August 20, 2016
Whitlock State Park, Lake Oahe, South Dakota
The sail only works under a very certain set of conditions: tail- or slight cross-tailwind. Wind must be between about 5-10mph, sustained. Less is not enough to pull the sail, more and you may end up dealing with too much fetch (waves caused by wind) for it to be safe. Lake Oahe is oriented North-South without too much meandering to the east or west (until the very end) so we need the wind to be coming from the north to help us out.
Yesterday it was too much. We were only able to travel about 5 miles before the wind was pulling too hard at the sail and the waves made it too difficult to control the boat. The boat was moving about 6 mph which was awesome but also too close to the edge for comfort. Decided to pull over and make camp at about 2pm just as a light rain came in. I put my tent next to Alyce’s so we could spend the afternoon hanging out.
We ate lunch and played cribbage as the temperature dropped. I refuse to wear pants or too many layers while it’s still summer. I’m trying to keep myself acclimated without relying too much on clothing until I have to. If I start wearing too much insulation when it’s 60, I’ll have to rely on more than just layers (exercise, butter, and complaining) to keep me warm when it’s in the 40’s in November. I don’t know if this has any scientific or real logical basis but it gives me a sense of security. 60 degrees after you are used to 90’s feels dramatic. Rather than submit and wear pants…I got in my sleeping bag.
The middle part of Oahe is more visually stimulating than the areas closer to Bismarck. Green rolling hills, large bluffs made of dark and light soil. The river bottom fluctuates between sand, rock, and mud. This morning, the mud on the shoreline was a pain in the butt. Every step had me in to mid-calf and didn’t want to let me out. Shoes were not an option because I wasn’t willing to risk losing them. Add rocks to the barefoot-muddy mix and it was uncomfortable and hilarious loading the boat. One step at a time, stagger, sink, sway, try not to fall over while carrying gear to the boat.
We had to take turns holding Drifty (our canoe) in the big waves that were coming at us. We assessed the borderline-too-big waves as a positive risk; they were going the direction we wanted. Took us twice as long to load the boat but once we got in, we only got out for a 45-minute lunch break over the next 11 hours. We covered around 35 miles with the help of a consistent NW wind. The fetch got big on occasion – close to 1.5 foot swells at one point – but nothing too outrageous.
We made each other laugh all day. We are really getting into these (not accurately imitated) Irish personas we’ve created. The accents are poor but the banter is a ton of fun. Alyce is really funny. We have figured out how to turn the “afternoon uncomfortables” into delirium-induced comedy sketches which we perform with and for one another.
Today, I pointed out shapes in the clouds while Alyce cursed the boat and the wind. “I’m having the time of my life and I only have myself to blame.” I love it when she gets in those moods. It’s the good-natured type of misery that builds camaraderie. All of a sudden, the expedition, or anything that could mostly be categorized as “retroactive fun”, becomes actual in-the-moment fun. It’s the camaraderie that is born when you are in a united front against the suck with your expedition-mates.
We made it all the way to West Whitlock State Park where we found a campsite with some nice neighbors. They let us tool around on their orange and pink beach cruisers for a while. I love riding bikes. I’ve been missing that aspect of summer here on the river.
August 20th, 2016
What a day. Tailwind and an intense 33 miles paddled to the state park, with a whopping 10 hours in the canoe!
We meet Tom and Heather, at the state park and they let us ride their bikes to see if the restaurant was open. It was not. More prairie and fewer trees. So much prairie. It is truly beautiful watching the amber waves of grass rippling in the wind. Like an invisible hand stirring the blades and making them whisper amongst themselves.
August 21st, 2016
Wow, another fully lived day on lake Oahe. I woke up tired and annoyed that is it was already time to pack up. After a long day like yesterday and only having arrived at the state park around 6:30pm, I really didn’t want to get up at 6am. Alas, the wind is predicted at 5-10 mph out of the south east. Our immediate first 5 miles have us heading west, northwest, as the lake is becoming a snake.
Getting on the water early is always a good idea, as the wind picks up in the afternoon. Though it’s hard only being on land for not even 12 hours and 8 of them in my tent. So that’s what I did. Got up, packed, ate breakfast; went into auto pilot mode. I was falling asleep in the bow by 8:30am; not a good sign when you just got on the water at 7:45. Alas the day went by really fast. Around Lunch time the wind picked up and as we came around a corner we found an amazing huge tree, log stuck off the shores of lake Oahe. Beautiful, smoothed from years of water and bleached from sunshine and bird poop. As we ate our traditional fare of tort, meat stick, cheese and mustard (yet again the garlic has not made it into the lunch bucket).
