The Challenge of Lake Sakakawea
// September 10th, 2012 // Uncategorized
About the photo:
A rare calm moment on Lake Sakakawea, September 5. It seems like every time I take one of these POV photos I find some unseen thing lurking on the back of my head. You may remember that back in Townsend, Montana I had a piece of green river vegetation rooted in my hair. This time the unidentified stowaway is white. I have no idea what it was or how long it had been there. I hope it wasn’t a cocoon. *Cringe*
Today is Day 86 of the Missouri-Mississippi river system expedition. It is warm, sunny and strangely wind-free here at Lake Sakakawea State Park. I say “strangely” because, since leaving Tobacco Garden Marina and Resort on September 4, it has been constantly windy throughout the day, calming only in the evenings. And those evenings have been mighty cool with temperatures in the mid-40s. In fact, two evenings ago, there was a frost warning issued for counties east of Lake Sakakawea. Frost?! Hold on a minute. I’m not ready to deal with that just yet. What happened to daytime highs in the mid-90s? Oh yes, it’s September now. North America is inching into autumn as I inch along a river.
For the past few days, winds from the northwest have been blowing across the lake, producing swells and breaking waves over three feet high. Many times while paddling I could not see over these breakers. Paddling in these conditions was downright scary. Mix in the fact that there were dozens of open water crossings, including bays that were two miles wide, and you have situations that were just plain unsafe. I can honestly say that these were the most challenging conditions that I have ever paddled in. I was well beyond my comfort level and skill level. Sheer perseverance and luck got me here to Garrison Dam at the lake’s southern end. I am relieved to be here and have little interest in paddling this lake again.
Right now, I’m pretty sick of lake paddling. This is the tenth lake that I’ve descended since leaving the river’s source on June 17th. And it doesn’t warm my heart to know that there are still four more lakes to paddle before I reach the channelized portion of the lower Missouri River at mile 732. (I’m currently at river mile 1395, 1395 miles from the confluence with the Mississippi River.)
Lake Oahe (oh-wah-hay), the first of those four lakes, is a mighty 240 miles long, the longest of any lake I’ve encountered on this journey. According to The Complete Paddler, a Missouri River guidebook that I have with me, and what Carrie Formosa regularly uses as a reference for updates in my absence, Lake Oahe is “the most difficult obstacle in making a complete passage down the Missouri River.” So the worst is yet to come. Great.
Before I embark on my Lake Oahe odyssey, I have 76 miles of free-flowing river channel to enjoy. Water released from Garrison Dam is pumped from the bottom of Lake Sakakawea, so the water in the tailrace, the water exiting the dam, is a cool 52 degrees. Apparently this is done to help prevent algae from forming in the river and to aid the fish stock, which prefer cooler temperatures. I will be stopping in the town of Washburn (river mile 1355) to resupply food for the lake journey ahead. At river mile 1230 I will pass into South Dakota, the third state on this trip.
In case you were wondering, the three other lakes below Oahe are: Lake Sharpe (84 miles long), Lake Francis Case (107 miles long) and Lake Lewis and Clark (28 miles long). Lake Lewis and Clark is the last lake on the Missouri-Mississippi river system. Below this lake the channelized portion of the river begins (river mile 732). The next major body of water is the Gulf of Mexico, 1900 miles downstream.
Here is a list of the ten lakes/reservoirs, in order, that I’ve descended so far: Upper and Lower Red Rock Lakes, Lima Reservoir, Clark Canyon Reservoir, Canyon Ferry Lake, Toston Lake, Hauser Lake, Holter Lake, Fort Peck Lake and Lake Sakakawea. I’ll be a happier man when I add the final four to that list. Bloody lakes!
There is one more thing I should add about Lake Sakakawea. Its shoreline is exquisitely beautiful. Chalkstone bluffs topped with spiky grass rise vertically from sloped beaches lined decoratively with wavy sand and polished rock. Like a scene from the original Planet of the Apes film, collapsed columns of rock lie scattered doomsday-like at the water’s edge. As I rounded point after jagged point, I half-expected to see Charlton Heston on his knees in the sand, cursing his fellow man as a ruined Statue of Liberty loomed in the background. But I did not see ol’ Mr. Heston, nor any other humans along the shoreline of Lake Sakakawea. Nor did I see any other self-propelled adventurers. I saw only hardy anglers in warm jackets, bobbing in boats, bracing the wind and eyeing their lines for signs of hungry walleye. I was alone upon a lake too large for my broad mind to comprehend. I precariously rode waves and spit out the excess when it came rushing aboard my vessel and person. I tasted no sign of salt in the crystal clear waters of Lake Sakakawea, which means that my journey has not reached its end. Saltwater lies a few months distant, along the reedy coastline of a larger lake, a gulf into which all this water will someday pass.