Currently, I’m sitting in an air-conditioned cabin, 20 yards from Lake Oahe at the lovely Bridge City Resort and Marina. I have the TV on and am about to root for the US Women’s team to win the world cup. My hosts at Bridge City, Mike and Jessie Norder have been amazing hosts, super generous in feeding me, inviting me to their twin sons’ 18th birthday party and even lending me their small pickup truck to check out some cool sites around Mobridge. I plan to hit the water again tomorrow, Monday, July 8th if the wind cooperates.
Since completing Lake Sakakawea, I’ve paddled 198 miles. Half has been flowing river, half has been on the often challenging Lake Oahe. Here’s my story of the last 198 miles:
Garrison Dam to Bismarck, ND
I spent two relaxing days in Pick City and Riverdale, ND, where Garrison Dam is located. I enjoyed the dam tour, I can’t get enough of learning about these massive mid-century infrastructure projects. I even got to see a 4 ft Paddlefish hanging out below the dam. My cousin Dave arrived after flying in to Bismarck, then driving a rental car north an hour to Riverdale. We had a great night eating delicious food and enjoying some drinks at Iron Oar with the owner Nate and his friend Derrick.
After a good night sleep in the lodge, I packed up all my gear and McGyver’d my boat to the top of Dave’s rackless rental car and we drove to the bottom of Garrison Dam in a steady drizzle to the boat ramp. Looking back at Lake Sakakawea from the top of the dam and seeing big waves and whitecaps in the rain, I was so happy to be done with the lake (for now). I put in a few hundred yards from the dam and the rain let up pretty quickly. About a mile downriver, Norm had told me to look for a massive petrified tree that is even visible from space via google maps. With high water levels, I didn’t expect to be able to see it. But as I approached the spot, sure enough, there it was:
Norm says it’s a Redwood, left over from many thousands of years ago, very cool. Proceeding on, the wind increased and I was paddling into 2 to 3 foot waves on a very wide stretch of the river. With the luxury of a cool cousin driving a support vehicle for this stretch of the river, I was able to pack my boat with only minimal gear and much less weight. So I had to get used to paddling a boat that sat higher in the water and was more susceptible to being pushed by the wind. Although it generally moved faster in the water, it also sat up higher with less weight and would therefore catch more wind. Once I made a southward bend in the river, the wind seemed to decrease a bit. Around mid-day, I encountered the Knife River where it joins the Missouri. I paddled two miles up the currentless Knife to a small boat ramp to meet Dave. I hopped in the car and we drove a mile to the Knife River Indian Villages historic site. We took in the small museum, the amazing reconstructed and restored earthen hut and viewed the craters of long collapsed earthen huts of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes. Back on the water, it remained fairly windy the rest of the day, and I pulled into Washburn, ND to meet Dave at the riverfront city park and complete a 40 mile day. Dave drove us north to Coleharbor, ND, past what was easily the largest digging crane I’d ever seen mining coal, to the Harbor Inn, a small hole in the wall bar specializing in steaks. I had a massive Prime Rib to replace some of the calories burned that day.
After sleeping in tents on the Washburn waterfront, I was on the water early for an amazing calm and serene morning with the objective of Bismarck, ND. My classical music mix was the only appropriate soundtrack to accompany this scene:
Later in the afternoon, I started seeing more recreational boats, a sure sign of approaching Bismarck. A few mid-river sandbars had a handful of boats parked with partiers enjoying a liesurely Sunday afternoon on some of North Dakota’s finest beaches. The final 10 miles into Bismarck was a veritable gauntlet of speedboats, pontoons and a few fishing boats all making the river much wavier than it had been earlier. I kept very close to the east shore out of the traffic, also enjoying views of some pretty elaborate and ornate riverside houses. At one point I made a shortcut through a side-channel where there were a few boats, mainly families, enjoying a bit of a quieter piece of the river away from the bustle of the main channel – that is until a likely inebriated, moronic driver of a pontoon sped through feet away from me, upsetting the quiet scene.
