July 13: Day 18
I accidentally slept in, and woke up later in a hurry. The wind was already beginning to pick up, and I had one goal today and one goal only: To cross the lake. The marina I was planning to head for to ask for a portage was on the west side, and I was on the east because of my bad wind decisions yesterday. The weather forecast on my weather radio called for winds gusting up to 30 knots, and 25 in the nighttime. If I didn’t cross now, I wouldn’t be able to until tomorrow morning.
So I packed up in a hurry. It was only 5:30, but the wind was present. Not crazy wind, but even a little bit of wind on the shoreline can manifest itself into choppy waters out there in the middle of the lake.
I hit the water at 6, not even pausing for breakfast. I struck out straight for the other shoreline.
Go straight to the other side, Go directly to the other side, Do not pass Go, Do not collect $200.
It took me the better part of an hour. Once I made it, I saw RVs and realized I was at Pines Recreation Area. I docked, grabbed something to eat, and walked around the place listening to my little weather radio and munching on breakfast.
I really wanted to stay here. It was nice and there were some campsites around that had trees and picnic tables. I could spend all day here. I fully expected to at some point be windbound today, so why not be windbound here? The forecast still called for gusts of 30, but I looked out at the lake and it didn’t look like it would do that soon. I might as well get out there and paddle until I can’t anymore.
So I paddled away from Pines, crossing the inlets point to point.
Fort Peck Lake is shaped like a big hairy ameba, with all these arms coming off it. Of course, it didn’t used to be shaped like that, it used to be river-shaped and wasn’t a lake. This area in particular was the River Bottoms, where lots on little creeks and things came draining down into the Missouri river. It used to be a more luscious land, with ancient cottonwoods trees, meandering creeks and streams, and good fishin’. But the dam was built, the river bottoms flooded up, and all those creeks that drained into the lake became huge inlets, giant probing fingers invading the land and making it scrubby, eroded, and barren.
Crossing these inlets can be troublesome. What are you going to do, follow the shoreline and go all the way inside and back again? That would take you all day! So crossing is fairly mandatory. This can take anywhere from 20 minutes to nearly an hour in the larger ones. Though Fort Peck Lake is not the largest of the reservoirs that make up the Missouri River, this feature makes Fort Pack Lake a rather taxing lake to paddle.
Anyway, after a few hours of paddling, I had realized a couple of things. One, that the wind forecast is horribly inaccurate. And two, that I would make it to the Marina today, around 1300. The wind was actually calmer, and the water was becoming less choppy. So I paddled on, ignoring the grumbles in my stomach. At the Marina I could buy lunch.
The dam came into view, a harsh slash across the horizon. It was a big dam. I had heard you can manually portage around the dam, but the path is nearly two miles and is steep and rocky. It takes a day to manually portage this dam. Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll pay a fisherman or something if I had to.
The Marina was quiet. I was so close to the dam I felt that I could hear it, the dull hum of the sheer power that held back millions of pounds of water. I had reached the end of the lake.
How did I feel?
Hungry. And thirsty for a cold one.
I docked quietly. It must be a slow day, the place was still. I walked up the hill and saw what looked like a bar or restaurant. I went in, and was blinded a little by being in a darker building after squinting throughout the afternoon sun. There were a couple of people inside. I ordered a cheeseburger and a salad. I miss veggies on the road.
My clothes were still damp from being out on the water, but I sat down and charged my computer that I had brought up from the boat, and drank an ice-cold beer.
I enjoyed that beer, but not as much as I enjoyed that cheeseburger.
I eat alright on the river, but I can only do so many variations of the same ingredients. After so many weeks, the dishes can be a little repetitive.
After getting a full charge on my computer as well as a refill of my beer, I walked down to the bait shop, where I was told the owner of the marina was.
There I met Shannon. Here’s how it happened: She called her husband in to get a trailer to portage me around. She learned that I had a package from my mom waiting for me in Wolf Point. She told me that I should not go to Wolf Point alone and if I leave my kayak at the water it would surely be stolen. Then she called some friends who live in Wolf Point and told them to meet me at the Wolf Point bridge at noon tomorrow so they could take me to town to get the package and one would stay with the boat.
