Saturday, June 19, 2021

Forget Nebraska Nice…make that North Dakota Nice!

A week has passed since my last post, mainly because I spent a good part of it waiting at Tobacco Gardens for replacement equipment and then for paddling conditions to improve.  Prior to the Williston storm and the shredding of my tent, I had intended to roll into Tobacco Bay, pickup food and supply shipments, recoup for two days, and then get back onto the water.  Of course, plans do change, especially when everything you own is covered in mud and the River is still raging in anger.

I spent Saturday, June 12th going through all my gear and giving everything a good wash.  My dry bags, clothes, and canoe were covered in the goo that is Missouri  River mud.  The stuff is incredible, it sticks to everything and works its way into every opening.  And it doesn’t take much of it to make a mess, one dip in the river and a crust forms that takes an effort to remove.  Oh well, they don’t call it the Big Muddy for nothing!

Most of my clothing was either wet or mud soaked or both and my next task was to sort it all out and bag it up for the Tobacco Gardens (TG) staff to launder.  Once again, I can’t say enough about Peggy’s crew at TG.  I handed them a large trash bag full of soiled gunk and the following day a basket of clean and folded clothing appeared at my doorstep.  Amazing!

30 days worth of food!
By Monday (June 14th) I was pretty much ready to get back on the water.  I dumped all my food onto the bed in my cabin and started sorting.  The three boxes mailed from Lincoln, NE, in April joined the pile and it became clear there was way more than what I could carry.  I counted out 32 days of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners and set the rest aside as a donation to the other through paddlers coming down the river after me.  I also did a shake down of unused equipment and cold weather clothing and boxed it up for shipment home, freeing up precious space in my bags for the added food rations.

That afternoon (Sunday) I made a run to Watford City, ND, the nearest town, with Peggy’s daughter to mail my package home.  Nicky grew up in Watford and graduated from high school in the 1990s prior to the oil boom.  “When I graduated there were less than 1,500 people in town, now we have that many students in the Watford school system.”  The petroleum industry and the jobs created have definitely rewritten the destiny of this region producing a much different set of opportunities for today’s high school graduates.  Nicky left to pursue degrees in psychology and now works to coordinate services for the McKenzie County school system.  Her job definitely gives her insight into the many blessings of jobs created by oil extraction and the negatives that come in the form of changes to decades long social traditions and standards.

Early Monday evening my replacement tent was delivered to my door by the Bob Stieg family (thank you so much!) who happened to be on the road visiting family when Peggy called them asking for assistance.  It’s a basic Kelty model that reminds me of the the first freestanding tents from the early 1990s with flexible poles and a dome shape.  It’s a solid, no frills design that should hold up well to the High Plains winds.  Let’s hope its the last tent I purchase for this trip (Lady River be nice!).

All day Monday I had been watching the weather forecast for my Tuesday departure, especially the wind conditions.  The weekend and Monday had brought in strong winds (20-40 mph) from the ENE, the direction of my paddle.  By Monday evening it was clear that new tent or not, I would be wind bound on Tuesday.  Best to make the best of it and do some much needed napping and binge on Monty Python movies on Netflix.

With Peggy from Tobacco Gardens
The winds shifted as predicted overnight on Tuesday and by Wednesday morning were coming from a northwesterly direction.  I rose early on Wednesday, took my last Tobacco Gardens shower and finished packing.  Peggy and Dan, one of the TG crew, took my gear in the service cart to the boat ramp while I wheeled the canoe over.  The wind was coming down Tobacco Bay and thrashing the ramp around pretty good and it was a challenge to get my gear loaded and get onto the water.  After about 30 minutes of effort I was in my boat and, after waving goodbye and shouting many thanks over the roar of the wind, heading out to the lake.

That day’s paddle was like riding a bucking bronco.  I stuck close to the shoreline and used the offshore current to navigate.  The winds sustained at 20 mph through the day gusting to 35-40 mph.  The topography of Lake Sakakawea is such that much of the resulting wave energy is broken as the waves approach the shore.  It’s when crossing an inlet that things become a bit crazy as the waves build to their full size and in many cases they were getting a bit big.  I’ve never been good at judging wave size from a boat (is it height of the wave or the distance between two crests?, I can never remember) but it’s clear that without my sail I would never have been able to ride over these big ones.  By late afternoon the waters were a frothy chocolate mousse and it was time for me to pull out and let the lake rage.

Thursday morning dawned gorgeous and placid and I worked quickly to get on the water early.  I was set back trying to get the pins on my outriggers to seat in place.  I had borrowed a drill at Tobacco Gardens and had altered the design to accept a U-pin.  It all went together easily when I assembling it on the grass but for some reason the hole was no longer large enough.  My handy Leatherman and 20 minutes effort had fixed the situation but I didn’t get on the water until after 8:00 a.m.

