“Set out at an early hour this morning. about nine A. M. the wind arose, and shortly after became so violent that we were unable to proceed, in short it was with much difficulty and some risk that I was enabled to get the canoes and perogues into a place of tolerable safety, there being no timber on either side of the river at this place. some of the canoes shiped water, and wet several parsels of their lading, which I directed to be opened and aired we remained untill five in the evening when the wind abating in some measure, we reloaded and proceeded.”
—Meriwether Lewis, April 23, 1805
There were no lakes on the Missouri when Lewis and Clark ascended it in 1804 and 1805. Now there are fifteen dams creating 700 miles of reservoir, nearly one-third the total length of the river. That’s like paddling from Seattle to San Francisco on a lake, except that, like the ocean, big lakes are seldom calm. The wind ceaselessly blows from one direction or another. For an expedition of small canoes on big water, we depend on angels to carry us through.
I knew we could handle Fort Peck Lake. It was Lake Sakakawea (178 miles) and Lake Oahe (231 miles) that really concerned me during the planning phase. If our goal were merely to paddle, then we could push forward inch by inch, stabbing at the water with our paddles an estimated 135,000 times to get across Sakakawea and more to overcome Oahe. However, there seemed little to gain from the experience beyond repetitive stress injuries. I mulled over various alternatives, but never came up with a plan beyond hoping for Divine Intervention.
We’ve been helped by many Angels on the journey, notably my mother and sister and aunt and uncle, who helped with our initial dam portages, plus my friends Jeff and Becky Blend who brought the trailer across Montana to help us portage around Fort Peck Dam. There we moved beyond my network of family and friends into the arms of River Angels who graciously help long distance paddlers. The first were Rod and Diane Gorder, who made a six-hour round-trip drive to deliver the canoe trailer to Tobacco Gardens Resort and Marina on Lake Sakakawea.
Another Angel came in the form of Charles Tatch, who drove up from Georgia to join the expedition back at Trenton Lake. He’d read some of my books and followed the expedition with great interest. He asked if there was anything we needed. I couldn’t think of anything at first. He asked again, and I offhandedly asked if he would happen to have a gas or electric outboard motor laying around…
Charles brought both, plus mounting hardware, gas cans, a battery charger and a big solar panel, dried fruit and nuts, fresh Georgia peaches, and more. We left the motors in his truck while paddling down the river and the first twenty grueling miles of Lake Sakakawea to Tobacco Gardens.
There we were greeted by proprietor Peg Hellandsaas who has a soft heart for the bedraggled paddlers who wash up on her beach. Tobacco Gardens is the make-it or break it point for a lot of paddlers, she explained. Slaying the Lakeness Monster back at Fort Peck is totally achievable. It’s the reward of taking on two more beasts back-to-back that overwhelms paddlers, especially if they hit Sakakawea during stormy weather.
Much to our astonishment, Peg provided courtesy cabins, showers, and meals for the crew. More than a River Angel, she is known as River Mom. She catered to our every need or wish while we were there. Her crew drove Charles back upriver to get his truck and the outboard motors.
We clamped the 4-cycle Honda motor to the back of the dugout canoe and did a test run in the bay. It worked! The electric trolling motor went on Scott’s Old Town canoe, which worked, although not nearly as powerful as the gas motor.
Peg drove us up to the Birnt Hills Overlook, where interpretive signs describe how Lewis was shot in the butt by a near-sighted crewman who mistook him for an elk on their 1806 return trip to St. Louis.
In the morning, we signed Peg’s paddler guest book and wrote a note on her paddles. It was fun to read the notes of fellow paddlers who have preceeded us over the years.
To keep the fleet together, we used driftwood and para cord to lash Scott’s canoe to the dugout like an outrigger, then tied Charles’s solo canoe on back for towing, manned by John. Scott named our new ship the “Contraption.” It was mid-afternoon by the time we launched, the worst time of day to be on the water.
We motored into a headwind, the rolling waves funneling up between the two canoes and sloshing over the gunnels. With the motor doing the work, we traded paddles for sponges, attempting to keep up with the incoming waves. Scott and Chris improvised a dam between the canoes with a tarp and heavy dry bags, stopping most of the incoming water. Charles and I discovered we could steer by ruddering with the paddles, rather than constantly micro-adjusting the motor.
We sped along the lake at 1.8 mph, the fastest we could plow into a headwind without swamping the canoes. After an eternally long time at sea, we motored into a protective bay and pitched camp all of three air miles from our launch at Tobacco Gardens. The Contraption proved herself minimally sea-worthy under poor conditions. We could only do better from there, as long as we have Angels to guide us.
Thomas J. Elpel lives in Pony, Montana. He is the author of Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about Tom’s books and the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery.