After spending the evening at the downstream campground at Big Bend Dam, I was ready to get an early start on Lake Francis Case. As I opened my eyes very early as it began getting lighter, there was a crack of thunder and soon it was raining pretty hard. I rolled over and went back to sleep for an hour or so. The early morning downpour let up a bit and I emerged and started packing up. My campsite was equipped with a weird wooden half-shelter that covered part of the picnic table, so between that and my umbrella, I was able to pack up and sip my coffee in relative dryness. About 100 ft away, there was a group of fishermen huddled under a shelter who had put their boats in the water, ready for a long day of fishing on the lake, but were apparently opposed to going out in the rain. The rain would slow down, they’d walk over to their boats, then the rain would pick back up, then they’d go back to the shelter. This happened 2 or 3 times as I was getting ready to go, and I found it a little bit funny.
I timed my shove off with the completion of the rainstorm and the plan was to paddle around 18 miles to Chamberlain, SD. Chamberlain was my halfway stopping point when I drove from St. Louis to Montana to begin this trip. The meandering nature of the Missouri means that Chamberlain is a lot more than halfway on the river vs. on the road. I had gotten wind that the riverside campsites in Chamberlain had been flooded recently and may or may not be operational. I messaged Norm Miller in the morning and got him on the case. As I paddled to Chamberlain, I was receivng updates on what was open, what wasn’t, where I should paddle to and where I should avoid – the wonder of technology and a virtual ground crew…
I paddled up to American Creek campground around 2pm. The boat ramp I landed at generally delineated the half of the campground that was open vs. the half that had been flooded and was still in the process of being drained and cleaned. Even a site 18 miles downstream from a dam has to deal with the unpredictability of flooding, as the ordeal of managing flows, floodwaters and prioritization is a massive challenge up and down the Missouri. Volumes could be written about this challenge and all the factors that go into the decision making, and it’s quite controversial. In order to save certain spots along the river, others must be flooded. Who suffers, who gets saved, who loses business, who loses crops, houses, livelihoods – it’s generally up to the big boss at the Army Corps of Engineers who sits at the master controls of the 13 dams up and down the river.
I met Brenda, one of the owners of American Creek and she pointed me to a nice shaded spot next to the boat ramp where I could put up my tent for the next two nights. It had been a while since I took a day off, and Chamberlain was a good place to do just that. I spent the rest of the day relaxing, picked up a package of more dehydrated food that my wife sent to the local post office, then had dinner at the local watering hole and restaurant at the marina – the Smoking Mule. I ordered the chicken gizzards – I generally will eat anything and the deep friedness of these was good, but damn they were gross.
My goals for the next day were to rest my arms, shoulders and back, catch up on some blogging and journaling, and then keep an eye on Scott Hite as he biked into Chamberlain. The ever-impressive Missouri River Paddlers Facebook group turned me on to the journey of another paddler – Scott. He paddled the Missouri to the Gulf in 2015, and has done a ton more paddling on the Mississippi, Illinois River, and extensively around the Gulf, Florida and the Everglades. He’s an all-around interesting dude. I learned that this year, his adventure was bicycling from Michigan down to St. Louis, then up along the Missouri River to the source in Montana.
I had Scott’s Garmin tracker and I watched him get closer and closer throughout the day. While I blogged and drank coffee at a local sexily-named shop called Tranquil Desires, then grabbed lunch at The Anchor then browsed vintage books and baseball cards at and antique shop topped off by a McDonald’s sundae on a hot afternoon, Scott was getting closer. Back at camp, I sat in the breezy shade and read for a few hours. Sure enough, Scott rolled into camp around 7:30. We chatted as he set up his tent. Through his journey, he’s raising awareness and money for waitone.org. Scott started a hotline aimed at those who are contemplating a mass-shooting. Similar to a suicide hotline, it gives those ready to do the unthinkable a chance to talk to someone before they go through with it. I had so many questions. He told me about me about how the Colorado theater shooter explained in an interview after the act that he had called a mental health hotline prior to the shooting, only to get no answer. Scott carries three cell phones with him and answers calls 24/7, should someone call. His main priority for this trip is to get media attention and spread awareness for his hotline. He hopes to get national exposure at some point along the way. It’s also critical he stays within areas where he has cell phone reception on this trip, which dictates his route to a degree.
