Mark Davis came to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 10 years ago after working in Philadelphia, Tampa and in his native North Carolina. A graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Davis has reported on heroes and bums, on creatures that walk, swim, crawl and fly. Once, on the sly, he touched a panda’s nose. His greatest accomplishment is a project still in the works — Reuben and Sam, the sons he shares with his wife, Sylvia.

Next week: Dante Stephensen prepares to close the door on an Atlanta landmark.


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