Before I knew it, I was on the other side of the dam, in my boat, and paddling away with a noon appointment at Wolf Point.
It all happened so fast, I hadn’t even gotten a chance to look at the map ahead. As I paddled, I began to look at it more closely. Wolf Point was far away. The bridge was around 65 river miles, which is about 13 hours of paddling. I could make it by noon tomorrow if I paddled late, got up really early, and paddled more. Even then, I still might not make it.
I had everything I needed. A good meal, wifi, and a charge. I could keep on going on, except that I was tired. I had just spent 4 grueling days on the lake. I wanted to enjoy the river.
This was ridiculous. I was in charge of my trip, nobody but me. I stopped paddling and right then and there out on the water and made two phone calls. First I called the Wolf Point post office and told them to forward the box to Fort Peck. Then I called Shannon and told her to please come pick me up again. Then I paddled for 30 minutes upstream back to the ramp.
It wasn’t until I was paddling upstream that I realized how exhausted I was. Everything was sore or stiff, and my paddle strokes were sloppy and growing weaker. I really needed a break.
While I was waiting for my ride again, I called mom and dad and my brother and Chad. I hadn’t spoken to them in a while, and I had time to kill.
Eventually I was taken back to the marina, where I sheepishly apologized to Shannon for driving me downstream and back. She brushed off my apology and said I could sleep in the spare camper tonight. Tomorrow we could pick up the package and I would be on my way.
I ended up hanging out with Shannon and Joe outside their camper as evening fell. We drank beers and eventually Joyce showed up from work. Joyce was loud, gregarious, and I instantly liked her.
“You staying for the party?” she asked, fixing me with her intense energy of which she exudes.
“It’s a Wounded Warriors thing. I organized it. We’re bringing in a band. It’s Saturday.”
“That does sound tempting…” It was Thursday night.
“Why not? Take a break! Enjoy the party, you paddled long enough! Who knows, maybe you’ll get a one-night stand or something!” she exclaimed, and her laughter was contagious.
This is my trip. I can stay and go where I want. Screw it, let’s have a party in Fort Peck, Montana!
Later that night, I made my way to the bar and ordered another hamburger. Two hamburgers in one day, this is the high life. There I met Ken, the most open-minded redneck I’ve ever met. He struck up a conversation with me at the bar because I was still in my paddling clothes and looked rather vagabond-ish. He offered to take me into Glasgow tomorrow for groceries, and fetch my package from the post office. After I learned that he worked at the bait shop here at the Marina and was in general not a serial killer, I agreed.
I tell you, I’m going to miss these good-hearted Montana folk.
I went to sleep that night in a bed, after not having slept in one in three weeks.
July 14: Day 19
I slept like an absolute log. Camping is fine, but sleeping in a bed I will never take for granted.
I tried to find Shannon to give her a giant thank you for the bed, but couldn’t find her.
Not really knowing what else to do, I walked over to Ken’s camper and knocked. He was home, and ushered me in, pushing the dogs away from the door. He gave me coffee and said I could take a shower if I wanted.
Hamburgers! A bed! A shower! Boy, was I glad I wasn’t out paddling to Wolf Point right now.
Ken had a full-length mirror set up next to the shower, and for the first time in a while, I got to look at myself.
This was not the same body that left Three Forks nearly three weeks ago. This one was different. Though always skinny, I seemed to have lost some of the softer edges and my lines were sharper. My back was toned, and my arm muscles lean. My hands were dry and had callouses. Despite the liberal use of sunscreen, my Cajun skin had darkened quickly. My hair felt like straw in my fingers. I peered at my face. It looked rougher, with cracked lips and dark freckles. It seemed to have a hollowness about it I did not remember being there before.
The river has taken its toll for passage, and I still had more to pay.
I felt amazing after the shower, and Ken and I headed to town. I bought groceries and did laundry in a real washing machine. Later, in the truck, I couldn’t help pulling my clothes out of the bag and smelling them. Being on the road makes you appreciate everything.
