On Monday, June 17, I paddled my final day on Fort Peck Lake. The winds were dead calm and the water so glassy I could see myself in the reflection. I owned the lake that day. I could go anywhere without fear of swamping. I felt I could cross to the opposite shore all morning long if I wanted, a feeling never before experienced on Fort Peck Lake. This lake is intimidating. We left with a mutual respect for each other. Yes, friends.
I knew from Dave Miller’s “The Complete Paddler” that the owner of the marina rented out some RVs with showers. I longed for the moment I could shower and relax. It had been a couple of weeks since I immersed myself in the luxury of running hot water. I did take a sponge bath the first day on the lake, but that was a looooong time ago. Immediately upon pulling in next to the ramp I headed for the office.
I asked for the owner, expecting an elderly lady who had been managing the resort for, well, at least ten years. I was surprised to find the owner to be a young woman.
“I am paddling the entire length of the Missouri River and I have not taken a shower in a couple of weeks. I really need a shower and a place to sleep and do laundry. Can you help me”? I asked with determination. “Please say ‘yes.’”
Michelle, the new owner, no longer provided the RVs to accommodate overnight visitors. She did have a house, however, in which she was not living. She and her daughter, and husband when he was here, stayed in a large recreational vehicle and used the house for storage, laundry, and showering. Her husband spent half his time working in nearby Sidney, a town near Williston that was also experiencing a massive oil and gas boom. The marina was a new purchase and investment for this young family. And, they relocated Michelle’s mom, DeeAnne, to live with them and help take care of their young daughter, Allison. I sure appreciated them letting me hang out for a day or two.
I enjoyed feeling safe and secure and out of the elements after the two long weeks on the lake and in the Breaks. However, by the third day I was ready to get going. I arrived at the marina on June 17. Today was June 19. An intense wind and electrical storm was forecasted to sweep through the area tonight, and I was strongly advised not to go until it passed. Jack, retired Air Force and new staff at the marina, helped me put my boat in their warehouse. Winds were forecasted to blow 75 mph that night. I survived the storm easily, but soon got word that campers at Eagle Creek in the Breaks did not fare so well. Their tents got ripped to shreds, and a paddler on the Marias River lost his canoe and all his gear, including a case of beer(!) when the wind swept it up and away. The owner neglected to tie his boat down, a first-time and devastating mistake. I never left Blue Moon unsecured after this night.
I was grateful for Jack as he took the time to show me around Fort Peck on Tuesday, June 18, and also took me to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center below the dam. It was here that I saw the most incredible dinosaur skeletons! Unfortunately, my phone ran out of juice and I couldn’t take any photos. Oh well. Today was Jack’s day off and I was happy he offered to show me around. He also agreed to drive me to the put in below the dam the next day, but this was delayed one day due to the big storm forecasted to hit our area, a perfect example of living on “river time.” You just go with the flow and try to stay flexible.
We arrived at the campground below the dam around 6:00 PM on Thursday, June 20. I planned to take off on the river early the next morning. I was getting very excited in anticipation. The thrill of adventure is intoxicating and addicting. But, the mosquitos were sobering and annoying. All part of the total experience. Jack and I sprayed Deet on ourselves and finished our beers sitting on the tailgate of his pickup truck. Hot summer fun! Next thing I knew I was being entertained by a local who had brought his new invention down to the beach to test the waters, so to speak…
I left about 9:30 in the morning with sunny skies and glassy water, my favorite conditions. From my journal I wrote, “Good paddling today…The first day back on the water it seems like there are soooo many miles you just want to knock some out. Paddled all day. Saw lots of ship sinkers (my name for snags in the river with pointed ends facing down river) and two shipwrecks, one in the river on a sandbar, the other laying on shore…I paddled about 30-35 miles. The current is about 5 mph, so very quick. I found a decent sandy campsite with creamy mud at the shore. I guess that’s because of the Milk River, it is sooo creamy! Marginal cell, but got some postings up.”
I looked forward to passing the Milk River. One reason was because I had heard of the stark contrast in clear water of the MO and the milky water of the Milk. I also looked out for it because my friend, Dominique Liboiron, who had paddled a canoe down from Saskatchewan the summer before, had camped right on the point at the confluence. I remember he told me that he was so intimidated by the Missouri River that he camped for three days at the confluence before paddling on down. Of course, all of his fears disappeared once he started downstream and realized the Missouri River was actually just one big “lazy river.”
I spent about a week or so paddling the stretch of river between Fort Peck Lake and Lake Sakakawea. I had heard a lot about Wolf Point on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, and that it was probably not best to stop there. Well, I passed by at 5:00 in the afternoon on Saturday with no real reason to stop. I did not see anyone around, either. Well, I saw one guy. He was in a big beautiful canoe paddling down the river. Wow! Who are you?? I asked , surprised to see another paddler of whom I was totally unaware.
“I’m Shawn Hollingsworth,” he replied.
“Where are you from, paddling from, and to where are you paddling?” I asked, standard questions asked of any paddler you meet on the river.
“I am from Virginia Beach, VA, I started at Three Forks, and I am paddling to the Gulf of Mexico.”
“Wow, all by yourself in that big canoe?”