That day’s float was perfect.  I had tailwinds the entire day and they were in the sweet 10 mph zone of intensity.  A stop for lunch at noon to stretch and eat lunch was my only stop, I wanted to use the optimum conditions for as long as possible before pulling over to camp at around 6:00 p.m.

Yesterday (June 18th) the high force gale returned with winds gusting up to 30 mph.  I continued to use the shoreline as a buffer but crossing the inlets was still a challenge.  As the wind intensity increased in the early afternoon I pulled over to stretch and rest and consider options.  I decided to call it an early day and set up camp rather than wait until evening to resume if the winds died down (which, of course, they did).  This is a dry year and the reservoirs are down in volume so camping requires hauling gear bags long distances from the water’s edge up to grassy areas to set up camp.  A tiring and sweaty affair but much better than setting up the tent on the sun baked sand and silt “beach.”

When I rose this morning conditions were calm.  A shift in wind direction to the south had been predicted and I was worried that I’d be padding into strong headwinds.  The morning shore breeze gave me some assist and helped me along but I paddled the stretch from Red Butte Bay to Dakota Waters, my destination.  About mid morning Amber K. from Dakota Waters reached out by text message via Garmin inReach asking if I planned to come stay with them.  I’m still wondering how she got my contact information but it’s clear that North Dakota Nice goes above and beyond in helping weary travelers.

I arrived here around 3:00 p.m. and was given the lucky #7 (family) cabin.  A hot shower and nap prior to being stuffed on a bacon cheeseburger and tater tots capped a pretty good day.  The pint of Ben and Jerry’s double chocolate ice cream didn’t hurt things either.  Tomorrow I head for Riverdale and the portage around the dam thus ending my time on Lake Sakakawea.  As I write this rain from a thunderstorm moving through the area has begun to fall and is forecast to clear by morning.  It’s the first storm since the big one hit me near Williston, ND.  I’m kinda glad to be inside a building and safe. 😁😎☁☂☀

Lastly, yesterday I crossed the 50% (879 miles) completed mark.  Each day brings me closer to home but the next lake, Oahe, is said to be the most challenging of all.  Let’s hope the good winds and mild weather hold for my passage into South Dakota!




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.


Sunday, June 6, 2021

Paddle on all you Dames (at Sea)!

Don’t over estimate the importance of taking a day to rest and recoup when doing a long distance canoe trip (I call it Endurance Canoeing!).  My break began on early Thursday afternoon when I arrived at the Ft. Peck dam and ended yesterday morning when Rod Gorder dropped me off to resume my trip.  In between, I made a run to Glasgow, MT, with Rod and his wife, Diane, to restock my food pantry, had a couple of really good meals, did laundry and repacked my bags, and took in the opening performance of Dames at Sea at the Ft. Peck Theater.  The show was hands down one of the best ensemble performances I’ve ever seen and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  If you get a chance, go see the show!

The ideal early Saturday morning departure was delayed a bit by Diane’s biscuits and gravy and my procrastination while sipping coffee and shooting the bull.  I had a great time with the Gorders and cannot thank them enough for all their assistance.  Once again, this trip has been my ticket to meeting some amazing, kind, and generous people.

Yesterday’s (June 5th) float wasn’t much to talk about.  Below the Ft. Peck dam the current is strong and the water clear and cold.  Rod told me to be on the lookout for the barges that were used to build the dam and later abandoned downstream.  I passed two of them and it was an interesting look at the history of the region.

By late afternoon the wind had picked up and I started to think wouldn’t it be nice to be using my sail?  I had removed and stowed it during the portage and in anticipation of the free flowing stretch of the river I’m now navigating.  My initial thought was that the river current would push me along and the sail’s function was to assist with crossing the reservoirs.  Then again, why not use the sail, gain some needed practice, and see how well it works for river travel?

During my lunch stop I pulled the sail and outriggers from their under deck storage and reinstalled them.  The wind was fairly light when I returned to the river and the sail’s use limited.  Glancing behind me to check on the outrigger status I noticed the sky was getting inky in color, a sure sign that a thunderstorm was brewing.  A quick check of the weather radio indicated that it was time to get off the river and make camp.  Of course, that’s always easier said than done, especially in a stretch of the river where the only cuts in the high banks are occupied by irrigation pumps.  I eventually located a spot and by the time I unloaded my boat and started to set up the tent it was raining.  I finished quickly, threw in and joined my gear to wait things out.  After about an hour the rain stopped allowing me to make dinner followed by going early to bed.