The wind increased. A leasuirly lunch because well the winds already blowing and will for some time, replenish now. Swimming and jumping off the tree into the water. So much fun! Critical on days when the wind howls in my face, I can’t really hear and the sun beats down. It’s not really that dramatic, though sometimes it really does feel that way.
Yet the prairie and surroundings are beautiful. I had never been to South Dakota before this adventure. A harsh existence for sure and magnificent all at the same time.
The trees are becoming father and farther apart, until only a few lone trees remain. What is must take to survive, plant, animal and still human. Before it was living off the land, homesteading and farming. Now it’s economic opportunity; really one in the same, today it’s just trees turned to paper with ink stamped on them. A few of the rambling thoughts that run through my head while paddling for 8 hours a day.
The landscape truly is something to behold and I found myself getting lost looking into the hills and grasses. Also cows. Lots of cows; it seems like they are everywhere. We are also starting to see haybales. Something new. The rest of the afternoon went by quickly, the wind increased.
By 4pm I was spent and we had found a nice little spot, with a rocky beach and decent protection from the wind. Boat unloaded, tent setup and gear explosion. The absence of the ever-present sand enables us to air our gear and food buckets out. Our dinner bucket lid appears to be leaking and had made the bucket a little nasty, not to mention everything being covered in sand. Nothing a little sun and shake won’t fix. Along with cleaning the bucket in the lake and letting the wind/sun dry her out. Thankfully we have an extra large plastic bag to line the bucket with (we figured this trick out when our lunch bucket lid began to leak several weeks ago). Our gear bag was full of sand and days old moisture, not wanting that mildewy smell everything came out and the frost river pack got a good shacking and time in the sun. It looked like a great yard sale. Though we are really good at making ourselves at home. A delightful later afternoon, playing cards and calling a few of our Kickstarter supports as part of their rewards. Dinner and the sunsetting, another well lived day on the river.
August 22, 2016
Just south of Sutton Bay, Lake Oahe, South Dakota
Oahe pulsates. She is her own living, breathing being. The wind seemed to come from a few directions today, giving Oahe a confused sort of sea. Beautiful to watch from shore but too restless to paddle.
We swam more than 15 times. Every 20 or 30 minutes we had to get back in the water to keep systems from shutting down. 100 degrees. Heat index hotter. Holy oppressive heat. Wind was hot too.
We inflated our sleeping mats and rode the waves. So much fun. If the water had been salty, we might as well have been in the Gulf of Mexico.
A band of horses came down and played in water too. I grew up spending a fair amount of time around horses but haven’t really ever seen them play like these characters. They were rolling in the rocks, running, jumping, and trying to get each other to play. Everyone was having fun in the waves.
We had a great day despite the heat. Played a lot of cribbage, I got a bunch of writing done, and we did a lot of laughing. The soft pink, purple, and blue sunset was the ideal backdrop to round out the day.
August 24, 2016
Sunset Haven, Lake Oahe, South Dakota
So proud of the day!! Really enjoyed the challenge of the cross-wind. Kept me alert all day but not in an exhausting way. Just enough to avoid boredom which is good because the music isn’t working on phone right now.
We paddled 10 miles in about 8 hours. It was grueling only traveling about 1.5-2mph all day. Like being on a really big water treadmill. The scenery did change a little. Sometime there would be cows, sometimes only grass. Then other times there would be more grass and cows.
When we hit the boat ramp, Alyce flagged down some people in super ATV and asked them if they could drive us to get drinking water. Next thing we knew, we were eating fried walleye and corn fritters and sleeping in beds in an air-conditioned building. Perfect ending to a great day.
August 25-28, 2016
Bush’s Landing to 5 miles S of Pike Haven, Lake Oahe, South Dakota
Had an excellent time hanging out with Kelly, Carol, Bob, Phil, David, Wade, and Joel at Sunset Haven resort. Kelly is a fishing guide and excellent cook and he and his wife, Carol were hosting the guys for a few days and added us to the guest list as soon as we showed up. Again, such incredible hospitality and enthusiastic company.
The wind was too much the next day so we stayed an extra night in paradise. Thanks again, Kelly and Carol!
We paddled on the next day making it Little Bend Recreation Area where we met our good friend Jack Hilbrich and his brother Tom. The four of us camped out there and I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard for so long. Those two picked up on our outrageous senses of humor and personalities instantly and the banter was non-stop.
