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In The Missouri Headwaters

Saturday, May 21
, 2005

The prospect of putting back into the same river that beat me so badly last fall has eaten away at me for much of the winter.  Thus it was with a sense of relief that Dan McCool agreed to accompany me for the first few days of the trip on this attempt.  Dan is head of the American West Center and a professor in the political science department at the University of Utah.  Far more important to me, though, is the fact that he loves adventure, loves rivers even more, and seems always to be a good companion—congenitally happy, relaxed, and full of humor.

We set out late in the afternoon, Dan driving his car and me in the Dodge.  When I had gone up to Boysen Marina a couple weeks earlier to survey the fall damage to Kobuk, I took the repaired trailer with me and proceeded during two days of rain and wind to do the small repairs necessary to relaunch Kobuk.  All that remained was to apply some fresh bottom paint and reattach some engine box insulation.

The trip up was uneventful.  We stopped briefly in Farson on the way and I ended up giving a ride to a very portly man whose car had broken down there.  We were going to be passing through Lander, which was this man’s home.  Although I cannot remember his first name, his surname was Knudson and he worked for Nols in Lander.  His physique did not look suited to the task, but during our transit of South Pass he told me of having hiked all three of the long distance mountain treks in North America:  the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Great Divide Trail.  All this by a man whose girth was considerable to say the least.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

After sleeping in our vehicles next to the boat, Dan and I spent the morning bottom painting Kobuk and reinstalling the engine insulation.  By noon, all was ready and we set off for Worland, some 50 miles downstream.  Last fall I had put in a few miles north of Thermopolis—thirty or so miles upstream from Worland—at a time when river flow was thought to be about 450 cubic feet per second.  Now the flow is about twice that and as I catch occasional glimpses of the river from the highway it becomes evident that any attempt to run the river in Kobuk when flow is significantly less than now would be foolhardy.  I am lucky that Kobuk survived the fall fiasco.

Worland is a raw and unappealing town with a pair of bridges crossing over the Bighorn River on the west side of town.  Between the bridges, which are in effect a block apart and represent the old and the new routes across the river, there is a graded road down to an unpaved gradient that extends into the river.  This, we decided, would be the point of departure.  Our negative image of the town was in no way diminished by our interaction with the police department.  When we went there to inquire about where we might leave Kobuk for the night, we were confronted with a security system that had locked doors and (presumably bulletproof) windows between us and the good officers who caretake the town.  We conversed with the police via a wall mounted telephone—rather like the arrangement used for visiting inmates in a prison.  It left me feeling as if the town is besieged and I wouldn’t be surprised if Dan felt the same way.

Before launching, it would be necessary to shuttle Dan’s vehicle downstream so that he would have a way of getting back home on Thursday when he his free time ended.  We wanted to take the boat all the way to the Yellowtail Dam, but that was over 200 road miles away and we were not at all sure that we would not get hung up in the river somewhere.  We decided on a staged approach, and spent the remainder of the day moving Dan’s Honda to Greybull (only about 50 miles down the river) and on the way back getting lost on gravel roads trying to find low-clearance bridges across the river.  By dark, we were back in Worland, reasonably certain that no serious barriers would keep Kobuk from reaching that first destination.

Both Dan and I were quite taken with the charmingly incompetent Randy, a vulnerable, lithe, blonde woman training as front desk clerk in the motel where we stayed for the night.  Her suggestion that she might go to a certain local bar after getting off work at midnight of course stimulated the two of us to seek it out at the appointed hour.  It was closed, however, and so Dan and I spent a little time at a different watering hole before turning in.  The faint disappointment at the unrequited rendezvous was allayed by the realization that we needed no additional complications for our upcoming mission.

Monday, May 23, 2005

By mid-morning, we had Kobuk at the riverbank ready for launch.  The ramp was mud, however, and when I backed the trailer into the water it was only possible to get so far before the trailer wheels were imbedded to their tops in mud (not to their axels; to their tops).  The truck wheels were getting into the mud too, and it was obvious that we either had to get Kobuk off the trailer or get something big to haul the entire rig free.  Fortunately, we did manage to get Kobuk free, but the conditions made it clear to us that my truck would never be able to haul Kobuk out of the water here in Worland.  We were committed.

Whether because of actual conditions or because we were intimidated by the unknown nature of what we were trying to do, we spent all day in a state of intense concentration staying in deep water and avoiding snags.  There were really only two close calls during the day.  On one occasion, we were swept along the side of a sharp boulder that I had not seen and sustained a nasty gouge just below waterline.  On the other, I cut power to avoid picking up bottom moss that would clog the jet intake just as curving current threatened to take us into some overhanging branches, and only managed to power away from danger at the last second.

From the very beginning we had trouble with the engine power.  We could run up to about ten miles per hour (including the rapid river current) without any problem but could not go much faster—even though additional throttle would wind up the engine properly.  It seemed to be nothing more than a clogged intake, but we decided to carry on without clearing it since ten miles per hour was as fast as we wanted to go and neither of us was keen to go swimming in the cold water.

At one of the bridges we scouted out the preceding night, the clearance was somewhat less than I realized and when we passed below it a scraping and scrabbling sound signaled the demise of the antenna tip which somehow got tangled in the bridge substructure.  I don’t even know how to use the radio yet and already I have broken it.

But the bottom line is that the day was a complete success.  We reached Greybull in late afternoon and tied off on some riverbank shrubbery just upstream from the bridge.  I went swimming to clear the intake, which was thoroughly clogged with sticks and stones, and then we made the road trip back to Worland to pick up the truck and trailer.  All evening we drank wine to celebrate our accomplishment.

Worland launch:          44° 00.910’ N  /  107° 58.182’ W
Greybull moor:            44° 29.195’ N  /  108° 02.872’ W

Distance (est.)              55 miles
Total Distance:            55 miles

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Shuttle day.  Since the first day had presented no significant problems, we decided to take the risk of moving Dan’s car and the boat trailer to Ok-a-bey Marina, which is next to the Yellowtail dam.  We left the boat tied up riverside and took all day to drive there and back—a round trip distance of about 380 miles.  The passage there involves crossing the Bighorn Mountains which appear to be a giant, massive upswell whose flanks have only partially and incompletely succumbed to fluvial notching and whose crest seems to be a broad and rolling alpine upland.  The main highway across them uses a spectacular river gorge to gain access to the upland and the descent on the eastern side is a stunning switchback descent to the rolling sea of grassland that comprises so much of Wyoming’s and Montana’s share of the Great Plains.

