Fluffy cottonwood seeds floated by, letting me know there was still a gentle current as I left Williston. My first day into the 200 mile long Lake Sakakawea started just like my first day into Fort Peck Lake, calm.
I navigated through a maze of channels and willow thickets to get to open water. Along the way I began to see evidence of the oil boom. Sand colored oil wells slowly pumped in a slow rhythm not unlike the pace of the river. High on the hilltops overlooking the lake, fires burned off the natural gas byproduct from oil collection.
A continuous large black cloud of smoke was blown toward the shore I intended to camp on. Building headwinds gave me no choice but to camp in the smokes path. Luckily it had to travel a couple miles to get to me and was mostly dispersed high above.
I set up camp after making 28 miles since leaving Williston at noon. As if on cue, the smoke stopped as I crawled into my tent around 9pm. It was good to be camping on the quite, mud-free shores of a lake again.
Strong winds pushed menacing waves toward the shore. After 5 miles I decided my goal for the day would be a campground with showers and a restaurant just about 6 miles away. I had resorted to walking in knee deep water instead of paddling. I jumped on the board to paddle around some partially submerged trees and felt that something wasn’t quite right.
The board listed to the side and I hopped off into waist deep water. When I tried to climb back on I realized the board was sitting quite low in the water. Right at the 750 mile mark of my journey, Muddy Moose was wounded.
My first thought was that I must have hit a rock when lining the board along shore. I later realized that, when I beached the board to check something out on land, a branch or knot from some logs I slid the board over was likely the culprit. I had rocked the board back and forth to get the weight of my gear over those logs and onto land. This wasn’t a fault in the design but a result of my impatience getting to shore.
I threw my empty water jug and spare paddle 20 feet onto shore out of frustration and got the board unloaded. With it now holding several gallons of water, I could barely pick it up. I popped a drain plug and got the water out.
When I flipped my board onto its deck a 2-3 inch “L” shaped crack revealed itself. I cut a piece of fiberglass and mixed some epoxy with a stick.
I set up my tent to take shelter from the sun on the 90 degree, North Dakota afternoon and set about making minor repairs to other equipment. Rest was needed anyways and I didn’t need to be in any hurry. My girlfriend, Rachel, was meeting me in Bismarck in 16 days and I figured I could easily make it there in under two weeks.
A short while later I noticed a group of people appear a few hundred yards down the beach. I wandered over to discover I was stranded just a half mile from a campground with showers that I thought I had passed already. A two mile walk took me to the parks convenience store where I enjoyed an ice cream cookie sandwich, lemonade, and a hot pocket while sitting in the A/C.
After a shower I figured I’d relax and read. Just a few pages in I looked out the tent to the west and saw dark skies. I switched on the weather radio to find out 60 mph wind gusts and quarter sized hail were predicted. There was nothing to tie the board to so I loaded it down with rocks and loaded big rocks on all the tent stakes.
I sat just outside the bathroom as I watch the hail come in, followed by sideways rain. As I walked back to my tent I wondered what shape I’d find it in. It was partially folded over but popped right back to its original shape.
The tent needed one more storm line so I cut a length off my paracord. While melting the end to prevent fraying, a bit of the melting nylon dripped onto my finger and burned a pea sized blister onto the back of it. This was followed up by knocking my pot full of noodles off the stove and onto the ground.
Sakakawea greeting me with perfectly calm seas at 6:30 the next morning. After pulling off for half an hour for rain clouds to pass, I pressed on. In the late evening I paddled by cattle fields and shoreline filled with uninviting brush. I aimed for the shelter of bluffs off in the distance. Light from the oil rigs bounced off the clouds and lit the sky at night.
I can’t forget to look back every once in a while. These wide lakes allow you gain an appreciation for distance. After several hours of paddling I sometimes can see nothing but water from where I came from. Of course, I am likely aiming towards a shoreline that seems an impossible distance away.
After a 33 mile day I took a forced day off. Twenty mph headwinds were an opponent I chose not to battle. The sky filled with storm clouds again that evening. Once those past, the wind switched direction and blew at 40 mph. My first real tailwind on a lake came the next day. Progress was accelerated by 15-20 mph winds which helped me to another 30 mile day.
