July 22: Day 27
I had gone to sleep that night with my alarm set for 2:30am. I did this because I figured it would take around 7 hours to paddle to Tobacco Gardens and the wind was forecasted to be 3 knots in the morning, rising to 12 knots by 10:00, and 17 knots by noon. I was going to try to wake up and make it to the marina before the wind.
At 2:30, my alarm went off. I looked around. The moon was thin, and it was very dark out there on the water. I was unsure if I would be able to navigate past the remainder to the mudflats in the dark. I went back to sleep, resetting my alarm for 4:30.
I packed quickly at 4:30. I felt very awake despite the few hours of sleep I had gotten. I had slept comfortably on the concrete floor of the pavilion, setting up my bed in a relatively bird poop-less corner.
I went down to the ramp and was paddles wet by 5:00, turning off my headlamp as the faint light of the day began to appear from the east. Sunrise here right now is at 6:20, North Dakota time.
I navigated the mudflats by silhouettes of vegetation, and they channeled me through to the lake in the early half-light.
Goddamnit, I had to pee. I was in the mudflats, and racing the forecasted wind. I didn’t have time for my body’s needs. Besides, there was nowhere to pull over without getting stuck in mud.
Oh yes it’s that time, y’all. She-wee time. I had been carrying this thing in my deck bag this entire trip, and hadn’t used it before. It’s just a molded cup with a short tube. Women use it for camping, so they don’t have to squat to pee. I mean, I’ll just pop a squat anywhere, but I had bought it specifically for kayak-peeing.
I rummaged and found an empty plastic bottle, maneuvered things around, and now I can say I used a she-wee. It wasn’t a satisfying, let-it-all-out piss, but it got the job done. I triumphantly emptied the bottle into the water. Women kayakers, bless you.
As soon as I was released from the confines of the flats, I struck out east towards the right shoreline. The marina was on the right bank. I would cross and never cross again. It was 7:30. Already the water was showing signs of choppiness.
I paddled straight into the rising sun. It reflected brilliantly off the water, and even with sunglasses and a hat it felt like it the reflection burned a hole clear through my skull. I made landfall on the right bank just before 9:00. Throughout my crossing, the wind had picked up from the northwest, and by the time I reached the shore, I was riding swells coming at me from behind and fighting the choppy water in between waves. This was going to be a hell of a fight to the marina. I should’ve packed camp at 2:30am.
I hugged the shore, slowly following it as it turned to the northeast, and then finally the north. I was fully skirted up and battling waves before some people had even had their morning coffee.
The wind was really picking up, but I gritted my teeth and pushed on. I was determined to make it to Tobacco Gardens, wind or no wind. It came at me as a quartering left tailwind. I wished I had a sail. Well, maybe not.
For the love of all human needs, I had to pee again. I wasn’t about to test the limits of the she-wee with the 2 to 3 foot rollers coming at me from the side. I wasn’t even sure if I would try that as a guy, with a built-in pee tube. I angled into a shallow cove that was in no way protected from the wind. After all, I was on the unprotected side of the lake in order to get to the marina. North course, right bank, west wind. Nothing was sheltered here.
I rode the waves into the cove, pulled the skirt, hopped out, dropped trow, and pissed into the waves, holding onto my kayak and paddle with one hand. I had to pee a lot, and as I was going, the waves crested onto the shore. They swamped my poor kayak, and I yelled in frustration as the water boiled over the boat and into the cockpit, nearly flipping it. I was caught, quite literally, with my pants down. I should’ve just peed inside the boat.
The waves did not let up, and I gathered my pants as another wave deposited its contribution to the cockpit. Wading waist deep into the water, I pushed the nose of the boat out into the waves so they were no longer coming at the vessel directly from the side and somehow, with a shove and a hop, deposited my soggy rear end into the waterlogged boat. She had taken on so much water it looked like I had just flipped. I didn’t have the facilities to bail right now. I just had to get out of this cove and shoreline. It was hell.
The boat rode low with all that new weight in it. The muddy water in the cockpit came up to my knees and my feet were completely submerged. I didn’t have the extra hands to attach the spray skirt, as if that would help now. Waves surged over the front and back of the boat and sloshed around at my waist. This was not good. I would flip or sink soon riding so low. I really, really should have just pissed myself in the seat of the kayak. I was about to piss myself again anyway I was so scared.
