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Thursday, June 23

A day on a Greyhound bus and a day bouncing around in Bismarck put me in position to run the short distance up to Garrison Dam where Kobuk is waiting for the next leg of the journey.  Bismarck is a tidy town, a sleepy city, and a conservatively correct capital.  In one respect, however, it breaks with tradition: its new bus station is located miles from the downtown, nearly as peripherally as its airport.  What is the thinking behind this?  I haven’t a clue.

Tom Enney was the bus driver on the small shuttle running up towards Pick City, and en route he took it upon himself to teach me how to fish.  He explained that for Lake Sakakawea the only fish worth catching is the Walleye, and it seems he spends most of the year tracking them down—trolling from his boat in the summer and camping out for days on end on the ice in his bunk-equipped, well-heated ice house.  A Walleye should be netted out of the water in the summer, but gaffed through the hole in the icHitchhiking to Pick Citye in the winter.  For summer trolling, it is good to use a hollow egg sinker that slides up and down the 8-pound line and below it a swivel with a three-foot length of line leads to a hook that should be baited with leeches (available in any reputable fishing and tackle shop).  Look for the break between deep water and shallow water, Tom said, and troll up into the shallows.  Don’t worry about refinements, he claims—either the Walleye are biting or they are not.  When they’re biting they’re not fussy and when they’re not it doesn’t matter what you do.  That’s his theory anyway.

And Tom didn’t stop there.  Like a smiling walrus with neither the mustache nor the tusks, he managed the shuttle bus down the highway with occasional looks back at me over his shoulder—moving on now to the finer details of gutting and filleting and cooking Walleye.  He drove with a small cooler beside him filled with Diet Cokes and ice and he always had an open can, a sort of beverage equivalent of chain smoking.  His directions for frying fish involved a special procedure for ensuring that all bones were removed from the two large filets, for preparing a batter of crumbled Ritz crackers mixed in with beaten eggs and garlic, and for keeping the fry time to a minimum.  All in all, Tom gave me a mini-course on everything you need to know about Walleye in the mere forty minutes I was riding on the bus.  I am sure I have forgotten as much as I remember, but when at last I start learning how to fish I am sure that Tom’s directions will lurk in my unreliable memory.

With a little hitchhiking to cover the final dozen miles or so, I found Kobuk as I left her—tied up and tightly tucked under her gray canvas cover.  It took all the rest of the day to clean her up—for I had left her a mess—but by nightfall she was ready to go and I had an arrangement with a nearby marina for her to be hauled out and relaunched below the dam the following day at noon.  There was only one problem: one of the batteries was delivering no electrical power.


Friday, June 24

Jim Wall, the owner of Bayside Marina, pulled Kobuk out of Lake Sakakawea shortly after noon and in a mere fifteen minutes managed to locate the source of the electrical problem—a faulty fuse that separated into pieces when removed from its little plastic retainer.  With that repaired, all systems worked fine and Kobuk was ready for relaunch.

Early Morning on the MissouriI left the vicinity of the dam with no more ambition than to make it to the vicinity of Stanton before tying off for the night.  The little Yamaha pushed us downstream, and it (combined with the very meager and unpredictable current) moved us along at seven miles per hour.  This is not too bad as it means a fifty mile day could be done in about seven hours on only a few gallons of gas—certainly less than four.

When I first started out in May, I was anxious to cover distance for no better reason than to prove to myself that this voyage is feasible.  Now that that question has been resolved I can stop worrying so much about performance and begin letting the auxiliary do more of the work. The hardest part is to readjust my own mentality so that “getting there” is no longer such a preoccupation.

Stanton is located on the banks of the Knife River, a couple miles upstream from its confluence with the Missouri.  I tried to locate the junction so that I could motor up to town, but the complexity of the Missouri river defeated me.  In this short stretch between Garrison Dam and Bismark, the river retains some of its natural character and those who travel it can learn a little about its historical reputation for treachery and deception.  It is a maze of shallows, sandbars, islands, snags and idle sloughs.  I kept looking for a channel of water coming in on the starboard side but there were many of them.  Only one was the Knife River and all the others were mere branches of the mainstem rejoining after sweeping around and island or three.  The logical approach would have been to always choose the starboard channel so that any channel entering on the starboard side would have to be the Knife, but that approach is problematic since many channels have less depth to them than Kobuk has draft.