Just as we reached Fort Smith—the town at the end of the road before the Yellowtail Dam—Dan’s Honda developed a flat tire.  He repaired it with some sort of coagulant that when sprayed into the air valve seals off the leak.  It worked, and a car mechanic in town was not able to find any sort of residual leak, so we carried on.

The marina tuned out to be a notch carved in the cliff walls of the Bighorn Canyon with the launch ramp a dynamited shelf angling down into the water.  It was not a very inviting place to tie off or camp out, and in fact the facilities were not even scheduled to be open until Memorial Day.  We left the car and trailer and headed back to Greybull.

That evening, we set off down the river.  By the time we reached Greybull the previous day, the volume of water flow seemed noticeably greater than it had been in Worland, and now as we proceeded on downstream the volume swelled even more.  It was beginning to look like a large river and whereas the Worland to Greybull stretch had yielded up depth readings of 3-6 feet, we now were beginning to see channel depths consistently greater than that and occasionally even as much as 20 feet.  Most disturbing, however, was the fact that Kobuk still was not running as she should. We could run up to 12-14 miles per hour (current assisted), but once again the engine would not drive her to higher speeds.  It certainly seemed like a problem with a clogged intake but since I had cleared it when we last stopped it began to seem like something else must be wrong.  Just before dark, we stopped for the night and tied off on the lee of an island, out of the reach of the swift current.

This stretch of the Bighorn is delightfully pristine.  Only rarely do we see houses (usually set back some distance from the river) and on occasion there is an irrigated field that extends right up to the river bank, but most of the time we run through a rich riparian zone.  Certainly our campsite has the appearance of an isolated, wilderness location—even though we know there is a rail line very nearby on the west side of the river.

Moorage:             44° 38.396’ N  /  108° 07.607’ W

Distance:             15 miles
Total Distance:    70 miles

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

First thing this morning I took another swim to clear the jet intake.  It did not seem badly clogged so it is a very pleasant surprise when we take off downstream and discover that at last Kobuk has her full compliment of power and speed.  We spend most of the day motoring at 20-30 miles per hour, and when we reach the reservoir around one in the afternoon it becomes apparent that, barring mishap, we could make it to the dam before nightfall.  The reservoir is about 60 miles long and we resolve to do most of that before making camp.

The farther we get into this canyon the more beautiful it becomes.  At first, it has a configuration much like Lake Powell—vertical rock walls dropping directly into the water—but as we get deeper into the gorge, the cliff walls stand high above the lake with steep sided scree slopes tapering from their base to the reservoir.  These are not rock slopes though—they are the angle of scree slopes but with a covering of soil that in turn is covered with surprisingly rich green grass and numerous stands of slightly stunted evergreens scattered in the notches and shady areas.  Also at the tops of the cliffs, the grass and trees occasionally show themselves as the terrain dips down toward the precipice.  It is a magical place, one that most Americans do not even know exists.

The upper end of the reservoir is littered with logs and debris—real hazards to navigation—but the calm conditions and lack of wind make it easy to spot and avoid them.  Occasionally, however, the debris collects in such a way as to present an almost continuous barrier all the way across the lake, and we have to slow down to pick our way through it all.

Some 8-10 miles from the dam we find a bay that will afford protection from the late afternoon winds that often blow up on these Western reservoirs, and this we decide is the ideal place to spend the night.  After tying off, we hike up the deep slope to the base of the cliffs, many hundreds of feet above the lake.  The views are, of course, stunning, as they always are when neither totally in nor totally on top of a spectacular canyon.  I think Dan was ready to carry on to the crest of the cliffs via a steep notch running up between them, but I squelch the potential ascent, partly because I am not accustomed to hiking like Dan is, but also because I don’t like the look of Kobuk’s mooring far below us in the growing wind.  We descend and relocate Kobuk to a more protected spot.  For the third night in a row, we spend the evening sitting around drinking wine and diddling our way through dinner—and not once during this time has either of us been beset by a mosquito or any other biting insect.

Canyon Moorage:         45° 12.340’ N  /  108° 07.523’ W

Distance:                       58 miles
Total Distance:             128 miles

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Even though we start late in the morning, it takes less than an hour for us to reach the marina and the dam, and so by 12:30 we have Kobuk securely tied off at the launch ramp dock with all hatches battened and the cabin locked off.  The trailer sits in a parking lot above some of the cliffs and there seems to be no alternative but to abandon Kobuk for a day.  It seems safe enough; the marina is empty with only one or two maintenance workers doing such things as setting up docks for the season and preparing the administration building.  Still, it is distressing to have to abandon Kobuk like this.

Our trip back to Greybull is quick and easy, and after after arriving we spend a couple hours doing errands and the like.  Then we eat a final meal together and Dan sets out for Salt Lake City.  I start the drive back to Kobuk and on the way over the Bighorn Mountains stop to spend a few minutes looking at Shell Falls.  In the faltering yellow light of evening, the water thunders down and races through a straight walled slot canyon deep enough to emit the cool, dark obscurity of oncoming night.  After crossing the mountains I stop in Sheridan for the night.

Yellowtail Dock:           45° 18.219’ N  /  107° 58.397’ W

Distance:                      15 miles
Total Distance:             143 miles

Friday, May 27, 2005

Now the feeling of lonesomeness sets in.  Dan is gone and somehow I have to get myself to pick up the journey where the two of us left it off.  Simply being alone is not the problem; the problem is pushing myself to step into the unknown with nobody else to urge me on.  I have meager confidence in my ability to properly handle Kobuk whenever all those minor crises inevitably arise.  With another person on board, even someone far less river-wise than Dan, the knowledge of ready assistance would encourage me to take the leap.  I keep thinking that with time I will become sufficiently experienced to handle such things alone but my fear is that in this stage of infancy I will make a serious error that will destroy four years of labor and leave me wondering how IRoute Map 1 could have been so foolish.