Scott and I returned to The Smoking Mule, where we enjoyed some food and drinks and volleyed river stories back and forth, his vast experience dwarfing my short, uneventful time on the river so far. Back to camp, we sat around in the dark getting chewed up my mosquitos, telling more stories before retiring for the night. It didn’t last very long. At 5:30am, the tornado sirens blared. I peaked out into the faint light of the early morning, it was windy, the waves were big on the lake, and the cottonwoods above us were bending. I turned on my phone to check the radar: storms moving in but not an obvious tornado. Scott and I got out of our tents, secured some of our gear, then decided to walk over to the bathroom/shower building for shelter. Lots of other campers left their RVs to do the same. When the front hit, we got inside the women’s bathroom, groggily acknowledging the other campers and waiting for the storm to pass. The wind raged and the rain poured down. After a good 45 minutes, we emerged and walked back to our camp. Branches were down everwhere. It didn’t look like there was significant damage. Arriving at our tents, Scott’s was leveled and sitting in 3 inches of water.
My tent held, but was misshapen with bent poles. I helped Scott relocate and re-erect his tent in a dry spot and we went back to sleep for a couple more hours in the not-quite-as-strong wind and rain.
After I packed up, Scott and I bid our farewells, him continuing on the road north and me on the river south.
The lake calmed down quite a bit after the violent storms of the morning and I cruised southeast. It was much cooler than previous days, a cool front moving in with the storms. I paddled straight through to around 5:30, pulling up at Elm Creek ramp. I set up my tent in a nice shady spot near the ramp, talked with a gentleman arriving to do a little fishing and set up a bonfire to keep the bugs away. I had a dehydrated dinner and went down with the sun.
My goal for the next day was to meet up with friends from St. Louis – Doug and Shelly were starting their vacation by driving up to meet up with me. By around noon, I had made it to Snake Creek, where a bridge crosses over the lake and where there’s a real nice bar and grill where I enjoyed a burger and couple Busch Lights, even grabbing two for the road to go along with some of their homemade jerky. I paddled 10 more miles in some intermittent rain then into the Platte Creek Cove where I was greeted with calls of “on on”, the standard directional confirmation of the hash house harriers, the source of my friendship with Stinky and Swallow. I pulled up on to the muddy shore of their campground, gave some big hugs then enjoyed a cold beer they’d brought me.
We relaxed and caught up on the events of the summer, Stink made some fantastic porksteaks, a staple of summer barbeque in St. Louis, then we enjoyed a good driftwood bonfire well into the night.
I bid farewell to Stink and Swallow the next morning as they continued on their journey to the Badlands, Black Hills, Colorado and beyond. I had about 32 miles to the end of the lake, which I was content to split into 2 days. However, I soon learned that this was probably going to be the absolute best day on the river I’d yet to experience. The wind was nil, the water was glassy, and temps reached a high of about 75 during the day. Several times throughout the day, I simply set the paddle down, looked around and just absorbed everything that each of my 5 senses was feeding me – pure bliss. The lake was about 2 miles across all day, and I made several crossings with no problem whatsoever. Later in the afternoon, I turned on my phone and got a little reception – seeing that Norm had posted in the South Dakota paddlers group that I was nearing Fort Randall Dam. The first message was from a lady named Jackie who said she wanted to come and paddle but couldn’t make it, but would let friends know who were boating on the lake that day to keep an eye out for me. I shit you not, I looked up from my phone and saw a pontoon boat about a quarter mile ahead. As I approached, the guy called out. It was Jackie’s friends, Dave and Eileen. They waved me in for a chat and a cold beer. As I crossed the lake again, the next boat I came across was a group of retirees who also waved me in, asked me what I was doing and plied me with beer. South Dakota hospitality at its finest.
The day was too nice not to keep paddling, so I continued all the way to the dam – doing about 32 miles. I pulled up at North Point campground and got a good spot right on the water. After an uneventful evening, I was again in bed with the sun and slept well. Another lake bites the dust.
PS – To save you a wikipedia click, Francis Case was apparently a US Congressman/Senator from South Dakota from 1937 to 1952. I don’t know that he did anything noteworthy, yet he gets a pretty nice lake named after him, go figure.