All this sounds like excuses, I suppose, but in any event I missed the Knife River and ended up tying off next to a boat ramp in the shadow of a power station located about five miles downstream from Stanton.  It was not a particularly inviting spot but it had the dual advantage of ready access to a road for bicycling to town and ready access to assistance if I should need it.  One surprisinFishing in the Eveningg thing about this particular launch ramp was that boaters were coming and going with ferocious frequency.  I was amazed.  Nowhere to date had I seen more than the occasional fisherman, but now in this little out of the way place the fishermen were lining up to get on and off the river.  I learned later that the Walleye were biting.

Tied off to a stranded driftwood tree not more than fifty yards upstream from the launch ramp, I looked suspiciously at the nasty rocky shore.  These were not river pebbles or river boulders; they were rock shards that looked more as if dynamited fragments had been strewn along the shoreline.  Still, there was no major reach of river water in any direction so wind would not be able to whip up particularly large waves.  Furthermore, it was a very calm evening with no signs of unsettled weather on the horizon.  I left Kobuk and pedaled to Stanton.

Stanton has a gas station with a non-franchise convenience store.  It has a small grocery store.  It has two small restaurants (one of which serves particularly fine meals).  It has a post office, a courthouse, a civic center and a fire station.  It has a high school (although recently closed) and a city park.  It has a small collection of other commercial and civic establishments and its handful of streets are lined with modest homes set well back from their property lines, bowered in mature trees, and floating on a sea of neatly trimmed grass.  It is, in short, an appealing town—quiet, of course, but nice to look at.  Its population, I gather, is a little over 300.  In the restaurant where I took dinner, there was an album with newspaper clippings tracing the history of Stanton since World War II.  In the late 1940’s it also had a population of a little over 300.  This represents a level of stability that one could hardly find anywhere else in the United States.  I am not sure it is what the residents want, but their very demeanor seems to imply that 300+ is about right.

Garrison Dam put-in:               47° 29.466’ N / 101° 25.686’ W
Stanton boat ramp:                   47° 17.265’ N / 101° 20.346’ W

Distance:                                  16 miles
Total Distance:                         564 miles


Saturday, June 25

I went to sleep last night around 10:30—about the time it gets really dark—and at 1:30 in the morning I was awakened by a loud bang and a sudden lurch.  I had been sleeping out in the open space aft of the cabin, but now I found myself tilted at such an angle that I would slide down toward the starboard side of the boat if I did not resist by extending my legs against the hull there.  Kobuk waKobuk Groundeds listing badly.  When I got up to take a look I could see that we were no longer in the river.  We were stranded high above the water level.  Of course, when you are a boat any distance above the water level seems high.  In any event, there was no part of Kobuk still in the water and it seems that I was awakened when for some reason Kobuk decided to roll over and rest on her downhill chine rather than her uphill one.  Before the event, the floor was pretty near flat, but after it the slope was extreme.  There was nothing to be done until morning so I rearranged myself so as to sleep wedged in the V formed by the intersection of the floor and the ends of the steering console and driver’s seat.  It was not an optimal arrangement but I was too sleepy and too lazy to pull out the tent and create a civilized campsite on flat ground away from the river.

In the morning, as fishermen arrived and launched their boats in steady succession, I began the tedious process of clearing away the rocks and boulders lying between Kobuk and open water.  As nasty as they appeared, they were embedded in mud and when the surface layer of them was stripped away the result was a reasonably kind looking skidway down which I hoped to lever Kobuk broadside using a couple soaped planksExcavating a Skidway as facilitators.  Above water level the rocks could be pried loose with relative ease, but in the shallows they clung to their muddy resting places like ticks on a dog.  A couple hours, though, were enough to do the job and just as I was finishing up a man who had just launched his boat yelled over to me that “You don’t have to do that; the water will come back up in a few hours!”  The news was simply too good to take at face value so I began asking other boaters about this matter.

Sure enough, it turned out that the river has a daily regime, up and down like a tide as the Corp of Engineers releases greater amounts of water for power generation during the peak demand periods of the day.  Eventually, I happened across one man who works for the Corps of Engineers and although he did not know the particulars of the daily regimen he did have the phone number for the Garrison Dam power station where all the action occurs.  A call to that number confirmed that water flow was increased—more or less doubled, in fact—during the morning hours, and that the fixed nature of the regimen should result in a predictable timing and range for water level changes.  In other words, I should be able to get Kobuk clear by no later than the time when I tied off the previous afternoon.