I reached Kobuk in the middle of the day and, after having gotten her onto the trailer, began asking around Fort Smith to find out about water conditions and control structures downstream from the dam.  In a pattern that is to recur in ensuing days, I get different stories from different experts—not just opposing stories at two ends of the feasibility spectrum but stories each so distinct and out of kilter as to be incomparable with all others.  I hear that the remaining 60 miles of the Bighorn contain zero, one, two, three, or four control structures.  I hear that one control structure has a six foot waterfall on its downstream side and then from someone else who claims to have run the entire river I hear that the control structures (three in this case) all are in parts of the river where the channel is braided and that by using a different channel from the one that the structure occupies it is possible to bypass it completely.  Some people tell me that the flow in the river (about 1500 cubic feet per second) is inadequate for my boat whereas others claim that the main channel always has a few feet of water in it.

In the end, I do not know what to believe and find it hard to do anything but pay attention to the worst case scenario.  In the waning hours of the day, I drive down along the river checking out the known launch sites and looking at the clearance of bridges.  I see nothing that looks impassable, but neither do I get to see any of the control structures (which often are located on some isolated stretch of the river where a rancher has thrown something across the channel in order to divert river water onto his fields).

I finally reach the town of Hardin, about half the distance to the junction of the Bighorn with the Yellowstone, and end up having dinner there.  One thing leads to another and before I know it I am in the Merry Mixer, a local bar where a mustachioed rail of a man looking at retirement age is on stage singing old favorites to a collection of locals—almost all of whom, on this occasion, are females.  None are much to look at, but one is a breathtaking exception—an Indian woman with Asiatic eyes, constantly expressive lips, and straight black hair put up in a pony tail on the top of her head rather like the style of Jeannie the charming witch in that old television show.  She smiles at me all evening, and I at her—and eventually we end up talking and dancing and generally getting along.  Her name is Maria and for the last twelve years she has worked as a bartender in a different local establishment.  She is Crow, has been married twice, and lives with her sister while raising her three children.  She appears to hate all men, even as her whole manner and style attract them in droves.  In the end, we arrange to go boating together on Sunday.  We will put in somewhere upstream from Hardin in the middle of the day and take out a little below town a few hours later.  I really should know better than to get involved with a woman like this, but beer and bad judgment get the better of me as usual.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

In the early hours of the morning I left the bar and drove to a put-in located a few miles north of town.  There I slept in the back of the truck.  When I awoke in the morning I had a terrible headache and sporadic waves of nausea.  I stayed there all day trying to sleep off what must have been a hangover, but since I was unable to get up until after 5:00 PM I began to wonder if there was not something else involved as well (food poisoning, perhaps?).  In any event, I eventually recovered sufficiently to drive to town and that evening I took a room at the American Inn where I slept soundly and awoke refreshed.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Maria was a no-show for our boating date so eventually I fitted out, bought groceries, and drove south towards an upstream launch ramp where I knew it would be easy to maneuver Kobuk into the water.  On the way, I searched for the first of the control structures—something called Two Leggins Dam—and found it located right next to a spread called Two Leggins Outfitters.  I talked extensively with Dave _____ who is its proprietor and he took a gratifying interest in my boating venture.  He admired Kobuk and said he wished he could go with me.  He claimed to be very familiar with the entire river and advised me that I would not be able to get past the three diversion structures between here and the Yellowstone.  When we walked out to look at the Two Leggins structure, I could see what he meant: there was a skim of about a foot of water sliding viciously over a concrete slab and plunging harshly a foot or two on the downstream side.  The standing wave and subsequent rapid downstream were not so grand that Kobuk would falter, but there was no guarantee that she wouldn’t ground viciously on that concrete.  Dave told me that one of the two diversions farther downstream was much nastier with rough boulders and rebar protruding, and he encouraged me to drive down to the Yellowstone before jputting in.  He knew of a few similar structures downstream on the Yellowstone, but except for one many miles away below Glendive, he thought that the high water in the Yellowstone would flood right over them all and float me past without my even being aware of their existence.  I decided to take his advice.

Right where the Bighorn joins the Yellowstone there is a launch ramp called Manuel Lisa.  I found it without any problem, but as I began to prepare for launch an older man came in with his boat and occupied the ramp area.  When I talked with him, he said that in the first thirty miles of the Yellowstone there were three more river barriers and that, contrary to Dave’s speculation, they would be a problem for navigation.  One of them, he said, had recently been rebuilt (which probably involved making it larger) and he claimed to have worked on that construction project.  He thought the last barrier for while would be at Forsyth, another thirty miles down the river.  I reluctantly concluded that Forsyth should be my place of departure and drove there that evening.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Last night I went to see Star Wars III in the local theatre, but in spite of its inspirational boldness I could not muster the courage today to put Kobuk in the water.  The launch ramp is no more than ten paces downstream from the Forsyth control structure and the sight of all that water roiling itself over the obstruction was enough to give me pause once again.  I always knew I was timid, but this is ridiculous.  Insofar as it promotes caution I suppose I cannot fault it, but when it keeps me from acting at all it is a deadly weight.

In the morning I found ways to avoid starting out by doing all the grading and correspondence outstanding with the Internet courses.  Then I wrote to Luce and spent some time preparing Kobuk.  In the afternoon, I started down to the boat ramp but ended up talking with a man who was just returning home with his boat.  He confirmed that at least for the first thirty miles I would not find any obstructions, but he encouraged me to bypass the Yellowstone altogether and go up to the Missouri instead.  He also suggested that I call Montana Fish and Game in Miles City first thing tomorrow morning because he thought they spend a lot of time on the river and would be able to fill me in on the exact nature of control structures.  He thought there might be one near Miles City but wasn’t sure.  I ended up parked down at the launch ramp.  I will try to get all my correspondence caught up and do a few small things on the boat.  Then in the morning I will call Fish and Game before setting out.  As Yoda would say, “Such a wimp, he is.”