I went one shallow cove further and immediately pulled into it. This one was no more sheltered, and had large stacks of driftwood lining the entire bank, scattered like giant pickup sticks. I dismounted early into water that came up to my belly, afraid that if I exited the boat at the shoreline where the waves were really cresting, I would get swamped and sink.
Sloshing through the water, I hustled to pull the kayak through the driftwood and onto land. Nothing about this was easy. The branches clawed at my clothes and tried to trip me, the waves were big and white, the wind was howling, and my boat was impossibly heavy with water.
It took all my strength to pull the kayak onto land. I gave it everything I had while the lake threw itself crazily at me. The boat felt like a brick.
I had made it. The waves slammed onto the driftwood and threw up huge sprays of water, angry that it couldn’t get to me anymore. No, I was not going back out there. I would rather be here forever than go back out there in this.
Wearily, I stripped off my skirt and life jacket, feeling very much like I had just flipped even though I hadn’t. But everything had remained intact on the kayak, my license, debit card, and money were still in my pockets, both my shoes were still on my feet, and…I had lost my pocket knife. Well that really sucks. Chad had given that knife to me before I left. It was a kershaw flip knife, my favorite brand and a nice snappy blade. I would have to buy a cheap pocket knife somewhere. The only other knife I had was my fillet knife for cleaning fish. I’ll buy myself another kershaw as a reward when I return home. Oh well. I would rather lose my favorite knife than my boat or worse, my life.
Charley was askew. One of the two bungees had slid off from the top of his sun-baked skull. I reattached him and then took two extra carabiners and hooked one through each eye socket and to the bungees. If I lost him in rough water, he would be lost with two broken eye sockets. I was not losing him now, not after all we had been through.
I checked my phone and found I had decent service. My weather app said the wind was at 17 knots. Yeah, it was time to sit this out. The forecast showed that the winds wouldn’t calm down to a reasonable level until around 9:00. Maybe I would paddle then, or maybe I would spend the night here. I sent Peggy, the host of the marina who was expecting me, a message letting her know I was windbound and where I was. I was probably only 2 to 3 hours of paddling away from her little sheltered inlet.
I was much happier on the land. I hear a lot of folks complaining about being windbound, but I was perfectly content to sit on dry ground and watch the waves try and fail to reach me and my kayak. I bailed, then retired a little ways up on land to get as much out of the North Dakota wind as I could. I brought pizza slices, water, my hoodie, and phone. Nestling in behind a log, I gave Chad a call. At least he should know that I had lost the blade he had given me.
I talked on the phone for about an hour with him before the reception got too bad. It was a strange feeling to be alone in the middle of nowhere and talking with another person.
After we hung up, I curled up in a ball behind the log and slept well for two uninterrupted hours.
When I woke up, the wind was the same. I went down to check on the boat and found that the spray from the waves had filled it with water again, though not as much as before. Yeah, that’s how much the waves were cresting. They had sprayed my kayak full with water.
I bailed again, and checked my phone. Peggy from the marina had sent me a message, asking where exactly I was and that she could send a pontoon out to come get me.
Some people do this trip, and other trips, with this idea that they will do the entire thing on their own power. So no portages on vehicles, no tugs, every inch of the way must be powered by their own physical bodies. And I get that, I respect that, but I am not doing this trip that way. I just want to make it to St. Louis in one piece and with a boat I can give back. I had enough adventures already today. I called Peggy on the phone and she said she would send the guys out with the boat right away.
So I packed everything up, not really sure how they were expecting to extract me from the shoreline with these waves. I couldn’t push my kayak out into open water without it getting swamped and possibly flipping, and I wasn’t about to get inside the thing and paddle out. But I buttoned everything up, even dismantling my paddle, stowing it inside the cockpit, and attaching the cover. I put on my life jacket, not sure if I was going to go for a swim in order to get to the pontoon.
It was windy. There were no boats out right now, and the pontoon appeared suddenly around the corner. I waved like a stranded castaway.
They saw me, and headed straight for shore, running aground rather roughly onto the bank. Well, that’s one way to do it. One of them jumped out and we loaded the kayak up onto the floor of the pontoon. It fit perfectly.
