If you ask freshman Job Dooley to describe his summer, he may need to draw you a map.
Four days after graduating from high school in Franklin, Tennessee, Dooley and two hometown buddies—Luke Saulters and Jonah Albert, both now freshmen at Mississippi State University—began a 30-day, 800-mile canoe adventure that took them from the Cumberland River just downstream from Nashville to Dauphin Island in the Gulf of Mexico.
They traversed several rivers and lakes, navigated 13 dams, weathered storms, avoided alligators, and paddled up to 24 hours straight at one point.
“It seemed like a fun challenge, and it was probably the only time in our lives that we could go on a trip like this,” Dooley said.
Dooley is part of UT’s Class of 2023, starting classes this week. He’s majoring in mechanical engineering but aspires to go to law school and become a patent attorney.
“I chose UT because both of my older siblings went here and loved it,” he said. “My brother just graduated and got a great job as an accountant. My sister will be a senior studying communications and has been successful getting internships because of UT.
“I also really like the culture at Tennessee,” he said. “Everyone has been very nice and helpful. Plus UT has a very highly rated engineering college . . . and big-time football.”
Aside from a three-day, 80-mile canoe trip last summer, Dooley and his friends had minimal boating experience. Their parents were wary of the trip idea at first but acquiesced after the guys agreed to plan extensively for potential problems.
The trio mapped out their journey, checked in with Coast Guard and US Army Corps of Engineers, and plotted potential campsites along the way.
“Although we were pretty annoyed that our parents made us do so much planning, in the end we were glad,” Dooley said. “The extensive preparation gave us confidence.”
Their craft consisted of two 17-foot aluminum canoes connected like a catamaran with aluminum tubing and bolts.
“My dad and I came up with a design, and I drew up an AutoCAD sketch in my architecture class,” Dooley said.
The guys set sail May 29 on the Cumberland River, just past Cheatham Dam. They followed the river into Lake Barkley, through a canal, and into Kentucky Lake.
“Originally, we planned to take the Mississippi River to the Gulf, but because of massive flooding we decided to change our route,” Dooley said.
Instead, they took the Tombigbee Waterway, paddled upstream on Kentucky Lake, and followed the Tennessee River for 182 miles. They passed through Pickwick Dam to Yellow Creek, then headed downstream to the Gulf of Mexico.
“Once we got to Mobile, we entered Mobile Bay and paddled 30 miles across the bay to Dauphin Island.”
On a typical day, the guys got up around 4 a.m., ate breakfast, and paddled until 7 or 8 p.m. Then they’d look for a campsite, preferably one with bathrooms and showers.
“But sometimes we just tried to find places where we were not trespassing on someone’s property,” Dooley said. They’d pitch a tent or hang their hammocks. “One night we camped at an abandoned marina, one night we camped on the side of a cliff, and one night a fisherman let us stay in his trailer.”
They ate soup, ramen noodles, and fruit, and they toted a cooler filled with lunch meat and cheese. They carried 28 gallons of water—enough to last three or four days at a stretch.
Their parents tracked them via GPS and met up with them every four to seven days to restock their food supply. One parent kept a blog; the guys posted photos on Instagram.
Once their canoes were swamped by a larger craft on a narrow stretch of river.
“Bigger boats are supposed to slow down when passing smaller crafts, but either they did not see us or they just did not care,” Dooley said. “Jonah and I swam around and grabbed all of our gear and brought it to shore. Luke swam the boats to shore and we spent the next hour scooping water out of the boats.”
They also experienced some bad weather.
“A couple of times we paddled through the night to avoid storms. One day we paddled for 24 hours straight,” Dooley said. “But most of the time we actually welcomed the rain, because it cooled everything off and it brought a tailwind.”
The worst storm came on their last night.
“We were camping on a beach in Mobile Bay and had to run for shelter under someone’s house,” Dooley said. “Jonah and I forgot to grab our shoes when we left camp, so we got some pretty bad cuts on our feet from the rocks.”
Crossing Mobile Bay the next day, “the waves were pretty big, and it was very intimidating being on such a large waterway in such a small craft. Two fisherman had died the day before after a wave knock them off of their boat.”
The adventurers’ parents met them at the end of their journey on June 29.
Although the canoe odyssey wasn’t traditional college prep, Dooley said the trip was an unforgettable experience that provided him with some great stories to tell, a better understanding of what it’s like to be on his own, and a true appreciation for the kindness and generosity of others.
Amy Blakely (email@example.com, 865-974-5034)