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Last evening as I was sitting in Kobuk parked beside the river, a middle-aged man with the face of a waterbug and the build of a barrel came bicycling down the graded road on his pink girl’s bicycle, carrying a long walking stick across the handlebars, holding a leash attached to two black Lab/Doberman dogs, and wearing a beret.  He stopped to talk, of course, and in the ensuing elaboration on his propensity to end up in jail every time he started drinking, Duke Sulzer adopted Kobuk and me and decided that it was his temporary role in life to help us out in any way he could think of.  He went home and brought me back a floater’s guide map to the Yellowstone (covering, unfortunately, only that part of the river upstream from Forsyth) and pinned me down to a launch time this morning so that he could be here to help.

He didn’t mind in the least that I ended up being elsewhere at the appointed time; he just drove around in his vehicle until he found me.  I had by then called around to various departments of the Montana government, eventually talking with a man named Larry Dolan in the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.  He did some searching for me and called back to confirm that there would be no more control structures until the notorious Intake, 16-18 miles downstream from Glendive.  This was the reassurance I needed to take the plunge, so to speak, and so Duke and I went to the local NAPA store to stock up on engine oil.  I also found there some fiberglass patching compound similar to that which Gary and Troy Hackett had put me onto, and used it outside their store to patch a nasty gash along the port side just below the waterline, probably put there that first day out of Worland when we sideswiped a big boulder.

Duke helped me launch, helped me deliver my vehicle and trailer to the police department, and helped me depart.  I was grateful to not face all this alone.  I don’t know why, for sure; I just was.

In a little over four hours, Kobuk covered the 55 river miles to Miles City.  There were no close calls (that I saw), no unfortunate tangles with overhanging branches or nasty bumps on bottom boulders—just smooth motoring.  Most of the time Kobuk went along at 10-12 miles per hour, although as my confidence increased I would, whenever conditions looked good and the depth finder confirmed the assessment, take her up to 25 miles per hour.  This was sporadic and rarely lasted more than a few minutes, however.

Within a mile or so of both Miles City, I saw one other boat on the river and one moored next to shore.  Otherwise the river was all mine all day.  It is a broad river at this point, typically wider than a football field is long, but treacherous nonetheless.  The current moves along at 4-5 miles per hour in this spring flood and frequently the depth finder would register just a foot or two under the hull.

When I arrived in Miles City, it was an easy matter to tie up next to the town boat ramp.  I looked back on the day with a sense of enormous relief.  After a week of trying last fall and ten days of progress this spring, this is the first time that I have been alone and everything has gone as planned.  It gave me the confidence that I can create a string of similar days.

In the evening I had to fill up with gas so I walked to the nearest gas station with my two plastic jerry cans, a trek of about a mile and a half.  No sooner had I pumped my gas and walked to the kerb to stick out my thumb than a young woman in a pickup truck stopped to give me a ride.  I still needed one more jerry can of gas so I started the trek back into town, multitasking by making phone calls on the way,  No sooner had I gotten under way tahn a couple in a pickup (is there any other kind of vehicle in Montana?) stopped to offer me a ride, but I declined since the jerry can was empty and I was enjoying the walk.  So sure was I of getting a ride back that when some time later I stepped to the kerb with the filled jerry can and a pickup stopped in front of me I began to put it into the back.  The driver got out and told me he had only stopped to pick up his mail in the post office located right here.  I apologized sheepishly and proceeded down the road thinking that the 40 pound load was my punishment for such presumptuousness.  Only a few minutes later, however, the same man and his wife picked me up and drove me to Kobuk, hanging around for a while to inspect her.  And believe me, she deserves it; she’s a beautiful boat.

Next time I go hitchhiking I will seriously consider taking a jerry can with me.  As a matter of fact, what about subtly cutting and hinging the top of one so that the cut doesn’t show and it is possible to fill it with a few clothes and personal effects?  Do you think it would be possible to patent a “hitchhiker’s suitcase”?

Forsyth launch:            46° 16.485’ N  /  106° 40.645’ W
Miles City ramp:          46° 25.291’ N  /  105° 51.389’ W

Distance:                      55 miles
Total Distance:            198 miles

Wednesday, June 1, 2005

So here I am early in the morning (by my degraded standards) cleaning up and preparing for departure when a mild mannered, unassuming fellow named Steve Allison shows up.  He is a photographer with the Miles City Star and he evidently wants to put something in the paper about my voyage.  Word travels fast in a small town.  It is the most curious event, actually, because Steve appears to be wanting to do an interview but really can’t bring himself to ask questions.  I find myself playing both roles—interviewer and interviewee.  I pose the questions and then answer them.  Steve seems to be grateful for my lead and takes copious notes.  I can’t decide whether he is hopeless as an interviewer or in fact a master of the art.  He takes photos with Kobuk looking in disarray and me looking as if I just got up from sleeping in a dirt burrow and then slathered bear grease on my hair.

Shortly after casting off for Glendive, I decided it was about time to do laundry.  I put some dirty clothes in a nylon net bag, tied it to a length of polypropylene rope, fastened the other end of the short line to a cleat, and cast the bag overboard.  I figured about a half hour running at close to ten miles per hour ought to wash out the dirt and the smell.  Sure enough, when I hauled the bag in the clothes were reasonably clear of their offending odors and various stains.  However, the river is so muddy that each item of clothing came out with huge blotches of brown randomly spread about.  I view the mud as reasonably clean stuff, however (after all, it has been washed steadily by river water), so for my purposes the clothes are clean.  Maybe when I get to a lake where the water is clear this routine will give more of an all-American cleaning, but for now I will have to go with the mud look.  When I put on this particular pair of jeans and blue denim shirt, I think I look like a real river rat. 

Two or three people have mentioned to me an obstruction called Buffalo Rapids some distance downstream and one man was kind enough to give me an estimate of where I might encounter them.  Everyone thinks they will be covered over by this high water but they all exude respect and wariness for the nasty rocks that ordinarily protrude above the surface there, forming a hazardous chain all across the river.  One man has advised me to stay left where the rocks are not as large; Another has told me to be sure to keep to the right.

