I pulled into the marina at Lake Sakakawea State Park yesterday around 3pm, completing my paddle across the largest reservoir by volume in the United States. In many respects, this has been the most challenging portion of the trip so far. The weather and lake conditions presented some pretty big obstacles both on and off the water. However, I receieved some of the finest and most kind and generous hospitality of my trip along the lake.
In talking with friends and family, I realize Lake Sakakawea might be the most obscure and least known large body of water in the country. So before the story of my crossing of the lake, a few facts, figures and other tidbits about the Lake I learned before and during my trip. Lake Sakakawea was formed when the Garrison Dam was completed in 1953. It’s contruction created a 180 mile long reservoir, starting around Williston, ND. Sakakawea is the traditional/authentic derivation of Sacajawea, the name of the Indian woman on Lewis and Clark’s 1804 – 1806 expedition. A large portion of the land flooded as the Missouri River began to fill the reservoir was a part of the Fort Berthold Reservation, the traditional area inhabited for over a millennium by the three affiliated tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara. 25% of the reservation was literally liquidated under the lake – about 155,000 acres of their richest and most productive crop and grazing lands. Additionally, 1,700 members of the tribes, or 80% of the population, was forced to relocate to towns nearby, or not nearby at all. In many tribal leaders’ eyes, this essentially decimated the three tribes tradtional homeland and community forever. The photo of the signing of the bill to create the dam shows tribal chairman George Gillette weeping. I saw this photo when I was checking out the sites in what is today the tribal heart of Fort Berthold – Four Bears/New Town. It’s a heartbreaking photo:
Not to get too caught up in current events or hot-button issues, I can’t help but think the way our country has treated ‘others’ in the past was ugly, abusive, reprehensible. We recoil in shock at the injustices that occured in our nation’s history, and I’ve been fortunate enough to learn about these events firsthand on this trip. And while I am by no means up to date on current events, especially what’s happening at our Southern border, I catch tidbits here and there. It seems the horrors continue today, uninterrupted from the ugly ways of our past. I can’t help but share George Gillette’s feelings of resignation and hopelessness, but also the will to fight for justice for people of all colors or nationalities.
Paddling the Lake
My Sakakawea journey began as I passed under the Williston, ND bridge Sunday afternoon, June 16th. About 15 miles before that, the longest undammed river in the US at 500+ miles, the Yellowstone River, converges with the Missouri, pouring in the chocolate colored sediment and lots of driftwood, and roughly doubling the width of the river. I made it about 10 more miles past Williston to a great campsite at an American Legion park. The next morning, the weather was almost perfect and I made the 27 miles to the resort at Tobacco Gardens. After a lovely 2 days of relaxation and fun mentioned in my previous post, I got back on the river and paddled on another very nice day the 31 miles into Four Bears, ND. My friend Dan and I camped that night at a colorful and lively campground, mostly occupied by Native Americans.
I’d planned to depart the next afternoon, but it was a chilly and windy day, with afternoon showers that seemed to come sideways, rendering our upgraded campsite with small pavilion useless. Dan took off to get to Omaha as the rain was winding down in the afternoon, I opted to stick around another night and paddle the next day. The forecast for Saturday, the next day, had looked decent. As soon as Dan left, I checked the forecast again. Unbelievably, winds the next day were now projected to be 25 – 30mph all day. Disappointment. Sure enough, the next morning I woke up to a shaking tent, and peeking out of my tent saw large waves on the lake. Ugh. In non-stop winds like that, I find that it’s often exhausting just standing or sitting there with no wind break. I hung out in my tent for a few hours, and it was apparent many in the camp were also staying in. Finally, I bucked up and walked up to the casino to use their wifi and free lobby coffee, then walked over the beautiful Four Bears bridge and up a hill to an amazing overlook above town. They also had a pretty fantastic historical site with signage near one end of the bridge documenting the history of the 3 bridges that have been built there and well as the above-mentioned travesties experienced by the three affiliated tribes throughout their history. Later in the evening, I hit the casino buffet and ate an embarassing amount of food, making up for past and future days where I am burning a lot more calories than I am consuming.