We hopped in and motored away.
“Do you know how many times I wished for this at Fort Peck Lake?” The first thing I said to them.
Nobody else was out on the water. A pontoon was the only thing that could take what we were getting here.
The nose of my kayak jutted out from the front of the pontoon like it was leading the way, a pointer dog showing us the way to the marina.
Tobacco Gardens shimmered in the afternoon sun in its sheltered inlet like a mirage. Was I really here, at the fabled and legendary Tobacco Gardens?
Ever since I got connected with the Missouri River Paddlers (MRP) a couple of months before I put in, I have heard stories of Tobacco Gardens. A magical place where paddlers are blessed with gifts from the all-knowing and omnipotent River Angel Peggy. A private cabin with a bed. Hot shower. Good food, cold beer. Laundry. Resupply. Good company, good times. Rest.
And the fables are all true, and then some. The remainder of the day was spent hanging out and getting to know the crew, whom are as just an integral part of the Tobacco Gardens Paddler Experience as Peggy is. When night fell, we all lounged around a camper, drinking and talking and laughing and singing badly with an acoustic guitar.
There was a paddler on the riverrrr
Her name is Ellen, that is herrrr
And Tom didn’t come with herrrr
(Strum strum strum)
…Because he’s a lazy motherfuckerrrrrrrrr!!
Someone brought out cherry moonshine. I ate four cherries. I was having a good time.
I didn’t care how tired I was. There was no way I would be sitting inside my new private bunkhouse while this was happening at the camp. I wouldn’t trade this for the world. I drank it up as much as the drink.
I had made it to Tobacco Gardens. Everything would be OK now.
July 23: Day 28
The next day, I was surprised that I wasn’t hungover from those goddman moonshine cherries. Man, do these northern folk drink like fish. Well, I guess they do down in the south too.
Peggy had some mail boxes for me, one from my parents, one from Chad, and one from Epic Kayaks. Chad sent me my hammock, which I have been hating that I left at home, and my parents sent food, most of which I’ve been eating for lunch on the water. So, in a sense, my parents are making my lunches.
“Have a good day on the water, dear! Here’s your lunch! Now don’t be late!”
The new hatch was shining and white and impossibly clean.
I practically ran down to where my boat was docked, like a kid at Christmas. I tried out the cover. It was the right size, but the sealing that went around the edge was much thicker than the previous cover. It sat a little higher and was no longer flush with the rest of the boat. I considered cutting the sealing, but that could ruin the sealing integrity of the cover. I ended up loosening the four latches that hold the hatch on, making them sit up higher like the new cover. They then could latch over and seal the port. It worked.
A friend that I had made last night drove me into town to get groceries. She was my age, and we made friends quick. I missed my friends back in Austin, but was enjoying making new ones along the river.
I stocked up well on my supplies, having read that there are few opportunities to buy food off of the river until you get to the dam. I bought an entire pound of self-rising flour. If worst comes to worst, I could just make a lot of bread.
We drove back to the marina were we loaded up an ice chest and a few of us drove out to the lake and stood in the choppy water, drinking beers and digging our toes into the smooth sandy bottom of the lake. This was the life.
That night, I retired to the bunkhouse and was still delighted by having a room all to myself. It felt like a dorm room, with two beds and a desk and small fridge and microwave. Appropriately dorm-like, I snuggled down in my hoodie and, sitting cross-legged on the bed, ate a cheeseburger and fries I had gotten from the restaurant earlier and watched Netflix. Soon my life would be tossed back out on the water and I would have to sink or paddle. But for now, I could cater to my true desires: Netflix and food.
I was a little nervous about the lake. Fort Peck Lake had whooped me, and it was smaller than Lake Sakakawea. Just paddling from my camp on the edge of the mudflats to Tobacco Gardens I had gotten beat up. The lake frightened me, but I vowed to make my pace the same as nature’s. The same as the river. It’s alive, and you only move when it’s in a good mood.
Besides, crossing the lake was the only way to get to the end.
July 24: Day 29
The day was spent preparing and organizing. I hoped to head out tomorrow morning, but I was keeping an eye on the wind forecast.
