SUP the State: How One Man Paddleboards Through Tennessee
7 days. 392 miles. 3 rivers. 4 dams to portage. 1 state.
When Randy Whorton started SUP the State seven years ago, it was to bring awareness to the sport. To this day there aren’t many who would attempt a solo paddle board expedition of this magnitude, particularly with his set up. Every year he paddleboards his 10-year-old BOTE Gonzo, hoisting it over shallow sections and wheeling it a half-mile around dams.
But Whorton isn’t your typical athlete. As an ultramarathon trail runner, he’s completed 145 races that are marathon distance or longer, the majority with his wife, Kris. The two have completed trail races across the country and throughout Europe, with some races taking up to 35 hours to complete. They don’t sleep, and their only stops are to fill up water bottles and gorge themselves at aid stations.
“Your body’s telling you to stop but you still want to keep going; your stomach is shutting down, you’re too hot, then you’re too cold,” he says. “You live almost an entire life of emotions in one day. That’s why Kris and I always do them together.”
True to his extreme nature, Randy’s first experience with paddleboards wasn’t leisurely. It was a trip down the Hiwassee River over Class I and II rapids. There was some blood shed and a hurt shoulder and knee, but Whorton was still hooked. Shortly after he was introduced to Mark Baldwin, owner of BOTE Chattanooga. Pretty soon they were out on their paddleboards two to three times a week.
The idea for SUP the State was born a few years later. At the time Kris was nursing a back injury, and the two were taking a break from ultras. He was looking for something epic to attempt, this time going solo.
“The idea was to paddle the entire Tennessee River, but some friends convinced me to add in the Powell and Clinch Rivers,” he recalls. “They’re really the most pristine waterways in this part of the country.”
SUP the State bisects eastern Tennessee, from just shy of the Kentucky border to within a couple of blocks of the Alabama line – all by rivers and lakes. Paddleboards are a rare sight on the Powell River (actually any boat is). There are only 20 launch points on the 62 miles of river that flow through Tennessee, each so remote they’re located by GPS coordinates.
“The Powell is the best part – there’s a 20-mile section where I never see any sign of another human,” he says.
Whorton averages 40 miles each day, camping in his one-person tent by the river each night. He’s dealt with falls and sinking gear, getting lost, days of rain and wind, and even a few bruised ribs. One year he slept four days on the ground because of a hole in his sleeping pad. Even so, it’s his favorite week of the year.
Being on trails will always be Whorton’s first love. He even founded and operates a nonprofit, Wild Trails, dedicated to their preservation and promotion. But these days he says he is just as passionate about paddle boarding as he is about trail running. It’s lower impact yet high endurance, and he feels a faster connection to nature when on the water.
“There’s something about being on the water,” he says. “On SUP the State, I have more wildlife close encounters than I do all of my trail running the rest of the year. I’ve seen bobcats, deer, racoons, river otters, beaver, muskrats, bald eagles. The list goes on.”
Day 1 - Powell River
Day 2 - Powell River to Norris Dam
Day 3 - Clinch River
Day 4 - Clinch River to Watts Bar Lake
Day 5 - Watts Bar Dam
Day 6 - Chickamauga Lake
Day 7 - Tennessee River
While we appreciate Whorton’s loyalty to the Gonzo, newer paddleboards offer features that make expedition paddling easier (relatively speaking). The Traveller and Traveller Aero paddleboards retain the sleek, racing-style body for crushing 40+ miles a day but are lightweight enough to easily portage shallow streams. The benefit of the Aero version is of course portability – you could roll it up and carry as a backpack when hiking around dams. A KULA tied down would also double as a seat for when your legs need a break. Beyond that, an expedition packing list is bare-bone minimalism at its finest. Here’s what Whorton usually takes:
- Waterproof backpack
- Carrying system (Whorton uses wheels but the Traveller and Traveller Aero include the Travelink carrying strap)
- Tent, sleeping mat and ultra light sleeping bag
- Cinch straps for securing gear
- Waterproof box for phone, keys, and any other dry essential
- Repair kit
- Waterproof camera and GoPro
- Solar panel to recharge
- 2+ battery chargers
- Rain gear
- Wide brimmed hat, sun shirt and sun gloves
- Water and food (usually freeze dried or Tasty Bites packs)
I do multiple back-to-back big days, like Chickamauga to Nickajack Dams (42 miles). I’ll also do what I call the Five Star 50. The third big loop I do is a 65-mile upriver from Chickamauga Dam to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge and back. I do a lot of upriver paddling because it’s slightly harder work and teaches me a different way to read the river, as well as the importance of eddies.