After cleaning the dishes and buttoning up camp for the night we slid our canoe back into Lake Agnes for a short paddle. The sun illuminated the clouds in a beautiful patchwork of color and light. We find joy in simple moments like gathering water, setting up camp, preparing food and paddling out into the lake with only the goal of watching the light change.
A great blue heron erupted out of the tall grass and floated gracefully across the marsh ahead of our canoe. After a couple more bends down Heritage Creek we greeted the same heron again. Over and over again the bird jumped ahead of us as we made our away to Heritage Lake. A few times we were able to silently paddle past the heron, but inevitably it would startle and take flight only to be surprised by us a minute or two later.
Eventually we left the creek and the heron behind and paddled across Heritage Lake. Splashes of red from scattered maple trees are signaling that fall is just around the corner and on the long portage between Lynx Lake and Ruby Lake we spotted our first few golden birches. The earth has almost come full circle since we entered the Wilderness 341 days ago.
“Some places should be preserved from development or exploitation for they satisfy a human need for solace, belonging and perspective. In the end we turn to nature in a frenzied chaotic world, there to find silence, oneness, wholeness, spiritual release,” – Sigurd Olson
Loon Lake’s glassy surface smoked in the cool morning air. Birds, bugs, humans– all things were still and silent for a moment. The thud of a pine cone hurled from high above and the red squirrel’s shrill chatter broke the calm. Movement and sound swept over us and my mind returned to cooking, writing and preparing for another day.
Kids and dogs, parents and grandparents, catching up with old friends and making new ones. . . this week has been filled with people bound together by the Singing Wilderness. Our campsite was even temporarily invaded by a canoe flying a pirate’s flag. Luckily they only brandished smiles and questions.
Amy and I have never taken the time to visit this area before, always rushing past on our way to or from the far north, following arteries of water that stretch from here to the Arctic Ocean. We have paddled and dogsledded the “voyageur highway” across Lac La Croix multiple times, typically traversing the area in a day or two. This 40 mile stretch was always just a tiny snippet of a longer Wilderness adventure covering hundreds or thousands of miles. In the fall of 2011 we paddled across Lac La Croix after spending the better part of a year and a half traveling more than 7,000 miles by kayak, canoe and dogsled from Bellingham, Washington up to the Arctic and then south across Canada to the Boundary Waters.
Now we have the luxury to slow down and be immersed in this place in a very different way. Today is our 334th day of our #wildernessyear to @savetheBWCA. We have visited 452 bodies of water and traveled several thousand miles, but absorbing, documenting and sharing the Wilderness are really our goals. This time there is no rushing past these hidden gems that lie right under our noses. The deep, clear, trout-filled lakes south of Lac La Croix are wild and untrammeled, connected by narrow, moss-covered portage paths. The wildflowers brush our ankles and pine boughs tug at the canoe as we portage past– a refreshing change from the well trodden trails along the border route to our north. Often the path of least resistance is not the most rewarding.
July 30, 2016
Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota
Not a bad day in paradise. A light breeze out of the east not causing much trouble. The Saturday motorboat crowd, here for the fishing tournament, was stirring the water today. They aren’t so bad either. At least something to watch. The landscape is shifting too, as we paddle east. The bluffs have returned to less sheer, more conical, gentle shapes that favor vegetation. I like the way the trees fill in all the gaps between the hills. They meet the tops of the bluffs but don’t spill over. Like the mud that oozes up between your toes walking on the shoreline. The landscape now looks like a giant pressing her fists up through the earth. The hills are her knuckles, the valleys the space in between. Trees fill in the gaps her fingers leave behind.
As we bend south with the lake, the red rocks are dwindling too. The exposed stone has neutralized in color. Cream, grey, brown. Not so many layers visible here and the stone doesn’t seem so fragile. We stopped at the marina on the right shore in New Town to fill water and buy mustard – a lunch staple. We still have about 4 days of water, but when it’s available so close to the river, we top off. The few extra minutes we use here will hopefully save us time and stress as we travel farther down the lake and options remain scarce. Learning applied. We spent another brutally hot day on the lake with plenty of swimming and time enjoying the scenery and chatting with some of the fishermen we passed. Feeling good to get back in the natural rhythm.
The morning dawned crisp and clear, with only a slight wind coming out of the south-east (this being the direction we are paddling in). Up at 6am, like a spry little chicken. I am excited to get back into our routine, getting on the water early. No more floating breakfasts, since the wind would push us in the opposite direction we want to go. Still a little pokey from being out of our routine for so long, we got on the water by 8am. The wind wasn’t really that bad and it felt like we were making good progress. Lake Sakakawea has so much to offer. After paddling for 3 hours we took a break at a beach with amazing rock features and bluffs. I took a few minutes to explore and it turned out to be small caves! Amazingly cool and serene, I wished it was time to camp for this would be the perfect spot. Alas it was not meant to be and we pushed on, rounding the bend and passing under the highway 23 bridge. The Four Bears Marina was on our right and we stopped to fill up our water jug and purchase mustard for our lunches. It would have been a big deal to run out of mustard!! Attempted a floating lunch as the wind was sort of side ways now and pushing us into shore. It was not a good lunch, being tossed and turned by the waves from the numerous motorboats. Next time I’ll just get out of the boat and relax on shore.