We caught wind of a show tonight at the Fort Peck Theatre, and Ken mentioned that he had been meaning to buy tickets. So I bought us tickets and that evening, we went and saw a theatre show.
I thoroughly enjoyed the show. It was Million Dollar Quartet, which is a musical. I would have preferred a straight play, but beggars can’t be choosers. I can see why movies were so popular during the Great Depression. To take your mind off of problems even for a couple of hours is an escape people can come to crave. To not have to worry about the wind or the boat or how many miles you’re making or where to sleep or where to get water…to free your mind from your current life is refreshing and therapeutic. Occasionally, I would stop watching the show and just look around, enjoying the moment more than anything. In a beautiful theatre, watching a show. I looked down at my cypress knees. They were not hidden by the body of a kayak.
Watching the show made me miss my old theatre life, one I had lived for over a decade.
I slept on a couch in Ken’s camper that night because Shannon needed the spare for her sister. Even sleeping on a couch was cozy and Koda, the dog, leapt up on the couch and curled up on my feet, where he remained for the rest of the night and kept me toasty-warm.
July 15: Day 20
There’s gonna be a party tonight,
The moon shinin’ bright
So turn out the lights
We’ll get it right
There’s gonna be a party tonight,
A party tonight I know.
I know that it’s actually heartache tonight instead of partay tonight but that’s how I sang it forever.
The day was spent lazily, waiting for the party to start. I cycled to the interpretive center. Ken had loaned me use of his bicycle, so I could go to Fort Peck.
In the evening, I was glad I had stayed for the party. The food was good, the beer abundant, and the band excellent. I had met them earlier, and throughout the course of the night I hung out with them between sets, lounging behind the stage and passing around a jug of tequila like a ritualistic beaker.
Ken and I ran into some friends, and we arranged to go fishing in the river downstream of the dam the next day, and have dinner. I wasn’t going to stay another day, but how could I refuse?
The night wore on, and a danced a lot, but eventually things became too loud and all of a sudden overwhelming. I missed the kayak. I took a fresh beer down to the boat, still strapped to its trailer, ready to be portaged. I sat next to it, leaning my back against the smooth hull. The party continued on in the background, faint and thumping softly with the rhythm of the base drum. I faced the dark lake and the vast emptiness. I supposed I would stay one more day, but the water was calling.
I reflected on Fort Peck Lake. It had taught me a lot, even though I wasn’t always the best student. It had beaten me down and built me back up again. It taught me how small I was while at the same time showing me how strong I could be.
It had also taught me to listen to people, the few that I meet out there on the water. Ever since the beginning, I was told the remain on the left side of the lake. As I journeyed, that command was only enforced by the people I met. And what did I do? Go to the right side. And what happened? I flipped and got trapped in the wind for hours. Because Ellen knows better.
I’m such a punk sometimes.
Eventually, I found my way back to the couch in the camper and Koda on my feet. I fell instantly asleep.
July 16: Day 21
We took Ken’s boat out today, with the wind being down and all. We loaded up the dogs and struck out across the lake. Ken, the nicest man on the planet, let me drive to boat. We were going so fast over water that I had fought in and through, I grinned from ear to ear the entire drive. This was something else. It took a while to get around in motorized boat. I now understood why fishermen looked at me funny whenever I passed by in the kayak.
We fished for a while and I caught two Northern pike. Ken showed me the way he rigged his lines, and I enjoyed learning new fishing tricks.
Eventually the dogs got hot and we headed back. I was flush with a good time out on the boat with fishing poles.
We drove downstream and met up with Rod and Dianne, who lived in Montana in the summertime. Rod, Ken, and I went out in the boat and motored downstream. Today, I had been upstream on the lake, and now I was going downstream in the river. What a day for someone who is used to kayak-pace.
I liked fishing with Rod. Dipping the worms in the water reminded me of fishing back home.
We caught sauger and walleye, keeping a few of the walleye for eatin. A storm was coming in so we trooped back. Kirby and Jeni, some other friends we had met earlier, had arrived, and the six of us watched the storm from the patio, eating fried fish and spaghetti with meat sauce. Yes, this was worth the extra day.