Mandan Earth LodgeWith this reassurance, I abandoned all work, hopped on the bike, and went to town once again—this time to see the Knife River Indian Memorial National Park located right next to Stanton.  It consists of little more than three Mandan village sites each of which is preserved as a tightly compacted series of circular depressions in the ground where Mandan earth lodges used to exist.  The Park Service has wisely left the sites alone, doing no more than maintaining well-trimmed grass across the pocked surface of the land.  An earth lodge has been replicated and of course a visitor’s center offers the usual forms of education, but otherwise the abandoned villages are left as mute testimony to a different era.Ranger Tour

In retrospect, I think I learned a lot from the visit.  The circular earth lodges were remarkably large—much larger than the sod homes of the early plains settlers out of the East—and the sense of community must have been intense for the Mandan villagers to compact them into what almost resembles a hexagonal net with no significant distance between buildings.  Also, it was clear that the villages were not so terribly small.  The one site I visited seemed to have at least a few dozen lodge foundations.  It is not at all unlikely that when the Buffalo was plentiful the population of North Dakota Indians was greater than the state population today.  Certainly most of the counties in North Dakota had more residents before Whites arrived than they do now.

When I got back to the boat the water had risen noticeably, so I sat around and read until Kobuk was rocking like a cradle.  By mid-afternoon I was on my way downstream, headed for Washburn.

Washburn is one of the larger small towns in North Dakota, most likely because it can claim the only bridge crossing of the Missouri between Garrison Dam and Bismarck.  In the evening as I pedaled around town the usual well-treed, well-manicured yards surrounded well-maintained homes of modest size and appearance.  Once again, the main street was a three or four block stretch of small, struggling businesses—none of which engaged in evening activities.  The town is built on a hillside overlooking the river, however, and as I made my way up toward the antique water tower freshly painted red with the town name inscribed boldly in black I discovered a passing highway with other businesses along it.  One of them was a restaurant-lounge with more cars parked around it that any business in Washburn has the right to expect.  I went in, of course, and had the pleasure of eating my dinner in a madhouse of sociability.  It was bingo night in Washburn and everyone was there.

Washburn Bridge:                     47° 17.414’ N / 101° 02.574’ W

Distance:                                  18 miles
Total Distance:                         582 miles

Spike Washing Kobuk
Sunday, June 26

At three in the morning I awoke to the biting of mosquitoes and an eerie stillness in the air.  As I lay there considering what to do I saw flashes of light in the distance and knew that a thunderstorm was near.  No question about it—time to zip on the curtains.  Even before I finished the task the wind was tugging at the canvas, making it hard to snap the snaps and zip the zippers.  I finished as the first raindrops fell, and then the fury of the storm came close behind.  Thunder and lightning End of Day near Washburnand rain and wind—they all seemed intent on intimidating Kobuk.  I went back to bed with water leaking in at a prodigious rate at the bottoms of the plastic windows and along the edges between the canvas and the boat.  In the cabin, though, and up forward in the bunk it was as cosy and as dry as a perfect haven should be.

In the morning I had to evacuate at least 20 gallons of rainwater from the bilge, but otherwise the heavens and earth were peaceful.  I had already decided to spend the day working on the boat and circumstances had sealed my choice by beaching Kobuk once again.  This time, though, the opportunity to get clear did not arrive until nearly midnight when a fitful rainstorm was playing itself out.  I was puzzled by the late hour since I had tied off in early evening the night before, but then I realized that the thunderstorm in the middle of the previous night must have dragged my stern anchor toward shore and allowed Kobuk to be blown up onto the beach in the middle of that night.  Why the water level should be so high at this late hour is a mystery to me.  It is hard to believe that a morning release of supplemental water from Garrison Dam would take so many hours to reach a site only 35 miles downstream.  In any event, I donned my Costa Rican plastic poncho and with flashlight in hand maneuvered Kobuk over to the dock next to the launch ramp and tied up there.  With deep water all around, I felt confident of being clear in the morning.