The afternoon wore on, as the sun beat down and the miles slowly ticked by. Only averaging 2 miles per hour today and it is hard paddling. Sometimes it feels like I’m in a canoe on a tread mill! Compared to our past river travel, we are moving so slow. Alas that is the life of a river rat. Swimming multiple times throughout the afternoon really helped, along with listening to music and talking about nothing in particular. Around 4:30pm, our usual stopping point, we were in the process of crossing a bay and had no choice yet to keep paddling. At 5:48 we made it to land and although a muddy, mucky landing, there was a real treasure at this spot. That being a grove of trees not to far from shore. The illusive shade was found. After humping our gear to the shade, getting our tents set up, we swam for a while to cool our hot and my aching body off.
Lisa whipped up a dinner of one pot quinoa, green pepper, onion and canned fiesta chicken. A delicacy, eaten in the extreme comfort of the shade, with a good breeze keeping the pestilence (aka horse flies) at bay. Assessing the map during dinner and we went almost 18 miles! We are 80 miles from the end of the lake and the garrison dam! Half way point! What a hard fought point this has been! A magnificent valley with a plethora of sage bushes awaited us after dinner. Just hiking up a little from the lake and we could see for miles back the way we came and slightly around the point we will round tomorrow. Laying in my tent, safe from the bugs, with the sun setting for my evening entertainment, I am so privileged to live this life. Beyond words really. The cooling earth is singing her good night songs, the cicadas in harmony. The wind adds her hymn and all is right in the world. Well at least here, this exact moment. I want for nothing. Thank you lake Sakakawea.
July 31, 2016
57 miles west of the Garrison Dam
Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota
The water looked like liquid silver in the morning sun obscured by clouds. Just enough breeze to give it texture and contrast. It was like what I imagine paddling through mercury would be like, nervous system damage and delirium aside. We had two hours of total calm before the wind said “HERE I AM.” She doesn’t have to speak too loud, the large basin she blows across does that work for her.
A breeze, they call it on the weather radio, can be 5-25 mph. Even 5mph across such a vast expanse of water as Lake Sakakawea can stir up one-foot swells. This is called fetch. It essentially means that the larger the body of water wind has to travel across, the bigger the waves will be when they reach the other side. With the wind an waves at our back, this isn’t so bad. Then we can travel upwards of 3 or 4 mph. The wind in our faces and we might be down to a single mile an hour. That sucks. That’s when we decide to conserve our energy by waiting on shore. If the wind is around 20+ mph or the waves are bigger than two feet, we sit that out too.
Today, on the northeast shore, we felt a wind coming at us from the southwest. We decided to make the crossing – probably about 2 miles or so. We wanted to make it before the wind picked up, as predicted, and we might get stuck on the windy side of the lake. You have to pay a lot of attention when making big crossings like this. As we’ve experienced out here, the weather can change pretty quickly, without much warning. You don’t want to be stuck out in the middle of a crossing when that happens. We pay constant attention to the wind direction, speed, and the clouds. We listen to the NOAA weather report about 5 times a day as well, though it is seldom accurate. What we usually experience on Lake Sakakawea is that she has a mind and soul of her own.
We made our way across in the lake in a southwest headwind. Wouldn’t you know that as soon as we reached the south shore, the wind started to blow from the north? Now we had a crosswind. Those are hard to paddle in too. Gaahhh. We laughed at the irony. The wind stopped, started again from the east, stopped again. The lake just became an unsettled creature. After lunch, the real wind set in. Straight out of the east. A perfect headwind. Here we go upper body, another day of battle. “Kisses over Babylon” by Ed Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros has become our official SOC battle song. It always seems to fill the iPhone airwaves when we need it. Decision made, we’re not leaving the lunch spot yet. Too windy to be worth it. Energy is as precious a commodity as calm water out here and it’s not worth wasting it on traveling 1 mile and hour. The forecast has wind coming out of the north tomorrow which will be in our favor. We left the boat loaded in case the wind died down. Prediction was 10-25mph from the southeast (our direction of travel).
We set up the tarp for some shade but I was in a frustrated mood and ended up doing a really poor job. You know when it’s 1,000 degrees outside and really windy and you have to untangle 8,000 knots from a string that keeps flying out of your hand? I yelled a lot at nothing in particular. The tarp ended up too low to sit comfortably under and really just gave shade to a few rocks. I hope they appreciated it, at least.
We waited about an hour and made the call to camp. The wind was still whipping from the southeast and a storm seemed on its way in from the north. As soon as we set the tents up the wind essentially shut off. Of course. The water calmed down and the “storm” ended up taking a turn east and missed us completely. Ahhhhhhh there is nothing more frustrating than making a decision to camp when you could conceivably still paddle. We both yelled a bunch more, swam, and surrendered to the circumstances.
“Sakakawea, you got us this time!” declared Alyce. I pulled out my guitar and played really loud. Then we broke out the cards and played 100 rounds of speed. Some more Type 1 fun to take our minds off of our indecisive moods.
I hate those moments of second-guessing and indecision. It can be so hard to know if you made the right call sometimes. The higher the stakes, the worse the anxiety. In those moments you really have to step back and look at the big picture. Out here, we only have the information in front of us. Is it safe and do we have the energy to paddle in this or not? All the research and weather reports in the world can’t tell you if you will be able to paddle for 11 days straight or be stuck for 3 days in a storm. Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t. Might as well play some cards!