Tomorrow, Rod would pick me up from the Marina and take me downstream.
July 17: Day 22
One more night with Koda on my feet, and the next morning I wake up and Ken gives me extra coffee and extra breakfast. I’ll need it more than he does, he says.
We loaded my things into Rod’s trailer and after a brief goodbye to Ken, we were off. I hate goodbyes. Always so drawn-out and weird. I’d rather just go.
I was dropped off in the same spot that I had been dropped off three days ago, and before I got in the water Rod handed me some money and a hat. It is now one of my most prized possessions. The hat, not the money. It is a blindingly white ball cap with the good mesh fabric, and it says ‘2017 Montana Governor’s Cup Walleye Tournament, Fort Peck Lake’
I really liked the hat. I wondered how long it would remain so dashingly white.
And I was away, paddling past Dianne and Rod’s house after 15 minutes. They tossed me a bag with trail mix and cliff bars in it, and took some pictures as I floated by.
The rising sun reflected off the water and highlighted the way east for me. The light sparked on the river, brighter and more valuable than any diamond.
I sort of hated to be leaving Fort Peck, with all of these beautiful people and fascinating characters. A rural town, where everyone knows everyone else and the life is simple and slips by like a cold beer on a hot afternoon. A little fast, but goes down smooth and good.
I wondered why the traveler craves this life. It is not a comfortable or easy one. Things can get hot or cold, rough and exhausting and makes you crave even the simplest of things like a chair. Even sleeping in a bed with a full belly of good food and drink, I can still hear the road out there, an endless path. Like a siren, it lulls me out and then the harshness of the road is upon me before I can retreat back to the comfort and safety of buildings and civilization and other people. But, as my brother Patrick put it, “There was nowhere else we’d rather be.” And indeed so.
I paddled for a long time, eating on the road. The water after the dam was cold and intensely clear. The Fort Peck dam has huge underground tunnels that the water comes out through, so the water that makes up the river after the dam comes from the very bottom of the lake.
An airplane flew by overhead, low-level. It looked like a Tri-Pacer, which is the same kind of airplane I got my private pilot’s license in, except this was the taildragger version. I waved, but the pilot did not rock his wings in reply. I watched the airplane until it was out of sight.
The river here is empty. No houses, no towns, no ramps, no people. The vegetation isn’t very interesting, and 10-foot mud cliffs line sections of the river. Occasionally, a pipe with a generator grumbles in the river, dredging water up for the crops above. Other than that and the cows, there was nothing to break the monotony of the countless river bends.
I paddled for 10 hours, and after that I began to look for a campsite. I play this game while I’m paddling, I call it “Would I Sleep There?”
You can probably guess what that game entails. As the evening draws closer, the game gets more and more serious.
I passed a crop field and was surprised to see a tractor up above, moving. With a farmer inside…a person! He must’ve caught me staring, because I heard his tractor horn beep. I waved, and the farmer turned off the tractor, got out, and waved me over.
He was on the right bank. This is important because the left bank is the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, which normally wouldn’t be a big deal except that this is, from what the folks here tell me, one of the most dangerous, crime-ridden and drug-infested reservations. I was told not to camp on the left bank, and stay away from anyone on that bank. Other thru-paddlers have gotten shot at, beaten up, gear stolen, and shouted racist obscenities at.
But Mr. Farmer here was a right-banker, so I paddled over. I expected him to tell me something about how I shouldn’t be paddling round in these parts with the reservation being right there and being white and a woman and alone and all.
He trudged down to the bank to meet me. He was younger than I had thought.
“My boy would really like your boat.” he said
“It’s a nice boat.”
“He just started getting into kayakin’.”
I didn’t really think this man needed anything, and seemed just as lonely as me. But I did need something.
“Say, do you know a good place to camp around here?” I asked, ungracefully dismounting the boat and trying my best not to make it look like I needed help, even though the mud came up to my knees.
He thought for a second.
