July 30: Day 35
The next day, my body hurt. I was mostly not asleep at 7, and hung out with Tom as he opened the marina. Coffee helped everyone.
I spent the morning lounging around in and around the marina with my computer, writing and eating breakfast and catching up on the world. I enjoyed chatting with the people as they came through and just being in the marina with Amber and Tom. I could feel that I was already going to miss them.
Not only did I want a rest day to let my body heal, but I you didn’t have to twist my arm to get me to spend more time with Amber and Tom and little Tom and all the colorful characters that came and went in the little marina shop.
An old woman comes in, tank top and shorts and flip-flops, orders a round of Yeager bombers for us, tosses one back, and buys a pack of smokes. It’s barely noon.
We poke fun at little Tom for going to town and buying three heads of cabbage instead of three heads of lettuce.
I take such a huge nap in the cool, dark cabin that when I woke up, I thought for a second it was the next day. I better get out on the water!
I ate another cheeseburger. Everyone has their one food thing, okay?
The dark bled into the evening colors until it had seeped the sky a deep black.
As as the day departed, I spent one more night with my new friends. A good time was had by all, and I felt like the road was my home. It was, after all, where my friends are. I’ve got good friends on the road behind me and more ahead of me, and my little mobile home will take me there.
I feel like being on the move forges friendships in a much hotter flame. The fact that you know you only have these few days, hours, minutes, together before I move again makes chance meetings meaningful, and friends become bonded my the road’s ways.
July 31: Day 36
I was on the move by 7, waving bye to a sleepy Tom and Amber. I couldn’t have asked for a better almost-done-with-Lake-Sakakawea stop.
The light wind came from the southwest, giving me shelter on the south shore as well as a little tailwind whenever the little, almost playful, gusts caught me. I only had a little twenty mile stretch of shoreline before I reached the marina near the dam. The calm waters of the lake opened before me. Lake Sakakawea was giving me a sweet goodbye.
I stopped on a small sandy beach an hour short of the dam to eat a snack not because I was particularly hungry, but because I wanted to sit and reflect on the lake before I left her waters. Kind of like giving thanks for the lake, for existing, in all her various moods.
I had been nervous about Lake Sakakawea. I believe I had relatively good weather, only a half a windbound day and one rainbound day. No flips. No hail. I had learned to trust the lake, and take only what is given to you by mother nature. This lake could easily have been a hellish experience, but that’s what I find is beautiful about this river. Everyone has their own experiences. We are all on the same river, following the same course, but we are on separate and individual trips, both of the body and the soul.
I reached the state park marina and docked in the quiet afternoon. I had been in contact with my portage here, a person that Peggy at Tobacco Gardens had passed me off to. He would be here in a little bit still. I had time.
I made my way to the marina, which was like a floating gas station for boats. I bought two sandwiches and wolfed them down while lounging with the staff.
I entertained my audience with stories of my travels so far, not out of bragging but because they kept asking questions and were obviously interested. They both were super friendly, and one even helped me load my boat when my portage arrived.
I didn’t know what I was expecting to meet at the portage, but when a nice pickup with a shitty trailer pulls up and a younger man with a black beard and ruddy cheeks gets out, I can only assume it’s Peg’s man Nate.
I really wanted to spend a night at Nate’s lodge that he runs, out of appreciation for the portage and also because Nate gave off such an easygoing vibe that I wanted to hang out with him more. The people I meet along this river are always worth talking to, at least for a little while.
But there was a Day of Rain forecasted for the day after tomorrow. Since I learned this information, my newest plan involved me paddling an additional 20-30 miles today on the river, camping out, and finishing up the 50-60 miles the next day, arriving in Bismarck in the evening and sitting out the next day’s Day of Rain in a nice warm dry house with my gracious hosts from the Missouri River Paddlers instead of sitting in my tent for an entire Day of Rain. So ’twas the plan.
The truck pulled up to the water, we unloaded the beast, and the river was before me.
“Sorry I can’t stick around.” I said, having explained all of the above to Nate.
“It’s alright.” he said, smiling. Nate had the kind of face that always did that.
“Well…I really appreciate the help.”
“It’s no problem.”
“Guess I gotta go now, huh?” I zipped up my life jacket, feeling much like I was being saddled.
We laughed, and he got into his truck and drove away, his decrepit trailer rattling along behind him.
It was 3 in the afternoon. I was done with Lake Sakakawea. The current in the water seemed bizarre. It was strong.
I paddled away, and I slipped into river mode without even knowing it. This entire Missouri River route will make your head spin with how many times you transition from one kind of paddling to another, from one environment, different challenges, different advantages.
