By Catherine Godbey
The Decatur Daily
Twenty mph winds slashed through the Tennessee Rivers, whipping up waves and rocking the Riverwalk Marina dock.
Kneeling on the wooden planks, Sean Miller gingerly slipped the yellow 10-foot-long paddleboard into the turbulent water.
“I purposefully set up obstacles. I want to practice when the winds are really forceful, when it’s pouring down rain and when it is cold because I want to built up my mental strength. I need to know I can overcome anything when I’m doing this for real,” Miller said.
“For real” begins May 11 when Miller, armed with a paddle board, oar and camel pack filled with snacks and gels, will set off on a 250-mile journey along the Tennessee River from Chattanooga to Pickwick Lake in Florence.
He will paddle past the forests along the river bank, the bass and endangered Alabama cavefish. He will paddle past fishermen, boaters and picnickers. He will paddle past factories emitting plumes of smoke, discarded Styrofoam containers and plastic bags.
Powered solely by his arms and the occasional tail wind Mother Nature might provide, the Decatur man, with each stroke, hopes to raise awareness for the Tennessee River and funds for the waterway’s watchdog group.
The goal: raise $10,000 — $1 for each square mile of the river’s watershed.
Proceeds will benefit the Tennessee Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization founded by David Whiteside in 2009.
“There is no one to speak for the river and all of its species. That is what we are here for, to stand up for the river,” 34-year-old Whiteside said.
On a recent Sunday morning, after already logging in eight miles, Miller eased off the dock and straddled the board, ready for a second go-around. The waves splashed against his legs as he carefully rose to his knees.
“If I wanted to, I could sit down, kneel down or lay down on the board,” said Miller, a physical trainer and owner of Miller Fitness. “I try to remain standing during practice because that is what I will be doing during the trip.”
If Miller’s calculations hold true, he will complete the journey in 15 days at best, 21 days at worst. Tennessee Riverkeeper board of directors chairwoman Karen Thomas will join Miller, paddling alongside him in a canoe, blogging about the trip using an iPad mini and a solar panel.
“We will get up at 5:30 a.m. and paddle until about noon. Then we will get back on the water about 3 and stay out until 7,” Miller said. “The plan is to max out at 20 miles a day and do a minimum of 10 miles.”
But Mother Nature at times goes by her own agenda.
“We can’t control weather. I’ve practiced in the rain, but if it’s pouring down rain when we wake up, it might delay the start,” Miller said. “I want to enjoy the trip and really soak in the sights and sounds on this once-in-a-lifetime journey.”
It is a journey many questioned.
They told him no. They said February would be too cold. They said the March and April storms would be too rough. They said in June, July and August the heat would be too suffocating.
Not one to shy away from a challenge, Miller refused to listen to the doubters.
The physical trainer, who runs marathons, completed triathlons and played soccer in Europe, saw the journey as an adventure. His family and friends saw it as crazy.
“The general reaction I got was ‘you’re crazy.’ But that’s the response I get to many things I do, so people expect some level of craziness from me,” Miller said. “This allows me to push myself while also doing something a little different to attract attention to a worthwhile cause.”
It will be a physical and psychological test for the Florida native, who grew up on the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean, where he developed a love for the gritty feel of the sand and the squawk of the seagulls.
“I don’t know a time when the water wasn’t a part of my life,” Miller said. “In Florida, we were all about the ocean and not the river because that is where the gators lived.”
When the 32-year-old moved to Decatur in 2009 with his wife Darcie, the Tennessee River became his water playground.
From Whiteside and Thomas, Miller learned about the 652-mile river, which flows through four states and is one of the country’s most bio-diverse waterways, according to the World Wildlife Fund. And, according to environmental organizations, one of the most polluted rivers in the United States.
“Our mission is simple. We are here to protect the water. Clean water is one of the basics of life. Everyone needs clean water and it is constantly being threatened. There is no shortage of pollution,” Whiteside said.
As one of the more than 200 members of the Waterkeeper Alliance, Tennessee Riverkeeper provides education about the waterway and enforces anti-pollution laws.
By raising awareness of the river, Whiteside, Thomas and Miller continue a mission organized by Gaylord Nelson four decades ago. Enraged by the oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., the then-U.S. senator from Wisconsin led a grassroots campaign to bring publicity to air and water pollution.
On April, 22, 1970, 20 million Americans rallied for a healthy environment. On Monday, the 43rd Earth Day celebration will take place.
“This is still and always will be an ongoing battle,” Whiteside said. “We are not against businesses. Businesses are an important part of the economy. We are for a clean environment, which is also good for the economy. Fishing tournaments bring in millions of dollars.”
Miller dubbed the paddle board expedition “Stand Up for our Rivers.”
“I want to inspire others. People don’t have to paddle 250 miles, but they can do something. And they can make a difference,” Miller said. “Do something small, like volunteer to pick up the trash, but just do something.”
Catherine Godbey can be reached at 256-340-2441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.