The Highway 13 bridge
The National Weather Service had issued a Wind Advisory for Lake Ft. Peck for today starting at 6:00 a.m.  When I exited the tent around 6:45 a.m. the winds were already blowing at 20 mph.  I broke camp, packed the canoe, and departed into a strong NNW wind.  I had camped on a bend in the river that faced northward and I was padding into whitecaps coming back at me against the current.  Within a few minutes the river returned to its eastward flow and with the wind now to my back I popped up the sail.

And then it happened…everything clicked, the entire trip fell into place.  All those months researching and planning and preparing came together and off I went; a happy paddler on a magic carpet (actually canoe) ride.  For the entire day the wind was at my back and blowing steady and strong.  The sail rig performed beautifully and I made steady progress.  I quickly learned to read the GPS display to anticipate when the river would change course and bring the boat directly about into the wind.  I then dropped the sail to the deck, clipped it in place, and assumed paddling.

The sail is clipped to the deck when not in use.
I easily made it to Wolf Point, MT, and continued on to the Highway 13 bridge where an excited young boy waived from shore yelling “hello Mr. Sailboat.”  My plan for the day had been to start looking for a campsite at 6:00 p.m. knowing that the search usually takes a good 30 minutes.  I was on such a great run that I decided to extend the day another hour.  The Weather Service prediction was that by 6:00 p.m. the wind advisory end as the mild conditions returned.  They were only off by 15 minutes!  At 6:30 p.m. I finally located a decent campsite on an island.

All in all, it’s been a pretty good day. 😛 

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.


Friday, June 4, 2021

Ten days of paddling, most of it pure bliss

Whelp, if I have cell phone coverage and can post a blog update that must mean that I’m back to the edge of civilization!  A lot has happened since my last entry at Coal Banks so I’ll split the entry into two sections so ya’ll aren’t bored to tears only reading one entry! 😅

It was a whirlwind (sometimes literally) coming down through the Missouri Breaks.  When I pulled into the Coal Banks landing I chose the campsite immediately at the top of the boat ramp because it was the shortest distance to haul gear uphill.  The (dis-)advantage of that location was its proximity to the visitors center and overhearing all the conversations occurring, primarily with the camp hosts.  Just as I was falling asleep the leader of a crew of teenage boys was informed by Casey, the BLM host, that bad weather was rolling in overnight.

I woke around 4:00 a.m. to the sound of rain on the tent and wind.  It was a real howler by the time I crawled out of the tent and clear that it was going to be a bitterly cold and wet day.  I ate breakfast and rolled the canoe down the ramp (canoe cart!) and started to load.  In between trips the youth group leader came over and asked me what I thought of the conditions.  “Not too bad, it still seems fairly calm on the water.”  He then pointed out my mistake, I was looking at the protected inlet leading into the boat ramp. We conversed some more, mainly about whether they would push off with three canoes of first timers and then I crawled into my boat and zipped up everything as tight as possible.

My time traveling through the Missouri Breaks is best described as stinging rain and wind interjected with short stops to gaze in awe at the scenery.  For most of the float I was on the edge of hypothermia so I let the fast current carry me while I enjoyed the view.  I considered calling it an early day and camping but my canoeist soul wanted to experience the free flowing Missouri River as it should be, by running its fast current.

The melt water from the late winter storm a week earlier made the river run quick through this section.  That, combined with the wet and cold conditions, produced a wave of nostalgia for the season I was on BLM backcountry crew in Glennallen, Alaska, in 1985; running the Delta and Gulkana wild and scenic rivers.  My run through the breaks would be short but it was a RUN, something that I expect will only happen once in this 1,800 mile trip.

The current shot me along and I had to fight to pull out to take the occasional photograph.  Of course, photos never do justice to the experience and there’s so little left of the original Missouri River that the experience was too short lived.  I continued onward and kept thinking about Lewis and Clark’s experience on this river where every mile and turn around the next bend was as raw and natural as that still to be seen in the Missouri Breaks.  It’s at those moments of reflection that I can’t, for the life of me, even begin to understand the hubris of the U.S. Congress to pass legislation to dam and destroy over 1,100 miles of this natural gem.

After clearing the Breaks I continued on for several hours before pulling over to eat lunch and walk circles on the shore trying to regain circulation to my cold feet.  I was in the famous White Cliffs area and could see the Hole in the Wall in the distance.  So far, it had been a day of isolation with no other human in sight, the perfect way to enjoy a fast current and a well built canoe.  I climbed back into my boat and shoved off and started back downriver.  After about a quarter mile I realized that another yellow boat was parked on the shore and had to be that of Jake Valenze, the other through paddler that I knew was in this section of the river.  I pulled over and whistled and yelled but got no reply; I was too cold and lazy to get back out of my boat to look (I had just gotten back in just a few minutes prior) so I gave up and shoved off.  I figured he was off taking photos and I wouldn’t locate him anyhow.

