Saturday, June 5, 2021

When a handshake will do…

As I begin writing this latest installment of my blog I realize it’s confession time, mostly as a means of putting this section of the river into perspective for the reader.  As one descends down the Missouri River the character of the river and the landscape change.  At the Three Forks headwaters the river is one that reflects its mountain origins; cool, fast, and running clear.  By the time a paddler reaches Ft. Kipp the touch of humanity is becoming apparent.  Soon the river will change to a water body defined by a series of dams that serve to restrain its force.

The descriptions of the transition from river to reservoir had me anxious (confession time!).  As the river current slows to zero behind a dam the load of silt it has been carrying is deposited creating a braided morass that can be nearly impassable depending on that year’s amount of rainfall.  And when we use the word “dam” it is an understatement of the achievement needed to created enough concrete to retain billions of gallons of water; these are megaliths four miles wide and hundreds of feet tall.  All that water backs up into the landscape carved by the tributaries that once fed the free flowing river.  Arms of the reservoirs can be dozens of miles long and wide and develop their own wind and wave action that spills out into the main body creating nightmarish conditions for a canoeist.

And now you know my fear coming into this segment of the trip.  It’s why I kept repeating to myself and others that the real challenge wouldn’t start until I reached the UL Bend leading into Lake Ft. Peck.  Images of getting lost in the marsh of the UL Bend and then sitting on shore for days as the winds raged kept entering both my waking and sleeping hours.  Leaving Ft. Kipp with Jake on the Sunday of Memorial Weekend I was expecting the worst (Nick decided to take an additional day to rest before facing the gauntlet).  By now you’ve probably figured out how this story ended; paddled into Ft. Peck, made ready to approach my first nemesis in the form of the UL Bend and then…

I paddled the channel on a strong current, entered the Bend and focused on my GPS navigation display to guide me through the main channel and cruised right through without a hitch.  Praise be to the Garmin Corporation and satellite tracking (and a big shout to my son, Austin, that writes code for these devices)!  Within a short period I was beyond the UL Bend and it was time to confront demon #2, the infamous Lake Peck wind.

When you sit a canoe for a few hours you realize there are three sources of potential energy: the river current, wind, and your paddle.  During the Nebraska winter whilst preparing for this trip I realized that the lack of water current on the Missouri reservoirs would be a killer, especially if the wind became a factor.  Then a casual comment by my son (“I hope you have a sail”) got me to thinking why not use the wind as an ally?  Thus, I ended up hauling a sail kit and outriggers from the headwaters over a 400 mile distance with the intention of sailing the big lakes.

After I cleared the UL Bend I pulled over to eat lunch and install the sail and outriggers.  It was a gooey experience as the Missouri mud gets into everything and clings to all it touches.  After sweating in the near record heat I was ready to depart and give my “cheat” a try.  I shoved off from shore around 1:00 p.m. and I started to paddle.  Then I paddled, and I paddled, then I paddled some more.  Hour after hour I followed a compass line and paddled while waiting for the wind to rise enough to raise the sail.  The famous Lake Ft. Peck zephyr never materialized; abnormally calm and placid conditions with absolutely no wind, ugh!

The sun and heat must have started to cook my brain because by early evening I continued to paddle without giving any thought to where I would camp.  I looked at the map, consulted the guidebook, and decided that Fourchette would be my destination.  Of course, I didn’t calculate the distance or whether I would actually reach the campground by the end of the day.  As the sun set it became clear that I had made an error in judgement and that I’d be coming into the landing in total darkness.  I paused to chat with a boat of fisherman about the location of the boat ramp and distance and then continued on.  As the sun set the wind finally rose and I was able to hoist the rigging and sail the last mile to the campground.

After beaching the boat and crawling out stiff from a long day on the water, I walked to a campground full of revelers enjoying the Memorial holiday Sunday evening.  As my eyes were adjusting to the darkness and I was surveying where the tent camping sites might be located, a woman at the first campsite asked if she could help me.  I mistook the shelter her group occupied as that of the camp host and asked her if she was that person.  After a good laugh and lots of questions I was finally able to explain who I was and what I was doing.  At that point a magical transformation occurred, the entire group stopped what they were doing and immediately pitched in to help this vagabond that had just stumbled off the water.

Within 30 minutes all my gear and my canoe were brought up the shelter, my tent was set up, and a burger had been thrown on the grill to feed me.  It seems I had just stumbled into that amazing part of America that’s all heart and soul and helping your neighbor when in need.