You read the water differently on a river, and I steadily followed the current as it meandered south and then east-southeast. The light shifted, and I started looking for campsites without even looking at my watch. You know when the evening-light is near.
I rounded a bend and was eyeballing a stand of trees on the opposite bank ahead of me when I noticed vivid colors and voices on a sandbar on my left. As I got closer, I saw a boat. Thinking it was a motorized boat, I paddled on, but then noticed it was a canoe and a kayak. I saw tarps and dry bags and camp chairs.
We stared at each other as I came closer and closer, because you move so slow paddling that all you can do is just stare at each other for a little bit.
It was a small camp of three middle-aged men. I wanted to camp with them, no question. There’s something about camping alone all the time that can make you a little stir-crazy.
“Anywhere to camp around here?” I asked.
Someone gestured. “Anywhere, really.”
“Mind if I pitch here? I don’t want to invite myself or anything but…camping.” I trailed off.
“Yeah, sure. We don’t care.”
I ungracefully dismounted onto the sandy beach. How come I can only gracefully dismount when nobody’s around?
“Hey, I’m Ellen.” I said.
“Jim.” said Jim
“Kip.” said Kip
“Mike.” said Mike
And with that, I was greeted into their little party. I unloaded my things, tucked in the boat, and made myself a little spot in the sand. We added gatorade powder and vodka to water and drank that. I was told that there was supposed to be a fourth person in the party anyway, but he had flaked. I was honored to be a sub.
In the dark, we lit a fire of driftwood.
They had brought MRE’s and gave me one. I hadn’t had an MRE since the hurricanes that came through East Texas every so often. I had forgotten how to do the water thing with warming up the packet, and looked at the directions. It contained a graphic of the MRE laying at a 45 degree angle against a squiggly blog labeled in block letters: ROCK OR SOMETHING
“Do you have your rock or something?” asked Jim
“So, do you know where you are?” asked Jim, his face backlit by the lantern they had hung.
“I know exactly. I have maps.”
“No, what the name of this sandbar is?”
“There was nothing labeled here.”
Kip piped up from underneath his hoodie, “You’re at the Cape of Good Nutsack.” he said
“We camp in the same spots every year we do this trip.” added Mike
“The Cape of Good Nutsack.” I repeated.
I swear, you can’t write this stuff.
I did not set up a tent. I went to sleep inside my sleeping bag which was inside a tarp which was next to the campfire. I was a burrito slowly getting colder by the fire’s dying flame. I also went to sleep with the thought that I was probably going to spend the next two days with this gang: Paddle with them tomorrow, camp, and then the next day be rain bound with them.
I love having no schedules.
August 1: Day 37
We had a luxurious morning. It was so luxurious that it became a luxurious afternoon. I didn’t care. This was my I-Survived-Lake-Sakakawea Party. Gotta rest up for the next big lake.
I had a good time spending time with Jim, Kip, and Mike. We talked about a lot of different things, and showed off our camping gear. They had a nice setup, but it was a lot of stuff. They were just going to Bismarck, it was a yearly guy’s trip. They said don’t worry they were honored to have a thru-paddler crash their party.
We packed up and floated to Washburn, where we docked and hid our boats in some weeds next to a park. Then we walked the 15 minutes into town to a bar to get drinks and pizza.
Jim points to a building on the curb. “Up here is that old ceramic place.”
“We always like to go look in the windows.” said Mike
“They have stuff like all kinds of creatures and statues of weird shit.”
Peeking inside the windows of the old ceramic place, we found the place had recently been cleared out.
Jim got the idea to look in the adjacent dumpster. I jumped in and found a bunch of ceramic pieces of things, like a perfectly complete ceramic leopard head. I passed it down.
“You guys will have to take it, I can’t fit it on my boat.” I said, though I very much wanted to take home a ceramic leopard head.
“I’ll mail it to you.” said Mike
“You don’t have to mail me a ceramic leopard head.”
“I will mail you a ceramic leopard head.”
“Well, if you do, I’ll take it and put it in my front yard so it looks like there’s an entire ceramic leopard buried from the neck down in front of my house.”
“You do that.”
We went to the bar, where we drank beer and ate pizza. It was really good. I almost ordered another one to take for eating later, but decided not to. We had to get to the Nice Big Bar.
The Nice Big Bar was the place we were camping tonight. It is called the Nice Big Bar because that’s how it was described by someone giving them directions to a place to camp.
“Yeah just keep going and after the bridge on the right is a sandbar, a nice big, a nice big bar.”
We walked back down to the river and bid a farewell to Mike, who had to leave us at this point.
And so, short one person, our little gang paddled the mile to the Nice Big Bar.