As the sunlight faded, a big storm started to roll through. We turned on the weather radio again and heard the warnings being issued for severe death across the plains. “People and animals caught outside will be injured,” the voice said. “Seek shelter in an interior room of a sturdy building.” Perfect. We looked around our beach and up to the steep bluffs behind us. Guess we’ll tuck into the little ravine nearby if a tornado comes. A few waves of torrential rain rolled through. Thunder and lightning crashed all around us. The lake turned into an ocean of fury. We hunkered down and hoped for the best.
After an hour or so, the storm passed. No harm, thank goodness. The sunset was beautiful.
Like clockwork, I awoke at 4am to pee. This acts as my hydration alarm clock. There is always a faint glow coming from the east, as the sun stretches her fingers into the air. Some mornings I don’t really fall back as sleep, spending time with the morning and watching the full sunrise. These quiet and calm times are glorious, though today I quickly transcended back into the sleep world. With 6 am on the clock and the sunlight breaking through the grove of trees, I actually wanted to get up and enjoy the sunrise. The morning went as she usually does. Pack up gear, load boat, eat breakfast, apply sunscreen and paddle. The wind wasn’t that bad and we were paddling with gusto. Crossed back over to the south shore (right side) around 10am and were able to continue paddling quite easily for the rest of the morning. At exactly noon we pulled into a small bay, providing decent shelter from the wind which had started to increase ever so slightly.
A terrific lunch spot! Though during this time the wind let us know she was present and by 1pm when we were ready to paddle on, the wind was to much to try and move forward in. We were wind bound. Instead of unloading the boat right away I suggested we wait to see if it changed at all. After an hour and a half, with no change and storm clouds coming straight at us, we made the call to set up camp. The rest of the afternoon was spent swimming to stay cool and playing card games. Along with watching the storm clouds dancing across the sky. Great entertainment. Until it got a bit more serious. The dark swirling gray clouds were coming at us from all directions in the sky. The wind was picking up something fierce, creating large waves, that were stampeding towards the shore. There was also the occasional burst of sun rays and the beginning colors of the sunset. The fainter yellow and duller orange, before the beginning of the crescendo of the sunset. What an evening, watching the water and storm all around us. Thankfully it passed by and the evening became calmer, allowing for a nice nights sleep.
August 1, 2016
Confluence of the Little Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea (aka big Missouri)
47 miles west of Garrison Dam
Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota
Last night remained calm, which was very good because we decided to wake up at 5 am. Clouds were moving in and lighting flashed far in the distance but the water was calm. The sun was still below the horizon.
We got everything packed up using headlamps – something we hardly ever use these long summer days. A few rain drops started to fall and thunder rumbled overhead. We took our time packing up, eating breakfast and watching the sunrise so the little storm cloud could move on by. We got a cross-tailwind from the northwest and put up the sail for about five minutes until it disappeared. We’d have to paddle across the rest of the east-west stretch before turning north again to get around independence point. As soon as we were about halfway across the stretch to get us to the far east shore, a strong wind picked up from the north. This made forward progress nearly impossible. All we could do was move sideways to stay pointed into the waves that were threatening to spill over the gunwales. We lost any progress we had made north and just focused on moving sidelong to the east shore.
We had made it about 4 miles in 2 hours and were wind-bound again. It was easier for me to surrender to the situation this time because I was happy we had made any progress at all so early in the morning. I’ve figured out that if I can feel productive in the first several hours of the morning, it sets me up for a good day. All the cloud cover helped boost my mood too as I hadn’t had time to overheat yet. I capitalized on the motivated mood I was in and did some writing. Alyce paced the shore for a while longer bemoaning the wind and looking for treasures before settling in to reading and writing as well.
Picture this: high up on a bluff, protected from the sun and wind, a cavalry of 100 or so dragonflies keeping the biting insects away, and an ocean-like body of water rumbling at your feet. Also, an oil well and pump about a quarter-mile to the south (they are everywhere). Not a bad office space. The wind started to die down so we ate lunch and pulled away from shore at noon. We traveled north into a slight headwind that disappeared and then raged again over the next two hours. We got to the point that would start our turn east and south and weren’t sure if we could make it around in the wind. We pulled up close and went to scout while listening to the weather forecast and having a snack.
The wind died down again and as the water slowly followed suit, we made a break for it. Then, the miracle of all miracles happened: a perfect tailwind. We threw the sail up and didn’t take it down until we hit camp about 4 hours and 13 miles later. We went about twice the distance using less than half the effort as we had been the past few days. THAT FELT SO GOOD. It helped make up for all the headwinds and indecision we’d been fighting the days previous.
Around 5pm, I assessed that I had about two hours left in me before I’d need to get to camp. It takes work to create habits that set you up for success. Alyce and I are both women who live in extremes. It’s just who we are. But that doesn’t mean we can’t change our habits and patterns of behavior to better support ourselves, each other, and our expedition. So, we are trying to ease up on the gas, even when the weather was good.
We made it all the way to the confluence of the Little Missouri River at exactly 7, the time I had predicted we should stop to keep from over-doing it. The wind pretty much stopped but waves were still kicking us, favorably, south. We listened to the weather again: a clam night and light winds out of the west (perfect!) for tomorrow. We decided to stick to the plan we’d made two hours ago and camp. We’d handle the 2 mile crossing to the south shore tomorrow.
