Ode to Fort Peck Lake

Paddling out of the Upper Missouri River Break National Monument, who pretty much everyone agrees is the most beautiful part of the entire river, I was prepared for a change of pace and an increase in difficulty as I entered Fort Peck Lake. I’ve kind of lost track of the days, I am indeed on river time, I think it was last Wednesday when I made a quick stop at James Kipp campsite, successfully begged for extra water from two young outfitters who were pulling their boat out, and continued. I wanted to get as close as possible to the start of Fort Peck Lake – where the river current slows down, the valley widens and you suddenly find yourself in a wide open lake. I went about 10 miles, my maps had lots to be desired in terms of instructing me how far I could safely go. I didn’t want to encounter braided channels or even worse, running aground in nasty mud at the start of the lake very late in the day. I set up camp that night at a pretty rough spot – had to climb a mud bank to get out of the river, deal with weeds, mosquitos and a curious Bull Snake as I was setting up camp. I did enjoy listening to the Blues win Game 3 (I think) on the radio.

Fully rested, I woke up and prepared to take on the start of Fort Peck Lake. There was about 10 more miles of true MO River before the lake – I could have easily made it further the day before. Eventually, I encountered the main channel breaking up into side channels, beautiful islands of cottonwoods and willows everywhere. But still, current. I stopped mid-day to climb an amazingly perfect conical hill overlooking the start of the lake.

Later in the afternoon, I approached the start of UL Bend. This massive U-shaped bend in the river is notorious for shallow spots, dead end channels, out-of-nowhere winds and just being a challenge.

I encountered just the opposite. Oddly, the wind died down as the river widened. It was a sheet of glass for the most part. The river is higher than normal everywhere, including here, so I didn’t come close to running aground in shallow water. I even got a message from Norm later in the day asking if the river was up because according to his map, I was paddling across land. He also told me to keep paddling for 1.5 more hours to some great camping. I finally took out around 6pm at this amazing spot, close to the bottom of UL Bend:

The next morning, I was prepped for rougher conditions – wind and waves. I hear you don’t get a free perfect day on Fort Peck Lake. The first few hours were pretty amazing as well, the sun rising over a very calm lake as I paddled around the bend then turned north. Mid-morning, the winds picked up and I experienced open water waves for the first time. I started to get a feel for the boat and how it navigated rougher water. I didn’t panic, just tested how far away from shore I could go and still feel comfortable. How I adjusted my boat via the rudder or directional paddling depending on what direction the waves were coming from. I stopped for a snack mid-morning and caught my breath and stretched my legs. By around 1pm, I was spent. I pulled into Devil’s Creek campground and called it a day. Temperatures were approaching 90 degrees in the sun, so I took my hammock up the hill to a pavilion and relaxed with my journal and those of Lewis and Clark, taking in all they experienced when this massive lake was just a simple river. I talked a bit with a retired journalist and investigator Ted who was doing some fishing there, who early the next morning sent me off with a cold beer to be enjoyed later that night, as well as a promise to send me a few photos he took with his nice camera. Today’s challenge was to try three separate big water crossings:

From south side to north side, then at the big bend, from the west side to the east side, then at the next bend, from the south side back to the north side. Winds were from the south generally this day, so my south to north crossing was a wildly entertaining ride on the waves. They weren’t terribly big, maybe 1 – 2 ft, but my adrenaline was definitely elevated as I made the long crossing. Another hot day, I stopped briefly to immerse myself in the lake and hike up the hill to get a view at Bone Trail Recreation Area:

It was still early afternoon so I pressed on for about 8 more miles until the storm clouds started to approach behind me. I had heard from messages and weather updates that it was supposed to storm, so I found a sheltered cove in plenty of time to set up camp before the weather rolled in. I also installed the extra guy lines on my tent connected to 12″ stakes to ensure my tent could ride out most storms. I was treated to a spectacular display of storms rolling in just north of me, getting hit by a second round, posting up in my tent making sure it stayed put and staying dry. Even got a rainbow as I laid down for bed.

Next morning I was out early again and did the Go Pro video before the wind got strong. At one point, I had no sense of where the waves were coming from, just trying to paddle through and not tip over. I pulled off after 10 miles and decided to wait for the winds to go down. I spent the time climbing a nearby mountain where I got some much needed phone reception to post some updates. At the top of the mountain, I noticed the wind was slightly less and the whitecaps out on the water were more sparse. Back into the yak I went and covered another 14 miles into the early evening. I even tossed the fishing line in later in the day and managed to pull in a beautiful Northern Pike. I don’t portend to be a fisherman, I was shitting my pants, trying not to kill myself or the fish. He eventually set himself free back into the lake, I didn’t plan on keeping him anyway. Camp was a lovely spot around the bend out on the end of a nice coulee.

The next morning was windy, so I opted for the Graveyard Hill adventure previously posted. But instead of staying off the water all day, I had the burgers and beers of Fort Peck Marina flashing in front of my eyes so I paddled on. I wasn’t making the Marina that night, but I got to Pines Recreation Area, after crossing 5 very windy and wavy inlets – varying from 1 to 3 mile open water crossings.

I was mentally and physically exhausted after hiking all morning and surfing on bouncing waves all afternoon.

I woke up planning to finish the lake and went hard after it. There were 5 more open water crossings, the last being the most difficult – a 4 mile paddle to near the dam. Waves were big, 2 – 3 ft and some whitecaps. Winds were generally from the northwest so I managed to keep my boat positioned ideally, but there were some harrowing moments. And as I made the final turn into the cove of Fort Peck Marina, wouldn’t you know it was straight into the stiff headwind out of the northwest, the last few hundred yards of paddling had my arms and shoulders burning. The burger and beer for a late lunch never satsified me much as these did.

130 miles over 5 days. I think if had one of my other kayaks, or a canoe, I would have certainly had to take a day off here or there on the lake to wait for the wind to go down. Note that I didn’t put myself in any dangerous situations. Other than the morning I pulled off after 10 miles, I felt challenged but in control. Handling the waves in what is essentially an ocean kayak was a steep learning curve, but one I feel I navigated successfully. I’m no Peck expert, but from what I gather, the conditions I experienced were average. I hear many stories of MO River paddlers that are stuck on shore for multiple days at a time waiting for the wind to die down in order to cross safely. I have two more big lakes where I am sure to be tested further, but overall I am happy with my experience on Fort Peck Lake. I appreciate its power, unpredictability and certainly its beauty.mf

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