I gave the kayak a good clean. It’s amazing how much sediment, mud, sand, and general river junk makes its way inside the boat and its ports. I completely emptied it and hosed it down, inside and out. I even took a dish sponge and scrubbed the waterline off the hull. After that, it looked so white and nice that I was afraid people would no longer believe me when I told them that I started at the headwaters.
I took the opportunity to thoroughly inspect the underside of my vessel. It definitely looked like it had been on a river for a month. Though the kayak was not new when I became its foster parent, it definitely looked more used. I saw a few new scratches and bumps that I did not remember being there back in Texas. I considered applying patches to some of the larger ones, but in the end decided that none of them were bad enough that they were a problem yet.
I also took apart the rudder and put it back together again. It had been bashed on some driftwood on my way to Tobacco Gardens, and was feeling a bit loose. It was very therapeutic to clean and organize and take care of all my gear. When you’re on a journey at this pace, your gear is your life and your survival and your ability to move and your home. Take care of your gear, and it will take care of you.
When I had first arrived, Peggy and told me about some guy from Europe that was supposed to come through and do an interview with her and Tobacco Gardens and was writing some kind of article on western North Dakota. He was interviewing her because he had heard that she had been putting up these crazy thru-paddlers for years. I happened to be around, so I ate dinner with them and two other people from nearby marinas who were showing the guy around.
He was from Germany, and was planning on paddling source to sea next year. I gave him what advice I had, feeling more confident about my knowledge of the river and the journey now that I was one month road-worn. Who knows what I will know by the time I get to Missouri?
July 25: Day 30
It was too windy to leave today. Peggy agreed, said she saw the lake today and it looked choppy, and tomorrow is forecasted to be unusually calm. So I slept in, called family, and had lunch with my friend. She and another waitress here were leaving for Minot to go to the state fair. I had been invited, but had declined because that would put me back on the water Sunday, which was too much. I had to make it home eventually. If the weather was forecasted to be awful for a few days, I would’ve gone to a state fair in Minot, North Dakota where my oldest brother was born.
Gotta keep moving.
I thoroughly organized and got my bags completely prepared for an early early morning departure. If the winds were going to be down tomorrow, I wanted to get as much paddling done as possible.
I had to get creative packing the new items such as the large quantities of food my parents had sent me, as well as the more-than-average quantities I had bought at the grocery store in town before. I was good on food.
I had one last cheeseburger at the restaurant as well as one to-go to eat on the water tomorrow, and Peggy told me to pick out some food from the general store they had there. I got my favorite flavor of pop-tarts. We said our goodbyes and I retired early to bed to get some sleep for a long day of paddling tomorrow. It took me a while to fall asleep. It wasn’t reality yet that I was about to leave.
July 26: Day 31
It was early in the morning. It was so early, it wasn’t really morning at all. The night was in full bloom.
I packed up my little bunkhouse room and put my paddling clothes back on. Peggy had washed them and they smelled good and looked marginally better, but I felt lean and mean in them regardless. They have become my work clothes.
A faded pink button-up sun cover with long sleeves and two front pockets, and a pair of gray pants, the stupid kind that zip off into shorts, a feature I very rarely used. Quick-dry fabric all around. Both of these articles of clothing were worn extensively on my Brazil expedition with my brother, and the pants had additionally been taken with me in the cycle across Europe. They were more traveled than some people. I took them because of the quick-dry fabric, and didn’t think to buy new ones because these were still serviceable. This might be their last expedition, though.
I feel like this blog gets a little rambling. Matt (Fourth of July Matt, remember him O Followers of My Blog?) had told me of a blog he read once of this poet who walked across Alaska and his poems became incredibly more and more insane and bizarre because he was alone and walking across Alaska. Matt then said he’s looking forward to reading my blog’s descent into lunacy. This is what friends are for.
Next year, hiking trip maybe? Alaska sounds fun.
It was still dark. I packed up my boat and paddled away. It was 4am.
Like a bird shaking its head of dew before the day’s first flight, so I shook the rust from my bones.
It felt good to paddle. I felt strong. It was akin to the feeling I got when going for a run after a rest day. The new muscles are healed and feel good to be used.
I had left Tobacco Gardens with the things I had gotten in the mail, a new sweatshirt, a new hat, a case of water bottles, a cheeseburger, and memories. And memories of other cheeseburgers.