We found a great camp spot, got camp set up quickly, and had some celebratory mac and cheese. What an excellent first day of August. There were so many times when both of us made exclamations about the incredible shoreline (there are trees!!), the ocean-like size of the lake, how fast we were traveling, how much fun we were having, and how surreal life can be sometimes. A 5 am start, twice wind-bound, and we were still able to make it 23 miles. Those are 23 miles we won’t take for granted. I felt proud of the distance we’d covered today – both in miles and in improving our team decision-making. Good, good things came our way today!
What the heck! It’s August already? How has this come upon us? And so quickly. We are entering the fourth month of the expedition. Time gets funny out here. An hour of time actually feels like a minute. It needs to slow down. I am unsure if it will. To celebrate the new month we got up at 5am (also to try and make some miles before the wind starts). It was still dusky and gray, with lots of clouds in the sky. Between 6 and 6:30 am it lightly rained. I was glad to be out of the tent, all my dry and warm items packed in their waterproof bags. It can feel almost impossible to get out of the tent when it’s raining. All comfy, cozy in my sleeping bag tent. Luckily today I did not have to do battle with the part of me who doesn’t always like to be wet and cold.
Sunrise was spectacular! Eating breakfast and watching the sky morph from neon pink to a deep, deep fushia pink. What a great way to start the day. The early paddler gets the best sunrise, as they say. We also get some miles under the canoe before the wind becomes to much to paddle in. When you start to make negative progress and are only being pushed side ways, into a bay towards land, that you know it’s time to stop. We had gotten 2 hours of paddling in before getting wind bound at what I am calling cow poop beach. A wonderful bluff offered us shade protection for the morning, slowly diminishing as the earth rotated around the sun.
No time like the present to get some work done and it was a funny site to see: both Lisa and I working on our electronics, solar panels and batteries charging up in the rays. We spoke with Viki over the phone about the next resupply at the end of Lake Sakakawea, at the Garrison Dam. The original timeline has us arriving there on the 8th of August. When we left Tobacco Gardens on July 28, we needed to average 15 miles a day to get there on the 4th of August; we like being ahead of the timeline and having buffer days. Well after just that first day of paddling that became evident to not being realistic, as we were only traveling 1.5/2 miles an hour. Now with being wind bound two days in a row and as of this morning 66 miles to paddle to the dam, it seemed more like the 6th or 7th we would arrive. That’s if we didn’t get wind bound a bunch more.
Though ahza! Around 11am the wind started to calm down! We quickly ate lunch and jumped in the boats. We were about 4 miles away from Independence Point. Once around it the wind would be in our favor, coming from behind us! We just had to get around that point! The water was wonderfully calm for the first hour, then the wind came back and the last two miles to the point where hard fought. We walked up the shore and assessed the water around the point, defiantly fine to paddle in. Upon getting around the point we were treated to the wind being at our backs and using our sail!! What a terrific way to spend the afternoon, which turned into early evening and we were still cruising. Though our energy started to decrease and as we came upon the confluence with the little Missouri River, a mile crossing stood in front of us. There was also an amazing beach and camping spot, so we called it a day. After dinner I climbed up the bluff near our campsite and took in stunning views of Lake Sakakawea. Another divine sunset to end this day of river life.
August 2, 2016
Dakota Waters Resort and Marina
Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota
Ugh. Calm water but a rocky start to the morning. Early morning is not a good time for me to discuss issues productively, I have learned. My brain is just not up to a high-functioning speed yet. I get irritated way more easily. I can take ownership for that. This morning, I interpreted Alyce’s tone of voice as more confrontational than she probably intended it and snapped some dumb response back at her. I thought I was just moving through my normal routine. Get up, pack my stuff, eat breakfast while reading a few pages of my book, start loading the canoe.
Sometimes I’m ready before Alyce and sometimes Alyce is ready before I am. Depends on the day and we alternate so frequently, it doesn’t make all that much difference to me. If there’s a task to be done and you are ready to do it, you do it, no big deal. Chances are that the other person is picking up your slack from time to time too. Today it seemed to matter to Alyce though and as I started getting things ready to go, she brought up this tension that she’s been feeling about how long it takes each of us to eat. In the moment, the way Alyce addressed the issue felt pretty accusatory.
I usually don’t need as much time to get ready in the morning which, I think, Alyce might view as impatience. Alyce likes to take her time. I realized this only bothers me if we get up early to hit the water before the wind picks up and time seems to drag out on shore. Maybe I was feeling impatient with that this morning and didn’t realize it. That also could have affected the way I communicated. I think confusion played a role too; sometimes it seems like the expectations and routines change without warning based on how Alyce is feeling in the moment. I can understand that as a person who also has a tendency to decide things by feeling. When you are working on a team, it’s good to be aware of when it’s happening – which is hard.
I think if one person is sensitive about something, you have to be a little more sensitive about it too to avoid making them feel worse about it. It helps when you know what the sensitivity is though, otherwise you end up making assumptions and mis-interpreting communication, just like what happened this morning. Sometimes the communication gets messy. When it starts to get messy, it’s good to table it for the moment and talk about it later when both people have had some time and space from the emotions of the moment. Then it’s a lot easier to think about what you actually want and think about the situation from the other person’s perspective.
Even though things were still tense, we both seemed to drop it as we loaded the rest of the boat, at least recognizing when we can make progress and when we can’t. That, even if the communication wasn’t something to be proud of, is a success!