The Nice Big Bar was actually a little flooded, so wasn’t very big. But we found a spot up on a sandhill and made camp. I set up my tent this time. It would rain tonight and tomorrow.
Jim and Kip didn’t seem too concerned about the rain, although I warned them several times. Kip Sheltered In Place in his camp chair with a tarp, which is actually a pretty good windproof system.
I fell asleep next to the fire and when it began to rain, retreated to my tent.
August 2: Day 38
It rained all day, mostly. Not too hard, and a little chilly. I still wanted to hang out with Jim and Kip, so I took my tarp and sheltered underneath it while we talked to pass the time, even though we couldn’t see each other. We made coffee and then eventually hot spiked cider.
“You know if it weren’t for you guys I would be in a nice warm house in Bismarck right now.” I said, sipping the hot cider from my water bottle, my only cup.
“We’re not sorry because you’re not sorry.” said Jim, and I could only see his mouth beneath his rain hood, like Darth Sidious.
“I warned you it was going to rain a lot.”
“Yeah, I know, we should have listened to you because you’re a pilot-fuck.” says Kip from under his tarp shelter.
“Yeah, like whatever you do, you’re that-fuck. Like, a farmer is a farmer-fuck, a doctor a doctor-fuck, and stuff.” Kip explained.
The things you learn from traveling. A wealth of knowledge.
August 3: Day 39
I had coffee with Jim and Kip in the morning, and then began wandering around packing my camp. I had 50 miles ahead of me to get to Bismarck, where my contacts Brian and Annie were expecting me in the evening.
A goodbye, and Kip bestows me with a freeze-dried ice cream sandwich. A beautiful token indeed.
“You’ll see Pirate’s Cove.” says Jim as I float away. Pirate’s Cove was where they were camping tonight.
“It’s just after the big power lines, you’ll see those balls on it, you know for you pilot-fucks so you don’t run into it.” adds Kip.
“I’ll look for it.” I laughed, and then the river took me away.
I thoroughly enjoyed my day on the river. The weather was pleasant, and the current strong. I enjoyed it even more because soon I would be back on a scary lake again.
At Bismarck, I padded underneath the series of bridges where I met two kayakers paddling upstream. When I saw them I instantly knew it was Brian and Annie, and they welcomed me to their fold. We linked up and popped beers right there on the water, floating back to get to their house.
Off the river was a series of man-made canals with houses built up alongside them. I was lead through the twists and turns until we had paddled right up to their house. It was super neat.
I was very glad I got the chance to meet these two and have this stop in Bismarck. I needed the stop, and I enjoyed their company. They fed me steak and potatoes and I slept on the couch. I slept soundly. The cat prowled around the living room all night, feeling out my presence.
August 4: Day 40
Brian and Annie both respectively made their way to the living room and kitchen in the morning, but I was oblivious to all. I woke up in the late morning to a note that said where breakfast was and when someone will be back.
I made eggs and bacon and toast and I wanted to stay here forever.
In the afternoon, Brian came back and took me into town to resupply. I bought food and a bigger tarp.
Then I was back alone at the house and I packed my boat and called family.
Once Brian and Annie got home from work, we went out to a Mexican restaurant and had dinner and drank margaritas. I got along really well with the two of them.
When we got back to the house, we were lounging on the back patio as the neighbors prepared their pontoon for a cruise. We got invited, and off we went, sipping beers and cruising along the canal. I got the impression Brian didn’t get to go on pontoons a whole lot, because he kept remarking how nice it was. From the perspective of a kayaker, every pontoon that goes by makes your paddle less enjoyable.
After the cruise, we all went straight to bed. I love love love rest days.
August 5: Day 41
Brian and Annie packed up their boats with a day’s worth of supplies, dropped off a shuttle car at a ramp twenty river miles downstream, and we padded out of the canal three astride.
Brian and Annie oohed and aahed at how few boats there were. They told me that this is called Pontoon City. Not great for kayak enthusiasts.
There were so few boats, it was sort of apocalyptic.
The sky was cloudy but the wind was down. It very lightly sprinkled, but never rained. We took it easy, floating in the swift current. We were going about 5 miles an hour, the same pace I usually went on a river.
We ate sandwiches at a ramp and then before I knew it, we had gone twenty miles.
We pulled over. I got out and stretched.
“Well that was nice, time to load them up and head back, right?” I joked
But, as they say, there is a little bit of truth to every joke, and I knew that I did not want to enter Lake Oahe. I did not know what waited for me out there.
I paddled away, leaving Brian and Annie and their hospitality behind. Moving on yet again, I angled the nose of the kayak south.
