Saturday, June 12, 2021

The ugly tale of Day #26…

Ft. Union Trading Post
I’ve started to call the Missouri River My Lady.  The days out here are so variable, unpredictable, and rarely repeat themselves.  Fantastic weather and paddling conditions can exist for a day followed by total miserable conditions which can themselves continue or immediately return to pleasant sailing.  That pretty much describes the five trip days that followed my last blog post made after I passed Wolf Point, MT.

June 8th saw a return of unfavorable winds in the form of a ENE blast that was in my face all day.  My river course that day was, of course, nearly due east with few bends in the river to give relief.  I’ve was blessed with strong current and what appears to be rising water levels from releases from the Ft. Peck dam. That has made things much easier in terms of getting caught up on sandbars or finding the main river course.  The downside is that any canoeist will tell you that to have navigation control you have to paddle faster than the current.  So wind might not sound like a problem, just ride the current but you’re still required to paddle and the blast I faced that day pretty much felt like I was clawing to make progress the entire time; 20 mph winds gusting to 40 mph with, at times, 2.5 ft. waves.

I set a goal to make the bridge at Culbertson and then camp; near the of the day I crossed under the bridge giving me a personal triumph.  Of course, the Lady likes things on her terms so she needed to remind me who was in charge in the form of a quick moving thunderstorm.  I started a search for a campsite and I needed one quick but it needed to be away from the bridge where problem human interactions could occur (like the gunshots I heard from there after setting up camp around the bend).  I rounded the first bend, noticed what looked like steep access to the embankment above and I decided to take it.  It was a bit of a haul to get my gear up the slope but I did so in several trips.  I also pulled my canoe up the nearly 10 foot bank, mainly so my location wouldn’t be seen from the river.

The site was actually a gorgeous grassy meadow and the bluff looked down the canyon that glowed golden in the evening sun.  I took a moment to soak in the view and then started to quickly set up the tent as the weather was still rolling in.  With the tent secure under a juniper tree that made a slight wind break, along with a berm of soil that I set the canoe on, I was somewhat protected. I jumped in just as the rain started and, as with many fast moving storms, this one dumped a load of rain and departed allowing me to make dinner and finish up chores for the day.  From about midnight to 2:00 a.m. the storm returned with strong winds and heavy rain but it was clear that the worst of it would pass me by so I rolled over and went back to sleep.

Rising the next morning, I was greeted by a view of smooth glass on the water and pleasant temperatures.  The Missouri River was starting the day off by being nice after yesterday’s ass whooping she gave me with the wind.  I was anxious to get back on the water so I ate the hot oatmeal portion of my breakfast and stowed the remainder to eat on the water.  I lowered the boat down the embankment and got her packed up.  Just as I was about to shove off I noticed a congregation of honeybees on the “beach” who appeared to be collecting minerals from the sand.  My beekeeper’s soul rose in joy and, after snapping a few photos, I departed onto a river that was smooth and tranquil.

That day’s float was pure heaven.  The water was perfectly calm all day and I quickly realized that the shallow sandbars that give paddlers so much grief were advertised by ripples and the deep channel by glassy calm.  I used that information for the rest of the day as I let the current do most of the work and I absorbed the landscape.

This part of the Missouri has few visitors and during my float down from Ft. Peck I encountered no more than 20 people, most of whom were in the distance and either didn’t notice me or were too far off to have a conversation.  As I was eating my morning Poptart (quick energy for paddling!), I noticed the continuing humming of insect wings.  One of the cues I use when assessing the health of my beehives is the sound frequency of their wingbeats so I was sure I was hearing honeybees.  The pleasant sound continued for the entire time I was passing the cottonwood galleries on river right.  What a delightful greeting and one that had me wondering how my hives are doing at home now that full summer has arrived.

My goal for that day was to paddle to Ft. Union National Trading Post Historical Site and arrive in time to play tourist for an hour or two.  That goal also doubled as the end of my time in Montana and the beginning of my North Dakota journey.  I arrived at the site and struggled to land my canoe as the egress was a sharp bank cut in a stand of willows.  I walked to the fort and arrived just as the interpretive staff was leaving for the day.  The fort closes at 5:00 p.m., sharp, and silly me hadn’t calculated the change from Mountain to Central time in my travel schedule.  One of the staff members let me in to fill my water jug and to look around for a few minutes.  All told, I spent about an hour at the fort but decided to continue on rather than camping across the river to be tourist the next morning.