A couple hours after departure, I am all eyes as I pass through the zone in which the rapids are supposed to reside.  For the longest time, I see nothing that looks threatening, but then in front of me appears a line of small rapids only about ten feet across and extending most of the way across the river, angled downstream as you move off to starboard.  It is hard to tell whether they are rapids or merely surface water disturbance since ruffled water of this sort often appears with nothing underneath.  I try to play it safe, though, by running alongside the ruffled water, keeping the line about 5-10 feet of the port side.  Suddenly, there is a harsh bash on the port side and Kobuk is knocked sideways in a way that makes my stomach do cartwheels.  The impact redirected the boat straight through the line of rough water but no more impacts occurred and the entire affair was over in seconds.  I rushed back and pulled out the bicycle case since its removal allows for a clear view of the bottom planking on the port side.  There is no sign of water seeping in anywhere and after about a half dozen checks over the next half hour I finally begin to believe that no serious damage has been done.

The rest of the run to Glendive was uneventful and serene.  There are simply no boats on this river, except within a mile or two of a town where an occasional fisherman or joyrider is out.  Even near towns, the river is only slightly used.

After tying off next to the launch ramp just downstream from the bridge in Glendive, I walked to town.  One big concern was on my mind: how to get Kobuk around the control structure located at Intake, about 20 downstream.  In a bar on Main Street I ended up talking with a fellow named Rocky Shoopman.  Neither he nor his friend Jim Thielman knew who might be able to pull my boat on a trailer and take her around the dam, but they said there was a way around the dam—a slew that bypasses the dam and carries sufficient water for boats when the river is running high.  Right at sunset, they drove me down on back roads to look at it.  I could only see one stretch of it in the fading twilight, but right there it looked passable and I decided to try it in the morning.

Glendive ramp:            47° 06.638’ N  /  104° 43.000’ W

Distance:                      91 miles
Total Distance:            289 miles

Thursday, June 2, 2005

As I was finishing breakfast, a fellow named Sam showed up to look at Kobuk and find out what was going on.  He lived in a house that was near the river and he had seen me tie off the night before.  When he realized that I was walking up to a station for gas, he volunteered to help by taking me in his pickup and a job that would have lasted a couple hours ended up being quick and easy.

As we were returning to Kobuk after filling the jerry cans, a man with his wife and son was driving out of the launch area pulling a jet boat on a trailer.  Sam stopped to talk with him and it became evident that the man was very familiar with the river.  His name was Jamie Christiansen and when I asked him about the slew he said that since the level of the river had dropped some during the past week it was no longer passable.  In the end, he offered to haul Kobuk around the dam for me using his father’s trailer (which was bigger than the one he was using for his own boat).  I took him up on his offer and by shortly after noon I was relaunched just below the control structure.  The water coming over that thing was a torrent of rapids on rocks—rocks probably so far beneath the surface that Kobuk might have slid down the steep face of water without touching anything.  It was not the sort of adventure I was prepared to try, however, and so Jamie made my day.  Not only that, when we were taking Kobuk out of the river he showed me how to drive a jet boat onto a trailer in a strong cross current—not an easy thing to do.

All afternoon I motored along, following my usual operating procedure: whenever the depth finder would read more than ten feet of water below the hull I would take Kobuk up onto a plane and charge along at 25-30 miles per hour but whenever depth dropped below five feet I would throttle back and cruise more or less at hull speed (6-7 miles per hour on flat water but more like 9-10 miles per hour with the assist of the current).

The town of Sidney sits a couple miles away from the river.  I decided to tie up for the night next to the bridge for the highway running into town from the east.  There was a public picnic area there and as I ran Kobuk toward the riverbank a fellow on shore stepped out of his pickup and took my line.  Kelvin Buxbaum, his name was, and he offered me a better place to tie off—a small, protected creek issuing into the river on the other side of the river.  When I arrived over there, it was an idyllic place to spend the night—a quiet alcove watched over by cottonwood trees and completely out of the current of the river.

Kelvin, it turns out, is a sugar beet farmer who works some 700 acres.  He does this with the help of one full-time farm hand and a crew of about a half dozen migrant Mexican workers during the harvesting season.  His family has been farming here for generations, of course, and he lives in a quasi-suburban zone next to town where all his neighbors are brothers or parents or cousins or relatives of one sort or another.  Short and ample in build, with a ruddy complexion and a round face that seems to hide nothing, Kelvin looks as if he was born into his calling in life.  He is an easy man to like.

Kelvin’s Creek:            47° 40.457’ N  /  104° 09.588’ W

Distance:                      42 miles
Total Distance:             331 miles

Friday, June 3, 2005

Kelvin appeared early in the morning and after shuttling me to town for gas, he picked up his son and daughter to come with me for a boat ride.  Jason is about 12 and Lexie must be 16.  She brought a friend named Fiona, and so we set out with five of us aboard, heading upriver.  It was my first experience running up against the current, actually, and it was gratifying to see that Kobuk could get on a plane and move out, even with this heavy load and an adverse current.

On the way back downstream, Jason was interested in driving although neither of the girls were.  I gave him the wheel (and a little advice, which he proceeded to heed much as a deaf person might).  At first he was a serious and intense driver with a look on his face more suited to an adult than a child.  Eventually, however, I took the wheel from him momentarily and spun the boat around at full speed.  This thrilled the girls and delighted Jason.  Thereafter, he no longer was interested in running a straight course and we made our way back to Kelvin’s Creek weaving back and forth like a drunken sailer.

After letting off the Buxbaum crowd, I waved goodbye and set off downstream.  At last the Yellowstone seems to be done with hazards for now the water stays deep most of the time and the great width of the river makes riverbank snags less threatening.  I do the rest of the river with hardly a care, arriving at the confluence with the Missouri by early in the afternoon.  On the far shore, across the Missouri, there appears a slew with slack water snaking up through tall grasses.  I slip in there to tie off and find a spot where I can actually step ashore.  This location is so close to the only tree in the neighborhood that I can tie off on it and rest secure that Kobuk will not pull free.