After I was on my own again, the wind picked up, the current went down, and the clouds seemed to darken. Brian and Annie had been holding off the weather, apparently.
Not only did the current go down, but the river seemed to widen and then I was following the main channel with water grass. I was on the mudflats.
The weather looked to be turning sour, the wind was picking up, and I was cold. I saw a ramp and headed for it, knowing it was the Hazelton ramp.
It was a long straightaway with a headwind. A big wooden house stood up on a hill next to the ramp. It looked so cozy to me, battling the elements.
I reached the ramp and got out away from the main ramp. I did not like having my kayak in view of the ramp. Exploring, I found that there wasn’t really anywhere to camp in the vicinity around the ramp except for a really nice mowed sheltered area on the other side of the fence. Most likely property of the house up on the hill.
Not knowing what else to do, I trudged up the small hill to the big house.
I found a woman in gardening gloves weeding the front flowerbed.
In the most polite way possible, I explained my situation to her. I had done this before, asking people if I could pitch somewhere, though usually it was in halfway charades and broken words in a language I only half knew. “Je suis…mettre….la tent? Ici?”
But I could explain my situation much more eloquently in my native tongue and she immediately smiled at me, and I felt relieved. Her name was Sharron, and she said I could pitch there.
“Do you…do you want some cherries?” asked Sharron
“Sure, I like cherries.”
“We have too many and can’t eat em all.”
“Thanks. I’ll be setting up my tent.”
And I hurried down the hill, tucked in the boat, and set up my tent. The ground was firm and the grass soft. It was a good spot.
Sharron came down the hill. She did not have cherries. I had a feeling.
“That was fast!” she said
“I might be just one, but I am an efficient one.”
“Do you want a roast beef sandwich?”
I told you I had a feeling.
“I would love a roast beef sandwich.”
And she invited me into the huge beautiful house and I wolfed down the good food. I thanked her profusely. This was unexpected and amazing.
I enjoyed chatting with Sharron, and then her husband came home and I talked with him but not for very long because I didn’t want to be too intruding. My cozy tent was calling my name after the roast beef sandwiches.
I went to sleep comfortable, hoping I could make it through Oahe, after all.
August 6: Day 42
I woke up in the morning feeling tired, though it was a comfortable camp. The house up on the hill was still and halfway shrouded in fog. I wanted to thank Sharron and her husband for their the pitch but didn’t know how. I was on the water by 7:30, paddling away with my rain coat on to ward off the morning chill. The overcast clouds lay tattered in the sky.
I didn’t know how I was feeling. I could feel some kind of mental strain. Straining in the head is like straining a muscle; you can feel it with each paddle stroke.
I wasn’t in open water Oahe yet. From the Hazelton Ramp and the House on a Hill, I followed the flooded forest-like vegetation as it took me to the other side, to Fort Rice. I noticed a really great wild camp on the right, so great that somebody had already taken it! But he was in a truck, though.
I passed the mouth of the Cannonball River, where all those DAPL protests took place last year. I peered inside the wide mouth and saw no clear channel through the vegetation. I wasn’t interested in getting lost and bogged in mud just to look at the site of an old protest. Everything was gone now anyway. I continued on.
However, I do have my two cents to say about DAPL, having actually really been to a region and actually talking with the people who live there. Is this: Go do that first, and then I will respect your choice more to choose to still protest after doing that. And thus ends my two cents on DAPL.
After the Cannonball river, the lake appeared to open up to me. My view of open water had been choked by the flats, but I had been able to get an idea of it by looking at tall distant cliffs.
This lake truly goes south.
I had been traveling on a relative south since the river after Lake Sakakawea, but now that I was still going south after a week, I was finally starting to get a sense that I was making a giant turn.
It started out with a northerly heading, back at Three Forks, which is a little alarming to say the least, especially to a southerner like me. I get dropped off way up here in the mountains of Montana, and then I go still further north? What do you mean the Canadian border is just right over there?
And then by Fort Peck Lake I was going east, and have been ever since. But now my compass read mostly variations of south, and for the first time, I felt like I was finally headed back to Texas.
At open water Oahe, I crossed to the east side. The northeast wind was a nice tailwind for my paddle, but I didn’t want it to pick up and me be stuck on the west side. I couldn’t camp on river right. I was warned by multiple different people to stay away from the Natives there.
I have to say, I was a little caught off guard by the Indian Reservations. Growing up in Texas, this wasn’t something we dealt with on such a scale as this. We learned about all of it in school, but it didn’t directly affect us like it does here. I vaguely knew that there were reservations over the great plains area, but didn’t think it would be this big of a deal. There’s a lot of politics going on here, and apparently it didn’t used to be this crime-ridden. I can’t say any of this as fact because I haven’t actually gotten to talk with any of the natives or been to any sites on their land, but this is the impression the people I meet are giving.