Yet despite the good stop, I felt discouraged. Tobacco Gardens is appropriately situated along the Missouri River Route so that when you’ve paddled this far, you are not even halfway there, yet have been on the road for a fair amount of time. Knowing this, and knowing that I had more than half of the road ahead of me, and wondering if I can do this, and wondering how long I can sustain this, and knowing that I can and knowing that I don’t have to but I will and I can and how long can I do this?
Thus is the rambling way of thoughts to the stroke of a paddle.
I was still feeling nervous about the lake.
The day unfolded around me. The wind was calm and the water only slightly choppy. I had the feeling that the only time this lake was smooth was when it was frozen.
I headed east, following the right shoreline like Peggy had told me to do. Never cross, she said.
Hear that, Ellen? Never Cross.
On a lake, you have a completely different sight picture. On the river, you generally stare at the next bend to steer your feet there. On the lake you do the same, but the next point is significantly further away. Significantly. Like, stare at that big rock over there for the next two or three hours.
The lake calmed down, and I was quiet. I felt like if I made too much noise, I might wake up the lake and it would be angry that I was out on the water while it was sleeping and churn me up and spit me out onto a hastily chosen bank somewhere.
The sun came up and it was hot and it and made mirages on top of the still reflections of the distant shoreline. The effect was disorienting. I felt like I needed an attitude indicator next to my whiskey compass.
I reached the Highway 23 bridge at Four Bears and New Town at 2:00. It was a distance of 40 river miles, and I had done it in 10 hours. I stopped in the shade of a scrubby tree just before the bridge and ate some pop-tarts, switching my maps to reveal the next part of the lake. More sunscreen, some quick stretches, and I was off again. The wind was still calm. Get out there.
This might be Too Much Information, but guys, I have saddlesore. I noticed it when I was showering at Tobacco Gardens, and it had healed a little in my time there, but not enough. I continuously adjusted my padding position, which is a luxury that is limited when in choppy water. It would probably never go away completely until after the trip. You just learn to live with it.
The part of the lake after the bridge is narrower, but is still huge to the tiny kayaker. Okay, I’ll admit it: I crossed. But! The wind was calm, the water was smooth, and I was crossing with intentions to re-cross immediately. I was essentially cutting off a little bend, is all.
Which were my thoughts as I justified it to myself the entire time, feeling my adrenaline surge as I entered Big Water. Motorized boats appeared, seemingly continuously, around the corner ahead. They all went around me, but sometimes I wasn’t so sure if they saw me. I did have a whistle attached to my life jacket, but was unsure if someone in a boat would hear it.
I made it back to the safety of the right bank as the lake began its easterly curve. An east wind picked up, but it produced no whitecaps and I still made progress, though hugging the shore a little closer now.
The sun warmed my back. I begin to think seriously about campsites as the shadows on the cliffs began to lengthen, sharpening its angles.
I got out and scouted a little cove that was sheltered well from a south or southeast wind, which was the forecasted wind for the night. It wasn’t a beautiful little spit, but it was sheltered properly and had a flat spot. It wasn’t stealthy, but my boat was white like driftwood and my tent tan like the dead grass. Peggy had told me to stealth camp while inside the reservation. Apparently this reservation was sketch, too. There was no right-bank, left-bank anymore. This reservation encompassed both side of the lake for a distance.
This would do. I was tired. Wearily, I stripped off my life jacket, hat, and sunglasses and threw them in a pile, marking the spot for my camp. I took off my paddling gloves, which I had put on halfway through the day. My callouses had turned back into blisters, and were oozing thick yellow pus. I had been paddling for sixteen hours. Time to stop.
That evening, I sat with my back to the boat and meditated over the expansive lake with the help of a day-old Tobacco Gardens cheeseburger.
July 27: Day 32
I woke up in the middle of the night to go pee, and saw that the water was still and the overcast clouds reflected just enough light from the scattered civilization here that I could see the outline of the shoreline. I could paddle in this, but I needed more sleep. I went back to bed and set my alarm for 2:30.
At 2:00, I woke up because there were lights flashing my my face. There was a lightning storm going on to the northeast. I put on my headlamp and grabbed the bag of stakes. Dressed only in my causauns, I went outside and attached Marty fully. I had thrown him on when I set up the tent, but had only attached the four corners and hadn’t anchored anything else. I scampered back into the tent and the warmth of my sleeping bag, cancelled my alarm, and fell asleep as I heard the first sprits of rain tap lightly on the tent.