We were also in a celebratory mood after having completed the voyage around Little Bend. There is nothing “little” about Little Bend, by the way. Here is how Dave Miller describes it in “The Complete Paddler”:
“Here some cautions are in order…The Cheyenne River flows into the lake on the downstream right side, and a southeast wind will generate large waves and confused seas near the confluence. There are few places along the shore where there is any shelter if a storm blows up and you have to pitch a tent. Further compounding the difficulty is the fact that you cannot see the horizon to the south and west as you work your way along the upstream side of the point…Also, because of Little Bend’s NW to SE aspect and because prevailing winds are from either of those directions, you probably will have to work against headwinds for half the distance around the bend.”
He goes on to describe the option of a manual portage across Little Bend as “very difficult but not impossible.” The “healthy population of rattlesnakes”, mud, and steep hills made this sound like a real winner of an option. Kind of a last resort option, if you ask me.
Well, we crushed it with some perfect paddling conditions to start, moving into rain and cold, and rounding out with a strong headwind as we made the bend back east. It was all worth it, though, to get one of the most notorious parts of the most notorious reservoir done.
The next day was brutal. It was in the high nineties and there was pretty much no wind. That’s what we wanted, right? It’s a tradeoff. Sometimes that heat makes it just as hard to paddle as the wind. It was about a four-mile paddle to Pike Haven Resort where we had plans to meet another friend of ours, Iggy.
Iggy could only stay for a couple of hours, so she got right to the point. After bestowing several gifts – a necklace I had forgotten at Outward Bound, a new seat cushion, and several bags of chai tea – she asked us, point blank, what we’ve learned about ourselves.
For me, I said I’m learning how to better discern my intuitive voice from my ego-driven voice. One sounds a lot nicer but also makes me do things that are hard (but good). For Alyce, she’s gained the knowledge that this is what she wants to do for the rest of her life. Good question, Iggy.
After Iggy left, we paddled on until dark and I didn’t bother setting up my tent. I just rolled out my sleeping bag 10 feet from the water. The stars were unreal.
August 29-31, 2016
The Ferris House, Pierre, South Dakota
Back in a headwind.
Feel strong; gettin’ after it.
I didn’t feel as pumped as I thought I would to finish Lake Oahe. We struggled against an east wind that pushed us sideways as we made our way to the end of the lake. It felt good to get to the boat ramp and pull all of our stuff out of the lake for the last time, but I thought I’d feel like dancing or something.
Instead, we followed the treasure hunt a fellow thru paddler, Kris Laurie, had left for us and came upon a cache of candy and some classy South Dakota wine. Kris also left a note telling us how B-A he thinks we are and how he’s sorry he’s so much faster than us because he really wants to meet us. I’m just kidding about that last part, but he did express that it’s a shame we will have paddled all this way at the same time and not run into each other even once. We thought the same thing.
We left a note, some Source of Confidence buttons and some other treats wrapped up in the 14 plastic bag system that Kris had used, buried it under the same rock, and sent the same treasure map to Lance and Gary, the guys next behind us paddling the entire river. Hopefully they will leave something for Mike and Cookie, our friends from July on Ft. Peck who are headed to St. Louis. This is a fun tradition. The community of paddlers is incredible. So supportive and adventuresome.
In fact, we stayed with the most rad family of river rats for two nights in Pierre, SD. Guy Ferris and Mitch Kleinsasser took the Missouri River from Three Forks, MT back home to Pierre in a pontoon a couple of years ago. They made a movie too. Can’t wait to see it.
Guy and Mitch helped us out with the portage around the dam- actually Mitch just straight up gave us his van. Since we accidentally left one of the wheels for our portage cart in Bismarck, never to be seen again, we had to get back to our Boundary Waters roots and carry the canoe on our shoulders.
If you have never portaged an 80-pound canoe on your shoulders, let me tell you, you are missing out. The first time I ever portaged a canoe was in 2011 when I started as an intern for Voyageur Outward Bound. We were in the Boundary Waters and portaging was terrible.
Let me reiterate: terrible. The pressure caused by the portage pads resting between my shoulders and neck was like a massage from a super pissed off gorilla. I thought I would for sure lose an inch in height from being so compressed under that boat after 10 days. Every time I’d take a step forward, one end or the other would start to take a dive and I’d have to correct it before it smacked the ground or my portage partners head. It was nerve-wracking and exhausting. Plus, the terrain was full of rocks, exposed roots, fallen trees, and biting insects.