Monday, June 27
Missouri Sandbars

Tony Spilde is a reporter for the Bismarck Tribune who called me a few days ago about doing an interview regarding the boat trip.  We ended up arranging that he would travel with me from Washburn to Bismarck, and so with admirable punctuality he appeared on the dock with a cooler in one hand and a reporter’s pad in the other.  We had a glorious day in front of us—warm but not too hot and with cannonball puffs chasing each other across the blue sky.  This stretch of the river has the classic look of those early images of the Missouri—broad waters meandering in a rather confined floodplain with low hills occasionally rising up, first on one side of the river and then on the other.  With sandbars and silvery streaks strewn across the waters, with snags and dead trees constantly creating small wakes in the downstream flow, with low and level wooded islands in abundance and even lower islands capable of sustaining only grasses, with stands of Cottonwoods and various shrubs and greenery usually lining the low banks of the river—the predominating impression left by it all was that of blue-green horizontality, with a giant white-flecked bowl of sky overhead.

During its 1600 mile course from the Yellowstone confluence to St. Louis, this section between Garrison Dam and Bismarck is the only one remaining unmodified by dams, rip-raps, and dredging.  I may be wrong about this—and surely I will find out in the next few weeks—but in any event the Missouri in anything resembling its original form only exists in very limited stretches, of The Missouri near Washburnwhich this 90 mile run is by far the longest east of Montana.  Perhaps we should consider expanding the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site to include this entire riparian zone.  Adirondack State Park was created after towns and settlements already existed there so there is no reason it could not be a model for how to structure it.  It might even be a good idea to put the Corp of Engineers in charge of this new preserve, partly to teach it the concept of conservation and partly to atone for the single-minded dedication to utilitarianism that caused it to emasculate the river in the first place.

The beauty along this run of the river has an indefinable serenity to it.  It is grand yet intimate.  It is simultaneously soothing and inspiring—a queer and rare blend of emotional reactions.  But there is another side to it as well: the river here is devilishly hard to read.  Often one reads about how difficult and deadly the Missouri was for boat traffic before the twentieth century initiative to domesticate it, but only here can you really learn what that meant.  How can a river flowing at over 20,000 cubic feet per second possibly be shallow everywhere?  And yet in this area it is often the case that water depth is below the knees almost from one bank to the other, and the channel, if it exists, generally is no more that six or seven feet deep and perhaps 15-20 feet across.  But where is it?  The channel, furthermore, changes constantly and the locals along the river often complain about the way each new boating season forces them to learn a new route for proceeding upstream or down.  And they are not getting around in big boats; they usually are in 14-16 foot aluminum runabouts with modest sized outboards mounted on the stern.

SnagsWhen you actually attempt to navigate these waters, you quickly develop a much more visceral understanding of how hard it must have been for the Lewis and Clark expedition to make progress in either direction.  I was somewhat aghast when I learned that those poor men hauled their heavy boats upstream using lines—an exhausting line of work if ever there was one.  Now at least I see that they generally could do so by wading in the river.  Still, where was the channel and how did they keep their boats in it?

Then there was the era of the paddlewheelers and commercial boating on the Missouri.  It is one thing for me to run my little boat up on a sandbar, but to do that sort of thing with one of those large vessels would have been distressingly inconvenient.  Once again, where is the channel and how does one stay in it?  That channel, by the way, must often have been little wider than the beam of a paddlewheeler, and so for boats to pass or for a boat to turn around must have been a stressful maneuver.

Yes, let’s make it a national park.  Lets put a few paddlewheelers on it and recreate the problems of early navigation.  Let’s turn Pick City and Stanton and Washburn and even Bismarck into riverboat stops that allow park visitors to run up or down the river by this older form of transportation.  Let’s limit the use of other motorized vessels (like mine) and only allow passage by canoe or kayak or rowboat or sailboat.  Let’s get the cattle out of there.  Let’s name it Lewis & Clark National Park, but maintain the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site as a revered site imbedded within it.

During the day, Tony and I eased our way along, rarely proceeding at more than 7-8 miles per hour.  Many were the groundings, but all save one were minor events that required only a minimum expenditure of energy before getting free.  The one time we got seriously caught, we had made the mistake of wandering out into the middle of the river where the channel is least likely to be.  We had to nudge Kobuk over a good distance of sandbar before finally breaking free into somewhat deeper water near one river bank, and thereafter we were more careful to stay near the sides of the river, only crossing over when we were utterly convinced that the channel must be over there.The Spildes

Tony is a big man, far larger than I initially realized.  At 6’4” and 240 pounds, he is a weighty addition to Kobuk’s already heavy load.  When we started out, I encouraged him to not feel as if he needed to help me unless I asked him to do so, and he tried hard to stay out of the way.  He obviously wanted to help, but kept restraining himself as I had asked.  For most of our groundings I hopped out and did the gruntwork but the one time we got badly stuck I eventually asked him to get in the water with me.  I was somewhat surprised to discover how much this singular alteration in the weight equation eased the task of pushing Kobuk free.  And of course with both of us pushing Kobuk became a much more compliant patient.

