After leaving the gracious hospitality of the Kuhls at Oahe Dam and Pierre, SD, it was time to tackle Lake Sharpe. Lake Sharpe is 81 miles long and its main feature is a massive 21 mile bend, where after making the big loop, you end up about 1.5 miles from where you were 21 miles ago. Jack dropped me off at the downstream boat ramp at Oahe Dam. I called to inquire about a dam tour at Oahe, but they confirmed that you do need a car to take the tour – I ran into the same issue at Fort Peck. Due to security, you have you drive your car into the powerhouse following a tour guide. Those who are on foot, or kayak in my case, are apparently out of luck unless you find an accommodating fellow tourist’s car to ride in. This time I let the terrorists win and skipped the tour and went ahead and shoved off.
The water was swift, cold and clear. The city of Pierre, capital of South Dakota, is around 6 miles downstream of the dam.I passed by without stopping, enjoying the underside of an old rotating railroad bridge and well as the lovely Framboise Island. The muddy Bad River joined on the right adding some chocolatey sediment. As the river turned east, I got a pretty good tailwind, strong enough that I put up my umbrella, set down my paddle and sailed for a good 2 or 3 hours. I was moving just as fast as if I was putting in a pretty good effort paddling. With an opaque golf umbrella, I would just have to lift it every once in a while to ensure I was moving in the right direction.Pretty soon the current slowed, then stopped completely and I was into Lake Sharpe proper. There was some wind around, but not too strong, so I continued to make miles. Around 5:30, I was around 30 miles in and approaching DeGray boat ramp. I pulled in to the rocky boat ramp and settled on a small patch of grass next to a gravel parking area for camp. The flies were pretty bad, but I got set up and made a dehydrated dinner and enjoyed a good sunset. I woke up several times during the night as a mild storm rolled through. A bit of thunder and lightning and some rain, but nothing too rough, enough to ensure I packed my tent away wet the next morning.
The plan for today was 32 miles to get to the western side of the Big Bend, where there was a pretty good campsite with good facilities. It was a fairly calm and uneventful day. It did get very hot in the afternoon, and I stopped several times to fully immerse myself in the cool lake water. I passed many herds of cattle who had the same idea as I, taking a mid afternoon dip. I can’t help but practice my most accurate moos as I pass them, knowing I’m doing a pretty good job if the entire herd happens to stop and stare at me.As I approached the bend, I had a bit of a headwind. But as I made the turn north, then eventually back west, the wind was now at my back and I did a bit more sailing. The campground came into view and I made the last few miles among some wave-running kids. The campground looked pretty packed with RVs and vacationing families. There was a sandy swimming beach with cabins on the left. The far left cabin looked unoccupied and there was a good bit of shaded, mowed grass next to the cabin. So I pulled in and quietly erected my tent on the far side of the cabin, out of the view of the main campground and any officialdom that might make their rounds.It was a long, hot day, so after a nice shower in the ‘comfort station’ of the campground and a quick dinner, I was asleep. Not for long, storms rolled in around 11:30 and lasted pretty much the rest of the night. Now an expert at thunderstorms of the northern plains, I judged from the coordination of the frequent thunder and lightning that this was not a direct-hit storm. It was very windy with heavy rain and I was lucky to have a bit of shelter in my tent, next to a wood cabin and some stout cottonwood trees, but I know we weren’t getting the absolute brunt of this storm. At one point, probably 2am, I got up and made sure my boat was still out of reach of the big waves on the lake, it was. I later learned this this same storm spawned 60 to 80 mph winds in nearby towns that flipped over a few trailers.
Come 6am, the storms seemed to be strengthening and I could tell by sound that the waves were bigger. Once again, I ventured out of my tent and walked over to my boat. This time I was not so lucky. The waves were crashing over the back of my boat. The back hatch was no longer on my boat; water, sand and seaweed was swamping my back hatch, which still held some of my gear. Shit. I quickly and with much difficulty pulled my boat all the way off the beach and into the grass. I gave a quick silent thank you to Jim Emanuel, who early on in my trip insisted I attach my hatch covers to my boat with 550 cordage. Without his sage advice, the rear hatch cover would have been halfway to Pierre and I would have been an awful situation having to find an alternative way to enclose my hatch on a custom boat. Jim, cheers to you!
After a few more hours, the rain died down and I got to work draining the water, sand and other detritus from my boat. Eventually I took off and crossed directly across to the very northern edge of the bend. Once I went around the top of the bend, I decided to make another crossing to the eastern edge of the bend to save a few miles of paddling. I was getting close to the end of the lake – Big Bend Dam. Quite hot again today, I stopped for a quick swim/cool down. I made one final long crossing and arrived at the boat ramp at the dam. I didn’t have a plan for portaging my boat down below the dam. At the ramp, there was a young Native American couple trying to get a wave runner to start. I relaxed in the shade for a few minutes, seeing if they’d have any luck. Luckily for me, they did not and started to load it back on their trailer. I approached and asked if they might be able to drive me down to the campsite below the dam. Ken was very nice and willing to help. He unhooked his trailer with the wave runner and left that with his lady friend. We loaded my kayak into the bed of his pickup, somehow tying it down and jamming it in somewhat securely. A 20 ft kayak in a short-bedded pickup means even at an angle, it will be hanging out quite a bit. Ken carefully drove across the dam, with the back of my kayak about 6 inches from the guard rail. He dropped me at the campsite just below the dam, about 100 ft from where I’d put in on Lake Francis Case in the morning. I slipped him 20 bucks for his troubles. Lake Sharpe was complete.
I grabbed an open campsite near the boat ramp and happened to set up next to Ron and his wife, the campground hosts. Campground hosts are people hired by the campground owners, in this case the Army Corps of Engineers, to just kind of watch over the camp, help people out if they need anything, police the area a bit and act as host for all campers. Ron offered me a cold beer as I was setting up, then after I had made a good meal of dehydrated taco meat on tortillas, invited me back over to sit and talk with them as the sun went down. Ron and his wife spend the summers here at this campsite, then spend the winter down in Port Aransas, Texas, their entire year in a huge RV. Sounds like a pretty good life to me. He told me stories of flooding, massive storms and his interactions with familiar thru-paddlers from years past. Into my tent I went, ready to take on the next lake in the morning.