Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery #21

Lake Oahe fossils.

A fossil baculite, squid, and the imprint of a clam shell, snapshots of a watery world from 135 million years ago.

“Saw great numbers of goats or Antelope on Shore… in the evening I discovered a number of Indians on each Side and goats in the river or Swiming & on Sand bars, when I came near Saw the boys in the water Swiming amongst the goats & Killing them with Sticks, and then hauling them to the Shore    those on Shore Kept them in the water, I saw 58 Killed in this way and on the Shore, the hunter with Cap Lewis Shot 3 goats   I came too and Camped above the Ricara Camp on the L. S.  Several Indians visited us duereing the night Some with meat, Sang and were merry all night.”

—William Clark, October 16, 1804

The Hunted

Pronghorn, a.k.a. American antelope, or “goats” to Lewis and Clark, are the fastest land animals in North America, capable of running at speeds up to 55 mph in short bursts. Before firearms, people hunted with whatever weapons they could improvise with their own hands, aided by skill and a great deal of opportunistic good luck. The Sahnish people, better known as the Arikara—whom Lewis and Clark referred to as the Ricara, Stararee, Rickarree or Rees—herded pronghorn into pens where the animals could be slaughtered, or in the instance above, caught them crossing the river.

Like the pronghorn, we are also vulnerable in the water, our little ship bobbing around in the waves of the lake that drowned the river. We are the hunted, living a game of cat and mouse with the wind, scurrying from one protective cove to another when the wind is momentarily absent. We boldly bolt across the open lake when the wind is asleep.

Cornfield at Lake Oahe.

The grassy prairie hills remain unseasonably green, the flatter portions plowed into corn fields that extend to the water’s edge.

The grassy prairie hills remain unseasonably green, the flatter portions plowed into corn fields that extend to the water’s edge. Corn-fattened deer actively graze in the evening light. I took several shots with my camera, but without a proper zoom, the shots went wide, and the deer escaped unscathed.

We camped on the sandy beach at State Line Resort one night, then lingered half the next day hoping for a break in the wind. Finally we puttered across the border from North to South Dakota, trying to outrun the wind on our tail. We could handle the breeze where the lake was narrow and the waves small, but the open waters of Pollack Bay magnified the swells higher than any we’ve encountered. Yet, these were surprisingly gentle big waves, and our principal challenge was the forward and back lurch of John’s canoe in tow.

John progressively tied his canoe closer and closer to the Contraption to reduce the tail wag effect, yet the wind and waves still sent him lurching into the back of our ship. Scott moved the line to the outside of his canoe to protect the outboard motor, but the swells provided enough lurching momentum to repeatedly snap the 550-lb. rated paracord. After several failed tries, plus a loop back to retrieve a lost paddle, we finally motored ahead to a protective bay to wait while John paddled to catch up.

Fossil baculites littered the lake shore, plus I found a small squid fossil and the imprint of a large clam, all snapshots of an even more watery world from 135 million years ago. We finally got our break when the wind settled down in the evening, and we made a run for our campsite, setting up tents just before darkness. 

Margie Grant and Scott Robinson

Scott’s girlfriend Margie flew out to Mobridge, South Dakota to join us for the weekend.

Another day on the water brought us to Mobridge where we met up with Scott’s girlfriend Margie, who flew in from Colorado for the weekend. With the aid of Margie’s rental car, we toured the Sitting Bull and Sacagawea monuments, the Klein Museum, and the local cuisine. A country drive took us through corn fields, sunflowers, and a few bean fields, all traditional crops previously grown by the Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara tribes. 

Deborah Barnes from the Chamber of Commerce was super helpful to find us a campsite on a busy weekend. She volunteered her husband Dana to wave us onshore. Debs even brought her scissors out to camp and gave John a haircut while Chris and I borrowed her electric shears to trim our beards.

Campsite hair cut.

Debra Scott from the Mobridge Chamber of Commerce was super helpful, even coming out to camp to cut John’s hair!

Our attempt to leave Mobridge was stymied by the cat stalking the lake. We’ve learned to monitor hour-by-hour wind forecasts to seize opportunities as they arise. With late afternoon wind projected to switch from southeast to northwest, we slipped though the gap and covered fifteen miles in four hours, salvaging the day. We camped very near the halfway point of the Missouri River, approximately 1,170 miles upstream to the headwaters at Three Forks, Montana, or downstream to the river’s confluence with the Mississippi at St. Louis.

Moving south, the land becomes softer, the grassy hills rounded and tree cover largely absent. This is more what we imagined the Dakotas would look like, albeit, not so green. A morning start was cut short when the cat blew by, sending us scurrying for a protective bay. With no shade and nowhere to go, we hung out in the sun and wind all day waiting for a break, gaining a few more miles in the evening.

An outboard motor should make the journey easy, but we only gained 3.5 miles the next day, windbound until night. Finally we got a calm day and made a run for it. Ten miles later the propeller stopped turning.

Fixing outboard propeller.

We cut a new pin for the propeller from the handle of my stainless steel Zebra pot.

Paddling to shore, we neophytes disassembled the propeller and noticed the broken pin that connects the propeller to the shaft. We rummaged through our gear for a reasonable substitute. The wire handle on my stainless steel Zebra pot exactly matched the diameter. In less than an hour we completed our redneck repair. We were still congratulating ourselves on our resourcefulness when John pointed out two spare pins conveniently attached to the bottom of the motor. We covered eighteen more miles, arriving at Sutton Bay early enough to enjoy a relaxing evening.

We saw fifteen pronghorn in the prairie hills, making a total of thirty since we left home 1,200 miles ago, paddling through some of the richest wildlife habitat in North America. 

It is believed there were once 40 million pronghorn in the West, plummeting to 20,000 by 1900. Today the population has rebounded to an estimated 85,000 pronghorn, or 2.5% of their original numbers. Reading the journals of Lewis and Clark and the massive herds they encountered, I cannot help feeling that all the animals were somehow vacuumed up, like so many bugs in a rug. 

Strangely, we saw one lone bison by the lakeshore, almost like a ghost animal. Does it belong to a public or private herd? Up to 60 million bison once roamed the continent. Only 325 animals survived the great culling. Today there are an estimated 200,000 bison, or 0.33% of their former numbers.

With one day of good weather, followed by a forecast for wind and rain, we raced for Oahe Dam at 4 miles per hour and covered 40 miles in one long day. We then took a layover day in a sheltered bay to wait out the storm. 

Our final day of Lake Oahe consisted of grey skies, temperatures in the mid-50s, blustery winds, and waves lapping over the sides of the canoes. We finished the lake damp and chilled, immensely grateful for help from Jesse Roebuck of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who took time out of his Sunday to trailer us around Oahe Dam. 

Thomas J. Elpel is the author of numerous books on wilderness survival, nature, and self-reliant living. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about the Missouri River trip, Tom’s books, and the expedition fundraiser for the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

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

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