The water was perfectly calm and we made the crossing – our last big one of the Lake. Home stretch – though who knows how long that will take us… A bug infestation in the canoe was very annoying. Thousands of tiny flies hatched in the boat, covering us and all of our stuff. Where is the wind when you need it? HA. We swatted at them, tried swimming, tried going to shore to see if they would leave to find another home. Ed Sharpe came on the airwaves again as we waged a war that we really couldn’t win. Kisses over Babylon.
It just seemed like one of those days where both of were tired, not talkative, trying to feign positivity or just not say much to avoid arguments. The west wind we were hoping for never totally showed up, adding to the already semi-low morale. There was a bit of a breeze that kept us going in the right direction, at least. We kept about a 3mph pace most of the day, which felt really good.
Around 5pm, the wind was essentially gone and our pace was slowing. We were hoping to get to Dakota Waters Resort before some more heavy winds set in, as predicted. That was looking less and less likely. Then, out of nowhere, an angel appeared in the form of a man named Kip in a motor boat with a big rainbow umbrella. He slowed down to talk to us and offered to tow us the last couple of miles to the mouth of the bay where the marina was. Being hot, tired, agitated, and ready to get out of the canoe, we took him up on the offer. Plus it sounded so fun! We had been wondering what it would be like to get towed behind a motor boat. Kip confessed that he, a local, had always wondered what it would be like to tow one of the canoes he sees on the lake every once in a while. Now the dream could be realized for everyone.
Kip threw us a line from his boat which we tied to the bow of the canoe. He assured us he’d go slow to make sure nothing too crazy would happen. We motored about 5mph (Alyce and I still paddling, just because) while Kip played tour guide. Another surreal expedition moment.
Kip told us about the only coal gasification plant in the country and pointed to the smokestacks in the distance. He hollered to us over the motor about all the mines and power plants in the area, keeping the area flush with cash. He pointed to the big vacation homes, boats, jet skis, all the toys, and kind of chuckled as he did. He told us about some of his adventures working as a rescue diver on the lake, while simultaneously reading the us the results of his depth-finder – “122 feet!” “126! Holy cow! I didn’t realize the channel came this close to shore! You wouldn’t want to get caught doing something dumb out here and swamping your boat!” Like being towed in a canoe behind a motor boat? Ha.
We made it safely to the mouth of the bay, said many thanks and goodbye to Kip, and paddled in to the marina. The restaurant was closed but Amber, the owner, offered us free camping, as she does for all paddlers. We ate dinner, set up camp, and built a fire. I played a little music while Amber joined us for conversation. We ended up staying up kind of late and decided to sleep in and see about the weather for travel in the morning.
Another picture perfect morning on lake Sakakawea! It stayed cool for a bit and by that I mean was below 70 degrees from 6 to 7 am. The humidity was present during this time, which was not a good sign for the heat index. Alas, the sun and heat are constants and I would never forget about the wind.
One of the challenges between Lisa and I is how much time we need to eat. I am a pretty slow eater (I even find it annoying at times), made even slower by the sensitivity I have been experiencing in my right teeth. Mainly the bottom back teeth, the top also can be bothersome. Thus I eat a lot with my left side and not my whole mouth. I also have to let things cool off for an extended period of time. It’s annoying and I understand that. Thus I am always way behind Lisa in finishing my food. I finally said something this morning, as I have been feeling Lisa’s impatience the last few mornings. She asked me if I would be able to eat and do work at the same time. That’s what I use to do, in my other life in Minneapolis. Always on the go, eating in the car or my desk or in between classes. Out here in the woods I want to slow down when eating, savor the flavor and enjoy my surroundings. Though if Lisa doesn’t have the same desire around meal time, it’s probably not fair that we wake up at the same time. This was the second solution proposed, in that we set a time to start loading the boat and at that time we are both ready to start paddling. I think this will help a lot with my frustration and Lisa’s impatience. I’m excited to try this out tomorrow.
It has been difficult to create a consistent routine as we change between river travel and lake travel. When we are canoeing on the river, we get in the boat right away in the morning. We eat breakfast, drink our coffee, brush our teeth, apply sunscreen and all the other little morning things. We end up spending almost an hour just floating on the river completing all these tasks. Though when we change to the lakes and don’t have the current, we switch to doing all those things on land. It still takes the same amount of time, yet since we are not making forward progress, it can feel like it is taking a lot longer. It is fascinating to note this difference of time. How in the canoe, moving, it doesn’t feel like a whole hour goes by before we are ready to start to start paddling. On land, it can seem to drag on for much longer than an hour. This has become a source of contention between Lisa and I. One of the contributing factors is that I wear a watch and am acutely aware of how much time we take in the morning and during other tasks through out the day. So on mornings like this one I knew that we were following our consistent time routine. It just felt like it was taking longer than usual because we weren’t making forward progress.
The morning was perfect for paddling and as the day progressed the water became glassy Calm. The sun was out in full force and with no wind, millions of tiny little flies infested our boat. Though they didn’t bite, they would fly into my mouth or my nose and were quite annoying. I guess the wind is good for something! The afternoon continued on, we were making good time today, averaging 3 miles per hour. That felt so good. Being in the stern I was really focusing on quick corrective strokes and using the natural movement of the boat to keep us in as straight a line as possible. This really seemed to help our pace. I wanted to get to the Dakota Waters Resort and Marina because the forecast was calling for high winds the next two days, with the real possibility of not being able to paddle. Though at 4:30 we were still 6 miles from the marina and it didn’t seem realistic that we would get there. Until a man in his boat stopped to talk with us and offered us a tow into the marina. YES! Kip was a great tour guide as he pulled us in, telling us about the local history and the bad flood the area experienced a few years ago. What an enjoyable hour. He dropped us off at the entrance to the bay and we did the almost mile paddle into the bay. As we were approaching we saw some people on shore and inquired about the marina and restaurant. Well low and be hold one of the women was Amber, who owns the marina. She lets paddlers stay at no charge! What a treat. The restaurant was closed for the day, so my much desired hamburger would have to wait till tomorrow.