“I don’t know.. there’s a good one just before Wolf Point.”
“Isn’t it dangerous to camp that close to the town?” I asked, heaving myself onto dry land, my pants brown with that Missouri river mud. I had been told the druggies come down and set up shacks next to the river.
“No, you’re on the right bank. Nobody is going to cross the river. It’s a big sandy beach. Was thinking about taking the boy out camping over there.”
“You could even kayak there.”
The farmer took off his cowboy hat and scratched his head vigorously.
“Yeah.” he said finally. “I’m Quinn, by the way.”
We shook grubby hands.
“Ellen.” I say
I paddled to the spot that Quinn had told me about, even though it was 2 more hours and I passed some potential sites along the way. Who says I have to stop at 10 hours? Or 11, or 12? I can paddle for as long as I feel like it.
I reached the sandy beach just past 8:00. I had been paddling for 12 hours, and had put 60 river miles behind me. This was the longest and furthest I had paddled in a day yet. That break at Fort Peck did me good.
The spot was good, and I couldn’t even see the town of Wolf Point, let alone anyone on the opposite shoreline. I set up camp quickly, racing the setting sun. I can go from in the water to a fully set up camp and eating dinner in one hour. First, I unload the boat, setting aside my kitchen and food. Then, I make dinner and put it on the fire and while it’s cooking, set up my tent and put the boat to bed, tending the stove as needed. By the time I’m done that, dinner is ready and I’m good to go. I might be just one, but I am efficient.
As I fell asleep at my cozy beach camp, I heard the beavers begin to slap the water, making giant splashes with their plywood tails. Yeah, there was nowhere else I’d rather be.
July 18: Day 23
I passed Wolf Point without incident. It was early in the morning, and I heard no sounds come from the town. I paddled quietly on.
I ate beef jerky and Road Loaf for lunch. Oh, I haven’t told y’all what Road Loaf is yet. Here is my blurb about the Road Loaf, scribbled in my notebook:
A must-have staple in any traveler’s gear is a bag of self-rising flour. You can use normal flour, but it’s not as good. You do, of course, need a heat source, a pan, a pinch of salt, and a dash of oil. I never travel without these items.
Pour the flour into a bowl, however much you want. Some salt to taste and water, mix it into dough. I take my frying pan, which is about 8 inches in diameter, and mold the dough until it fills the pan entirely. Pour in oil and fry both sides of the dough until golden brown (I like mine with a little burnt crunch). And there you have it, a Road Loaf.
Road Loaf: Just Carry Flour!
Road Loaf: The Bread of Travel!
Road Loaf: It’s Just Fried Dough!
This sun is frying my brain. My eyes make animals out of driftwood.
I also passed the town of Poplar without incident. It was about 2:00 in the afternoon, a weekday, and hot for Montana. I had heard this town was worse than Wolf Point. I drifted on, glad to be past the two dangerous spots.
I ate good snacks that my parents had sent me in the mail. Their fruit trees had overproduced this year, like always, and they had dried some apples and figs and sent them to me. The dried figs looked like big deer turds, but they tasted like Texas summer.
After 10 hours and 50 miles, I made camp on an island, and was munching rice and potatoes with my feet dangling over the edge of the elevated bank in no time.
It occurred to me that I had spoken to nobody today.
July 19: Day 24
Scattered rain showers kept me in my tent for an hour past my alarm. I was exhausted, and enjoyed the extra rest. After the showers passed, I began to pack camp. Rain still sprinkled here and there, but everything was in dry bags by then anyway. I filled my water bottles that I drink from throughout the day, and was alarmed to see that I was running low on water. I had enough to drink today, but no more. The river water here was very muddy and after seeing so many crop fields, I couldn’t help but wonder how many pesticides lurked in the water. I really, really, did not want to filter. I would have to find water today, which might entail me going into town, something I haven’t done yet and have been actively avoiding. I was loathe to leave my kayak and gear alone anywhere, even with a lock and chain. This development would make my day more stressful, and I was looking forward to a peaceful day on the river.
