As long as I can remember, my father has subscribed to National Geographic. The vibrant images and exotic locales were tantalizing and mysterious to my curious little eyes. Naked Africans in handmade beads carrying wide-eyed babies, marine life with delicate bodies flowing like lace through bright blue waters, and glacier lakes so cold that I could imagine my warm breath before me in the air are only a few of the images embedded in my mind. I grew into a free spirit yearning to live a life of adventure. But like many who entertain such thoughts, fear set in. Questions bombarded my brain—some legitimate concerns, others just needless worry. How would I support myself? Where would I sleep? As life grew more complicated, I longed to pack my bags and hit the road—just me, my truck, and my dog, consequences be damned. But the voice of reason always stepped in, reminding me of my financial responsibilities and renewing my fear. I have even gone so far as to assign this dilemma to a freshman writing class: If you had to work for financial gain or for happiness, which would you choose and why? I had hoped for some enlightenment but their answers were no different than my own.
I still want to know—how? How do we cut the ties and take the plunge? I turn to Fennel Blythe, a Chattanooga entrepreneur and lifelong adventurer, for the answers.
“Don’t be afraid and stay true to your passion,” Fennel tells me. It’s a simple philosophy that boils down to, “follow your heart.” As all adventurers know, following your heart can lead you down many roads with many dead ends. Rather than succumb to discouragement when faced with roadblocks, Fennel continued to move forward.
Growing up on the family farm in north Alabama, Fennel often visited the Gulf Coast on family trips where she spent time with her father pulling up crab traps and inspecting the marine life inside. The sound of the waves and the smell of salt in the air played a big role in Fennel’s future studies. She would go on to get a master’s degree in marine biology. But something unexpected happened. In her last quarter of school, she took a drawing class, just to give her mind a break from all those hours working on her thesis.
“It was a huge revelation to see that I could draw,” she says now. “It gave me a new perspective on everything.” That new perspective was the catalyst needed to set Fennel’s wheels in motion.
She worked and traveled, surveying birds in Mississippi, signing on as a seasonal botanist in California. She made her way to Sweden and Italy, and served in the Peace Corps in Fiji. While living in Portland, Oregon, a back injury Fennel had sustained as a teenager suddenly resurfaced. Fennel returned to Alabama and later that year had spinal fusion surgery. The surgery was intense, the recovery difficult.
“I had another epiphany,” Fennel says. “It was time to develop my artistic side.” She went to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque to concentrate on painting and drawing. The years spent regaining mobility and earning a bachelor’s degree in fine art were pivotal in Fennel’s life. Her battle to find a new center of balance, to reshape herself from biologist to artist, were perhaps the toughest years of her life.
Fennel moved to Chattanooga in 2011, close enough to the family farm that she could help manage the finances. After renting a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) for the first time, she was hooked. In 2012, she entered her first SUP race during the RiverRocks Festival. The next year she purchased her first race board. And in 2013, after a trip to California to study under master shaper Ron House and surfboard artist Drew Brophy, she opened the doors to her repair and shaping shop. As usual, Fennel had gone around the roadblocks that hold the rest of us back and forged ahead.
Selling her interest in the family farm to open a SUP repair and custom art shop wasn’t easy, but Fennel decided Chattanooga was the place to put down roots.
“I would have more security had I chosen a more stable career path,” she says. “But I’m grateful that I was a risk taker and adventurous person. I don’t know how else to live, really.”
There is much more on the menu than SUP repair. Her passion truly lies in the marine-inspired artwork that is commissioned to adorn a customer’s board or living room wall. Knowledge of marine life paired with a love for art defines the core of Fennel’s work. Her one-of-a-kind artwork is her way of sharing the world that her father helped open up to her as child. Fennel’s board repair and artwork have evolved into custom-built boards and custom paint. Her travels are now an effort to hone her skills, meet new people in the SUP community, make a name for herself as a female SUP builder, and keep the adventure wheels turning.
Following my visit with Fennel, my own wheels are turning. At home, the National Geographic coffee table books are stacked so high they are spilling over. My eyes brush over the titles. 100 Years of Adventure and Discovery and Images of the World speak of the courage to get out and explore places near and far, bountiful and desolate. As I mull over my state of arrested development, I step to the window, still thinking about Fennel. The last time I saw her, she was loading her board and heading to the water. Outside, I can see the orange plastic of my kayak, collecting dust.
I look at the books, then back outside to my kayak. What am I waiting on?
Sometimes it helps simply knowing that Fennel is out there, paddling steadily forward.
Where does Fennel Blythe like to paddle around Chattanooga? During the warm months she can be found almost daily on the water near downtown Chattanooga leading fitness and social outings, but the Tennessee River gorge (home to the annual Chattajack 31 mile race) is her favorite. She also recommends the easy launch at the Riverwalk at South Chickamauga Creek, which gives options for both protected water and river miles for more advanced paddlers.
To see more of Fennel’s work including saltwater and board art, visit www.fennelblythe.com.