Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #18

Crossing Lake Sakakawea

With optimal lake conditions, the Contraption could maintain a steady speed of 4.7 mph., here motoring towards the rising sun.

“We […] hoisted both the sails in the White Perogue, consisting of a small squar sail, and spritsail, which carried her at a pretty good gate, untill about 2 in the afternoon when a suddon squall of wind struck us and turned the perogue so much on the side as to allarm Sharbono who was steering at the time, in this state of alarm he threw the perogue with her side to the wind, when the spritsail gibing was as near overseting the perogue as it was possible to have missed.  the wind however abating for an instant I ordered Drewyer to the helm and the sails be taken in, which was instant executed and the perogue being steered before the wind was agin plased in a state of security.   this accedent was very near costing us dearly.”

—Meriwether Lewis, April 13, 1805

Chronicles of the Contraption

Powerful east winds enabled Lewis and Clark to sail up parts of the Missouri River that now lie at the bottom of Lake Sakakawea. Winds we encountered were not as strong, yet still challenging for our little canoe craft. We previously clamped an outboard motor on the tail of the dugout canoe, then lashed Scott’s canoe beside it to make the conglomerate “Contraption,” towing John in a third canoe. 

With optimal lake conditions, the Contraption could maintain a steady 4.7 mph. It was a thrill to watch the scenery blow by at faster-than-walking speed. And with oil wells on shore, there was something oddly appropriate about motoring down the lake burning petrol. 

Although motorized, the Contraption retained the limitations of her component parts, necessitating protective harbors from wind and waves. The lashed poles bounced up and down like the whole thing was going to fly apart at any moment, and big waves threatened to fill the canoes. Taking shelter in a bay during one thundershower, we pitched our tents in the green, flat-bottomed wash, only to have the runoff fan out as a creek under our tents.

Small bay on Lake Sakakawea

We sought refuge from a passing storm in a small bay, here seen after the rain.

Lake conditions were never particularly severe, however, and while we hunkered down for survival,  people with real boats were cruising back and forth on the lake having a party.

Lake Sakakawea is largely vacated on weekdays and incredibly beautiful. The surrounding terrain features badlands characteristics with soft earthy hues composed of more silt than clay, overlain with rich, fertile prairie. Up a coulee by camp we explored a pocket of midwestern forest featuring oak, ash, box elder, aspen, willow, dogwood, wild plum, chokecherry, Virginia creeper, raspberry, and wild grapes. 

Peg Hellandsaas at Tobacco Gardens had sent two big bags of gourmet beef short rib leftovers from her restaurant, providing several top-notch meals. For one dinner I fried ribs with onions, sow thistle greens, and buffaloberries. The Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery has eaten well!

Charles departed at Four Bears, bound for home and work in Georgia. We were sorry to see him go and hope he returns for another section of the river. On the way, he shuttled the canoe trailer from Tobacco Gardens down to the dam. 

Earthlodge interior.

We camped in the earthlodge village at Four Bears, grateful to have dry shelter in yet another rainstorm.

At the Four Bears earthlodge village, we met Darian Morsette, tourism director for the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (Sahnish) Nation, otherwise known as the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation. Darian gave us the grand tour of the earthlodges and cultural center. I showed him pictures of an earthlodge I built for our wilderness survival programs back home. Darian invited us to camp overnight, and we moved into the cozy shelters moments before another storm rolled through.

Placid conditions allowed us to putter thirty-three miles closer to the dam the following day. Exploring a coulee during lunch, I found petrified tree stumps, apparently dawn redwoods (Metasequoia) from the 55 million-year-old Sentinel Butte Formation when the area was a coastal floodplain. 

At camp I harvested giant horse mushrooms (Agaricus arvensis), which we fried for breakfast. I wish we could explore every coulee along the lake, yet we have already noted individual leaves showing red and yellow fall colors. Snowberries are beginning to ripen, reminding us to keep moving as the Missouri has finally begun to swing south. 


In a pasture with horses I found a nice bunch of giant horse mushrooms, which were delicious.

A strong tailwind pushed us forward, but blew so hard that John’s tethered canoe rammed the back of the Contraption and knocked the motor off. We saved it, thanks to Scott’s quick hands and redundant cords wrapped around critical components. We later remounted the motor and puttered into Dakota Waters Resort, welcomed by Amber Kimball who graciously offered a courtesy campsite. 

Seeing John eat out of a tin can, our neighbors unloaded a pile of gourmet barbecue buffalo wings, stuffed green peppers, baby baked potatoes, and roast beef which they they would otherwise “toss in the dumpster.” That was moments before we joined Amber, Thomas, and Christine for an amazing dinner of ribs, fresh corn, and baked potatoes.

Bacon-wrapped stuffed green pepper.

Gifts from neighboring campers. We’ve eaten well on this trip!

Calm waters allowed us to reach Lake Sakakawea State Park the following day where we dismantled the Contraption back to her component canoes. We consumed five gallons of gas in 100 miles of lake travel.

River angel Nate McCleery and his father Mike, owners of the Sakakawea Sunset Lodge, helped us portage us around Garrison Dam. Portaging turned into a detour to their lodge for plush courtesy rooms, hot showers, and gourmet dining in their restaurant. We were floored by everyone’s kindness and generosity.

Mike and friend Bob Willcuts helped us launch in the morning, and since Bob was driving south shortly, he offered to transport the trailer to the next dam and find a suitable place to park it. Paddling downstream, we all agreed that North Dakota is the most hospitable state in the nation!

Thomas J. Elpel is the director of Outdoor Wilderness Living School LLC (OWLS) and the author of multiple books about nature, wilderness survival, and sustainable living. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn about Tom’s work and the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery.

Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe.

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