Camp that night was a pretty little site above the confluence with the Yellowstone River with mild weather conditions and no need to put the fly on my tent.  I rose the next morning and was again anxious to get on the water.  I loaded up the boat and departed around 8:00 a.m. intending to take the next few miles slowly so I could enjoy the scene where the fabled Yellowstone meets the Missouri.  The Yellowstone is running very high this year and was pushing the Missouri waters back upstream as the two met.  For a moment I considered paddling upstream so I could brag that I’d paddled the Yellowstone.  I decided that doing so would be disrespectful to Lady Missouri so I continued on towards Williston.

That day’s paddle was another tough one as the winds returned.  My plan was to paddle my usual 9-10 hours, shoot for the Williston bridge, then search for a campsite.  By the time Williston appeared I had been buffeted around pretty good and was ready to end that day’s paddle.  I passed under the bridge, noted the shelter and campground, and decided to stick to the “don’t camp at bridges or the Williston shelter because they’re unsafe” rule.  It was a simple “looks like a rough area everyone says to avoid” decision that would magnify itself negatively over the course of the next few hours.

I had gotten a recommendation to proceed on to the American Legion Campground down river where they had vault toilets and a better facility.  My mistake was not realizing it was at river mile 1538 while the Williston bridge is at mile 1552, a difference of 14 miles or about 3 hours paddling.  On most evenings that wouldn’t be a problem, find a suitable camp and end the day.  Unfortunately, nothing about the evening of Day #26 of my trip would end up being typical.

Severe weather had been forecast for Williston, ND, and outlying areas.  As I was searching for a campsite things really started to pick up as the system moved into the area.  I realized that I’d never reach the American Legion site and that I needed to find a campsite that had some form of protection.  I paddled downstream passing a few marginal sites by until I came to an east-west ridge line that might buffer the force of the storm approaching from the south.  I landed in an area that seemed marginally suitable, spent precious minutes scouting the location, paddled to a spot I had seen that might be better, then returned to the first site and set up camp.

The first wave of the storm was strong with wind and dime sized hail but nothing too severe.  After it passed I hoped that I would be spared most of the force of the storm as it looked to be off to the east of me.  I was in my tent when wave #2 rolled in and it was a real rough one.  The wind picked up to a loud howl pushing the tent poles of my tent with such force I could barely hold them up.  Golf ball sized hail was thumping the tent fly and banging my shins as I tried to hold back the force against the tent wall with my feet.  After several intense minutes the zephyr had passed, the rain slackened, and I got out to assess the damage

.Video of the “first wave”

One tent pole was bent and there were tears in the mosquito netting but it appeared that the tent was still usable. I repitched the tent and staked it down extra tight using spare stakes in my bag.  I crawled back in and feasted on the half a dozen Cliff Bars and breakfast bars that I had tossed in thinking that a hot dinner wouldn’t happen that night.  I texted Peggy Hellandsaas from Tobacco Gardens Resort, my next major trip destination, that all was OK although the tent took a beating.  I read her “relieved to hear it” reply and set down the phone when wave #3 hit like a Mac truck.

I didn’t expect the blast I experienced and the sound was that of a thousand shrieking demons, a description that doesn’t nearly do justice.  The tent poles started to press downward and as I reached up to reinforce them the wall of the tent bulged inward with the force of the wind.  And that’s when I was picked up and thrown a dozen or so feet up the slope as the tent poles and fabric wrapped around me.  Large hail was falling and I was in the full blast of it as I pulled my Thermarest pad over my body for protection.  The onslaught continued for a few more minutes and suddenly stopped.

Whether it was a one of the tornadoes that hit the Williston area or straight line winds I’m unsure.  All I know is that I was in a flattened tent in a t-shirt and underwear (I was just about to crawl into my light sleeping bag) and I was starting to shake uncontrollably from the cold.  After I was sure it had passed and the hail had stopped, I slid from under the sleeping pad and worked my way out of the tent into the pouring rain.  It was at that point that I paused and told myself that my decisions had gotten me into the situation and that I now had to make a series of good ones to get out.

My first thought was what had my previous training as an Eagle Scout and in the wilderness first response courses taken over the years had taught me?  Number one was don’t panic, assess the situation and devise a plan to establish a safe situation.  OK, I was standing nearly unclothed in the pouring rain and heading towards hypothermia.  If I pulled out my dry clothing now they would become soaked and be useless.  Best to put on the wet paddling clothing that was still in the tangled tent and my neoprene paddling boots.  Both would warm me if I could get sheltered from the rain.  I looked around and quickly assessed that my Kevlar canoe was my only immediate form of shelter.  She was unharmed from the pounding from the hail so I was confident she’d protect if another wave hit.