This site is public land so I do not have to worry about an irate landowner.  Just downstream from me is a boat ramp while immediately upstream is a picnic area and a recently constructed visitors’ center that exhibits historical materials relevant to Lewis and Clark (who, incidentally, camped on the other bank, immediately downstream from the confluence of the two rivers).  The visitors’ center is architecturally satisfying—a large, circular building of stone blocks with an earth berm all around that tapers up halfway to the eaves of the conical roof, except on the front where an observation patio looks out over the confluence of the river from a modest height.

The staff here are dedicated to making visitors feel welcome.  They are almost as solicitous and helpful as librarians—but younger and rather prettier, on average.  The are quite young, in fact, and appear to have worked hard to master their history of the great exploratory journey of Jefferson’s dynamic duo.  It seems, incidentally, as if everyone in this neck of the woods is an amateur historian with an unusually well-informed sense of where Lewis and Clark did what, how the whole Custer deal went down, when riverboats first made it up to the heads of navigation, etc., etc.  I have traveled a fair amount in the United States, but this is the first area I have been in where your ordinary working stiff treats history as a passion.  I suspect that most people are looking for adventure, and so the tales of Lewis, Clark, and Custer touch them.  Who cares that Washington was so honest and that Monroe formulated a doctrine—it’s the adventurers who grab the imagination.  Still, plenty of adventurous individuals did remarkable things in other parts of the country (Powell, for example, on the Colorado, and Jeb Smith in the Intermountain West, and Daniel Boone in the south-central regions), so why haven’t people in those areas developed a similarly obsessive attitude about their local history?

Late in the afternoon I walked up the road a mile to Fort Buford, a nearby historical site where the U. S. Army had its major Missouri River outpost in the late 1800’s and where Sitting Bull finally surrendered.  Once again, the staff were exemplary.  I went to bed that night feeling as if American universities should recruit their history majors by sending talent scouts to the upper Missouri River basin.

The Confluence:            47° 59.144’ N  /  103° 59.046 W

Distance:                       32 miles
Total Distance:              363 miles

Saturday, June 4, 2005

With an earlier start than usual, I breezed on down to where the Missouri crosses under the bridge to Williston, North Dakota.  I tied off just downstream, where there was a public boat ramp and picnic area, and hitchhiked to town for gas.  The nearest station was about eight miles away, at the approach to Williston, but I was able to make two trips there and back in just a little over an hour.  In spite of all one hears about how it is no longer safe to either be, or pick up, a hitchhiker, the message does not appear to have reached this part of the country.  The men who picked me up, incidentally, were cut from a rough and hardy mold.  There is something of an oil boom in this region and the territory is crawling with hard-working, hard-drinking fortune seekers.

Lake Sakakawea is only a few miles away, and I am looking forward to reaching it because it should mean that piloting there will be less demanding than on the rivers.  Besides, I have boating experience on lakes but am still a novice on rivers.  Anyway, as I head down into an area that ordinarily would be part of the lake but that is presently due to the low lake level is a broad and low-lying flatland with weeds and grass growing to head height with a river channel running through.  Motoring through this scenery, I see ahead what appear to be two birds paddling across the river, but as I get closer to them they do not seem to be as quick to flee as I would expect and so I examine them a little more carefully.  They are not birds—they are deer, swimming the river.  They swim quickly, but not fast enough to avoid my coming up to them and so of course they are nearly bursting with adrenaline.  In short order, they reach the other side and slice off out of sight into the tall grasses.

Entry into the lake proves to be one of the most tense and demanding tasks of the trip so far.  As the river current slows, the sediment in the water precipitates out and settles to the bottom.  This creates a zone of broad shallows where the lake looks to be perhaps a mile across and yet the water is so thin that Kobuk is in constant danger of bottoming out and hanging up on a sand bar.  Rocks are few so there is little risk to the hull, but it is virtually impossible to stay in the river channel (if it still exists) and with only a couple feet of water under the hull most of the time, the only sensible procedure is to throttle back to a very slow speed and advance gingerly.

Eventually, I reach an area where the water in front of me, all the way across the lake, is pierced by the remnants of dead trees.  It is an entire forest and all that is left is stumps and branches sticking up out of the water only a couple feet and often only a couple inches.  It is a maze.  I search for a passage through, presuming that there must have been a river channel somewhere that wound its way through this depressing sight, but I cannot see a break in the barrier anywhere.  The line formed by the edge of this deadly forest, however, seems quite clearly defined and it arcs off down the lake to port.  I calculate that this arc must have been a bend in the river course and that if I follow it, staying fairly close to the trees, it will eventually take me to the far port side of the lake where perhaps the channel snakes past the trees close to the river bank.  The only problem is that the water seems to be moving perpendicularly to that arc, sweeping straight through the forest and generally heading for the starboard side.  But I can see no break in the trees over there on that starboard side. 

As I contemplate the situation, easing Kobuk along the tree line, I run aground.  Since this has already happened a couple times, there is an automatic routine that I follow for getting free, and it involves wading around the boat at greater and greater distance to try to find where the water gets deeper.  When I step over the side of Kobuk, however, I discover that there is no firm ground under me.  I sink as if stepping into deep water, although it quickly registers that I am in muck, not water.  Since I was holding onto the gunwale as I stepped over, I was able to keep my grip on the boat and arrest my descent at about chest height, and then haul myself back aboard, black from the hips down with oozing mud.  My little swim made a mess of me and the boat, and since it is hard for me to focus on a problem in a messy environment, I spent the better part of an hour cleaning up.

So now, here’s the problem.  Kobuk is stuck in muck that is less than a foot below the surface.  When I probe down into it with a pole, it goes into the stuff six feet with ease (then I have to clean the pole).   The water is flowing fairly rapidly towards the trees, which look as if they might enjoy feasting on a boat hull.  The wind is not strong, but steady and more than just light, blowing in the same direction as the flowing water.  When I try the jet drive, it churns out this horrible black ooze--and revving up the engine only churns it out faster—but Kobuk doesn’t budge.  When I run the auxiliary, it purrs merrily but fails to move the boat.  This quandary deserves a stiff drink, so I sit and think about things with a glass of wine at my side.  It is a beautiful, sunny day, and warm to boot—the best I have had since putting onto the water in Forsyth.  The scenery is exquisite, as long as one does not look at the trees.  It is time to make some phone calls.