I was just about to dismantle my tent when a truck came driving down the gravel road that ran up the hill a ways back, on the right bank. You could only see that one sliver of road from the bank, but after it passed, I heard it stop and back up and it came into view again. The truck was looking at me and my camp. I casually put on my shirt. I had thought I was alone here.
The truck drive on, down the road and towards my camp. I heard the engine idle and doors slam. Looks like I would have company.
Two men appeared on the opposite bank, on the edge of the 15-foot scrubby cliff.
“YOU NEED ANYTHING?” One of them called out from the embankment.
“ACTUALLY I NEED WATER. I’M OUT OF DRINKING WATER.”
“WE CAN FILL YOU UP. YOU GOT JUGS?”
“I GOT JUGS.”
So I grabbed my jugs and, barefoot, jumped into my boat and paddled across the river. Wow, this was awesome. Perfect timing.
I clambered up the cliffside and with a rope they lowered down a big orange jug with a spout. I filled my jugs with ice-cold potable water.
“I was going to see if I could head into Brockton for water today.” I said, balancing on the cliffside and juggling jugs.
“There’s nowhere to get into Brockton from the river. There’s really not a lot of places to get out of the river for a ways out.”
“Well, I really appreciate this.”
“You need any food?”
“I’ve actually got plenty of food, thanks. Water was all I needed.”
“I got a Lunchable.” one of them said
His friend slapped him on the arm.
“Lunchables are for kids.” the friend said
I felt much better with all my jugs filled to the tippy-top. I pushed off away from the island and was on my way again, drinking as much of the ice-cold water as I could before it got warm. Today was going to be a good day with a lot of paddling.
I would not reach North Dakota today, but I would get as close as I could.
Montana, as if sensing that I was about to leave, put on a show of colorful bluffs for me to paddle through. A final farewell. Though not the white cliffs, I misstroked a couple of times with the paddle because I was too busy staring at the bluffs. They were colored with yellow, white, and red, with dashes of pink. It looked as if the sun was setting, but it was high noon. It was like the cliffs had seen so many sunsets, the colors were baked on its shear walls forever. Black coal deposits riddled the sunset colors like bulletholes.
Other than the farmers with the water and the bluffs, the day was uneventful. I paddled on, my mind meandering as much as the river.
The river here can sometimes be a little difficult. Large shallow areas present themselves on the inside curves, which I’m sure would be large be beachy sandbars if the water level was lower. Sometimes they creep up on you, and your paddle hits bottom in a foot of water before you saw it coming. I could usually make it out by pulling up rudder and scraping along. Only on two occasions did I have to get out and walk the boat through the water, but it’s always good to get out and walk every once in a while.
I learned to ride with the current, crossing the river when it did and making the winding river even more curvy. But the current moved, and I could ride the current around the sharper bends at a pretty good clip.
On the map, the mile marker for a mile number was actually marked inside an upcoming oxbow. It marked 50 miles for the day. I wondered why the marker was inside the oxbow, did that extra little bit count as the Missouri river? If you pass by it and make it to St. Louis, have you not paddled the entire river because you didn’t go into the oxbow?
When my dad and I are out running, if we’re running an out-and-back course, at the turnaround point, we’ll always see who can go an extra step before turning around, so that you can say it might have been a tough run for you but I went farther.
Well, that would be silly to go into the oxbow and out again like that just to say you did.
I went into the oxbow.
It was a sharp turnoff to a 20-foot wide channel with no current. The water was two or three feet deep, and I spooked a few very large fish who were probably waiting just outside of the current for bait fish to swim by. I pulled up rudder and cruised along the muddy shallows further into the still channel. It was deep enough that I wasn’t worried about getting stuck. On my right, there was a small hill with a flat top. I got out the kayak and walked to the top. It overlooked the oxbow and the setting sun. To the left, I could see the Missouri river rushing by.
I slept inside the oxbow. The coyotes yipped their party as the sun came down.
July 20: Day 25
In the morning, I checked my phone. I had gotten a text message from Dianne in Fort Peck about some friends of hers who lived near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone who could come out and bring me fresh water. She said that they were offering a shower and a bed, too.