I felt better once the lake opened up and I was hugging the east shoreline. I realized why I had felt weird this morning: I don’t like mudflats. It’s a mental strain to see so few places to camp. It makes me feel pressured and uncomfortable. But now that I was on the shoreline of a rather expansive lake, I found campsite after campsite in little coves and inlets. The current was gone now. I was most definitely back on a lake yet again. Two down, one to go.
Storm clouds began forming to my south and north. I head thunder, but it was so distant it might have been an airplane. I did see something that looked like rain. I managed to get the weather on my phone and there was some 40% rain stuff going on in the region and especially to the south, which was where I was headed. I might have to camp early if I run into some rain.
I rounded a turn and saw a Magical Wonderland.
An expansive beach, tucked in a small turn. A small stand of large trees is set back a ways and sheltered by rolling hills. Under the trees sits a fire ring, log benches, piles of driftwood, a swing, and a treehouse.
I docked, pulled the kayak ashore, and walked toward it all, still wearing my life jacket. I was like a moth to a light. There was no way I was not getting out and investigating this.
It was cool. It was really, really cool. I am a writer. I use big words.
It was like a playground and a campground in one. It gave the feeling of being abandoned, or maybe not used as extensively as before. I took lots of pictures, because it was cool. I peered up at the treehouse from the foot of the ladder. For a split second I had the thought of not going inside but if I didn’t go inside, I would always be wondering, because when is the next time I am going to come visit this random beach with a Magical Wonderland in the middle of nowhere, North Dakota? I will forever be wondering what the hell it was like up in that treehouse.
I climbed the ladder. It was the collapsable metal kind, but it had been permanently donated to the Treehouse Cause by being bolted to the frame at the top.
The treehouse was a rectangle, probably 5’ x 3’. The two shorter ends were open-air. 2 by 4s with large gaps made up these walls. The long sides were made out of some old advertisement signs, some kind of hardwood. A thick black tarp was nailed to the top. The A-Frame was made by a large straight piece of driftwood. The whole thing actually looked pretty structurally sound.
Inside, the plywood floor was carpeted with that cheap kind of office carpet. A large amount of small rubber bands littered the floor. There was some animal scat, but not a lot.
It was awesome. I wanted to spend more time in here.
I forced myself to leave and explored the camp a little more. There was what looked like a 4-wheeler trail leading up the hills, so I hiked up it. It dead-ended at a T with another trail. Looking inland, I saw large crop fields and distant silos. I looked at the satellite images on my phone. There appeared to be no houses in the immediate vicinity.
Who’s treehouse was this?
Finding that I had good service, I checked the weather extensively. It looked like the region south of me was going to be in passing storms all day, with the Magical Wonderland Campsite getting some passing rain, too. Nothing crazy, but I didn’t feel like stressfully paddling along with thunderclouds all around me. Nah, I’ll pass. I’ve been making good time. After Yankton, the river will fly. Besides, I had transitioned back to the Lake Life easily. I was becoming more relaxed at the lake instead of on guard all the time. Just paddle, and always look for a spot to pull over.
It’s like when I teach my students, if they’re ever flying around and they feel bored, just start looking for places to land. It keeps you engaged and it’s a safe thing to do in general. Same with paddling on a lake. You go so slowly anyway it’s not like you have to dedicate a lot of time to checking out the next cove around the bend. Just, glance at it. Would you land there?
I decided to stay at the Magical Wonderland. If anyone came along I could just tell them I wanted to shelter from the rain.
I tucked the boat in, made camp up in the treehouse, and set up my kitchen around the fire ring. I did not light a fire, but I liked to set up my stove next to the fire ring.
I made a most excellent lunch. I have begun to expend my food options and exploring freeze-dried meals and tuna in plastic baggie containers. I don’t eat like a king, but my grocery store runs have slowly been changing to include more savory meals. I have added some spices and a simple bottle of sweet and sour hot sauce to my gear.
After lunch, I packed up the kitchen and retired to the treehouse.
The wind had that rain chill to it, and I huddled cozily in my hoodie, using my new tarp as a blanket. I liked just being in the treehouse’s space.
I went to one burn, like Burning-Man burn but not nearly as huge and terrifying as Burning Man. They still built a wooden effigy and burned it though, which was really cool because I love bonfires and fire in general. But anyway the effigy was this huge three-story clubhouse that they just built, and you could go inside and there was a ball pit and a secret room with a secret door and flame guns off the sides and a slide, it was super insane. I marveled at the carpentry, to be honest.