One of my calls is to the Williams County sheriff’s office to let them know of my situation.  I only want them to be aware of my existence and I stress on the phone that I am not immediately looking for rescue—I have plenty aboard to last me a few days—but of course rescue it the stuff of wet dreams for sheriff’s offices and they are set on coming out to help me.  Besides, the staff there have just acquired a new swamp boat, one of those low freeboard aluminum scows with an airplane engine and a propeller mounted in a wire cage near the stern.

Shortly after sunset a speck appears in the distance and rapidly looms with bug eye headlights piercing the dusk.  This bizarre machine carries a crew of three and sounds, indeed, like an airplane.  All three men are dressed in what look like jumpsuits and wear sound mufflers over their ears.

It turns out that there is no fitting or arrangement that would allow for a rope to be attached to the stern of the swamp boat, so our first try is to tie off side by side and see if the lateral torque will be too great for the swamp boat to haul Kobuk free.  This approach does not work because the steering ailerons fitted vertically behind the propeller cage cannot deflect the flow of wind sufficiently to keep us from going in circles.

The next try is to tie a line onto the bow of the swamp boat, run it under the flat-bottomed hull and tow Kobuk by her forward eyebolt.  The men in the swampboat feed out 500 feet (!) of new polypropylene line as they head off to windward in preparation for pulling me clear.  The man controlling the line, however, fails to keep it taught and a couple hundred feet of excess line end up lying on the surface of the water, drifting rapidly downwind.  In no time at all, this excess line is snarled in the dead trees to the leeward of me.  I motion frantically for them to stop, but they cannot see me well in the enveloping darkness and they certainly cannot hear my shouts.  Once the line is taught, they throttle forward and manage to haul me directly into the dead forest before realizing the nature of the situation.

By the time they have maneuvered their swamp boat back to me, the darkness is almost complete and they reluctantly conclude that they will have to return the following morning.  The rope has by now lassoed a number of trees and Kobuk looks as if she is caught in the web of a demented spider.  They leave the rope with me and head back home.  I spend the next hour peering into the darkness trying to find ways to retrieve the rope.

Against all odds, the line somehow works free from one tree after another and not long before midnight I have it stowed away and am sitting under the illumination of the cabin light reading Steven Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage” as a distraction from the problems at hand.  When I look up, I discover that the light has attracted a midget army of what appear to be mosquitoes.  So far in the trip, I have not been bitten at all by mosquitoes, but this grand collection of frantic seekers leads me to think that this will be the night.  I install the curtains all around, but this is a little late, don’t you think?  After killing as many mosquitoes as possible, smearing literally hundreds of them on the cabin top and the canvas awning, I resign myself to the fact that at least half the army remains in fighting condition.  I spray bug spray most everywhere, but this seems to bother me more than it does them.  At this point I give up, douse all lights, and crawl into my sleeping bag.  I was bothered not in the least by bugs in the boat and managed to sleep reasonably considering the cloud of uncertainty under which Kobuk and I would have to meet the new day.

Sakakawea muck:        48° 08.284’ N  /  103° 04.162’ W

Distance:                      67 miles
Total Distance:            430 miles

Sunday, June 5, 2005

At first light I am up to consider our plight.  In the process of untangling the rope from the trees last night, it seemed as if Kobuk was rocking a little.  Maybe she’s not stuck in the mud any more; maybe she is just being cradled in a mesh of branches.  If this is so, I cannot plan on motoring free because when I last tried to power out of the muck late in the evening the gunk down below must have clogged the jet drive.  The engine reached the point where it would no longer start, and the best explanation for this cranky behavior is that the direct connection between the drive shaft and the jet keeps the engine from turning over fast enough to start whenever the jet is clogged.  I sure hope that this is the problem since I probably can clear the jet but at this stage know way too little to ever hope to troubleshoot the engine.

I am only a short distance in from the upwind edge of this drowned forest which extends downwind a few hundred yards.  Beyond it, a narrow strip of open water separates the forest from the lake.  Just as last night, a robust current is flowing coincident with the wind, so if Kobuk were to come free she would drift down through this warren of tree corpses.

Before going to sleep, I had planned in the morning to break out the inflatable canoe and use it to tie off Kobuk to a tree downwind.  Then by hauling in the rope I might hope to pull Kobuk over the mucky bottom.  This procedure repeated multiple times might at least get us to the downwind edge of the trees, although getting free from there still posed a problem.

Route Map 2I was leary about getting into the canoe, because to be trapped by bottom mud in the canoe would be far less comfortable that being stranded on board Kobuk with its food and water and general living space, but I comforted myself with the fact that if such trouble developed I would most likely be able to haul myself back using the rope between us—a likelihood but not a certainty.

Now, however, with the growing feeling that perhaps the water was slightly deeper here in the trees, I decided to try just pushing Kobuk free from the branches pinning it at the  stern—which was facing downwind—and along the starboard side.  The water did not measure any deeper than it had before, but Kobuk definitely seemed more willing to rock from side to side.

It proved to be a simple matter to break Kobuk clear using the extendable boathook, and then with the paddle to lay on the bow and spin the hull around so as to float bow first.  And Kobuk is free!  As she accelerates downwind, I lay there deflecting the bow away from each tree as it comes along.  The whole system works as slick as snot and almost before I am ready for the trauma to be over we are clear of the forest. Shaking slightly because finally something is happening, I leap to the helm and fire up the engine—which starts instantly.  Some gifts we receive no questions asked..

I feel as light as air, but now is no time to lose focus.for similar groves of trees are constantly in sight and the depth finder never reads more than 2.2 feet.  Things continue like this for the next few hours.  The depth finder has to be checked every second or two and the speed of the hull hast to be kept down to just a few miles per hour.  There is constant searching for the elusive or nonexistent channel.  At each stand of trees a decision must be made about how to circumvent them and now that the consequences of an incorrect decision are clear it all seems much more weighty.