The confluence, being 20 river miles away from my camp at the oxbow, was something I was just going to pass right on through today. At my pace of 5 miles an hour, it would only take me 4 hours to get there, which left me a good 6-8 hours of paddling.
But a bed sounded nice, and I had been paddling 10-12 hour days for the last three days. I was beginning to tire.
I hit the water, my body encouraged now by the shorter day ahead. I passed underneath the rail bridge that is just before the border. It was a really neat bridge, with suspensions coming off of it to hoist it directly up. It built during the age when it was assumed steamboats would be coming up the Missouri for ages to come. I was told later that some of these bridges had never even used this feature.
I crossed the border, and just like that, I was in North Dakota. I have never been to North Dakota before. To my left, I saw Fort Union peeking in and out through the tall, ugly weeds. I was told that there was a path that ran from the river to the fort, but it was badly overgrown and hard to see. I saw what might be a couple of possibilities, but didn’t investigate. I had more interest in meeting Dianne’s friends. Lunch sounded more tantalizing to me than an old fort.
The Yellowstone river joined me from the right. I saw the ramp I was to meet them at and headed for that, the current from the new river pushing me on. I ran right down the middle of the two currents. Right paddle, Yellowstone water, left paddle, Missouri water. I saw a house downstream just a little ways. It had a nice back porch overlooking the river and a wide green lawn. It was dazzling after seeing so much nothing for three and a half days on the river.
Arriving at the ramp, I was met by Terry, who backed his trailer in and we loaded up the boat. I sat on the trailer holding the kayak while we drove to his house which was just down the gravel path. It was the house I had been drooling at when I came in.
At the house I met Lulu, Terry’s wife, and I was instantly welcomed into their home like I was a long-lost relative. Dianne must’ve said awful nice things about me.
Being with Terry and Lulu after those long days on the empty river was a complete headspin. I was inside an air-conditioned house, on a chair, with a cold beer. Plucked off the river.
I had a shower, which I will always mention here on this blog every time it happens just to illustrate to you how amazing of a feeling this is with this lifestyle. It’s like being born again.
“Have you eaten lunch?” asked Lulu
“No.” I said, too quickly.
She smiled her big smile.
We had steak with a side of fries and salad. I gorged.
Terry and Lulu had a lot of children, and their children had a lot of children, so some of them got together and loaded up the kids and ice chests and beach chairs into the two boats and we all drove to a sandbar just up the Yellowstone. But first Terry took me and Lulu further up the Yellowstone so I could see the river. And indeed it was the only way I was going to see it because I sure wasn’t going to be paddling upstream just to took at a river that was very similar to the one I was just on. But I enjoyed the ride very much, and we drank and listened to country songs on the radio. Funny how life can just change all of a sudden.
At the sandbar, we sat around in a big circle in beach chairs and drank some more. Conversations and cigarettes alike were tossed across the circle. The wind blew sandstorms around us, but they had picked a good sheltered spot. The wind was blowing so hard, I was glad I wasn’t out on the water paddling right about now.
Eventually it was that time, drinking game time, and Terry and Lulu’s kids and spouses taught me some drinking games I didn’t know. But it’s not like they’re hard to learn. One of them involved a frisbee, and I got to throw some of my sweet ultimate frisbee moves.
I rode back on the kid’s boat. Terry’s son drove and loaded up a can of powder at the same time. For once, he wasn’t smoking a cigarette, which I suppose would be kind of a bad idea when doing this sort of activity.
“You makin fireworks?” I said
And he docked on a sandbar and someone was sent to run out and put the can on the sand and run back in and we floated away.
“Let Ellen do it.” someone called from the back of the boat.
“Let’s see how Texas shoots.” said Terry’s son, handing me a rifle.
I grew up in rural Texas. I know my way around a gun. I aimed, steadied, and squeezed on the exhale, like I’ve always done.
There were two booms, a sharp one from the gun, and a deep shaking one as the can exploded.
“Fuckin’ Texas hit it on the first shot!” hollered Terry’s son
I handed him back his rifle, and we all clinked beer cans. That’s right, Fuckin’ Texas.