I crossed my fingers for a better day Sunday. It started out windy again, but probably only around 10 to 12 mph. It calmed down throughout the day and I was able to make 25 miles, finding a nice beach campsite around 4pm. I enjoyed a relaxing evening and a gorgeous sunset over the lake. Calm forecast again for the next day, fantastic! In the morning, I set out and made the 180 degree turn at the big bend in the lake – Independence Point. I saw rainclouds passing in front of me, then behind me, but the water remained relatively calm. When I finally made the eastern turn for the long straight stretch that would take me to the end of the lake, I saw storm clouds amassing behind me. I raced in the increasingly rough waves to a cove I’d seen from a distance that might provide some shelter from the storm. For the first 5 minutes I was on shore, I grabbed the essentials for what I’d need to ride out the storm. I pulled my boat pretty far onto the land and grabbed some essentials. As the wind picked up to around 40 then 50, then maybe even some gusts of 60 with sideways rain, I huddled in my camp chair with my umbrella facing the wind, behind a few trees as an additional wind break. The waves kept reaching higher, forcing me to move the boat further up, and my gear from being pulled into the lake.
Eventually the storm passed, the sun came back out and the lake returned to a somewhat normal state. I set up my tent and enjoyed a dehydrated dinner, even as I picked small green caterpillars off my gear and clothes and brushed away dozens of ticks. I’d been lucky, these were the first ticks I’d been exposed to on the trip. I packed up in the morning and paddled around 18 miles to get to the Dakota Waters Resort, where I had more river angels awaiting my arrival. This was a tough day. The wind was only forecast for 8 to 10 mph, which would be no big deal, but wind was actaully in the 15 to 20mph range. Big waves, plus my rudder picked today to start sticking, making me have to pull over at nearly non-existent beach heads to set it right.
I arrived at Dakota Waters in mid-afternoon and met Thomas and Amber, the two young owners/operators of the lovely resort. I got a nice shower, some cold beers, and with their regular off day coinciding with my arrival, was able to spend a lot of the afternoon sharing conversations and drinks on the beautiful deck that Thomas had just finished contruction on overlooking their picturesque cove. They fed me a wonderful dinner of salmon, beans and potatoes. After another legendary Sakakawea sunset from the deck, I joined Thomas, Amber’s younger brother, also Thomas, and some fun local campers for a campfire, s’mores and few late night beers.
The next day, I was fully prepared for another rest day after a rough one the day before, but forecasts of 1 – 3mph winds were too good to pass up. It turned out to be a one in a million day on the water, almost a flat sheet of glass for almost the whole 20 miles to the State Park at Garrison Dam. If it were a weekend day, or god forbid a holiday, the boats speeding in and out of the popular marinas and boating areas near the dam would have been a handful to deal with but a quiet weekday afternoon allowed me safe passage.
I spent 10 total days on Sakakawea – 6 days where I was able to paddle and make miles, 2 days where I willingly rested and enjoyed the wonderful experience of Tobacco Gardens, and 2 days where I was unwillingly stuck onshore at Four Bears. Even with the wind days, I still consider myself extremely lucky to have the weather and water conditions that I’ve had. I dealt with my first on-water storm and rode it out, I dealt with a very rough day of paddling as well as with a minor equipment issue – the rudder which I was able to easily fix once I got to Dakota Waters.
I feel like every day, I continue to learn things. About myself, my abilities, my boat, the lake, the water, my surroundings, the people I interact with, their rich histories and stories, and so much more. I look forward to each and every day, whether I’ll be out on the water paddling until I am sore, or forced to find adventures off the water. Every day has something new and exciting to see and experience. It’s helped that I’ve had pretty decent cell phone reception as well, where I can keep in touch with friends, family and most importantly, my hwife.
On to about 80 miles of river with a current! To Bismarck where pretty quickly I’ll hit my longest lake – Oahe.