I pushed on for the rest of the day soaking in the landscape and enjoying the primary reason I was doing this trip, the isolation and ruggedness that is Montana.  Camp that night was made after a satisfyingly long paddle day (just like the old days in Alaska!).  I slept soundly and woke to the knowledge that I would be repeating the pack it up, shove off, float for 9-10 hours with short breaks, search for camp late in the day routine again for another 7 weeks.  Kinda fitting for a big trip through big country.

The landscape through the lower Missouri Breaks is dominated by large rock walls and a feeling that things will soon widen out and change to open prairie.  I continued the next day and again chose to search for camp too late in the day for comfort.  The next day I found my way to Judith Landing where I pulled out to eat lunch and look around.  For all that’s been written about how the Judith River was named and its incredible beauty, it was a bit of a letdown.  It was more of a hard scrabble boat ramp with an ugly campground than inspiration by a beautiful woman named Judith.

Again, as I was pushing off  from Judith I had an encounter with the yellow kayak and this time Jake was seated in it coming downstream.  I held off departure until he arrived so I could introduce myself.  We spent nearly 45 minutes discussing the trip so far, challenges, rumors that Nick Real was somewhere ahead of us, and where the next few days and weeks would take us all.  Jake indicated that he pulls over each day for tea and a nap (that’s what he was doing at Hole in the Wall when I came across his boat a day or so before) and it was now sleepy time.  With that clue, and after exchanging Garmin inReach user IDs, I shoved off and continued downstream with a shout over my shoulder that “I’ll see you when I see you.”

Jake and I hooked up again the following day when he paddled up to my camp and scared the bajeebus out of me while I focused on loading my boat while (in embarrassment) talking to myself.  A quick policing for any overlooked items and I joined him on the float downstream.  He filled me in on his life to date; 26, single with a girlfriend back in Denver, grew up in Maryland and went to college in West Virginia, degree in environmental studies, working the last few years as a subcontractor for Walmart doing parking lot storm drain inspection and cleanup.  He’d had enough of the corporate scene and it was time for a float.  The usual story that always unique to the individual person.

We floated for a few hours and as we turned a bend in the river Jake pointed out there was a canoe on the bank ahead and it had to be Nick Real.  “Or another canoeist”, I pointed out.  “He’s got a canoe cart, only through paddlers carry those” was Jake’s response.  A simple observation that pretty much told the entire story.

Nick Real currently lives in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and is taking a four month leave of absence to float the 2,400 miles from the headwaters to home.  Nick grew up in Sioux Falls, Iowa, and went to the Merchant Marine academy to learn how to captain the big boys.  He currently works as a tugboat captain on the west coast and does as many outdoor activities as possible during his extended leaves.  Of course, as he’s telling me all this all I could think of were the PBS television shows my kids watched as toddlers featuring a talking tugboat.  And here was the captain looking every inch the image with his knit cap, flowing beard, and confident ease around other people!

For the rest of the day the three of us floated the river and chatted.  The wind had kicked up again so it was a bit of a slow go but we reached Ft. Kipp by late afternoon.  Ft. Kipp is the 400 mile mark in the float from the Missouri River headwaters at Three Forks, MT, and marks the completion of the first section of a through trip.  Ft. Kipp also marks the beginning of what Dave Miller describes in The Complete Paddler as “truly remote and wild country” and what I always have considered the real start of my Missouri River canoe trip (more on that later).

By late afternoon we had set up camp in the Ft. Kipp tent area while quietly taking in the scene of the city that had popped up around us leading into the Memorial Day weekend.  It’s always a shock to be back around people after several days of going solo.  The racing boat engines and large pickups in the campground only reaffirmed the feeling that I’m doing something quite odd, moving across the landscape based my own muscle power.  It’s definitely a different way of approaching an interaction with nature and at this juncture of the trip what had me most concerned about heading into the Dammed Section of the Missouri River…

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Give me a (Missouri) Break!

The last two days have been a whirlwind!  At 9:00 a.m. yesterday (Monday, May 24th), Jim and Phyllis Meade met me in the parking lot of the Great Fall Extended Stay Hotel.  A big shout out to the hotel staff, they opened their equipment room to me to store my canoe overnight; it was a relief knowing she was safe and secure while I headed down the street for a several thousand calorie pizza and carrot cake dinner.

