by Matt Titre
Paddling on rivers with fast current and rapids is usually where you’ll find me. Recently though, I have found myself paddling flatwater for hundreds of miles. Our group has paddled roughly 1,350mi and nearly half of that has been on flatwater reservoirs. The Army Corps of Engineers has truly outdone themselves, and it feels as though they have betrayed us by taming the flow of the Missouri River. The Great Plains of North Dakota stretched out in every direction as we paddled our way downstream towards our first school presentation at Trenton Middle School. We were excited to meet them at the river as well as debut our classroom power-point presentation, and have a break from paddling. After a successful river cleanup, a Lewis and Clark exercise and a school visit we were sent on our way with four Trenton Tigers stocking hats; which we seem to wear constantly as the mercury has recently began its steady decline towards colder seasons. Back at our river camp: the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri we are treated with fresh produce, homemade donuts, steak and watermelon. Thank you Joy and Kerri at the Confluence center, you made our stay so amazing that our mothers would be jealous. This was our first interaction with North Dakota folks, which is when we realized that “everyone is treated like family in North Dakota”.
After a couple of days of resting, recuperating, and organizing we were ready to get our boats back in the water and continue our southern migration. We had been spoiled with favorable paddling conditions, crystal clear water and perfect swimming weather on Ft. Peck, our first major reservoir, and were ready for the next leg of our journey. As we dipped our paddles in the water and continued eastward we had no idea of the challenge that lay ahead. We had the tall order of paddling 160 miles of flatwater and 85 miles of river in order to reach Miller Elementary in Bismarck North Dakota in just ten days. That meant paddling an average of 30mi per day on a reservoir that has a nasty reputation for winds strong enough to stop paddlers in their tracks. There was a day that we paddled from sunrise to sunset and barely reached 25mi, but spent enough energy to paddle 50mi. Ouch. Luckily, we had our first river angel: Peg and the “Tobacco Gardens Crew”. We didn’t know what to expect as we paddled into the marina, campground and restaurant rested on the far northwest edge of Sakakawea. Soon, we found ourselves in a warm cozy cabin with ice cream and Peg offering a spirit of hospitality similar to the deep south. Right away, we fell in love with Peg, who follows other Missouri River Paddlers via Facebook and sets the standard high. After one night, we decided to have a second day off, and spend another night at Tobacco Gardens. We awoke to an amazing breakfast cooked by Peg, then a food resupply; which consisted of Peg opening her commercial kitchen pantry for Nia and Sara to shop for our next 8 day journey. That amazing generosity, fed us and continues to inspire us to keep going, even if the wind is blowing sideways and the waves are so high that the boat ahead disappears as it drops behind the waves.
The Garrison dam was so good to see after miles of flatwater blues, but no time to waste; we portaged 4mi around the dam and paddled our longest day: 40mi, reaching camp past sunset. The following day we outdid ourselves once again and paddled 45mi in order to reach Bismarck in time to shower and clean up before meeting teachers and students at Miller Elementary. Once again, big thanks to Heather and Trent who let us stay with them, even after they left on vacation! We dog sat and uploaded our dam video. That’s right it covered dams, check it out. The staff at Miller Elementary was extraordinary and we had lots of fun presenting to multiple grade levels throughout the day.
We left Bismarck with enough supplies for Lake Oahe, our next flatwater stretch of painful paddling. It stretches 240mi through the rolling hills of the Great Plains, we were definitely afraid. We challenged ourselves again by scheduling another school presentation in Pierre, SD. This meant we had to paddle the entire lake in only 10days. Once on the flatwater, we seemed to get lost in the endless hours of paddle strokes, hardly leaving enough time for anything other than eating food and sleeping. One day in particular, Aaron and I were holding up the sail while Nia and Sara steered us through big winds and even bigger waves towards Ft. Yates. Once we landed, the wind and waves bashed our boats against the rocks and began to fill them with water. As waves crashed over our backs, we unloaded faster than ever and began warming up, building camp and preparing our dinner. Just as the stars came out, we experienced a marvelous show of the Northern Lights, we felt so lucky and inspired. The pain and discomfort of all those miles of flatwater melted away as we were treated to this magical show of nature. Wind plagued our next few days on the water, challenging us to put our heads down and paddle hard with all of our remaining strength. As we paddled the final miles that separated us from the dam, Oahe threw one final challenge at us. Out of nowhere a direct head wind picked up. It seemed like nothing came easy on Oahe, we paddled into that wind challenging ourselves not only physically but also mentally. The sight of the dam on the horizon lifted out spirts. Such a relief. We quickly portaged, and the next day we would be in Pierre, SD.
Finally in Pierre, we demolished a pizza buffet with our large appetites and then planned for our next school visits. First order of business, we needed a shower to wash off ten days of paddling. The theme of incredible hospitality continued as a fifth grader from Kennedy Elementary and his family hosted four tired and smelly paddlers. Once again, thank you Mark and Darla for hosting us, it meant so much to take a break from daily canoe life, in order to focus on reaching the classroom prepared. Home cooked meals, comfortable beds and wonderful kids at both Kennedy Elementary and Pierre Indian Learning Center (P.I.L.C.) will be our memories of Pierre. We had a hard time leaving.
The rain tried to stop us from loading up and paddling south onto more flatwater but we ignored it and now we find ourselves paddling the last stretch of reservoirs. Our goal: Sioux City. Our time frame: 333mi in 13 days including 3 dam portages and one food resupply. Perhaps our largest flatwater goal. Our motivation is to finish this inland freshwater ocean and reach the free-flowing stretches of the Missouri river. We dream of large cottonwood groves filled with red-tail hawks and eastern screech owls and best of all… current! We could not have survived the flatwater blues if not for the generous people of the Dakotas, thank you.