We got to the dock around 6pm and I was famished. I needed to eat dinner asap and so found some shade by the docks and made a rice and sweet potato dish (not as good as a hamburger). With camp set up and the sun setting, Amber came and hung out with us. We made a fire and she provided some delicious bratwurst, made even more delicious from cooking on a stick over the open fire. It was a fun night socializing with Amber and enjoying the fire, though rest was much needed. Saying good night, we made a plan to wake up at 8am and see if we could paddle. The forecast was calling for high winds, so who knows. We will find out in the morning.
August 3, 2016
Dakota Waters Resort and Marina
Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota
We got up at 8am and had biscuits and gravy in the restaurant. The wind started to blow and we decided to stay put.
Amber is awesome. She’s 25, owns the resort and has an adventursome heart. She told us about her big plans to save up, buy a van, and spend winters touring the country. She wants to start on the west coast. She told us a lot of stories about positive risks she has taken and the small steps she is taking now to make her travel dreams happen. Examples include purchasing a road atlas and mapping out a route. Then researching things like camping fees, where to find free wi-fi, and how much money to budget for gas and food. These are the same sorts of small steps that we did to make this expedition happen.
It was really fun to hang out with Amber, a confident, cool woman. She also knows Peg (owner of Tobacco Gardens Resort and Marina) and told us about another woman who owns a marina further east on the lake. She said they often talk to each other, exchanging information, ideas, and advice. I like that supportive culture. She also told me that she had bought a guitar. “I don’t know how to play, but I’m going to learn.” I told her that is exactly what I said a few years ago as I played a few songs for her on my guitar. It’s fun to meet kindred spirits.
Okay, and for the real stuff: Alyce and I haven’t talked to each other all day. No big fight or anything, we’ve each been working on our own little projects, but it’s in a tense way. The confrontation from yesterday was never really resolved and we are over-due for a Tiger Eye session. It always seems like there are about a billion things to do in a day, even though we are trying to live a relatively simple life. That is just life, I guess. Well, nothing to do now but swallow pride and take a positive risk by talking it out.
Thank the goddesses we made it to the Dakota Waters marina when we did. At 8am when I woke up the wind was already blowing. Looking out at the lake from the restaurant window, the water was in that in between stage, of being sort of paddle-able, though would require tremendous effort and energy. The forecast was calling for more wind and I was tired from hard steering the day before. So we called it a rest day, being encouraged by the ever present wind to stay put. I spent the morning napping and relaxing. I ate my hamburger for lunch and it was so good! The rest of the day I spent writing, reading and making some phone calls. Lisa and I spent the day separately, giving each other space. It is hard doing this with another person. We are frequently told by people we meet along the way and who help us out that we are on of the only pair they have seen doing this. Most people go it alone (which presents its own unique challenges). We are in a committed relationship in doing this expedition and those are hard. Wow. And ours is a unique one in that we spend all of our time together. Literally, except when we are sleeping. So the challenges that come along with that can be really difficult. Though our foundation of love can always be relied upon, as a source of strength and confidence during those darker moments.
In the later hours of the day, I found a quiet place to read along the shore near the back of the bay. I love the beginning of the sun setting, when the light just begins to darken ever so slightly. The clouds take on a softer appearance, with the faintest pink hue defining their shape. I think this may be my favorite part of the day! A short and small little rain sprinkled from a random cloud. The weather of North Dakota is pretty extreme. The forest was calling for 20-30 mile an hour winds starting in the evening and lasting all day. It was clear we weren’t going to be able to travel tomorrow.
We made another fire and spent time chatting with Amber and eating dinner. Cooking jalapeño and cheddar brats, over the fire. This time around I was able roast my brat more slowly, as I was not as hunger as the night before. It tasted much better slow cooked and reminded me of having patience with myself and Lisa during the really challenging moments. Isn’t that life, where you can find a metaphor in cooking food over the fire. Amber brought out all the condiments one could wish for!! Lisa came out with her guitar and played some tunes for us. Another idilic river evening. I stayed up talking with Amber for a while and enjoying the fire. Amber is an impressive women, owning and operating Dakota Waters resort and marina by herself. This is one of my favorite elements of paddling rivers like the Missouri And Mississippi. Meeting people like Amber and learning about their life story. Another amazing day of river life.
August 4, 2016
Dakota Waters Resort and Marina
Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota
The wind came in with such a force last night that my face and the side of my tent got really familiar with each other. That kind of wind makes the decision to stay off the water easy. A forced rest day.
With one decision made for us, there was more energy to tackle all the other decisions like what snacks to buy and how to approach resolving a conflict. It’s tough to resolve a conflict when you are too close to the heat of the moment. On an expedition, there is a baseline of stress that is always present. Sun, wind, storms, heat, cold, bugs, fatigue (physical, mental, emotional), hunger, dehydration, constant decision-making, second-guessing said decisions, social dynamics, attitudes, the list goes on. Most of these stressors are well out of your control which can make the moments even more overwhelming.
