Friday, July 9, 2021

High anxiety on Lake Sharpe

South Dakota state capital
I departed from Pierre, SD, on July 5th just as thunderboomers made their presence known.  My plan was to take it easy and head about 20 miles downstream to camp at one of the South Dakota facilities.  Of course, that plan would have been a perfect one had I stuck to my usual 7:00 a.m. departure time.  Although Pierre is the state capital of South Dakota it’s a pretty small community, numbering only about 14,000 people.  The riverfront and the parks along that stretch of water are well kept and attractive and people out walking and exercising can be seen in pretty good numbers.

Floating downstream, the wind began to pick up and was coming from the south.  By mid afternoon it was clear that I wouldn’t make much mileage that day and I should start thinking about pulling out to camp.  Just as I was considering doing so, I experienced my first Lake Sharpe zephyr and was forced into the sedge and cattails that line the shoreline in the braided section of the lake.  I struggled to point the bow of my boat into the wind as the waves crested into the cockpit.  After doing so, I pulled out my phone and looked at the digital maps to figure out my next plan.  I quickly determined that Antelope Creek Recreation Area was across the lake/river and about 1.5 miles away.  My decision was easily made, time to call it an early day.

When I reached the Antelope Creek boat ramp I thought my GPS had made an error.  The concrete was hidden in a thicket of cattails and it was clear that the facility hadn’t been used by fisherman to launch boats in quite some time.  The wind and rain were picking up so I quickly scouted where to set up my tent; not a real challenge since there was a single tree for a wind block and with a grassy area that was suitable.

At first I thought the site was totally abandoned and that I’d be alone all evening.  It turns out that while the boat ramp and channel were no longer used by fisherman that didn’t mean that locals didn’t make the several mile drive on gravel road.  All evening cars would pull in, see my tent, and make a U-turn to high tail it out of there.  Hmmmm, I wonder what all those people could be up to so far from prying eyes… 😅

The weather on the morning of July 6th was still unsettled as the thunderstorm from the previous night was still hovering over the area.  The winds were in my face most of the day but not strong enough to force me off the water.  I floated down to DeGrey, my original destination the day before, and landed at the ramp at noon.  Again, it looked like the site got very little use especially since a rusty multi-tool was sitting right in the middle of the concrete.  A score for me but I’m glad I missed the opportunity to camp at that location; what an ugly site!

The wind was cooperating so I decided to make it a long day (nearly 30 miles) and push on to Joe Creek; a site listed as having shelters and fire rings in a tree covered bay.  The wind, however, kicked up late in the afternoon and the last few miles were a bit tough, even while hugging the shore for a bit of protection.

Camping at Joe Creek
As I was reaching the Joe Creek landing two fishing boats also entered the bay.  I made room for them to get loaded onto their trailers while striking up conversations with both groups.  The second boat to come in was driven by Jamie Fallis who had been out with his sons and nephew.  He asked me a few questions about my trip and seemed impressed by the challenge of what I was attempting.  After the kids were loaded into the truck he drove off leaving me to scout where to set up my tent.

It turns out the Joe Creek isn’t quite the quaint site I thought it would be.  The shelters and fire rings had been torn out and the entire area was overgrown with weeds.  This was clearly another neglected site and one that took a bit of searching as to where to stake my tent.  The concrete pads of the shelters were still intact so I chose one just off the access road that would make a good home for the night.  I had just finished setting everything up and had just started making dinner when Jamie reappeared with his daughter bearing a plate of hot food sent down by his wife.  What an amazing gesture.

Jamie and I chatted for about 15 minutes about my trip, challenges I’ve faced, and where I was going next before the couple staying across the street arrived.  For the next 45 minutes I received advice about where to go next and how to face the problem of the shuttle around the Big Bend Dam.  All in all, it was a great cap to a challenging day.

“Hanging with the locals.”  Jamie Fallis is
on the right in the ball cap.
Prior to leaving, Jamie informed me that he’d shuttle me or would find someone who could from the community when I got to the end of Lake Sharpe.  Hot food and the solution to my greatest challenge on this part of the river, sweet!