Around 4:30, there was thunder and it began to rain hard. The wind didn’t feel too bad and I heard on my weather radio that it was coming from the southeast. I went back to sleep patting myself on the back for picking an appropriately sheltered campsite.
It rained all throughout the early morning and into proper morning. I wasn’t sleepy anymore by 9. The thunder growled, occasionally making the ground underneath my bed vibrate. I was not in a foul mood like the weather. In fact, I was happy for the break. After paddling for sixteen hours yesterday, I could stay here all day. And perhaps that would be the case.
While it rained, I stretched, organized my things, read some of Dave Miller’s book, updated my maps in the map-case, and wrote. I’ve been here ever since, I was behind on my writing. I am still content here. It’s not an amazing campsite or anything, but it’s sheltered and besides all campsites look the same with the rain fly zipped. It’s 11am, and it’s still raining. At some point I will have to venture out to the boat to grab my stove, but other than that I can stay here all day and night if I have to. I don’t mind the rain because there is not a lot of wind at my camp. I would much rather rain than wind. I think I’ve said that before.
It would have to take better weather than this to get me out of my cozy tent after paddling for sixteen hours the day before.
I made some Road Loaf, napped, and by 2:00 the rain had stopped. I climbed a nearby hill and looked east. I saw whitecaps, and they were coming from the east, which meant I would have a headwind if I ventured out. I went back to camp and, for the first time, fished.
I have not fished yet on this trip for a number of reasons. The first one being that I did not have a Montana fishing license. I brought rod and reel partly because I like to fish, and partly because I did want to have a way of getting food if…food runs out. The other reasons I didn’t fish include that there were to many other people at my campsite, I had enough fresh food, or I didn’t have the time/energy to catch, clean, and cook a fish. It takes a while to get into the grove of things.
I fished for two hours and caught nothing. But I still had a good time.
Around 4:00, the wind looked as if it had died down. The rain clouds had diminished, and there was only one to the west that looked to be moving away.
I did not want to leave camp. It wasn’t even that pretty of a site, but I had made it home. I was comfortable, and to be honest a little sore from my sixteen-hour day yesterday. I wasn’t all eager to get out there.
But I forced myself to start packing, and once I started, well now you have to finish and go.
I paddled away. As I paddled, I kept tabs on the rain behind me. It didn’t look like it was moving away, and actually looked to be moving towards me. I rounded a bend and the southern shore opened up to me. There was a rain cloud there, too!
The wind had been only slight when I left, and now was blowing rather intensely. It had barely been thirty minutes.
Screw this, I don’t want to paddle today.
I pulled into a small bay and found a spot. I set up my tent, laughing at myself for packing camp, paddling for thirty minutes further, and setting up again. C’est la vie.
It didn’t rain, and the wind appeared to die down. I decided to stop worrying about what the weather was doing and set off early tomorrow, no matter how it looked the rest of today. I got out my pole and fished again. I was in North Dakota on Lake Sakakawea in the summer evening, fishing. What discontent can one have?
I again caught nothing. That night, my fillet knife was used to cut onions, not fish.
As I fell asleep, I heard the sound of a large beast. After listening for a couple of minutes, I decided it was a horse. I had seen a herd just a couple of hours back up the lake. This one was probably just up on the cliff behind me. It was so close, I could hear the crunch of grass in teeth. Eventually, the noises died down so he had either wandered away or bedded down for the night, like me.
July 28: Day 33
My alarm went off at 4, but I fell back asleep, dreaming that I opened my tent and saw that a herd of wild horses had bedded down all around me.
At 5, I woke up, opened my tent, and found that the horses were gone. I packed camp and at 6 I was away.
The lake was calm. I padded and felt that I was going faster than usual. I rounded Independence Point at 9:00, instead of my expected 10. Maybe the ole kayak motor is getting a few extra horsepowers. I did notice my arms becoming rather muscly. Well, muscly for a skinny white girl.
After I rounded the point, I got an expected headwind. I had seen the wind pick up from the southeast like forecasted, but was well sheltered on my northeasterly route at the time.