“How am I going to do this as a job?” I remember thinking about halfway through the expedition. “I can’t force, er I mean, teach other people how to do this if I don’t even want to do it myself.”
To be fair, I was being dramatic. It was also a 10-day expedition intended to push us interns way outside of our comfort zones. It had to be one of the hardest things we’d ever done because that is what expeditions feel like to most of our students. Check and mate. Building grit and empathy.
It took the rest of the summer for me to start getting comfortable with portaging. It’s all in the balance. If the boat is balanced from bow to stern, you can move pretty fluidly over most terrain. If you do it long enough, your shoulder muscles eventually become totally desensitized to the pressure and you can go for much longer periods of time before it becomes uncomfortable.
I actually love it now. It’s a game for me to see how long I can go without a break. I think the longest I’ve done so far is probably around a mile.
Now, we had a two-mile fun-fest ahead of us. I turned on some music (Brandi Carlisle, obviously) and we went for it.
IT IS ALWAYS WINDY ON THE PLAINS. For those of you who are familiar with portaging a canoe in the Boundary Waters, even on windy days, you get a break in the woods. Not here. The wind was like, “give me that canoe” and we were like, “NO”. It’s tiring having to battle that force.
Mid-way through the portage, I got a phone call from Lee Zion with the Capital Journal – South Dakota’s premier newspaper. Sidenote: Did you know that Pierre is pronounced PEER? Well, it is. No one can say why. Anyway, Lee wanted to swing by and get some pictures and do an interview. We casually waited on the side of the road with our canoe for Lee to show up; this has become our M.O. when it comes to getting media coverage.
He asked us about the expedition as we finished the portage. I couldn’t participate in fully in the conversation with a canoe on my head, so we continued the interview over BLTs at the Oahe Marina. He asked us what it was like to paddle the Missouri River. Pretty basic question, but I didn’t have an answer right away.
What’s it like to paddle the Missouri River? Depends on the day. It can be hard. It can be awesome. It’s the best time and the worst – sometimes within the span of a half an hour. It’s beautiful – mountains, alpine wetlands, and grasslands; scenic canyons, cottonwood groves, and farmland; sandstone-limestone-claystone-coal bluffs of white, black, and vermillion; sand dunes, cattail marshes, and prairie. We’ve only touched four of our fourteen state total and have already seen a remarkably diverse and inspiring, albeit harsh, landscape.
We interact with the elements of the landscape on a daily basis- wind, water, sun, plant and animal life, and wind. I know I said wind twice. These factors add beauty and adversity in almost equal measure. It’s the people who live along the Missouri River that tip the scales to the side of awesome.
This brings me back to our newest friends. Mitch is a kind man with a permanent smile whose chief aim in life is to emulate the Animal House lifestyle. Rock on, Mitch, it seems like you’ve got it down. Guy is an organic farmer/casino owner with a wisecracking sense of humor and a vault of impressively outlandish and even more impressively true stories. When I walked into his garage, the first thing I noticed was a sign advocating against spraying pesticides right next to an even bigger NWA poster. “Welcome to Pierre”, the garage seemed to say.
We met Guy’s wife, Beata (Bee-Ah-Tuh), and kids Abby and Jack and had dinner and stayed two nights at their place. Beata is an incredible woman too. She’s a science teacher and just started a new job doing distance learning via her home office with students all over South Dakota. She’s a hard-working, fun-loving, caring and generous woman. It was really a pleasure to spend time in her company.
After dinner, Guy and Beata took us out for a good time at the Legion. Here is where I ran into a real live Irishman. Perfect time to test out the accent! (This is sarcasm. Don’t do this.) Hearing the accent switched me right into my Irish-banter-with-Alyce mode. I caught myself quickly but not before he asked me where I was from. “Minnesota…” I said sheepishly. We became fast friends despite the faux pas. He was playing guitar and the next thing I knew, I had a guitar too.
At Alyce’s request, Spencer, another friend of our hosts, had run out to his truck to grab his guitar for me. I really appreciated that. She does a good job of looking out for opportunities for me to play. We played for the next few hours and took a break for talk radio interview with Guy, Mitch, and their friends at the Absolute Outdoors Show.
That was hands-down the most entertaining interview I have ever been a part of. I hope we can get our hands on that recording. The highlight of the conversation was Mitch confessing to us that after he and Guy had first met us, they talked about how we could probably kill them. We agreed and had a good, maniacal laugh about it.
I do have to say that it feels pretty good to be seated at a table surrounded by men who are interested and invested in what you have to say. For real, that’s not a common experience. Thanks, guys, we had a blast!