I quickly learned that I was in the presence of the Sharp family from Absarokee, Montana.  Papa Sharp, as the entire family calls him, is a third generation miner that’s worked underground (“700 feet down, 28,000 feet in”) for 35 years.  His son, Billy, is a biologist that worked in fisheries before accepting a job at the mine in water management.  Billy’s wife Kyann (pronounced Cayenne) has a gift remembering names that I envy and Papa’s wife, Faith, is that strong presence that let’s you know they are family.

After eating and arrangements were squared away I sat up until after midnight chatting with the group and members of the boat, John Henry and Jace, that I saw out on the water earlier in the evening.  They accepted me even after they found out I was a college professor (“as soon as I heard that I figured I’d just clear out of the way and leave you be”), something I often find my self having to explain/defend because of its negative image.

The next morning I took my time packing up and getting out on the water.  Breakfast burritos and sandwiches were offered along with strong coffee so I enjoyed the hospitality.  By the time I hauled my boat and gear to the ramp they had said their goodbyes and had set out for a day of fishing on the lake taking my heartfelt gratitude with them (and my thoughts of how much I love this country).

The wind was strong with high waves as I shoved off and paddled out of Fourchette Bay.  I waited until I cleared the bay before raising the sail and then set my compass bearing for the next phase of my trip.  By mid morning the wind had subsided to the point that it was an assist with paddling but I definitely wasn’t sailing unaided.  The weather once again turned mild and by 5:00 p.m. as I rounded a headland the wind died entirely and I paddled on until I reached the Bone Trail Recreation area.

When I rose the next morning the wind had risen and was blowing from the northeast at about 10 miles an hour.  I broke camp, loaded the boat, and got out on the water.  What a thrilling ride!  I sat back and enjoyed navigating and not putting my paddle in the water for several hours.  As the shoreline rolled by I trimmed my fingernails and then fiddled with the best location of my marine/weather radio in the cockpit.  I quickly learned my lesson that a wind approaching from close to broad reach will “skate” a small boat sideways even as its moving forward.  Before I knew it I was on the south shore and off my plan to always use the north shoreline as protection.

It took a good two hours to cross back to my preferred shore because of the skating effect.  Late in the afternoon I rounded a bend and the wind totally died, the dead calm had returned.  I spent another hour or so looking futilely for a camping site with grass for my tent.   Ultimately, I was forced to camp on a beach that reminded me of the crumbly material encountered on the moon by the Apollo crews.  Nonetheless, it had been a good day overall as I had the comfort of an easy day learning how to read the wind and trim the sail for the best results.

The last couple of days on Lake Ft. Peck were pretty much the same, total calm with no wind.  I paddled into The Pines camping area on Wednesday and decided to call it an early day.  I needed to wash myself and my boat so I used the time effectively and then hung my hammock and took a much needed nap.  The following morning the same dead water conditions prevailed and I was forced to paddle the entire 14 miles to the Ft. Peck Dam.

So there you have it.  A through paddler complaining about the perfectly calm conditions on a lake that scared the bejeebus out of him less than a week earlier.  I still think that sailing these reservoirs is a good plan, I just have to remember to accept that good weather is a blessing and not karma’s attempt to mess with my head. 😆

After I got off the water I located Rod Gorder who often assists paddlers with shuttling around the dam.  We loaded up my gear and canoe and it was at that point that my plan to find a place to stay and rest up for a day hit a snag, I hadn’t thought to book a room anywhere in the area.  It turns out that a big fishing tournament is happening this weekend so pretty much nothing is available.  There was one room available for one night at the cabins across from the Ft. Peck marina but they were asking $264.80; nearly my entire hotel budget for the trip.

It was looking like I’d be camping at Corps campground when we drove by the historic Ft. Peck Hotel and it appeared to be open even though new management had just assumed ownership.  I decided to go in ask “the stupidest question I’ve ever come up with” just to be sure.  Of course, they aren’t open but will be ready to receive guests on the 15th of June.  After explaining my situation the new proprietor, Tina, said “tell you what, why don’t we make it a handshake agreement for a room?”  We shook on it and I was shown a room on the second floor of a hotel that has no guests.

What to make of this one?  It immediately struck me that I grew up seeing my dad make handshake deals over purchases and sales on the farm all the time.  In fact, I rarely saw him write out an agreement on paper; “I’ve given you my word and I will keep it.”  That was a flashback to over 50 years ago and riding along with him when he needed to do farm business.  It’s something our country has lost and I’m so glad to have rediscovered it in this little corner of Montana.

And there it is, the end of the first leg of my adventure.  I have four more Army Corps of Engineers lakes to go proceeded by a 300 mile run to Williston, North Dakota.  I’ve gained valuable confidence for navigating the big reservoirs and I’m ready to set out again tomorrow morning.  Of course, that also means another week to 10 days before another blog update.


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