Tuesday, June 29, 2021

I was visited by a Monarch Butterfly yesterday afternoon…

Map of Kruger’s
Ultimate Canoe Challenge
For those of you familiar with the story of Verlen Kruger and the Sea Wind canoe, you’ll understand the symbolism of the Monarch…

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.

And then…

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
If you’ve read the books highlighting the story of Verlen Kruger you’ll know that the Monarch Butterfly held special significance to him.  It was the logo he used on the first versions of the canoe he designed, built, and refined for his marathon canoe trips.  Scott Smith worked for Verlen in his shop and when Verlen retired and sold his company, Kruger Canoes, Scott began building, with Verlen’s blessing, his own version of the Kruger Sea Wind, the Superior Expedition.  Scott built the canoe I’m using on this trip thus passing the legacy to me…

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…


Friday, June 25, 2021

Life in the very fast lane

When does 99 degrees equal 1,000 miles?  On the hottest day of the year in North Dakota and you reach the city of Bismarck, the 1,000 mile mark from the Three Forks, MT, Missouri River headwaters.  I’m not sure if other through paddlers on the river keep an eye on mileage the way I do (distance covered each day, distance to the next major goal, how far to go, how far I’ve gone) but it’s the method I use to keep focused.  The distance from the  headwaters to the confluence of the Missouri River with the Mississippi River is 2,321 miles.  That is a mind boggling distance; nearly the same as flying from New York City, NY, to San Francisco, CA.  Put differently, if I had paddled my 1,000 miles heading west out of New York City I would have arrived in Des Moines, IA, two days ago.  That sounds like a great accomplishment until I’m reminded that I still have from Des Moines to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to go.  Ugh!

My departure from the Garrison Dam was pretty leisurely.  I slept in (to almost 7:00 a.m!) and then spent some time repacking bags, checking emails, and getting ready to head downstream.  At 11:00 a.m. I popped into Nate’s office to let him know I was ready to depart.  We loaded up my gear and drove to the boat ramp on the downstream side of the dam.  It was one of those sunny, relaxing kind of days with low humidity and the temperature at that perfect mark in the mid(-ish) 70s.  Perfect weather for getting back on the river.

After thanking Nate for all his help, a shuttle around a big dam is truly a godsend, I shoved off.  The current below the dam is pretty fast from the daily release used to generate hydroelectric power so I enjoyed being back on a flowing river.  It’s 35 miles down to Washburn, ND, where a package was waiting for me at the post office under general delivery.  My noon departure meant that I wouldn’t make Washburn that day so I took it easy and let the current do the work.  My goal was to get about 10 miles upstream from Washburn to time my arrival at the Post Office for late morning the next day.

The biggest challenge of the day was finding a suitable campsite.  When my 6:00 p.m. “time to camp” mark arrived I started looking for a site.  It took another hour until I was able to locate a spot in a cottonwood gallery on the high bank off the river.  The woodlands formed by cottonwoods team with bird life and really give me a thrill every time I pass one.  Unfortunately, with flooding on the river now all but eliminated the conditions for their seeds to catch in the silt of newly flooded areas no longer exist.  In another 50 years the current cottonwoods will have reached the end of their natural lifespan and as they die they won’t be replaced by a younger crop of trees.

My trip into Washburn, ND, was pretty pleasant.  I pulled over at the edge of Riverview Park and staked my canoe down in a fairly hidden spot.  I walked to the Post Office to pick up my package (new paddling pants and shirt) and then went to the Ace Hardware store hoping to find an old style tractor seat cushion for my canoe.  When Verlen Kruger designed my style of canoe he used for a mold the most comfortable seat he could find, one from a Ford tractor.  Of course, the clerk at the hardware store had no idea what I was talking about (so much for my farm boy upbringing) but we did locate a pad in the hunting section that might work.  I can now report that the nerve in my bum doesn’t hurt nearly as bad after sitting in the same position for 10 continuous hours.

After grocery shopping and lunch at a cafe downtown I got back on the river thoroughly impressed with how clean and well kept Washburn appeared.  Since the day was over half done I decided to head seven miles downstream to the Cross Ranch State Park.  I’m so glad I did, this is a gem of a location along the river set in an old growth cottonwood forest.  The icing on the cake was the hot shower after a sweaty day on the river.

Looking over my maps, I came to the conclusion that the next campgrounds were downstream of Bismarck, ND and about 35 miles away.  All indications pointed to the fact that I wouldn’t be able to camp off the radar as the stretch of riverbank leading into and out of Bismarck was heavily developed with expensive waterfront homes.  The best bet was to head to Ft. Abraham Lincoln State Park, a distance of 37 miles and the making of a long day.

I got an early start and made my way downstream.  The mornings on the water have typically been calm with no wind so I enjoyed the current and placid conditions.  At noon I pulled over at the best spot I could locate, a cut in the river bank leading to the high embankment.  From the river it didn’t look like I would be infringing on anything more than a cattle watering hole.  As I climbed to the top of the bank I realized I was at the edge of someone’s lawn.  I thought about moving but it was lunch and nap time so decided to risk it.  Sure enough, just as I sat down and had fished out my first Cliff Bar I heard the sound of a four wheeler coming in my direction.  Busted!