Eventually, the depth finder begins to register slightly greater depths—although still obscenely shallow—and the new challenge becomes that of deciding when it is safe to go slightly faster.  The entire morning is spent inching towards freedom.  When at last the water is deep enough to permit free running, the remaining concern is the barely submerged husk of a tree.  The trees do seem to cluster in groves for the most part, although occasionally there will be one standing in isolation, and so with time I gradually convince myself that it is sufficiently safe to motor at speed whenever there is a broad reach of open water.

Finally, I make it to New Town, which is about half way down the reservoir, and stop for gas just past the elegant new bridge being constructed across the lake.  As I shuttle jerry cans of gas between the water’s edge and the nearby convenience store, I surprise a Bull snake about five feet long and as thick as a tugboat towing cable.  He looks as if he wants to fight, but I back down and take an alternate route.

Now in the mid-afternoon, I set off down the lake with a strong following wind and good sized following waves.  For the first time since the start of the trip it is possible to run at high speed for an extended time, and Kobuk is enthusiastic about the work.  Like a seasoned hiker loping down a hillside, she leaps and bounds over the waves with a lightness that she might not have realized she had..  Every once in a while, she will mount a larger wave and then bury her bow in the next one forward, with spray exploding, but most of the ime she dances on the surface like an early-round boxer with only a momentary hesitation as she pushes into the back of a building wave.

For a couple hours we run like this before reaching an inlet on the north side of the lake where the Indian Hills Marina is located.  I motor in there, but water levels are so low that the whole scene is unappealing, and since there is no need of more gas we slide up a different inlet nearby and settle in for the night.  Less than forty miles remain before reaching Garrison Dam where I plan to leave Kobuk for a couple weeks before continuing onward.  Forty miles of open water doesn’t sound like much so I spend the evening gazing at the golden bluffs and sipping wine.

Good Bear Bay:           47° 35.869’ N  /  102° 04.996 W

Distance:                      83 miles
Total Distance:             513 miles

Monday, June 6, 2005

Anticipating a “final” destination of sorts, I get off to an early start and motor out into the main channel where the lake is a couple miles across.  From here to the dam is a more or less unobstructed run due east, but contrary to all reason the wind is now blowing out of the east and the waves are building to considerable size.  After only a few minutes of running into this, the engine begins to falter, almost certainly a sign that the aft fuel tank is running dry.  After idling the engine I reach down below the floorboards in the passageway and turn the valves that switch the fuel source from the aft to the foreward tank.  In the process, the engine dies, and I cannot get it to restart.  It is time to try out the auxiliary, a ten horse Yamaha outboard capable of pushing the hull at about six miles per hour in still water, but only able to manage about 4.5 miles per hour into these waves and this headwind.  All of a sudden the forty remaining miles seems a lot longer than they did before.

In spite of its slow pace, the little Yamaha runs like a trooper.  In the trite words of advertising copy, “It takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’.”  We stay close to the north shore where there is some hope that the waves will be a little less large and motor gradually by muted and benign badland bluffs that appear as numerous outcroppings in a swale of green.  Spring rains have turned North Dakota to an Irish green, and the creams and yellows and ochres of the badlands look like engraved cameos in this otherwise luscious land.

The size of waves depends on the strength of the wind and how long it blows.  The wind velocity does not change, but as the hours pass the waves begin to increase in size until eventually Kobuk is puttering along like a hobby horse at a pace that is now down to about four miles per hour.  Finally, it is sensible to cross over to the south side of the lake, and the passage across the middle of the lake brings on even rougher water.  I am pleased that our progress continues as well as it does, but at this pace many hours must pass before Kobuk can tie off near the dam.

A few hours into the trip, the main engine finally decides to cooperate, and so the remainder of the journey is done using it.  Waves are big enough that Kobuk cannot dive into them much faster than about seven miles per hour without causing occasional pounding and banging that shake the timbers and rattle the cupboard, so progress is much faster but still not quick.

Here at this end of the lake, the entire Missouri River Valley is more or less flooded, and so now the surrounding land often looks like a vast expanse of flat or undulating ranchland.  Where there are bluffs, the low lake level of recent years has terribly weakened the flanks and in places one can see chunks of hillside that have broken away and slipped down partway into the water—chunks as large as a skyscraper lying on its side.  The Corp of Engineers has rigorous and expensive restrictions of an environmentalist sort that control how people are to manage there intrusions on the banks of the lake, but in fact the very creation of the lake has done more violence to the landscape than all 700,000 North Dakotans might do in a lifetime.
Captain Kit's Marina
At last the end of the lake comes into view and a phone call to shoreside locates the bay in which Captain Kit’s marina is located.  For the first time since the trip began, Kobuk is tied to a dock with fenders over board and a ready walkway to such amenities as a bathroom, a shower, a store.  Fay and Kit, who lease the site from Lake Sakakawea State Park and own the marina, fix me up and agree to board Kobuk for the next two weeks while I make a trip back to Salt Lake City.

In the early evening I assemble the Bike Friday and go for a ride.  After pedalling across the two-mile wide Garrison Dam to Riverdale, a lovely, picturesque town bereft of all life, I return to my side of the dam where the seedy village known as Pick City is located.  It sports three bars, a convenience store, and other establishments catering to the less elevated tastes of your typical North Dakotan.  There seems to be a symbiotic relationship here between the two towns—one of them providing the class and the other supplying the fun.  Neither, however, has a grocery store or hardware store or other such practicalities.  For these, one must drive the forty miles to Washburn.

Kit had told me that there are thunderstorms forecast for the night so before going to bed I zip on the canvas walls and curtains that enclose the whole aft end of Kobuk.  Late in the evening a storm rolls in and when it does the rain comes down in torrents while the sky flashes continually with horizontal lightning bolts.  The rain pelts with fearsome ferocity and when for a short while it turns to hail, the hammering sound on the windshield is so loud that I am intimidated into screwing on the support bracket that strengthens it.  Then I sit in silence staring out through the dancing rivulets on the windshield at the strobe effect of darkness and lightning.  Through it all there is virtually no wind.

Captain Kit’s Marina:         47° 31.750’ N  /  101° 27.512’ W

Distance:                             35 miles
Total Distance:                    548 miles

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