They had built a clubhouse, I heard, as a tribute to the children within each of us or something, and it was symbolic because we burn it to the ground.
This treehouse, here on the shore of Lake Oahe in North Dakota, felt like a miniature version of that giant clubhouse. I sat and watched the rainclouds approach from across the lake. I had eaten, and I had made food for tomorrow. I had examined my maps for the next day. There was nothing much to do, really, except just be here and wait for tomorrow’s good weather. I had a little bit of gatorade-powder vodka left over from hanging out with Jim, Kip, and Mike. I sipped some and my mind wandered more expansively in that small treehouse than it ever has under a big open sky.
I have been calling this the Treehouse of Existential Thoughts.
At 4:00, there was a sharp crack of thunder right above me and it began to rain. At 4:30, it rained hard. It rained so hard I could hardly see my boat anymore down at the beach, and the rain blew a little bit into the treehouse from the open walls. The thunder rumbled loudly and the treehouse creaked just a little. I sheltered underneath my tarp and fell asleep.
August 07: Day 41
I woke up inside a cloud.
A dense fog had settled in overnight, and the morning lightened from no particular compass direction. I couldn’t even see the water, and could just barely make out my kayak at the shore. The fog was so dense, I could see it boiling slowly down from the hills in thick carpets, like a giant fog machine had been placed just out of view. The air was calm and the morning unreal.
I had to force myself to leave the Treehouse of Existential Questions. As I paddled away, I watched the playground as it disappeared slowly into the mist. I had called it a Magical Wonderland in jest. Now it really did look like something out of a fairy tale.
As the fog took it away, I wondered, was it even real?
I hugged the shore, afraid to let it out of my sight. If I strayed too far, there was the very real possibility I would get lost out on the lake.
I was awestruck. I have seen many a beautiful sunrise, but this morning was like no other. The fog put everything in a spooky, surreal haze. An old car materializes out of the mist, hanging off the edge of a cliffside. The silhouette of a pelican, just waking up to the day. He stands on a shallow sandbar but it looks like he’s standing on top of the water. He clacks his beak and the sound is sharp and echoing in the mist. I could’ve sworn I was at that island in Jurassic Park.
I paddled in the fog for one hour and then, very suddenly, I popped out. The morning was bright and clear. I looked behind me. The fog hadn’t lifted, I had just simply paddled out of it.
The day was calm and severe clear and forecasted to be so all day and night. I felt good. If only it was this weather all day and all night for the next week, that would be awesome. That would be like a vacation.
I paddled for twelve hours that day. Not a lot happened, to be honest.
At Fort Yates, I didn’t go into the city because I was on the east shore and interested in keeping moving. I ran into a woman in a kayak. A small dog perched at the helm of her craft.
We exchanged pleasantries and chatted a little, and then I was on my way.
She was the only person I talked to the entire day.
I paddled to the State Line Resort, where I made camp on a nice little beach away from the RVs. I hiked up a path and found that there was an entire campground above me that appeared to be abandoned. I poked around, then returned to my beach.
Two women my age went by on a jet ski, pulling a man on a kneeboard. They went by several times. I waved, and they waved back but did not stop.
I cooked dinner and then spread out my tarp parallel with the kayak, putting the boat between me and the shore. I snuggled down into my sleeping bag and pulled the tarp over me, like a giant cocoon. The new tarp was big enough so that it enveloped me entirely. If someone were to walk up on my camp that would see just a kayak and a tarp. It wasn’t forecasted to rain tonight.
I slept well in my tarp bundle. I woke up at 1 to go pee, and saw that the sky was so clear and the moon so full and bright, that I could easily paddle. I didn’t even need a headlamp to look at the map.
But I was really, really tired, and as soon as I snuggled back down in the sleeping bag, I was out again.
And so, on a little beach next to an abandoned campground, I spent my last night in North Dakota snuggled up next to my boat with a glowing moon washing everything in its sweet light.
August 08: Day 42
I found out this morning that my weather radio isn’t working. I have nothing resembling cell service, so I was very much alone. The only thing I had to communicate with the outside world was my SPOT tracker.
I did not like having my weather radio out. I didn’t realize how much I had relied on it. I felt a little lost without it.
With my simple tarp burrito sleeping setup, I was ready to go in fifteen minutes. The water was calm, right now. From what I remember the wind forecast was south 5-15 or something like that. If it got up to 15, I would have to get off the water.
