by Nia Thomas
Like a rare beast, we heard about Fort Peck Reservoir long before we ever caught a glimpse of its sandy shores or turquoise blue waters. Amongst the mired of warnings, one word seemed synonymous with this great body of water… wind.
Even before we started this trip we were told of its fickle nature, and ability to whip up a full blown storm in mere minutes. We’d heard tale of 8ft waves, narrow channels through the sediment ending in dead-ends, kayaks being washed away at night and the chance that we would have to wait out vicious winds for days.
So a week ago when we set out from the James Kipp recreation area, we were preparing to encounter all of these problems. We had 10 days of food packed onto our canoes (enough for 3 days of wind bound eating), we’d looked at map after map to try and determine a route through the infamous quick sand and we were mentally preparing for a 150 mile stretch where the current would first dwindle and then leave altogether.
We were ready for Fort Peck to try and break us.
The Fort Peck Dam was built between 1933-1941 as an answer to both the problem of flooding downstream on the Missouri and the lack of jobs during the depression. This 3 mile earthen wall resulted in the back up of a body of water over 134 miles long, covering 245,000 acres, with over 1520 miles of shoreline. This is one big reservoir; in fact it is the 5th largest in the entire USA.
Our first surprise comes when early on a Monday morning as we round the corner of the great UL bend, where the small amount of current we have left fades away and with it the heavy sediment load the river has been carrying is dropped, we find in place of the maze of channels that has been described to us so often, just water. Water that is deep enough to paddle, stretching all the way from shore to shore. In a way we feel that we’ve cheated. The higher water levels mean that the sediment is sitting far below us in the lake, affording us easy passage over the top.
Rounding the UL bend we first start to see the size of this reservoir. The land on the opposite shore becomes a distant strip, colours washed out by the sun. It doesn’t matter what your mode of transport is, these long straight stretches are always a challenge. Paddling, pedaling, walking towards to same point for hours on end, desperately hoping that it is getting just a little closer. On the river the landscape is constantly changing as we meander along its wandering path eager to see what is around the next bend, the reservoir is the opposite of this. We travel from point to point across the water, some of them 5 miles or more apart. We watch as slowly, dark blobs start to take shape into trees, and land that has been a floating mirage finally reaches the ground.
Around this bend we also start to see our favourite change. The water, which has been brown and opaque for so long, starts to turn green. As we paddle along we being to see the blades of our paddles for the first time in weeks. Soon we can stick our whole paddles into its turquoise depths and still see them! We instantly start daydreaming about swimming. It’s been nearly 300 miles since we last saw water this clear and on the reservoir we take full advantage of it, diving in up to 4 times a day, giggling with glee as we splash around and enjoy its cool touch; a welcome break from the sun’s relentless heat.
We pull up on sandy beaches to eat or camp with not a soul in sight, just the chattering of birds in our ears and the breeze on our faces. It feels like the reservoir is ours to enjoy and ours only. The silent nature of canoeing allows us to get up close to the abundant bird life we find here. We call to the loons as we pass and they wail back, we watch as a colony of terns noisily chases off an intruding gull, we see grebes dive, pop up and dive again their sleek splash-less entries what Olympic divers dream of. This is a beautiful yet different set of bird life to what we’ve become accustomed to on the river, gone are the eagles, kingfishers and swallows. This may be the same water, the same river, but the dam has changed its character to such an extent that our usual suspects can’t live here, and this niche is instead filled with grebes, loons and large colonies of terns and gulls who bob on the waves and glide on the winds.
The wind itself, the one word uttered every time we mentioned Fort Peck has been kind to us; mostly on our backs and never strong enough to keep us land-bound. It seems we caught it in a good mood. The westerlies create waves that push us closer to our destination, and if we position the boats just right we can surf them towards our next break. As the wind picks up, so do our dreams of harnessing its power… We rig up a homemade sail from paddles and a tarp and turn our two canoes into a temporary ca-noe-tamaran. The two bow paddlers each have a paddle, holding the sail up high above their heads, fighting the wind to keep it upright. The stern paddlers have the job of keeping the canoes perpendicular to the ever increasing waves and apart from one another. The ride is exhilarating! The sail pulls us forward at speed and soon we are racing 4ft waves along the water’s surface. We hoot and holler, everyone’s arms burning from the strain of either holding up the sail or steering the canoes. To the handful of fishing boats that we pass we must have been quite the sight; two canoes flying past, piled high with bags and bikes with a tarp billowing off the front.
And so just six days after setting out and 150 river miles later (we will never know how many we actually paddled as we meandered from point to point or hugged the jagged coast) we glimpse the bright lights and big boats of the Fort Peck Marina, and after one long last crossing from what is now a distant speck on the horizon, we are glad to see them. This point signals the end of our trip on this reservoir. It hasn’t been easy, we’ve been paddling 30 mile days on flat water and by day 6 our bodies are tired! But at the same time we feel lucky that the conditions have let us cross the 5th biggest reservoir in the US this quickly. All that’s left now is to portage our canoes by bike around the dam and down to the river where once again the current will aid our progress and the kingfishers will chatter loudly alongside the boats.