The headwind wasn’t too bad, and I still made alright progress, though I had slowed significantly from before. I saw 5 fishing boats around Independence Point. This must be a popular place to fish. I couldn’t wave at anyone because I was working with the choppy water around the point.
I paddled until noon, and the wind got stronger and stronger. I began noticing whitecaps in an area where there was absolutely nowhere to pull out, with steep 20-foot rocky cliffs. I paddled doggedly on, and the cliffs ended another 30 minutes later. I found myself in a small bay with cows. I spotted a good place to pull out across the bay. Even crossing the little spit where it was more sheltered wasn’t a ball.
I got out and retired with water and food to the shade to regroup. As I rested, I noticed that I could spend the night here if I had to. Sheltered alright from a southeast wind, flat spot, and even a hammock-hanging spot in a cluster of young trees.
I went for a hike. It was a pretty long hike, and it took me about 15 or 20 minutes before I could get a good view of the water to the south and east. I looked out. Whitecaps appeared in the blue water like cockroaches. The place was infested.
I trooped back down to camp, and found I had picked up three hitchhiker ticks on my hike. I took great pleasure in pulling off their disgusting heads.
I turned on my weather radio. It was reporting something like gusts of 20 in various towns around Sakakawea. Alright.
I put together my pole and went fishing again.
I again caught nothing and noticed the wind picked up even more. I was windbound I suppose, but felt content about it. Though an avid reader, I hadn’t brought any books on this trip except Dave’s guide book, but I had brought a book-sized tackle box and a rod and reel. You can always finish a book, but this was endless entertainment. I wished Dad was here so he could show me some cool fishing trick I didn’t know to get these doggone fish.
I hung up my hammock in the shade of the young trees, and it was heavenly. What was I thinking when I decided to leave my hammock at home? Nothing says dirty hippie traveler to me more than sleeping in a hammock.
The wind never stopped, and grew stronger. It shifted a little to where my spot was no longer very sheltered. My hammock swung crazily back and forth. I explored the shoreline with my fishing pole and found that right around the corner was a peaceful, sheltered cove with an abundance of good tent spots. It might as well have had a sign there that said CAMP HERE, with flowers and butterflies.
I went back to my windy hammock camp. I thought about moving camp into the sheltered butterflies and daises cove, but that would entail either a manual portage along an overgrown cow trail, or a quick paddle around the bend. The white cockroaches had invaded the bay by now, and threw themselves on shore as big muddy waves. Doing anything on the water, even just to go around the next bend, was a big Nope Taco with extra nopesauce.
I stayed at my camp, spending the time lounging in my hammock and solving Sudoku puzzles in a little book I had bought in the checkout line long ago. It was from Soap Opera Digest, and on the front it had written in big yellow garish lettering: Sudoku To Go! Take It Anywhere!
Last year I had taken the same book with me across Europe, and now it was with me on the water. I’m not sure that’s what they had in mind when they said you can take it anywhere.
I had given up long ago that the wind was going to let up that day. The forecast called for a ‘slight chance of thunderstorms’ that night, so I decided to set up my hammock tarp.
I strung a line across the top top of the hammock and secured the tarp over it at the four corners, the exact same way my late brother had taught me to do in the Amazon.
He had laughed at me, I remember, our first night out on the Rio Negro. I had struggled to pick my way around the dense rainforest vegetation to hang my hammock, then couldn’t throw the tarp across the line successfully and ended up flailing around with a tarp over my head, like a bad Halloween ghost costume. He didn’t help and just laughed, as a big brother should do to a little sister.
The memory made me feel a mix of things, all alone out there on the lake.
My tarp was woefully too small for the job. It was the tarp I had bought in Fort Benton to use as a front hatch cover, and so had bought the smallest one. The ends of the hammock jutted out both sides and the bottom sagged below it. Oh well. I didn’t really think it would rain tonight, though I would have to buy a larger tarp in Bismarck if I wanted to do any future hammock camping, which I very much did.
I went to sleep that evening with the wind rocking me to sleep.
July 29: Day 34
It didn’t rain, and I slept well in my nest. I sleep better in hammocks than I do in most beds.
I was gone just after first light. Even in the early morning the water was choppy, but not too bad. It woke me up.
