|Map of Kruger’s|
Ultimate Canoe Challenge
I met Verlen once once; while I was studying biology at Western Michigan University in the early 1980s. All students were required to take two physical education courses and I had signed up for introductory karate class with Dave Digget, one of the PE faculty. I so enjoyed Dave’s class and teaching style that I tried to take a PE class from him every semester afterwards, mainly as a diversion to my stressful science schedule. While enrolled in Dave’s Winter Camping course, he announced that one of his friends would be giving a presentation on his canoeing adventures and we should all attend.
The slide presentation that Verlen Kruger gave that night captivated me. He talked about his Ultimate Canoe Challenge, a journey of over 28,000 miles down the Missouri River from the headwaters and to the the Great Lakes via the Mississippi/Illinois Rivers, around the coasts of the inland oceans and out through the St. Lawrence Seaway to the East Coast then to Florida and up the Mississippi River to the Lake Itasca headwaters and over the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast by hopping over lakes and major rivers; then down to Baja California and UP the Colorado and back to the Missouri River via the Green River and Popo Agie and the Yellowstone and then home to the Great Lakes via a few more portages through Canada leading to the Boundary Waters. Holy cow, just trying to write about it is overwhelming, how did he ever accomplish it? And there I was, a young twenty-something dreaming of doing a similar trip. Little did I know that my own “big paddle” would have to wait almost 40 years before I could attempt it.
The morning I left Hazelton conditions were pretty calm. I rose early, worked quickly to tear down camp, eat breakfast, and pack the canoe. As I departed I knew I my energy levels were beginning to drain. Every morning I’m excited to hit the water (a good sign) but since the Williston storm I had lost the drive to push forward. The float down from the Garrison dam had helped and I thought I was getting back in the groove but the passage through Bismarck and into Oahe had turned my mood sour. A sour mood leads to the blues and the blues leads to the self doubts and the “will I ever finish this trip” questioning of one’s self…
I decided that in my current frame of mind I should refocus on the task at hand, completing Oahe. Take it one day at a time, do as many miles as the conditions allow, be satisfied with what comes. So I pushed forward from Hazelton telling myself that I aways knew I’d hit a low point in the trip and here it was so deal with it.
It has been a very dry year in Montana and the Dakotas. Very little rain and water levels in the reservoirs down significantly (at least 10 feet) from a year ago. The channel leading into Oahe usually opens into open lake a few miles above Hazelton, this year the river continues confined by sandbars on both sides to south of Ft. Rice. As a result, I had good current as I headed south that morning.
Despite my mood, I had a pretty good float that day. I reached Beaver Creek at lunch time and pulled onto the beach to eat and take a short nap. The weather was perfect and there was a light northerly breeze to push me along. I considered my options and although Beaver Creek had showers I decided to move on to Cattail Bay and get a few more miles behind me. Beaver Creek was also a bit too busy for me with all the pontoon boats and the frenzy of activity in the campground.
My float down to Cattail Bay went nicely for the first several hours. About 4 miles out (ca. 1.5 hours by canoe) the clouds began to build but nothing too disconcerting. Looking at my GPS, I determined that the coastline would bend back the east as I rounded the next point leading to the end of that day’s paddling. I rounded the point and then all hell broke loose, the famous Oahe wind. Within minutes the day went from calm conditions to all boaters on the water scrambling to reach shelter on the shore. As the wind increased in strength the waves swelled to 6-8 feet in size. My sail was up and I pushed onward looking for a place to beach the canoe. Unfortunately, the shore in that stretch of the lake was large rock that would damage my boat if I ran up on it. Realizing my best choice for the moment was to continue on I made my way to Cattail Bay. Just as I rounded the point and into the protect bay the full force of the storm hit, I was safe and headed for camp.