The evening bled into the night on the back patio of the house. Pizza and bugspray appeared.
But eventually the bed started calling my name, and I retired to burrow underneath the thick comforter and get lost in the abundance of pillows.
July 21: Day 26
It took all of the willpower that exists inside of me to get out of that bed. Terry and Lulu had offered to have me stay another day, but I had turned it down. I really did need to get on the water and get to Tobacco Gardens. But just then, I really considered staying.
But the coffee, eggs, bacon, toast and milk made it worth leaving the bed. A glass of milk. That’s another thing that I really miss on the road. In Europe they had milk that you didn’t have to refrigerate, which was a great thing to put on the bicycle somewhere and chug for lunch or dinner or snack. It wasn’t amazing or anything, but it was milk.
As I was packing up, Terry mentioned that he thought there might be a campsite after Williston, near the mouth of Lake Sakakawea. That was exactly where I was planning on camping tonight, past the floodplains but before the lake. I hoped to make Tobacco Gardens by tomorrow afternoon. He showed me where it was and said it might be closed down but it was still a good place to camp.
So they put me in a the ramp they took me out of and I paddled away, my kayak filled with potable water and ziplock bags of leftover pizza. There is a special place in heaven for those who extend a helping hand to the road-weary traveler.
The water here is mud. I would even venture to say that is is muddier than the University Lafayette bend before Fort Peck Lake. Clouds of mud churning up and ballooning out across the stop of the water, mixing with even browner water. When I dipped my white hat in the water to cool my head, it came out a little bit duller each time. I knew it wouldn’t stay white for long.
The first forty miles passed uneventfully. I was more worried about the Highway 85 bridge and the mudflats. But I felt good in the water after my short break. I ate four slices of pizza, one for every 10 miles.
The highway 85 bridge is the largest bridge I’ve encountered on this river yet. I passed between the legs of the behemoths, the multi-lane highway and railway bridge creating a channel of steel and concrete. I saw the park and boat ramp on the right where another thru-paddler’s kayak had been stolen about a week or two ago. I hear Williston is a sketchy town since the oil came in.
I paddled on and left the roar of the bridge and the starting eyes of the people in the park behind. I nestled in the quietness of the river once again, hurrying back into the comfortable solitude.
I had been warned about the mudflats here in the same way I had been waned of them at the mouth of Canyon Ferry Lake and Fort Peck Lake, except people seemed the most concerned about this one.
I really picked a good time to go. The current was solid and definite, and the islands well defined but not flooded. I saw the two sets of bluffs that are landmarks for navigating through the flats. I passed through easily. One man on one small motorized boat came by, passed me, and went down a smaller channel that I was warned not to go on because it’s too shallow.
Well, a motor boat just went through it.
I followed in pursuit. This would cut off about 3 miles to the campsite Terry had told me about.
This channel was narrower, but the current still healthy. I rode through, popping out back into the main channel right before the campsite. Hey, it didn’t go bad!
I found an opening through the weeds and pulled up at an overgrown and unkempt boat ramp. I had hoped the camp was abandoned, and this was a good sign.
Hiking up the ramp, I explored the camp. It was big, with hookups for campers, vault toilets, picnic table shelters, a well (which didn’t work I tried) and a big open concrete pavilion with a basketball hoop and more picnic tables. It did look a little abandoned.
The wind blew strong, and I was glad I stopped before the lake. I tucked the boat in and took some things into the pavilion, picking a picnic table that was sheltered from the wind by the one half-wall that was the only wall and underneath the basketball hoop.
I see people writing a lot at coffee shops, sitting at tiny tables stirring fancy coffees with delicate little spoons and nibbling on food that would only serve to make me hungrier. Dressed like an artist who cares about their appearance. Writing art, at a coffee shop, where art is made.
I can think of no better table to sit at and write than a decrepit picnic table underneath a bent basketball hoop in an abandoned pavilion at an empty campground on the banks of the Missouri River.
I didn’t take my tent up. I’ll sleep here on the floor.