The owner of the property, Lloyd Jones, had seen me coming down river and figured I had pulled off to take a breather.  We sat and talked for about 45 minutes about the history of the river, his frustrations with the Army Corps of Engineers in how they manage it, and a variety of other wide ranging topics.  At the end of our conversation he left me to pick a shaded spot for my nap and headed off to do other things.  Meeting him was one of the highlights of my day; sometimes a blunder can be a blessing.

After lunch I made my way towards Bismarck stopping once to accept a gift of water and a soda (thanks Bob!) from a gentleman out for the day on his pontoon boat with his daughter.  Bob warned me of the heavy boat traffic I’d encountered coming through the city and how to navigate up the Heart River to reach my next campground at Ft. Lincoln.  

What to say about my experience paddling through Bismarck?  Wow, just wow.  I have never seen that many personal watercraft in so short of a section of river.  Pontoon boats, speed boats, fishing boats going as fast as speed boats, and jet skis with teenagers zipping in between all of the others.  And me right in the thick of it trying to hold to the right bank in the deeper channel and not get run over.  About three quarters of a mile from my destination a congregation of dozens of boats of all sizes and shapes was pulled onto several sandbars where a full scale party was taking place, and me right in the thick of it.  I got the “what’s that old man doing in that kayak” look from nearly everyone I passed and just kept paddling.  I figured it would be a small miracle not to be run over and I didn’t want to hang around to give anyone an extra chance!

By the time I reached the campground to drag my gear up the bank (no boat ramp at that state park) I was exhausted.  I would need to take some me time the next day to tour the Mandan village and Ft. Lincoln to decompress.  I took most of the morning off, determined that I would paddle only 20 miles and enjoyed chatting with other campground residents including Rosalie and Bill Lithicum from Bethany, Missouri.  They approached me by saying “we saw your rig and we bet you have a story to tell.”  “Oh do I!” was response.  It turns out that Montana snowstorms and tents destroyed in North Dakota tornados make for good storytelling!

So that leads us downstream and entering Lake Oahe today paddling into south winds with whitecaps forming as a thunderstorm brewed and spit rain all morning.  I reached the Hazelton boat ramp at noon and sat during lunch with my weather radio and iPhone apps trying to determine what to expect for the afternoon.  The wind appeared to be strengthening and the Weather Service said it would continue through the afternoon so I decided to call it and set up camp.  I’m now in the high traffic zone with a highway running nearby, probably the busiest campsite I’ve had all trip.  The kicker is that about an hour after I set up my tent the wind stopped and the lake has been smooth as glass.  It did rain all afternoon so that’s some consolation for calling another early day.  I spent the time chatting with strangers about my trip and life in North Dakota.  I also had a chance to plan the next few days on the water; I really didn’t have a game plan coming into this high water and that was weighing heavy on mind and paddling outlook.  The next few days are forecast to be nearly perfect paddling conditions (light tailwinds, temperatures in the 70s to low 80s, slight waves).  Let’s Oahe continues to be welcoming to me.  From what I’ve seen so far, things are greener and more lush than sections of eastern Montana and western North Dakota that I’ve already passed through.







Monday, June 21, 2021

Goodbye Lake Sakakawea…

With Thomas & Amber from
Dakota Waters
Arduous, now there’s a good word and one that describes my final day traversing reservoir #2 on this trip.  I had a relaxing, although short, time at Dakota Waters (DW).  When you’re on a trip like this the routine patterns of society get left behind.  When I was paddling towards DW it was apparent the weekend had arrived on the lake.  Saturday was fairly calm with perfect temperatures (in the mid 80s) and the lake shore was lined with row after row of fishing boats all vying for that perfect catch.  At times it felt like I was running a maze as I paddled across a bay, encountered up to 20 boats on the opposite shore, and had to weave my way amongst them to again follow the coastline.  At lunchtime I ran my canoe up on a sandy beach with good protection from the waves and wind and within 15 minutes was joined by half a dozen pontoon and party boats.  I’m sure I made quite a sight to the bikini clad revelers, me clad in dirty paddle clothing. 😏😆

Entering the protective cove of Dakota Waters I observed a queue of a dozen boats waiting to exit at the boat ramp.  It turns out that not only was this a weekend day but it was Father’s Day weekend (I had totally forgotten!) and two fishing tournaments were taking place in the area.  Summer entering the high season while I’ve been in the seat of a canoe 10 hours a day for the last month.  It’s good to know that life is moving on in the “outside world.”

Camping in ND is tough work!
The cabin I nabbed by luck (a late cancellation) was perfect recharging in the form of a hot shower and getting my battery packs ready to go.  I had a great burger at the resort grill, did some blogging (my post from two days ago), and then got a good night’s sleep, occasionally waking up to the sound of rain falling hard on the cabin roof.  I woke up at my usual 5:30 a.m. and took a little time to check work emails (nothing important sent my way in the last two weeks) and pack my bags for that day’s paddle.  Amber would have the breakfast buffet ready at 7(-ish) so I decided to head over for a hot meal.  When I stepped onto the cabin porch it was soaked from previous night’s rain.  Curious, did the wind blow the rain onto the porch? It was then that I noticed my once dried paddling boots where soaked and that my canoe that I had put on the porch to protect was nearly filled with water.  The cabin roof had been torn up in a previous windstorm and has yet to be replaced. The junction of the porch roof and cabin roof met right above my canoe and all that water came directly down on it.  So much for protecting my baby from the storm!