I picked my way south along the shoreline, and by the time I was at McKenzie bay the wind had died down and the water was actually pretty pleasant. I crossed McKenzie bay. My adrenaline spiked out on Big Water again, and it powered me across the bay in twenty minutes. I did not enjoy it. I am loathe to leave the relative safety of the shoreline. It makes me feel like I’m about the size of your average dust speck.
By the time I was following the southern shoreline, the fishermen had emerged, seeming to come out of the raw stone. They were everywhere. I stayed clear of their trolling lines, and didn’t mind their presence on my lake. It makes me feel like I’m less alone.
After four days on the lake, I felt it was my right that I could call it my lake.
The wind freshened from the east, and the water became choppy again. Nothing to keep me out of the boat, but enough that I needed both my hands at all times and couldn’t eat on the water. After six hours, I pulled into a cove and ate lunch, stretched, and shat.
The shoreline was an endless series of inlets, bays, and coves. I was able to accurately figure out where I was based on the shape of the bays and by counting the number of inlets between them. I continued doggedly on, just taking it one cove at a time. The choppy water never got worse, but it also never let up.
Just before Beaver Creek Bay, the boats became like flies around a hot shit. A Saturday with fair wind, everybody was out. Pontoons, fishing boats, sporting boats, jet skis, every motorized water toy in a hundred mile vicinity was on the water today. They made the choppy water even choppier, and a few of the motorists had very little courtesy as to how close they passed me and my little boat. I am not one to be that stick in the mud, but after ten hours in the water that day, my thoughts about them were unfiltered. I was tired.
I wasn’t sure what the plan was for today. I wanted to get close enough so I could paddle to the dam the next day, arriving by late afternoon or evening. After the little bulge in the lake that makes up Beaver Creek Bay and Beulah Bay, there appeared to be some potential inlets for camping. But inside the bulge it was more populated, more open, and less trees. I would not be comfortable camping there.
But by the time I got to Beulah Bay, I was done. I was running on empty. The sun made mirages on the shore, and inside the mirages I saw cheeseburgers. My brains felt scrambled. I felt like I had been inside a washing machine all day.
I had remembered reading in Dave’s book about Dakota Waters marina, but hadn’t really planned on stopping there because I wanted to make as many miles as possible. I didn’t need drinking water or any supplies. The most I needed was to drop off my small bag of trash somewhere. It was just after 4:00. Maybe at most they had a restaurant where I could buy dinner instead of cooking bland rice at my camp tonight. I headed inside the bay, following the boat traffic as it disappeared around the corner. I had been paddling for eleven hours. Maybe it was time to call it quits, after all.
It felt like it took me an eternity to paddle to the marina inside the bay. I probably wasn’t going very fast. My strokes felt weak and my everything hurt. By the time I got to the marina, I had made up my mind to stay there. To further enforce my decision, a thunderstorm was developing from the west, behind me.
I docked and went inside the marina. It was the best decision I had made all day.
The two people running the place were instantly brightened to see me. Apparently, I was the first thru-paddler that had come in all year, even though I knew there were at least four vessels ahead of me on the Missouri this year. I asked for a tent site and was given a cabin instead.
I buttoned up my boat and lounged with the owners Amber and Tom in the marina. I inhaled a cheeseburger and two cold beers. Jello shots appeared. A local regular was impressed by my journey and gave me forty dollars. I felt like I was inside the mirages I had seen earlier.
I made friends fast with Amber and Tom. They were more my age, and I had no problem picturing us four on a double date if Chad was here. He would have liked them, too.
That night, we ate steak dinner inside the closed marina. Lightning flashed, and the wind blew hard and gusty. I had a lot of things to be grateful for in life, and all of them involved being at Dakota Waters right now.
Amber, Tom, and Amber’s little brother and I stayed up past midnight, drinking cocktails and watching the storm come and go.
I fell asleep late in the night in a bed in my new cabin, a goofy smile still plastered on my face.
This river offers a lot of solitude. But you can’t visit a place without interacting with its inhabitants. You can’t say you’ve visited a zoo if you didn’t see any animals.
The river is beautiful, and it reflects its beauty in the things and people around it.
Both Peggy and Amber had shared with me almost identical thoughts about the water: That it is alive, and because it was alive it made the people that lived on it come to life.