Just as fast as it had risen, the storm passed. I unloaded my boat and carried my gear up the hill to the closest available campsite. A chat with a couple of campers revealed that one of them, Andy, was from Omaha vacationing with his family. Andy and his cousin-in-law, Thomas (from Linton, ND, not Lincoln…can’t you understand these thick accents up here!?) invited me for a cold drink and pizza up at the hilltop bar. It was a pleasant evening hanging with a family of strangers and answering questions about my trip. The biggest one from Andy’s wife (“do you ever get scared out there alone”) was the most memorable. Fear on a trip like this is always there but it’s the loneliness at the end of a paddling day where you’ve already done 10 hours of thinking while in the canoe seat that’s the hardest.
Early the next morning I pulled out from Cattail Bay heading south and as I was rounding the bend out of the bay Andy yelled good luck from the porch of his rental cabin. I was still in my funk and didn’t know how far I’d get that day. I knew that West Pollock was about 20 miles away, a very short day as I’d reach it just after lunch time. I paddled on and passed over the state line into South Dakota just before noon. The rest of the afternoon was fairly uneventful but thunderheads were building behind me, best to make for the next campground with storm shelter. It began to rain and I pulled on my paddling jacket to keep dry. The rain continued to increase in intensity as I headed into the West Pollock bay around 3 p.m. A quick chat with a family swimming from their pontoon boat informed me that my map was wrong, there were showers and hot food available at West Pollock. I now had a good excuse for a short paddle day.
I lugged my gear up to the nearly empty campground (that will change as July 4th approaches) and started to set up camp just as the full force of the storm arrived. I got the tent up and all my gear stowed inside as the winds started to howl and rain increase in force. A good time to go take a hot shower. By the time I exited the shower house the zephyr had passed and the rain was starting to lighten. Soon it was a sunny day again but my early call of the day was a good one, no need to be out on the water with the wind and lightning.
I had finished dinner at the cafe at the park entrance and was winding things down when the campground host came by on his rounds. He asked me if I’d paid and I replied “no, no cell service here and not sure how much to leave anyhow because I came off the water and not into the park by car.“ It took a couple of phone calls to his supervisors to clear up how much I owed and then we spent the next hour talking. Both having moved to Nebraska after growing up and living elsewhere, we discussed the politics of the state and Husker football and how it can appear a bit absurd to an outsider, no matter how many years you live there.
Yesterday dawned clear with low winds from the NNE. The water had a sparkly look that usually means large waves as the day goes on. I decided I had to move forward and if things blew up again to deal with it by getting off the water and making camp when needed. I put up the sail and headed out of West Pollock bay towards Indian Creek. My plan was to get as far as possible, camp that night, and then go to Indian Creek where I’d take a day off to do laundry and rest.
Around lunchtime I was already three quarters of the way to Mobridge, SD/Indian Creek. The sky was blue and filled with puffy clouds (no sign of thunderstorms) and the wind speed and direction had been perfect all morning. I stopped for a short lunch rest and then got back on the water as quickly as possible to take full advantage of the favorable conditions.
I continued sailing towards Mobridge and by 3:00 p.m. it was clear that this was turning out to be the perfect day. A float (33 miles) that I thought would take two days would be done in one and the conditions for using my sail where ideal; slight wind, no waves, good weather. I couldn’t have asked for a better day after the struggles of the last week.
A Monarch Butterly appeared out of nowhere and circled my sail before turning to face me; a few moments pause and then off on the wind to disappear over the water.
|Approaching Mobridge, SD, shortly after|
my butterfly encounter
When that Monarch Butterfly appeared over the bow of my Superior Expedition I took it as a symbol of Verlen’s spirit and love for paddling; for the inspiration given to a young college kid in 1983 to go out and do his own big paddle. How does my 1,800 miles compare to Verlen’s 28,000 (and another 75,000 miles on other trips)? It’s a drop in the bucket but it’s my bucket; after yesterday’s perfect day, the best day I’ve had in weeks, I know I’ve got this.
Now it’s time to finish the laundry, crawl into the hammock for a nap, enjoy the remainder of my rest day, and to remember to just keep paddling…