I sat and chatted with Amber and Thomas, my Dakota Waters hosts, for a bit after breakfast and signed that season’s tribute canoe paddle for through paddlers.  In between passes to haul gear to the landing I stopped to chat with two college students working the Game and Parks department for the summer checking fishing tags.  It was fun to hear about their life plans and where they are in college and the courses they’ve taken so far.  Nothing better to an old biology professor than hearing from upcoming biologists about their enthusiasm for the life sciences.

It was after 9:00 a.m. by the time I shoved off and started my paddle day.  The weather prediction was for 15 mph north-northwest winds for the day gusting into the 30 mph range.  After rounding the Dakota Waters headland I deployed the sail and started down the coast.  The winds were fairly mild and I made good progress, especially crossing the bays between headlands.  I began to notice that while crossing each bay the wind would push or “skate” me sideways so that by the time I reached opposite shore I was down from the tip of the headland.  That resulted in having to paddle around the breaker zone to get back in position to follow the shore.  I kept this up all morning as the winds increased in strength.  I was getting tired and it was time to stop for lunch but it took a bit to find a protective bay where I could rest.

While eating lunch I looked over my maps and determined that I had made it to Hazen Bay, still another 16 miles to Riverdale, my goal for the day.  Lake Sakakawea State Park is on the other side of the Garrison Dam and about 9 miles from my current destination.  The state park was a doable goal in the current water conditions but there was no way I would make Riverdale.  I sent a text to Nate, my contact at Sakakawea Sunset Lodge, that I was heading to the state park boat ramp.  “No problem” was the reply, I can pick you up there.

I took a short nap, finished my lunch of smoked pork loin that Thomas from Dakota Waters had sent with me, and started onward.  Within 20 minutes it was clear that the wind just wasn’t blowing in my favor that day so I dropped the sail, tied it to the deck, and continued onward.  There’s not much to tell about the rest of the day, just an arduous paddle.  I crept along the coastline and began to notice where the waves would build to large swells and where they would settle down to easy paddling.  It appeared the biggest waves were offshore of the sharp bluffs in shallow waters formed by the sediment.  I’d ride over the big 5-6 foot waves and then move into deeper water where the waves were 2-3 feet in size, the usual limit for an open deck canoe.  My Superior Expedition nicely handles larger water but that doesn’t mean the paddler doesn’t get tired from keeping the boat moving. 😆

I finally rounded the last headland, and off course, just as I thought the long day of trials was over I was hit by waves coming from both directions across the lake and bay.  My canoe was forced into the rock strewn shallow waters and I was forced to get out and line it down the beach; the most challenging event all day and nearly at the end, ugh!

Turning south into the State Park bay I was now heading south and could deploy the sail to catch the now northerly tailwind.  I crossed quickly to the shelter of the marina and landed at the boat ramp about 15 minutes past the 7:00 p.m. time of arrival I had given Nate.  I gave Nate a call and he said he was swamped in the restaurant and it would be about 45 minutes before he could pick me up.  Not a problem, I had to pull all the bags out of the canoe and remove the outriggers.  Plus, my son, Austin, called me for a good Father’s Day chat.  A good end to a demanding paddling day.

Nate grew up in Pickstown and Riverdale, the two communities that flank the Garrison Dam.  Of Sioux heritage, he travelled widely to job sites with his dad, a former pipe fitter.  Nate went to college in Moorehead, MN, then taught third grade in southern Utah for several years before returning to North Dakota to build the restaurant and run the motel.  His dream is to paddle the Missouri River with his girlfriend, Amy, and is trying to sell the business so he can have the time.  Now I understand why he helps all the paddlers coming through that he can, part of  what he called his “selfish dream.”  My only advice is that you both look to be fit and are hard workers, do it while you have the chance.

My next challenge is Lake Oahe, the longest reservoir, 220 miles, on the Missouri River.  Reports say that it can be more grueling than Sakakawea but I’m learning it’s all in timing.  My time on Lake Ft. Peck was fairly easy, other paddlers coming down shortly after had really hard conditions.  So I’ll take half a day off here in Riverdale (that name still sounds like a Tolkien place name to me!) to chill and repack the laundry I was up late doing (again, thanks to Nate for being so helpful).  I plan to paddle a few miles down from the dam towards Washburn, ND, where I have a mail pickup waiting that I need to time my arrival to the Post Office.

Looking back on my time on Lake Sakakawea I have good memories.  I worked hard to get through this challenge, I always want to paddle when I have the chance as conditions can force paddlers on shore for days, but I enjoyed my time here.  The scenery is spectacular in places and I met some really nice people.  I’m looking forward to the next phase and seeing what new encounters it brings me.


Garrison Dam in the distance
I’m done with lake #2!

Father’s Day ribs feast!

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.