The First Half of Lake Oahe
// September 21st, 2012 // Uncategorized
I wish I could say that this photo sums up my experiences on the first 120 miles of 240-mile long Lake Oahe in North and South Dakota. Unfortunately, it only summarizes about two hours out of six days that I’ve spent on the lake. I’ll get to those two hours in a moment. First, here’s a quick rundown on Day One.
Day One out of Bismarck, North Dakota was a fast-paced affair. The river moves swiftly here, and despite the fact that I spent the night camped beside Fast Freddie’s, a riverside bar on the Mandan side of the Missouri – noisy on a Friday night, I might add – and left in the morning having slept little, I made it 41 miles downstream, well into the lake and 1/6 of the way to the Oahe Dam. It was a great start! Tailwinds from the northwest and a good current certainly helped my progress.
After extracting the kayak from knee-deep mud along the shoreline, Day Two began with a helpful tailwind and a current that eventually melded with Oahe as the lake expanded in width. Then, things got interesting. (This is the point where the aforementioned “two hours” began.)
I arrived at river mile 1258 to discover that the lake had suddenly dried up, or so it appeared. To my left, the shoreline of mud extended a half-mile out into the lake. To my right, a huge, impenetrable thicket of dead willows, half-submerged in the murk, crowded in to meet the mud of the opposite shore. What was left in the middle was a bed of clay with 6 inches of water on it. Seagulls strolled around on the shallower bits. Beyond that, there was no more water, only earth. Two large hydro line towers loomed above the morass, their steel and concrete supports fully exposed atop the lakebed. To my right, beyond the trees, were two boat ramps and a campground. There was no activity among the parked RVs. The community of Beaver Creek lay 1.5 miles to the south, on the far side of the hydro towers. What was supposed to be an easy half-hour paddle with the tailwind had developed into a definite challenge with no foreseeable end.
Accessing the situation, I figured that I would pull the boat across the muck as far as I could and look for a channel of deeper water. Once out of the boat, I sank four inches in the mushy clay and plodded south, dragging the heavy kayak over the slick shallows. I came to a channel along the fringe of dead willows and climbed the tallest tree skeleton around to get a better view. I looked to my right, figuring that where there were boat ramps there must be a channel of water to launch boats into. My assumption was right. Beyond the willows lay open water! I slid back into the cockpit, mud covering everything inside the boat, and plunged into the thick maze of dead trees. I muscled through the thicket, branches snapping loudly and snagging on the kayak cart which was affixed to the stern deck. Minutes later I emerged into open water. What a relief! Unfortunately, my relief was short-lived.
As I crossed Beaver Creek Bay, the menacing tailwind doubled in speed and whitecaps suddenly arose around me. A thicket of willows separated me from the eastern shore and the shelter of Beaver Creek Campground. I was now stranded on the lake, bobbing dangerously among the rising waves. 20 minutes earlier the lake had been dry. Now it was everywhere in sight, animated and nasty.
I passed by homes along the shoreline, wondering if people were watching this foolish attempt to descend the lake in a tiny red plastic boat. I gained on the shore, nearly able to reach it through the trees, only to be turned back from safety by illusion. What had appeared to be a broad, sandy beach was simply the bleached trunks of more dead trees, layers deep, preventing me from reaching the shore.
Focussed and determined, as well as a little scared, I continued to paddle south, following a ridge of eroded bluffs. Confidently, I turned ‘round to peek at the mess from which I had just exited. What I saw then turned my confidence to panic. Stretched wide across the lake was a sky as black as night.
The rain came hard and cold, pelting my head and forcing me to wrench my coat’s hood over my wet dreadlocks. The fringe of dead willows parted and I bolted for shore as rain bounced off the bow of the kayak.
Cursing, I walked and scanned the shoreline for a suitable spot to pitch my tent. After ten minutes of digging up rocks and smoothing over the remaining sand, I prepped a spot just large enough to erect the tent. Cold fingers, wet and gritted with sand, chafed on every surface they came in contact with. Down came the rain. Up went the tent. In went the gear, followed by a cursing paddler, miserable, cold and wet through and through. “Happy birthday.” I said to myself. “Bet you didn’t wish for THIS!”
Days Three and Four were brighter affairs, with sun and songs a-plenty; me singing what lyrics I could remember by bands like Built to Spill, Superchunk and the ever-favourable NoMeansNo. Paddling clothes, cold and wet when I slid into them in the morning, dried crisp and comfortable in the afternoon sun. The waves and wind still provided a uniquely Oahe challenge, but I made good distance on those days, covering 26 and 18 miles respectively. Day Five, on the other hand, is memorable more for newly-found respect rather than distance achieved.
Day 5 I woke at 6am to the sound of waves on the shore. By the time I wetly launched into the surf at 9am, the lake was beginning to show a nasty face, one like the grimy grimace of a dark ages peasant, wrinkled and weathered hard.
I cursed and sweated and thrashed the lake with my paddle, making little progress against the onslaught of wind. Waves crashed over the bow time and again, drenching me. I crawled through the water painfully slow, agony and anger etched in my face.
When, after an hour of this madness, I could stand no more, I forced myself verbally to turn for shore and safety. And when the shore quickly arrived it was slickly lined with wet clay rounded into a two-foot drop-off. Waves pounded the boat as I ripped the sprayskirt from the cockpit coaming and attempted to haul the boat up the incline. I slipped and skated on the glistening clay, unable to find a foothold as the torrent of the rising waves bashed the kayak. In seconds the boat’s cockpit was filled with turbid water, making it even heavier. Bent at the waist, face to the clay, I screamed out profanities from a raging part of my soul. Hoarse and near tears, I somehow managed to haul the boat ashore and sought out shelter behind an old driftwood log.
Two hours later the wind had only intensified in strength. Walking on the beach in the wind was difficult. Paddling in it was a near impossibility. It was noon. The day was over. I had made two miles. Across the whitecaps I could still see where I had camped the night before. I decided to set up the tent in a partly sheltered spot beside an eroded bluff and wait out the wind. On this day I would relearn the lesson of patience that I have been relearning on each successive river adventure, starting with the Mississippi in 2001. The river has its own schedule. You don’t change it, you adapt to it. The river is in no rush to reach the ocean. It will wait in eddies and reservoirs, backwaters and oxbows until the time arrives for it to flow again. And if it doesn’t find the flow it needs, it makes its way heavenward where it will patiently wait until it returns to earth once more.
Day 6? Well, happily, the wind blew itself out. I rose at 4am and took to the water at 7 as the sky went all lipstick colours at sun-up. A gentle breeze rippled the surface. Then it left the lake alone completely for the remainder of the day. I rounded the rocky point at which I had eyed many times the day before; its spiky top signalled the spot where the lake makes a turn to the south. Had I been able to reach that point, only a mile distant the day prior, I could have ridden a mighty tailwind clear to the town of Mobridge, South Dakota. As it was, I had to wait a day for that to happen.
Now I sit inside a heated cabin at Bridge City Marina near the town of Mobridge. Out the darkened window I can see calm Oahe reflecting a waxing moon. In the morn I will take to its surface once more to respectively tackle the final 120 miles of its generous length. Wish me luck. I’m gonna need it.