Each episode of Tennessee Uncharted documents the experiences of Erick and his crew across the State of Tennessee. This is the full text of the short story that resulted from their adventures around East Tennessee.

When you think of East TN, the first thing that most folks think of is the mountains, and while the grand views and vistas of this area are certainly spectacular, the rivers and lakes running through them are quite grand as well. Actually, with as many waterways as East TN has to enjoy, folks around here often get caught in the wake of having too many choices. There are rivers, lakes, and streams galore, and whether you’re a boater, paddler, swimmer, skier, fisherman, or more, TN’s many waterways definitely have something for you.

I am a firm believer in the quote that says, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that every day is going to feel like a vacation, but to me, it does mean that the sum of your days will add up to something with a worth that can’t be counted in dollars and cents. But what if you could not only make a living doing something you love, but make a difference as well? To answer that question, we’re jumping into the wonderful world of water, taking at look at a few of its rising sports, the people who love them, and the efforts that make them possible, hoping to learn more about a diverse community of passionate people who know what it means to play with a purpose.

I believe that there are two kinds of people…beach people and boat people, and I’ve always considered myself more of a beach guy. But with the closest ocean nearly half a day’s drive away, the rivers and lakes of TN have slowly started to wind their way into my heart. But while a day on the lake beats a day at work anytime, I’ve never actually considered owning my own boat… that is, until today.

In today's’ modern day manufacturing world of mechanical assembly lines and robots…it’s often hard to find a heartbeat on the floors of many factories. But here at Malibu, these boats are made with heart, customized until you can almost literally see the thumbprints of the hands that crafted them. But I also see that it’s not just about the boat. It’s about the experience. Malibu isn’t just making a beautiful boat, they’re creating community, connecting people, and crafting a platform for folks to build memories on for many years to come.

Until now, the closest I’ve come to being a part of that community is the handful of times I’ve captained our old johnboat. You know the type—the kind where even with all 25 horses of its Johnson motor propelling you from behind, you’re hard pressed to push through a stiff wind. Needless to say, I’ve never driven a boat quite like this. Before I got behind the wheel, I was tired, distracted, stressed, and if I’m honest, ready to get home, but cruisin’ across the water, concentrating on just the controls at hand, this boat literally blew all of my worries away.

As the morning sun rises and moves its way across the water, boat life is beginning to look better and better, and after getting behind the wheel at Malibu, today I feel inspired to get behind the boat.

I was raised on water skiing and tubing, so when I think of watersports, most of my memories are of water shooting up places it shouldn’t. But today we’re leaving the skis at home and taking a look at a new wave in watersports you may not know about.

Meet 17-year-old Raya Walker, wakeboarding since age 4, and traveling the country competing in water sports since age 5, this is a girl who has truly been raised on the water, and she’s one of the best female wake surfers in the world.

That’s right folks, you heard me, wake surfer… Today, the tides have turned all the way to TN.

Raya is humble and very gracious, but let me tell you, she’s a quiet storm. She’s a fierce competitor but it’s clear to see that a lot more than just winning titles drives her. It’s the love for her family and a love for the water that brings her family together.

I’ve never really been that wild about watersports, but wake surfing is different. I enjoyed it so much more than I thought I would. There’s something that feels more natural about it. More directly connected to the water itself, and it’s definitely a wave I can see myself riding for many years to come.

While most of us don’t have the agility to make it as a pro athlete, our professions still provide us with a platform for pursuing our passions. With this in mind, I’ve drifted over to UT to hook up with a group of paddlers pioneering a means of mapping remote waterways in the name of conservation and research.

The reality is that we have an impact on our environment. So the more we can understand that impact, the better able we are to adapt and change in order to keep our waterways healthy. By engineering a method of collecting data on the health of our waterways that is both cost-effective and compact, students are stepping up to ensure that even our smallest streams are sustained for years to come.

Today I got to see firsthand how this new technology works, but also how a love for the water can not only help get you out of class but help the environment as well.

The truth of the matter is the impact we have on our environment creates far too many ripples for just one group of students to set right. Luckily, at a lake nearby, two state agencies are busy collaborating to engineer innovative approaches to managing our environment, effectively molding our State’s reservoirs into better places to play. They’ve invited me to stop by and jump in on all the action, promising that we’ll have a real ball… or something along those lines.

As East TN’s reservoirs age, they slowly lose the natural woody debris that serves as a refuge and spawning habitat for fish. “Reef Balls” are a new process that’s part of TWRA’s fish attractor program, established to introduce artificial and natural structures back into these aging reservoirs. A wide variety of fish attractors has been used over the years. However, most of them only work well for a short time, and must continually be refurbished. But by the looks of it, these reef balls are a concrete plan to provide homes for lots of fish for a very long time.

It’s often the worst of times that bring the best out of people. Hard times can either pull people apart or in this case, pull them together.

Today I’m pitching in at Pull for Nick to help the wakeboard community of East TN come together in loving memory of their dear friend Nick Jarvis and to raise awareness for melanoma.

Once I saw the ramps in the water, I made the heart “winching” decision to rope in my wild ambitions and save my shenanigans for the folks on shore this season. So, instead, I left the pond to the pros, who not only pulled off an incredible event but pulled out all the stops as well.

Today was an inspiration. This community rallied around the sport and the water that brought them together. Instead of focusing on the time that they won’t have with Nick, today was about celebrating and being healed by the time that they did have. With the proceeds going to support Nick’s family, as well as melanoma research, today these wakeboarders were able to ride with a cause, giving back to a friend through a sport that has given them all so much.

Trying to stay afloat, we’re often caught choosing our paycheck over our passion. For me, this episode is proof that you can make a living doing something you love, but more than just making ends meet…You can make a difference.

Riding along with these families and friends, I now see the power of pruned fingers, and what life on the water has shown me is that our passions truly can serve the world. Whether it’s for family, remembrance, awareness, or health, there’s just something beautiful about playing with a purpose. 

None of us know how many days we’ll have out on the water or when the last drop of life will finally fall. For me, the last few days have not only widened my view of the water, but washed away some of those skewed notions we have of how we’re supposed to spend our time, because whether it’s out on the boat or in the backyard, I plan on loving what I do and who I’m with all the way down to the last drop.