I paddled south, following the shoreline to my left. As I paddled, I noticed whitecaps out in the middle of the lake. The wind was very much from the south. I rounded a corner and found myself heading east-southeast. The water wasn’t too bad yet, but I pulled over. Looking at my satellite map, I found that I would soon be on an easterly heading if I continued to follow the shoreline. There was a small bay coming up and I wasn’t going to cross it now. And with a south wind, following an east unprotected shoreline wasn’t ideal.
I ended up bumbling around on the shoreline for an hour, and when the whitecaps looked like they had gone down, I headed out again.
In an hour, I had to pull over. I was now on the easterly shoreline, and my predictions were correct. The south wind was kicking my butt. Or, my right butt, from my right side.
I was done for the near future. It was 11:00. I had paddled from 7-9, and then 10-11. I started to kick myself for not forcing myself out of bed and paddling in the nice nighttime, but then stopped myself. If kicking myself would let me go back in time and change it, then by all means do it. But it’s not doing anything right now.
I managed to get my weather radio to start working again, which made me very pleased. The buttons didn’t work 100% of the time, but it worked. I hoped it would hold up. It reported winds from the south at 14. It also said to expect 40% rain basically from late afternoon to the day after tomorrow. So, rain rain rain all day tomorrow. I hoped I could hunker down in a nice spot.
I slept curled up behind a log in my usual fashion. My ability to sleep basically anywhere and anytime has so far been a useful skill in being windbound.
After I woke up, the wind was the same. I ate lunch, took a long walk down the shoreline, wrote a little bit, and for the first time, used my umbrella.
I had forgotten I had taken it, actually. But I was trying to escape from the brilliant sun in the rather barren shoreline of Lake Oahe and the driftwood, though it does offer shelter from the wind a little bit, did not offer shelter from the sun. I snuggled up with the driftwood log and napped again underneath my umbrella.
It was 5:30pm. The whitecaps had all but disappeared. It was like the wind had paused for a moment to catch its breath. I rubbed sleep out of my eyes and packed the boat, eyeing the sky around me. There were definitely more clouds now, but I might be able to paddle a little further. Maybe I could find a nicer spot to wait out the storms, at least.
After thirty minutes, I saw rain dropping on the other side of the lake to the west and north. I saw a ramp that was part of the West Pollock Recreation Area. I had no intention of stopping there before, but now with thunderstorms on my tail I headed straight for the ramp.
I docked in the weeds away from the ramp and beat a trail up to the nice mowed grassy lawn with picnic tables I had seen on the way in. It was beautiful, and it was deserted. I walked around a little bit, and it seemed the only activity was people putting in boats down at the ramp. If anyone came and talked to me about pitching my tent in the camping area, I’ll just tell them I needed to shelter from the rain. It is, after all, the camping area, even though it was obviously tailored for campers, like the big ones you drive or pull behind a truck.
I pulled the boat way up on shore and behind some weeds, then quickly grabbed what items I needed and hustled back up to the mowed lawn area. I like camping in mowed lawn. It makes me feel good and when it rains your camp doesn’t turn to mud.
I set everything up and nestled inside. Thunder grumbled, and the wind began. Soon the rain sprinkled and I peeked out. There was nobody down at the ramp or anywhere. I was probably fine sleeping here.
August 09: Day 43
In the morning, the sky was clear. The wind was calm. The storm had passed.
I used the vault toilets they had at the camper site and they smelled like they had been recently cleaned. It occurred to me I could’ve just slept inside one for the night. Nobody was around anyway. Good immediate shelter if there’s a bad storm about to hit.
I wasn’t sure what to do about the weather since I was skeptical it would remain both clear and calm, but I packed up anyway. I would paddle until I could paddle no more, if that was thirty minutes down the road then so be it.
I paddled, passing a couple of human settlements that had enticing ramps up to their manicured lawns. I drooled at the houses, but the lake was still calm, and I paddled on.
At around noon, I got off the water to see if I had cell service and was delighted to get a gush of messages and notifications. The first thing I did was check the weather, then got back in contact with the world.
The wind would soon blow me off the water, so I chose a little spit with just a short hike over the hill was a sheltered cove with a good driftwood log for sleeping against. I lugged the boat ashore, tucked it in, and hauled things to my new camp. The forecast called for 13 knots increasing to 17. I could already see the whitecaps appearing. Done for the day.
There was evidence of cattle, but not so much evidence that they came through often. They hadn’t come through since last night’s rain, at least. It’s not like I had much of a choice anyway, the wind was here to stay all day. I really didn’t want a herd of cows, or even one cow at my camp.
There was no shade. I hid under my umbrella and solved sudoku puzzles. I made a lazy lunch. I watched some herds of cattle on hillsides come and go, but I think a fence kept them from wandering to my side of the inlet.
