Oahe Shows Its True Colors

The longest reservoir on the Missouri River, Lake Oahe, is generally oriented North to South. It stretches 231 miles from Bismarck, ND to Pierre, SD. Because of its orientation plus weather and winds generally moving from West to East, Oahe has a reputation for being the most challenging passage of the 3 big lakes. So I was quite pleasantly surprised with how my first 4 days of paddling on the lake turned out. I think the strongest winds I encountered were 10 – 12 mph and were from the Northwest, so I wasn’t battling wind or waves for the most part. I even had a truly legenday day conditions-wise as I crossed over the lake from West to East near Fort Yates:There was the late night storm I had to endure, but I’d much rather deal with severe weather on shore, in my tent versus potentially being caught on the water for it.

After a couple relaxing days at Bridge City Marina in Mobridge, it was time to hit the water again. As I paddled out of the marina around 9am on Monday, July 8th, I was facing a fairly strong headwind. Paddling on the East side of the lake, I tried to paddle in the shelter of coves along the way, but was still facing tough wind and waves. The waves weren’t generally a big issue, typically a 2 or 3 foot wave would break on the front of my boat, water might splash on the top of the front of my boat, but generally the splash dissipated by the time it reached the cockpit where I was sitting. I didn’t wear the skirt and didn’t really get much water splashed into the cockpit. The bigger challenge was the wind itself. It was in my face, and it seemed to push both my boat and my body backwards. The main effect was lack of mileage covered vs. the effort I was putting forth. As I checked my Garmin throughout the day, I was consistently surprised how few miles I was covering. I made a fairly long crossing of several coves from 2 – 4pm, targeted a cove where I might set up camp and was disappointed to see I had only hit 15 miles that day.

Luckily I dodged some approaching thunderstorms that night, as my tent was perilously perched on a gravel isthmus between the lake and a tidal pool with no trees or windbreaks to be found. The wind throughout the night had waves lapping up a few feet from my tent, but I made it through. After a short early morning rainstorm that kept me in my tent a little longer, I was quickly packed and on the water by 6:45am. The wind forecast for the day was calmer in the morning, increasing to 10 to 15mph from the West later in the day.

With fewer waves, I made a good 5 miles before 8:30am before things started picking up. When they did pick up, they did so quickly, creating 3 to 4ft whitecapped waves out of the West, coming in from my right to left. Although the waves were big, I prefer this to headwinds, as I am still able to cover mileage as opposed to strong headwinds. My general approach is to keep and eye on the waves that are forming around 30 yards ahead of me and at a 45 degree angle from my boat to my right. Those are the waves I am going to hit as I move through the water. If I see whitecaps in that space, I can generally expect to encounter some pretty rough stuff when I cover that 30 yards. If no whitecaps, I know it’s probably safe to grab a drink of water, or snatch a quick bite of snacks. My Timber Longboards Co. boat performs wonderfully in these conditions. I roll across the top of big waves. The whitecapped waves may break against the side of my boat and may send water crashing over the top and sometimes into the cockpit. A few times, I got a good soaking when I wasn’t expecting it, otherwise I welcomed a splash of cool water on a warm day. I didn’t use the skirt in the morning, and had to bail out some water with my bailer cup/toilet and my sponge periodically.

I pulled into Dodge Draw Cove around 1pm, where there was a boat ramp, parking lot and drop toilet. I had covered 14 exhausting miles and was prepared to call it a day. I checked the weather forecast for the rest of the day and the following day. I was dismayed to see forecasts of 25 to 30mph for the next day. This meant that I would most likely be shorebound the next day. So I could indeed call it a day and likley be stuck at a pretty boring boat ramp for a day, or I could put up with the 10 – 15mph winds for another 10 miles and make it to a pretty nice campground with full facilities at West Whitlock State Park. I decided to go for it. This time I put the skirt on, as I could expect to get swamped quite a bit more in the increasing winds. I dug in and really cranked out some paddling. I covered the 10 miles in around 3 hours and pulled into West Whitlock before 5pm. I’d made a very difficult 25 miles for the day, possibly my hardest physical day of the trip so far. I found a really nice state park campground, parked my kayak on the swimming beach, grabbed a campsite right up the hill, then got a ride from a friendly family down the road to a bait shop/restaurant for some cold beers and a delicious burger for dinner, while chatting with some very nice folks who were also staying at the park. It sure beat Dodge Draw.

I heard strong winds blowing through the trees around my camp all night and into the morning. I woke early and was reassured at my decision to take a rest day after seeing a whitecapped Oahe:The last 10 miles really took a lot out of my upper body yesterday as well, so I’m quite happy to give that a rest today. Tomorrow’s forecast is for 10 to 15mph winds from the South, not perfection like my first 4 days on Oahe, but something I can deal with. My first 8 or 9 miles is due West, then the lake turns to the South where I may once again be facing headwinds. It’s certainly been interesting having the added challenge of winds, weather, lake orientation and lots of other little factors to consider rather than just getting in the boat and paddling. I did a little repair work on the boat this afternoon, updated my blog and journal, will enjoy a hot shower later before heading back to the bait shop to grab some beers and dinner with Russ, the ethanol plant worker on vacation and camping just down the road.


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