Hold your reaction.
Wait a minute. Wait two. Wait a whole day if you need to.
Give yourself a chance to catch up to what is going on in the moment. Give yourself a chance to look at the stressors and pick out the ones you can do something about. Yeah, it’s really freakin’ challenging sometimes but so is living in constant react-mode. You have more control than you think you do when you surrender to the things that are outside of your control.
I can’t control how my brain and body react to heat, but I am in charge of swimming to stay cool, drinking enough water, and eating enough food to keep my body functioning. I’m also in charge of my attitude about it. I can complain, lament, protest, act like I want to quit or I can surrender to the fact that most of these mid-summer days are going to be pretty uncomfortable. Once I surrender, I can see more of the humor in the situation. Like…duh…living outside is hard and often hilarious. Heat- and monotony-induced delirium is the breeding-ground for ridiculously funny and outlandish statements and storytelling, if you can see it that way. That can be hard to remember in the moment.
I’m figuring out how to surrender to conflict too. I’m really not a person who avoids conflict, I find it generally useful in making things better. I am a person who avoids taking ownership about my contributions to a conflict though. I’m recognizing that. When it’s too close to the heat of the moment, and when there are too many other overwhelming stressors present, I get stuck in the “I’m right” frame of mind. This experience living so closely with the same person day after loooong day is showing me that, yes, I am right, but so is Alyce. When I’m right about something and Alyce disagrees, she’s not wrong, she just has a different perspective. That perspective is right too. It’s right for her. And mine is still right for me.
So if we are both right and both of our perspectives are valid, how will we ever agree? The best answer I can come up with right now is…wait. Wait until the heat of the moment has passed. I have to remember that there is way more to the story than I might be able to see. I need to wait until I can see beyond my own “rightness” and accept hers.
The next step is compromise. Find where the edges of my truth and Alyce’s can meet and work for both of us. This is also challenging. I will not pretend for one second to be an expert in finding compromise. What I am figuring out right now is how to identify my boundaries. What is important to me? What can I let go of? What can’t I? When I at least know what the foundations of my feelings are, I can find compromise much more easily. It’s when I get attached to a particular way of doing something that I become inflexible. Most of the time, there are many ways to do they same thing that will lead to an outcome that I would be happy with. Taking the time to sort out the feelings of the moment that are subject to change from the deeper ones that are more constant and recurring is crucial. The deeper feelings reveal the patterns that are working for you and the ones that need to change. Feelings can act as a barometer and conflict a tool for change.
Having this rest day forced upon us by wind may not be a bad thing after all. With a day out of the canoe, I can think of things other than canoeing, the weather, and my relationship with Alyce. Of course, I’m still thinking about those things anyway, but I have more space to see more than I could in the moment.
For me, writing as a particularly useful tool in seeing things from another perspective. When I write down my perspective, I start to see more of the factors that contributed to my feelings. It also forces me to be honest about my reaction to my feelings (I can tell when I’m not being honest when I find myself trying to edit what I said or did to shift blame or excuse my behavior). Sometimes I do not react in the most kind or patient way. I can own that. It sucks, but I can own it. When I can own it, just like my reaction to too much time in the sun, I can understand it and work to change it. I want to make clear that it’s not the feelings I’m changing – those I can’t control. It’s my reaction, my attitude, my mindset that I can shift.
So, with some of the time I had left over on our rest day, I wrote down my perspective on the conflict we had had over the morning routine the day before. Through this, I could already start to see Alyce’s perspective. I could already see where I had thought that I was right and where she was right too. I didn’t like my reaction but I didn’t criticize myself too strongly for it either because that doesn’t help. Instead of the normal guilt that follows in the wake of self-criticism, I tried giving myself some compassion. It was early. I was tired. I don’t react well to certain confrontational tones. Knowing this, I can see that morning is a great time to hold my tongue, to wait, to see how things play out.
I also know that my feelings are important. I reacted a certain way because something wasn’t right for me. I can be ashamed of my reaction AND honor my feelings at the same time. So, looking deeper, was this a petty argument fueled exclusively by momentary feelings or is there a pattern that requires some attention? If I am truly being compassionate with myself and honoring my feelings, I know that there is something deeper to this conflict. I kept writing. I made a phone call to a friend I really trust to be honest with me. I did extra thinking, probably too much, but I was motivated to get to the bottom, the source.
I realized that the deeper source of the conflict was not about how long it takes to eat or load the boat or when we wake up or whatever. That didn’t matter to me in the moment, even though I reacted as if it did. Nope, looking deeper at the source, we both have a tendency to decide things by how we feel in the moment. This can be so awesome when we are on the same page and causes conflict when we are not. When we are not on the same page, it can turn into one or both of us spouting off a list of things that feel like reasons but can sound like excuses to get what we want, what we feel is right. This, when you are on the receiving end of it, feels confusing and frustrating and also like manipulation. We both do it.
I didn’t know what feelings and other factors went into Alyce’s communication yesterday that frustrated me so much. This is where I needed to apply the same compassion to her that I applied to myself. I kept writing and what came out was a ton of empathy for what Alyce might have been feeling in the situation too. Through this empathy I was able to soften my words. We are really so similar and the things we are doing every single day are so difficult that, of course, we are going to have conflict. Surrender. Now look for the humor. I do the exact same things that bother me when Alyce does them. THAT IS HILARIOUS. Though not in the moment. And it is hard to be honest about my shortcomings. I am trying, after all. So is Alyce.