Passing under the bridges of Bismarck, I got to paddle by a huge paddlewheeler full of tourists seeing the sites and shooting strange looks at the lone kayaker among the speedboats and wave runners. Finally, I pulled into the South Port Marina, where I was greeted by Dave with a cold Busch Light and some welcome appetizers in the cafe. Dave sprung for a room at the nearby Fairfield Inn, where I had a wonderful shower and did some laundry before we went out to a cool beer, pizza and vintage arcade game bar where we celebrated Dave’s 54th birthday.
In the morning, Dave drove all my gear back to my boat, then dropped me back at the hotel room to relax for a few more hours. He headed to the airport for the return trip to St. Louis. I called around and managed to get in for a much needed massage at a nearby spa. My back tightness was noted by the masseuse and she skillfully loosened everything up to get me back into paddling shape.
Bismarck, ND to Mobridge, SD – Lake Oahe
After a few errands to pick up a couple needed provisions, I walked back to the marina, had some lunch then hit the water. My objective was an easy 10 mile paddle to a sandbar that Jim Emanuel had recommended as one of his favorite camp spots on his trip downriver last year. As I arrived at the spot and set up my tent, I flinched as shots started ringing out from a boat ramp slightly upriver on the opposite bank. I huddled behind my tent with my binoculars and observed 3 young guys indisciminately firing guns near the boat ramp. They didn’t seem to be shooting across the river and I don’t think they even saw me, however their careless gunplay certainly made me nervous. Eventually they left and I enjoyed a nice sunset and a long phone conversation with my wife.
According to maps, Lake Oahe actually starts at Bismarck. However, the river continues to flow for around 20 to 25 more miles until it dumps into the top of Lake Oahe and truly becomes a lake. As the river turned into a 2 to 3 mile wide behemoth of a channel, there was lots of willows and other water plants growing from the shallows, making navigating a bit of a challenge. But again with water levels being generally high, I had no trouble paddling through some shrubbery to make the crossing to the east side of the lake.
The conditions on the water were pleasantly calm, and as I got close to the Cannon Ball River entering the lake on the opposite side, Norm messaged me and suggested I cross to check it out. I made the crossing relatively easily, but was happy to stop and take a full immersion in the lake at the Cannon Ball. The river was named by Lewis and Clark after the cannonball like rocks that mark its convergence with the Missouri. I saw a few of the rocks, but I’m sure many more were hidden under the high water. Close to the Cannon Ball is also the site of the DAPL protests of 2016 and where the gas pipeline was constructed and passes under the river. I saw no signs of the pipeline.
As my mileage for the day approached 40 miles, a rainstorm loomed ahead of me and I began looking for a campsite. I was on the west side of the lake – which is part of the Standing Rock Reservation, but I was advised it’s generally acceptable to camp over here, just try to do so surrepticiously if possible. Spots to set up a decent camp were few and far between. As the rain started, I was forced into a swampy area and an obvious cow pasture. I quickly set up my tent under the shelter of a low Cottonwood tree and was able to actually tie up my boat to another tree to secure my craft for the coming storm. I sat in my tent waiting out the quick rainstorm. Exhausted from a 40 mile, very warm day and not wanting to deal with the mosquitoes or the damp 3 ft high grass around my tent, I made a quick dinner in my tent then laid down. With spotty reception on my phone and listening to local radio forecasts, I was made aware of a bigger storm moving in. I dozed off around 9:30pm, warily seeing this on my phone (I was camped a few miles south of Cannon Ball and the storms were moving in from the west):
About an hour later, I awoke to the flashing of lightning and a slowly growing rumble of thunder. As the storm moved in, both the thunder and lightning became nonstop. I could not distinguish individual thunder sounds, just a very low constant rumble accentuated with loud, violent cracks every few seconds. Lightning was flashing literally every 2 seconds if not less. I huddled under my sleeping bag hoping my tent would hold up in the wind, the Cottonwood would not break and crush me or get struck by lightning and spread the deadly electricity to my tent it was touching. A few cracks of lightning illuminated even the insides of my tighly closed eyes and I was certain of a direct hit. Luckily I was wrong. On top of the violence of the storm, because I had camped on a sandbar the previous night and packed up my dew covered tent on the sand, as my tent shook in the wind this night, I also received a shower of fine sand from the underside of my rain fly. Sand covered the sleeping bag I was tightly wrapped in, the floor of my tent and peppered my face which I also buried inside the sleeping bag. I felt quite helpless as the storm made its was across the lake. As the thunder and lighting became less frequent, I peeked out of the tent and was pleasantly surprised to see my boat still there strapped to the tree. Relieved, I sent a message to my wife that I was ok and just rode out a doozy of a storm. Storms is St. Louis can get bad, for sure. But rarely have I had to experience such a violent storm without the luxury of a structure to take shelter in. It was a short night after the storm, but I managed to get some rest then quickly pack up my damp gear in the morning.