The wind should be not impossible to paddle in tomorrow. I hope to make it to Mobridge. I hear there’s a Burger King that in high water you can almost paddle right up to.
There is one cow, across the way. He has not moved from his spot all day. He grazes, he turns around in different directions and takes a few steps, but that’s as far as he goes. He sits, he chews cud. Herds of other cows come and go behind him, but this cow, he stays right here.
The small cliffs and hills begin providing shade as the sun angles downward. I check on the water. It is roiling.
Is a feeling
But a not a normal kind of miss
A sensory miss
A savory miss
You are still on Earth, the planet is still the same
But that place
Where you exist
It is YOUR place
And you have not been in your place for quite some time.
Tonight, I make my temporary place in my tarp under the big South Dakota sky.
August 10: Day 44
I have been meditating on Lake Oahe. I woke up this morning and found that the winds were still blowing. Not as insane as yesterday, but still enough to keep this kayaker off the water. It’s just not worth the fight sometimes.
I go down and say good morning to the kayak and the lake, then retreat back to camp. I spread out my tarp and do yoga. I take my time, because there is literally nothing else to do. Nobody watches me. That one cow is still there.
My meditations on Lake Oahe. Give it time. Live on the lake. Accept that you will be living on a lake for a while. Embrace the Lake Life. My guide book said it takes 14-22 days to get to the dam. A friend told me it took him 18.
I’m giving it till the end of August as my deadline. I can take my own sweet time with my yoga and sudoku puzzles.
That Lake Life, tho.
Paddling Lake Oahe I have to treat like living out a sentence. You know, if you just paddle when you can, that eventually it will be over. But time becomes warped. Maybe life is just like living out a sentence. And you just try to have as much fun as possible.
At one o’clock, I suited up. The winds were around 9-10 mph. I wanted to get to the Mobridge Marina. These waves now, though technical and a little scary, are not impossible. Let’s see how far I can go.
I left my cow pasture log behind. I had been there for almost exactly 24 hours.
The water was choppy, to say the least. I had variations of tailwinds and right crosswinds, but not headwinds. The wind pushed me along and I rode the swells. I was sweating not because it was too hot but because I do not like paddling on excessively choppy water.
After an hour, the waves calmed down a little or I had better shelter from it from the mountains across the lake. I relaxed easier, and kept paddling, rounding the last bend before Mobridge and seeing the bridge off in the distance. I would definitely make it to the marina today. I was glad I had gotten to leave my camp.
Before Mobridge, the wind had calmed down and my compass heading offered me better shelter. At Mobridge, I pulled my maps on my phone and docked at a shitty beach. I wanted to see about that Burger King.
I beat a path to the railroad tracks, went underneath them, and the Burger King was just on the other side. A busy street bordered the joint. Hotels, other resturants, bars, stores… I looked at it all like a man that has just wandered from out of the desert. The lake is so desolate it’s easy to forget that there are bustling towns and cities in the same world. The smell of the road and the cars jolted my senses.
I went inside the Burger King and ordered six cheeseburgers off the dollar menu. I walked away wishing I had ordered eight.
I walked back down to the railroad tracks, clutching my warm paper bag of cheeseburgers. In my wet pants and muddy shoes and grubby hair, I looked like a homeless person retreating back to some hole down by the river.
Running into town like that had made me miss travel by bicycle. In a kayak, you are very restricted as to where you can go. On water, really. You never leave the water for very long, you sleep by it, you live off of it and on it. You have to depend on other people to take you into a town to get supplies or portage across long distances. A kayak is a great way to take a trip, but I definitely feel less freedom of movement on a kayak. On a bicycle, you can go wherever whenever. Stop at a grocery store, a bar. Sleep in parks. Meander.
I ate one cheeseburger down at my boat, and then geared up and was off. I had been in touch with the person at the marina and he had told me he would set up a cabin for me and gave me directions on how to get to it. I was really appreciating the support system that exists along the river route.
When I got to the marina, I found the cabin. My contact had already left for the day. I would meet him tomorrow.
The first thing I did was take a shower and wash my clothes. I was starting to get whiffs of my rather ripe self.
Then I lounged in my cabin and ate some more cheeseburgers. I tried to soak it up being clean and dry and in a cabin as much as I could. I was very appreciative of the cabin. I’ve been rouging it for a while now, and it’s wearing.
Lake Oahe is The Wall.
The Wall is a place in the journey, the race, the marathon.
The Wall is invisible, yet looks so real.
It feels so real, the way it stands before you
You might as well just quit, it says.
And you lower your head
And you say nothing
Because there is nothing to say
And nothing to do
When you can