Jim and Phyllis are part of Missouri River Paddlers and are godsend on this part of the river. They make it a point to assist as many through paddlers with the portage around Great Falls, MT, as possible.  My trip around the city was #3 for them for this season and I’m told that three more paddlers are departing from the Three Forks river source in the next few days.  They’ll definitely be busy!

After loading my canoe onto their somewhat muddy Ford Ranger (it’s construction season in Montana!), we make a quick stop at the local Walmart where I restocked my food supplies.  I’m now back to carrying five weeks of dehydrated food and I’ve filled my water containers (8 gallons total) full for the next leg of the trip.  The food (ca. 70 pounds) and water (67 pounds) now have the boat loaded to capacity but not much can done, I’m heading into the most remote stretch of the trip where resupply isn’t possible.

The Meades took me as far as Carters Ferry and dropped me off.  It took some time to reassemble the rudder system on the canoe and to pack the now bulging bags.  It wasn’t until 12:00 p.m. that I shoved off; no worries, though, as I had a very strong tail wind pushing me along.  After last week’s big snowstorm the river has risen and the current picked up significantly.  Things were moving so fast with the wind conditions that paddling wasn’t required.  I sat back, let the rudder guide things, and soaked in the stark scenery of the Montana High Plains.  The trip from Carters Ferry to Fort Benton is 16 river miles.  I pulled into the Fort just after 2:30 p.m., a pretty rapid pace especially when I was trying to stretch the time and enjoy the ride.

Front Street in Ft. Benton was once known as “the bloodiest block in the west” during its time in the 1860s gold rush and the endpoint of navigation for river steamboats heading upstream.  Today it serves as a jumping off point for paddlers heading to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.  It’s also the commercial hub for this part of Montana and a good place to play tourist.

After setting up my tent and cutting and adding extra guy lines to keep it from blowing away in the wind, I headed into town to do a little sightseeing.  My first stop was at the BLM office to inquire about water availability (limited, carry as much as possible), required permits (none, only a daily user fee of $4), and human waste bags (purchase them down the street at the True Value).  I spent time chatting with the BLM staff member on duty and then I toured the little museum display housed within the building.  The BLM office closed at 4:30 p.m. so I made my way to downtown Ft. Benton hoping to do a little shopping before they rolled up the sidewalks at around 5:30 p.m.

A victim of the wind, I scooped this
little guy off the water with
my paddle.
I picked up a few items at the drug store and while the cashier was ringing up my order I made the usual “what do they do for fun around here” small talk.  She replied, “well, we have a movie in town” to which I replied “oh, what film is playing?”  She and the pharmacist then explained that a movie was being shot in town, not playing at the theater.  Evidently, Ed Harris is directing a film starring Robert Duvall using this part of Montana as a backdrop.  It turns out that the gentleman that held open the door for me as I entered the store was Mr. Harris himself.  Of course, I was totally clueless and didn’t recognize him! 😜

The weather this morning continued to be crisp with a light drizzle continuing from overnight.  I was slow to get out of my warm sleeping bag and pack up my gear.  I was on the river around 7:30 a.m. and welcomed the continuing strong current.  The river corridor from Ft. Benton to Ft. Kipp is included in the National Monument.  There are some grandfathered agricultural and motor boating activities and this first stretch of Monument had some pristine scenery but for at least one stretch it felt like paddling an irrigation ditch, a bit of let down from all the descriptions I’d read beforehand.  I resumed my routine of paddling until around noon, stopping for lunch, and then continuing on until about 4:00 p.m.

When I paused for a late afternoon stretch and to strategize where to camp, I realized I was already to the Vergelle Ferry.  At the pace of the river I would be at Coal Banks Landing in another 40 minutes.  My choice was to either stop there or to push on for another camping location.  The temptation of a vault toilet (no having to use a bag!) and the last chance at having WiFi sealed the deal.

The Coal Banks campsite overlooks the river and dinner was spent watching white pelican flying down the channel as deer swam across in the distance.  A pretty good day in almost every way…

It’s Memorial Day weekend and the start of the summer season.  As I was pulling into the Coal Banks boat landing a school group at least 25 strong was noisily departing (very slowly).  Two more groups of paddlers pulled in as I was setting up camp.  The famous white cliffs of the Missouri Breaks are 8 miles down from my current location.  My hope had been to camp there but I suspect it will be too crowded.  We’ll see where tomorrow’s float will take me but I suspect I’ll be pushing on to stay ahead of the holiday crowd.

This is most likely  the last time I’ll have internet or phone access until Ft. Peck a week(-ish) from now.  I’ll “see” you when I reconnect to civilization!