“Set out at sunrise and proceeded but a short distance ere the wind became so violent that we were obliged to come too, which we did on the Lard. side in a suddon or short bend of the river where we were in a great measure sheltered from the effects of the wind. the wind continued violent all day, the clouds were thick and black, had a slight sprinkle of rain several times during the course of the day.”
—Meriwether Lewis, May 10, 1805
Meriwether Lewis penned his words from the bottom of what is now Fort Peck Lake, an immense, 130-mile-long reservoir in eastern Montana held back by a four-mile-long hydraulically filled earthen dam. The artificial lake fills badland coulees, creating a jagged 1,500-mile perimeter shoreline. The violent winds that sent Lewis and Clark for shelter now blow unfettered across the wide-open surface of the lake, amplifying the hazards. Fort Peck is known for it’s sudden storms, tent-flattening winds, and six-foot waves that imperil motor boats.
I previously met a fellow camper who dragged his canoe fifty feet away from the water, drove in a heavy stake, and lashed the canoe to the ground. “There is a man with experience,” I thought to myself.
He explained that he once got caught in a storm on Peck where he and his partner barely made it back to shore, only to have the wind launch their aluminum canoe so high that it broke in half when it hit the ground.
Until now, our journey has been easy, drifting down the river like driving a scenic byway, occasionally applying the paddle to the water to accelerate through a section of slow current. Like a kid arriving at camp, I’m always excited to run around to explore each temporary new home.
We’ve been blessed with a never-ending bloom of wild roses and shockingly few mosquitoes. But any great adventure cannot be roses all the time. We finally reached the end of the flowing river and the end of the wild roses. We paddled downriver to face the Lakeness Monster.
Compared to the river, paddling a big lake is like driving a fifty-lane highway in a vessel with no engine. Propulsion is achieved by stabbing a stick forward, pulling oneself forward an arm-length at a time. A landmark knob plainly visible ahead is tantalizingly close yet frustratingly far away as we spend hours mindlessly paddling towards the seemingly unreachable goal.
Motor boats are scarce, but occasionally zoom by as if we are standing still, which we basically are. My paddle partner, John, and I are barely speaking to each other, not out of animosity, but because the gentle “sploosh, sploosh” of the paddles is just loud enough to interfere with conversation. If we talk, we stop paddling. If we stop paddling, we stop moving. And if there is a gentle breeze against us, we immediately start drifting backward.
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Fortunately, we received an updated ten-day forecast calling for clear skies and 80ºF daily temperatures, a great reprieve from the succession of storms we’ve weathered.
Our first sunny day turned cloudy and gray with light rain overnight. Our second sunny day was considerably darker, and the evening rain turned into a drencher that lasted halfway through the next day.
When we dried out and proceeded on a day later, we faced a headwind that drained our forward momentum. We abandoned the quest to wait out the wind.
The lake is characteristically calm in the evenings, so we paddled into the night, arriving at camp at 11 p.m. The next day we paddled from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. covering twenty miles in one grueling long day.
If paddling the lake isn’t fun enough, we finally found the mosquitoes, biting flies, and no see ums. The landscape should be parched dry, but is wetter and greener than locals can remember. More than green, the hills glow with yellow sweet clover.
The least buggy place to stand is on the shoreline. Shade is rarely an option, and often too buggy. We are faced with the option of frying in the sun, baking in our tents, being eaten alive by bugs, or paddling until our arms fall off. Of course there is no place I would rather be.
Scott caught a huge walleye, “bigger than the ones I’ve seen mounted,” he emphasized. Having caught and released numerous smaller fish, he called it his “best day fishing ever.”
After a layover at Fourchette Bay, we paddled a fifteen-mile day followed by a tent-flattening storm during dinner and a gorgeous red sunset. Another day, another fifteen miles, this time with a blessed tail wind. Scott caught a 33-inch northern pike. He and Chris landed it with a net half the size of the fish. Dinner came with another tent-flattening storm followed by a stunning double rainbow.
We took a day off at The Pines Recreation Area due to a high wind advisory. The community kitchen included an indoor shelter, electric stove, lights, and badly-needed outlets to recharge our devices. Two more days of wind and waves, bobbing up and down like ships on the sea, and we reached the dam and marina.
Adam finished his trip here. He started his journey before ours, paddling 160 miles down the Beaverhead and Jefferson rivers before intermittently joining us on the Missouri. He completed what many people consider the most scenic portion of the entire river system and had the experience he was looking for. We wished him well, and now there are five of us to continue the adventure.
Thomas J. Elpel is the author of numerous books. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about the Missouri River trip, Tom’s books and games, and the expedition fundraiser for the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.