The biggest arm of the lake loomed. I hit the water early to beat the winds and hoped to cross to the other shore. It was not to be. After continuing on for a couple miles longer than I’d like, due to the prevalence of cattle, I called it quits after 5 miles. I was surrounded by cattle fields but the cow patties around my campsite at least looked like they had been there for a few days. I was gonna be here for about 20 hours so I built a stone and stick fence as an attempt at a cattle barrier and rested up.
I fought to get away from shore in the morning and headed into four to five foot waves. The big rolling waves rhythmically lifted the board up and lowered it into the troughs between them. This was adventure! My balance was being put to the test.
Lake Sakakawea finally won. As I was cresting a wave, it broke and tipped me off the board for the first time. The board capsized in the process. I had wondered what would happen in this scenario. I carried a knife clipped in my pocket in case I’d have to cut my gear loose from the bungee cords and paracord that secured the bags to board. Luckily my full 3 gallon water jug floated off the board. That was 25 pounds less that I would have to flip. After two tries I was able to right the craft and climb back aboard. No gear was lost.
Tailwinds pushed me for twenty miles to my first North Dakota “resort.” The RV campgrounds in the area are often called resorts. Compared to the primitive conditions I’ve been living in, this meant luxury. Indian Hills Resort had a convenience store with a selection of hand dipped ice cream, frozen pizza, and wifi. The quarter fed showers were excellent, as were the hiking trails overlooking the lake.
After spending some time talking with Tyler and Alyse, the couple running the shop, I got set up with a great spot right on the water and went for a shower. Six quarters got me about eight minutes of glorious, steaming hot water. After exploring the lakeside trails I stopped at the campsite of a woman who had invited me for dinner when I met her at the boat dock earlier.
There was something sitting on my picnic table that wasn’t there when I left. As I got closer, the mirage focused into reality. I was just thinking how good a beer would have been at that moment and was now staring at an ice cold six pack, glistening in the late evening sun. Earlier, I had asked Tyler if there was a place nearby to pick up some beer. He told me there wasn’t much for 30 miles. They decided to welcome me with some of their own. Touched by this gesture, I stuck a couple in my pack and walked back up the trail to photograph the sunset. A storm, just passed, unveiled an amazingly colorful North Dakota sunset.
Instead of fighting the 20 mph headwind the next morning, I walked over to the store with a bag full of batteries and their chargers. I sat there all day on an electricity binge and chatted with Tyler and Alyse as I worked on editing pictures and video. It was nice to be in no hurry.
Tyler and Alyse decided they were sick of fighting the rat race in California so they bought an RV to travel the country, stopping someplace new each summer to work. They were enjoying the freedom of a simpler lifestyle and the adventure of new places. Something I could now relate to.
My next stop was just 18 miles away on the other side of the lake. The wind was blowing the exact right direction so I cruised across and made it to Dakota Waters Resort for a late lunch of blueberry pancakes and a veggie omelet. This was a celebration meal. I turned 10,000 days old on this day! Over a year ago I wondered how many days old I was and realized I was nearing this nice round number. This helped fuel the fire to get out on this trip. You only get so many days. Where did I want to be on my 10,000th?
Another tailwind carried me toward the dam the next day. I angled against the wind for the last mile. Sakakawea wasn’t gonna let me off easy. David had let me know that the state park rangers were happy to assist paddlers so I gave them a ring as I pulled up to a massive boat ramp. A ranger came down and loaded my gear onto a trailer and drove me to my campsite.
With a whole evening ahead of me I started to walk the two miles into the town of Pick City. I only made it halfway before a ranger saw me and drove me the rest of the way. Dinner was had at The Little Bar and Grill. Someone asked what I was in town for and soon questions flowed from all directions. A guy down the bar bought me a beer and after an enjoyable meal I walked back.
The next day, with a large duffle bag of laundry I started walking to town. Once again a ranger picked me up before I made it halfway. I sat down at the laundromat to work on editing video as I waited for Little’s to open. Those plans were almost foiled when I realized I left my hard drive cord in the tent. Luckily another man was doing laundry and offered to drive me back to grab it. I didn’t write his name down until later but I believe it was Dennis. He was in the area for a family reunion and saved me quite the hassle.
I had Little’s to myself for dinner and enjoyed talking to the owner, Noelle. She was more than friendly and gave me a Little’s coozie and had her son drive me back to the campground. That night I joined my camping neighbors around their campfire.