I retrieved as many of the items from the tent as possible including the sleeping pad which I shoved into the front hold of the canoe after repositioning it so I wouldn’t be leaning to one side.  I crawled in, zipped down the cover used when paddling, and waited.  Wave #4 of the storm arrived about 20 minutes later but with much less fury (thankfully) and I was protected and starting to warm up a bit.  I slept for about an hour and when I awoke to rain still falling but with much less intensity.  I decided my next course of action was to deal with my borderline hypothermia so I crawled out and started digging for clothing in the dry bags which, thankfully, were still present.  I quick strip and then putting on several layers and my spare rain suit boosted my morale as I climbed back into the boat.

Of course, my mind was racing, mostly about what to do next.  With no tent as shelter I could either improvise using my canoe, paddles, and the hammock I brought along or I could head for Tobacco Gardens where safe haven would be waiting.  I mulled the question over in my mind and decided that Tobacco would be the next day’s goal with improvised shelter as the backup plan.

I slept until after 7:00 a.m. hoping the weather system would move on.  Working as quickly as possible to pack up water and mud soaked gear, I shoved off to start a very long day.  The weather system had dumped up to 8 inches of precipitation in some areas and the Williston area was experiencing severe flooding.  The Missouri River was swollen and running fast, even in the areas of braided channels at the entrance of Lake Sakagea.  The wind was at my back at this point so I pulled over to install my outriggers so I could use my sail.

The next hours are a complete blur.  I travelled downstream to Sakagea quite quickly and entered the lake with a very strong but favorable tailwind.  I headed to the right shore and then started to move down the coastline towards Tobacco Gardens.  A change in wind directed made the sail useless so I dropped it and started paddling.  Within two hours I was nearly spent and 5-6 foot waves forced me to run the boat onto a sandy(ish) beach.  I got out, looked around and realized I was in a bit of a pickle.  There was no way to camp on that beach if the winds continued and I became wind bound for a few days.

Returning to the canoe, I shifted some gear around and slid in under the canvas cover and fell asleep.  A few texts to Peggy at Tobacco Gardens explaining my situation and watching the weather forecast (winds predicted to slacken and change direction) had me convinced to wait on shore until conditions improved.  At about 5:00 p.m. I thought I detected a lessening in wind intensity and possibly a change in direction so I decided to launch and paddle.

I was getting pummeled pretty hard as I moved along the coast with periodic waves coming into the boat.  After about an hour I was struggling to paddle and use the bilge pump when it became clear that I could either beach again and wait or try the sail.   I chose the latter as the wind seemed to now be coming from a direction that would fill the sail.

My big break then occurred.  The wind shifted as Dark Sky had predicted and now was a tailwind.  The wave size actually increased to 8-10 foot seas but the energy of the sail caused the boat to climb over the waves instead of plowing through them as had been happening when I was paddling.

I was now soaking wet and cold but I was making a fast run to Tobacco where I knew hot food and a shower would be waiting.  I made the 10 mile run in about an hour and half and was so grateful that I had researched, purchased, and hauled this sail for almost 800 miles on my Missouri River trip.

When I rounded the point into Tobacco Bay I was totally spent from the nearly 24 hour gauntlet I had just run.  I received with warmth and kindness from the Tobacco Gardens Resort staff and as I write this less than a day after the events I can’t say enough positive things about river angels.

Today was spent focusing on cleaning and drying my equipment including giving my Superior Expedition canoe a good bath, she’s my rock and a true lifesaver.  I’ve also been running over the events in my mind thinking about where it all went wrong and why.  It all comes down to that quick decision to pass the Williston bridge campground and push on for something with a better reputation for being safe.  After that, I was making rapid decisions mainly designed to recover from the first bad one, something that I’m learning happens a lot on trip of this length and intensity.

I recognize that the storm was a freak event and that what happened in those unfolding hours had nothing to do with me personally.  I was body slammed quite hard but apart from a shredded tent and wet gear I retained all my equipment.  So how I move onward from here really comes down to how I process the events.  A good phone call to my wife where I completely melted down really helped as did this evening’s call from my brother and his wife.

I’ll stay at Tobacco Gardens an extra day and then get back in the saddle again on Tuesday, weather permitting.  I’ll also start to trust myself more to not to stick to a solid set of rules and to stop and take shelter when needed.  Situational awareness is a big deal on this trip and I need to remember to keep my options open and not focus on a single answer too quickly.

Lastly, I keep asking myself how did Lewis and Clark do this for three years?  I’m on day #28 and only continuing because I could pull out and recuperate.  I now have a better understanding of the significance of their journey and why history continues to hold them and their party in such a positive light.


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