The next day was fairly calm in the morning, then gave way to nearly perfectly calm water later in the afternoon. I first made around a 9 mile crossing of open water to get to the reservation town of Fort Yates. There I stopped on a gravel beach and hid my boat pretty well, then walked into town where google told me there was a burger and pizza joint called The Rock. Sure enough, I devoured a huge double bacon cheeseburger and a medium fries, which was actually an entire large plate. From Fort Yates, I decided to make a 6 mile crossing back to the east side of the lake, as there was a developed campground and resort another 10 miles downstream. I made the crossing on a full stomach, then stopped to snap some photos of the picturesque conditions of the afternoon:
I paddled the last 10 miles to the Stateline Campground and Resort which appropriately straddles the line between North and South Dakota. I found a crowded campground – mostly RVing families gathered to celebrate the 4th of July, but was told by the owner where I could find a quiet spot to set up my tent and enjoy the two cold beers one of the campers had graciously given me. I didn’t mind the fireworks late into the night, a city boy has been training all his life to sleep through night-long 4th of July celebrations.
With around 42 miles to Mobridge, SD, I planned to paddle around half that, camp then do the other half the following day. I slept in a bit on July 4th, then enjoyed a coffee and made some oatmeal with some of my raspberry fruit leather. I paddled from around 10:45am to around 5pm and found a quiet cove to camp in. I selected a rocky beach and had to scoop out quite a bit of cow dung to make it a livable camp. It was a lovely evening overlooking the huge bend in the lake which I’d paddle the next morning. I added the sticker of North Dakota to my boat, marking the completion of my second state of the trip.
It was a grey but dry morning, until I was almost fully packed and ready to pull out. Then the rain came. I grabbed my umbrella and huddled over my boat against the sideways rain. After a solid 45 minutes of steady rain, it let up and I got on the water. Around 12 mph winds from the north made paddling the big east to west bend in the lake a wavy challenge. As the lake turned south again, the wind subsided, I saw the two bridges of Mobridge in the distance, and I even used my umbrella for the second time today, this time as a sail to propel me forward and give my paddling arms a rest. I got some pretty funny looks from some fishermen – a dude in a big wooden boat with a golf umbrella directly in front of him with a paddle in his lap. I could care less, I had to get to Burger King.
Pulling into Mobridge mid-day, I was aware of the Burger King strategically located mere steps from the river – this is when the water is high. When the water is not high, it can be a half mile to mile long slog through mud and swamp to get there. I spotted the sign from the lake and pulled in, and stuffed my face with the bounties of our fast food nation. I even popped into the meat shop next door (‘Merica!!!) and picked up some amazing homemade beef and buffalo jerky.
Well-practiced in paddling Lake Oahe on a comically full stomach, I made the last 3 miles from Mobridge to the dock at Bridge City Resort and Marina. River angels Mike and Jessie welcomed me and set me up in a cozy camper for the night. I got a hot shower, did some laundry, enjoyed a cold beverage, and made plans to stick around for a few liesurely days to relax and recover from 198 hard-earned but memorable miles.