My plan was to push hard the next day (July 7th) for Lower Brule where I’d stay at the full service campground then paddle the 6 miles to meet Jamie at the dam on July 8th.  Since I had already had done one 30 miler, I knew the next day’s 32 miles would be a challenge.  I had minor wind on the morning of the 7th as I approached Big Bend, a 25 mile curve in the river that takes you across the 1.5 miles of the spit to where you started.  As I came into the bend itself I made the decision to cross to the inner shore and follow the shore around to the tip.  That was a good decision as the wind changed direction and pushed me all afternoon.  By the time I rounded the tip of Big Bend to head back to the starting point the weather had changed and I was facing a stiff SSE breeze.  I continued to paddle through the afternoon while looking for a campsite.  My decision at lunch to cross over to the inner curve of the bend meant that I passed by the full service campground called Big Bend.  Confounding my search for a campsite was the fact that the area had recently been burned, not a good place to set up camp.

By 6:00 p.m. I was nearly spent and I was still 6 miles from Lower Brule.  I kept searching and ultimately chose a location at the edge of a corn field on the high embankment that had a wind shelter planting.  It wasn’t the most accommodating of locations but the vegetation buffered the wind’s force.  A large tree trunk below the embankment would serve as hideout for my canoe so all in all I had found a good site for the evening.

My wind blown home for two nights
The end of a long and physically challenging day is always a bit of a downer and I was in pretty low spirits after having now had two of them.  I set up camp, prepared dinner, and started looking over the weather forecast in earnest.  It wasn’t comforting information, winds from the SSE continuing to strengthen through the night and into the morning hours.  I didn’t want to admit it quite yet but it was a sure bet I’d be wind bound the next day.

By morning the lake had whitecaps and it was clear I would be stuck in that location for the day…ugh!  I wasn’t savoring the idea of being pinned down between a raging lake and a cornfield with just a patch of vegetation in between.  Not much to do but make the best of it.  I’d go through my food bag and see how my supply was holding out, blog, and try to nap.  In the meantime I gave Jamie a call to let him know that my arrival at the Big Bend Dam would be delayed by a day.

The wind continued to pick up intensity through the day reaching peaks of 30 mph.  That’s when the trip is the hardest for me.  Sitting idle is one thing but the horror stories of paddlers being windbound for days starts to creep into the corners of my mind.  The “so what, take a rest break today, you deserve it” mentality doesn’t really work.  Instead, I find myself becoming more anxious as the day progresses.

Hiding a canoe from prying eyes
A thunderstorm moved through the area around 10 p.m. just as I was trying to get to sleep.  Over the howl of the wind I heard the continuous thunder of waves striking the beach below me.  All told, I got about 3 hours of sleep as I fitfully tossed and turned in my anticipation of what the next day would bring.

I woke at 4 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep.  By 4:45 a.m. I decided to go ahead and start my paddling day even though the waves continued to crash below.  I packed up my belongings, tore down the tent, and packed everything into my dry bags before eating breakfast.  The canoe was in the water and packed by 6:30 a.m. when I made the decision to proceed and see how far I got that day.  Looking across to the opposite shore, I could see that the bluffs offered some protection and calmer waters.  I decided to cross over even though that would mean crossing back once I reached the Big Bend Dam.

About an hour into my paddle I still hadn’t reached the opposite shore but the wind was slackening so I changed direction and headed towards the point of the inner bend.  That ended up being a great decision since conditions turned perfectly calm around 8:00 a.m.  For the rest of the day I would have perfectly calm, glasslike water.  A wonderful end to my time on Lake Sharpe, especially after the last 24 anxiety filled hours.

Canoe, what canoe?
At 9:15 a.m. I sent a text to Jamie of my location and that I expected to be at the dam by noon.  A few minutes later the text bounced back as undelivered, something that had been happening with new contacts.  I went ahead and dialed his number and he informed me that Rudy from the Bureau of Indian Affairs Conservation Department would have someone shuttle me around the dam.  Woohoo!

I quick call to Rudy and all was set.  I reached the dam at 11:30 a.m. allowing me time to unload the canoe and stack the bags along the edge of the parking lot.  Lucas from the Conservation office arrived right at noon and by 12:45 I was checked into the downstream campground and setting up my tent.  Another “trust you journey” day come full circle.

Tomorrow I depart on Lake Francis Case heading for Chamberlain, SD.  I’ve set up camping at American Creek where I’ll be able to walk a few blocks to do laundry, shop, and get a good meal.   When I arrive in Chamberlain I’ll have 400 miles remaining on this trip.  It’s amazing to think how great of an accomplishment it was when I reached Ft. Kipp, Montana, at the beginning of the trip.  That was the 400 miles done mark and I still had 1,350 miles to go.  Funny thing though, I don’t feel like a seasoned Missouri River paddler.  Instead, every day brings new challenges that remind me that I’m still learning and have long way to go before I can make any grandiose claims.



I’m done with Lake Sharpe!


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