“No, I’ve got a travelling companion.” He then told me about his little bird in a box inside his canoe. He picked up the injured bird while walking down the street in Fort Peck. “He has an injured wing, and his name is Bob (Bird On a Boat).”
He asked me if I was a school teacher. “Actually, I am. Umm, how did you know?”
“Ya, my mom is following you on Facebook.”
“Really? That is too funny!”
This was the beginning of a real sweet friendship. Shawn and I paddled off and on for the next week, until we were both situated on windy Lake Sakakawea. I remember Shawn telling me that Bob finally flew off when Shawn was behind me, paddling through the river-to-lake transition onto Lake Sakakawea on June 28. Most days we did not paddle much together since he was slower in the canoe, but he always seemed to make it to my camp in the evening, much to my delight. He was such good company and, at 23 years old, was on the adventure of his life.
I loved spending time with Shawn. I was so proud of him embarking on this adventure alone after his two buddies left him. One left him two weeks before leaving Virginia Beach, the other left him after a harrowing crossing of Fort Peck Lake. Shawn had never paddled before and now was left to skipper a three-man canoe, which he made all by himself. Plus, he was raising awareness for breast cancer.
I was happy to share with him some tips on reading the river and waiting patiently during high winds, the latter of which guys find most challenging. Paddling in extremely high winds on Fort Peck Lake nearly killed Shawn and his paddling partner. They ended up getting towed off the lake and his partner decided to call it quits. Another paddler had swamped a couple of weeks earlier in big swell generated by high winds. He lost his tent, sleeping bag, cell phone, and his adventurous spirit. He nearly died from hypothermia, and ended up leaving his partner as well. Waiting through big wind sessions on these big lakes is all part of the game. Impatience must be replaced with going for a walk, reading a good book, exploring the beaches and hills, or whatever else one does to entertain themselves. It is a matter of life and death on these big lakes.
On my second night of camping back on the river I saw the most exquisite sunset I had ever seen. I almost missed it while putting up my tent and battling the mosquitoes. I think this is the worst mosquito deluge of the whole trip. Thank God for my 98% Deet. And, for the stunning sunset that night. I think this photo generated more hits on Facebook than any other during my whole trip. Well, except for the skeleton plastered up against the snags on the Beaverhead River. That was a good one, too.
Here is a little video I shot just prior to taking this photo. After the little video, I began setting up my tent and packing everything in it. I just happened to turn around and noticed the sunset was in full swing. I grabbed my camera right away and got several good shots. I was stunned at the magnitude of colors displayed.
I made it to the Highway 16-Culbertson Bridge on June 24th. Situated just past the reservation, I decided to camp here after some locals said they thought it would be safe. Not long after I landed I met Glenn Stewart, who hollered down from atop the bridge. He was working on the road crew and, after talking to him, he immediately became interested in my journey. If you need to go into town and have breakfast or go to the grocery store, we’ll be here tomorrow and you can just take my car into town. Wow! A true river angel with a generous heart to help. Thanks, Glenn! Glenn and his son, Kelly, and his wife ended up following the rest of my trip on Facebook. Shawn showed up the next morning when I was getting ready to leave. Glenn offered him his car and he was able to make it into town, too. Shawn wanted to stay here and rest up. I did not know when I would see him again.
I ended up going into town the next morning after a pretty good storm hit. Some kids came down to the bridge that night and played some decent country music and lit off fireworks. I almost got up to join them, but didn’t want to spoil their summertime river experience. I’m old, you know…LoL! It’s what memories are made of, right? I slept good after they left, woke up with sand in my tent, but forgot about any discomforts as I ate my ham and eggs breakfast at the Wild West Diner in town.
The day was cloudy and a bit windy from the west, which is not too bad. Once paddling, I got out my iPod and listened to music, which is so much fun, but I hesitated to do it too often. As I wrote in my journal, “I listened to more music, just for a little while. I don’t want to get lulled into complacency while on the water, too dangerous.”
I camped just a few hundred yards from the Montana/North Dakota border. Also situated at this location is Fort Union. Norm Miller encouraged me to bushwack into the fort, which I did, and had the pleasure of meeting Yellow Bird, an Arikara Native American working at the Fort. I spent an hour or two visiting with him. I enjoyed immersing myself in the history that surrounds this mighty Missouri River.
“The Grandest Fort on the Upper Missouri River
Between 1828 and 1867, Fort Union was the most important fur trade post on the Upper Missouri River. Here, the Assiniboine and six other Northern Plains Indian Tribes exchanged buffalo robes and smaller furs for goods from around the world, including cloth, guns, blankets, and beads. A bastion of peaceful coexistence, the post annually traded over 25,000 buffalo robes and $100,000 in merchandise.” -http://www.nps.gov/fous/index.htm
The confluence of the Yellowstone River is just a short paddle away. The staff at the Fort Buford Interpretive Center, located there, were kind enough to buy my camp site for me. I will continue my next blog post at the confluence. I will then be just a couple of days away from starting my trek across Lake Sakakawea. Shawn and I will meet up for the next few days, but then we begin our own journeys down the Mighty Missouri River. Sad parting with him, but not without a promise to reunite and share stories someday.
Live fast ~ Paddle slow
Hollow side up!