With time, empathy, and humility on my side, I composed my thoughts with the intention of sharing my honest point of view with Alyce. This is incredibly hard. Some of the things that I needed to say, I knew would not go down easy. It is hard to tell someone that your feelings have been hurt and that you don’t always trust them in reaction-mode. It’s hard to be vulnerable about your own feelings and it’s hard to call out someone you love, respect, and rely on so much. That is precisely why these things needed to be said. Even if I am wrong about why, my feelings don’t lie. If I am honest about my feelings and open to hearing Alyce’s perspective, I can get closer to understanding my own reactions to things and hers as well. This can bring us closer as a team and serve us for the rest of the expedition and our friendship. It is a risk.
It is a risk to lay out your feelings to someone else. You don’t know how they might react or if they will judge or ridicule you. You don’t have control over someone else’s reactions, but you can have influence. I knew that in order to say what I needed to say, I would need to be gentle. I would need to express my appreciation for who she is which is a passionate, dynamic, awesome individual. I would also need to own my reaction which was, and often is, insensitive. Then I would need to say what I had to say, without mincing words. Being direct while still being compassionate is another skill to work on mastering. Once I get the skill down on paper, hopefully I can get it face-to-face. Sometimes with really important or sensitive things, I find it better if I keep my voice – which has a tendency to betray me – out of it. Clear thinking, clear message, clear delivery. Talk about it when the message is received.
When I finally found myself in a place to have a conversation with Alyce, the day was practically over. Moment of truth. I know I need to have the courage to address these issues…but I don’t wanna. We talked about some things sort of related to the conflict, apologized to each other, took ownership for things. It went well, but I hesitated with the letter I’d written. Finally, I blurted out that I’d written it and asked her if she wanted to read it now or later. She opted for later and we went to bed on peaceful terms.
I don’t know why my finger hesitated over the send button (the letter was on my phone) but it definitely did. Was it because I’d over-thought the whole thing? Probably. Would it be too direct? Maybe. Was I really wrong? I don’t know. Did I focus enough on the positive to balance the honesty? Does that even matter? Did I really need to communicate this stuff if we were in a happy place? Yes.
The wind came as predicted (maybe even a little stronger) early in the morning. I was awoken by the tent being violently shaken. The nylon fabric rippling in the force of the wind. It was really coming and gusting hard. I felt safe in my little tent. I was able to fall back asleep and when the sun started to rise and I had to pee, I took a quick look at the lake. Dang, she was really churning! The wind was coming in hard and the rollers out of the bay were impressive. Wind bound, at the best possible place.
I spent the day inside the restaurant, working on the computer and watching some Netflix on the TV. During these days I feel like I’ve been teleported back to my life before the expedition started. It’s a strange feeling. Though a glorious feeling. The wind blew hard all day and by 5pm I was mentally done working on the computer. Yet again I was not able to get everything on my to-do list finished. I am learning to prioritize what is the most important and necessary to get done in the moment. I felt a great sense of accomplishment with my days work.
Amber made us a truly gourmet dinner of steaks she had been marinating, delicious asperegouse and cheesey noodles. All on the grill. We sat at the picnic table, watching the water and the beginning of the setting sun. Wow! How did I get to live this incredible life?
Lisa and I had an excellent Tiger Eye session, processing the last few days and really listening to each other. It can be challenging to sit and actively listen, though it is necessary. I focus on what Lisa is saying and not my immediate reaction to her words. It allows me to see from Lisa perspective and understand that is her experience of past events. It can be hard when my experience does not aline with hers, where the misunderstanding comes from. Even in the same moment and space, we will each have a different understanding and reaction to the experience. So it is finding a common ground and hearing where the other person is coming from. And dang is it hard to do that when I don’t like what Lisa is saying. I really challenged myself to just listen and when the reactionary part of my self starts to show its ugly face in my brain, I was able shut it down and keep on listening. I was really proud of myself in this conversation and focusing on listening enabled me to understand Lisa’s perspective. It was a terrific moment of the expedition. It was exciting to be figuring out our processes. And using them in a successful manner. I was curious to read Lisa’s letter, though with the late evening hours creeping upon me, I knew what would be best for me was to go to sleep and read it in the morning. And with that I crawled into my sleeping bag and drifted off to beautiful sleep.
Solitude and white pine sentinels towering high above their younger neighbors permeate the small lakes and streams south of Lac La Croix.
In 1863 and 1864 significant forest fires burned in the wilderness south of Lac La Croix and more large fires burned through the area in 1894. Farther east, around Basswood Lake, there was significant logging activity in the late 1800s and first half of the 1900s, but the fires that burned in this area made it less desirable during the height of the logging era.
We figure many of the massive white pines that dot the portage trails and ridge tops survived the fires and now tower high above the younger forest. Slowly running our fingers over the course ridges of thick bark protecting these ancient trees, we marvel at their resilience. Standing tall for more than a century of fires, blizzards, ice storms, lightning, wind and drought– what magnificent beings.
Nestled at the base of a giant, its craggy bark pressed against my back, wrapped in the musty smell of dry needles and duff, listening to wind washing over the branches high above, this is the singing Wilderness that Sigurd Olson worked tirelessly to protect.
Waking up with the sun is one of the simple pleasures that Wilderness fosters. No buzzes, beeps or alarms– just the light gently washing over us.
“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed.” – Wallace Stegner