Not far out of Bismarck, on the Mandan side of the river, we were running in 6-9 feet of water.  We had seen plenty of muddy riverbanks and had spent our share of time prying Kobuk off sandbars, but only occasionally had we seen river depths much greater than this.  Thus it was that we were motoring along at 8-9 miles per hour when a sickening crunch caused Kobuk to stumble.  It was over in an instant but it had had none of the solid percussion of a bump.  It was a crunch and Kobuk had tripped on what must have been a sharp rock.  I frantically searched the bilge for signs of leakage but nowhere could I find accumulating water.  That sound, however, was hard to get out of my mind.

As the day wore on, it seemed to get increasingly sunny and hot on the river, and so it was with a mild sense of relief that we finally reached Bismarck and passed under its four bridges.  The fourth one—the one farthest downstream—has beside it on the western river bank a famous Bismarck night spot: The Broken Oar.  This lively bar has a boat dock immediately out front where we tied up and Tony introduced me to its specialty: the Clamdigger, a concoction of vodka, tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, olives, pickle, green pepper, and an assortment of other spicy things.  It went down easy.  It is a fortunate thing that Tony’s wife showed up at this time to give him a ride home since one or two more of these tasty treats could have done serious damage.

The Broken Oar:                     46° 47.787’ N  /  100° 49.335’ W

Distance:                                  42 miles
Total Distance:                        624 miles

The Broken Oar
Tuesday, June 28

The folks at The Broken Oar had no objection to my remaining tied to their dock so I spent the night there and plan to spend one or two more.  Kobuk will get a rest as I attend to other things here in the city.

In the morning I made a few phone calls to determine where I am going to get gas between here and Pierre, South Dakota, some 250 river miles downstream.  Oahe Reservoir runs all the way from just north of Pierre almost to Bismarck, and along it there are many boat launch ramps.  Even so, only at Mobridge, more or less half way down the lake, is there certain and convenient access to fuel.  It is likely I also will be able to gas up at Fort Yates, a Standing Rock Indian Reservation town on an island in the river about midway between here and Mobridge, but south of Mobridge there are no obvious options.  Kobuk has adequate range to deal with the situation, but it is good to know the situation in advance.


Wednesday, June 29

It rained heavily last night, and also heavily off and on throughout much of today.  This kept me on board Kobuk most of the time, reluctant to venture out into the deluge.  The wet Near Bismarckconditions have the potential to keep me here in Bismarck an extra day since I am not getting the things done that need to be done before setting out once again.  I am reasonably content in this little cocoon, however, and it may in fact be a blessing if I do not end up traversing undeveloped Lake Oahe until the upcoming long weekend when boaters will be out in force.

I awoke this morning with my right eye swollen shut—a queer phenomenon that occurs once every two or three years and appears to be a consequence of sleeping on it in a way that aggravates a soccer injury I received a few decades ago.  Anyway, it took most of the day for the swelling to go down and that too has encouraged me to stay put.  One benefit of the more or less enforced confinement is that I have now worked out a way to greatly limit the leakage around the plastic windows that occurs whenever there is a heavy rain.  It is a jerry rigged arrangement involving the use of the boat hook, the paddle, and the plastic bottle I use for night time peeing, but it works and it suggests a reasonable approach for designing something a little more streamlined.
 


Thursday, June 30

It continues to be overcast and threatening, and although the rain is no longer continuous it still comes down in the form of occasional showers that sometimes do little more than lay down a gentle mist but that occasionally take on the force of a real drizzle.  I makes little sense to head down the river in this gray weather so I think I have unconsciously resolved to wait until the skies clear.  I am without doubt a fair weather mariner—if it is possible for such a creature to exist.

Anyway, there is much to be done, and I spent almost all the day in the public library updating the online courses that are financing this venture.  In mid-afternoon I took a break and cycled over to take a look at the state capital building.  Sometimes one is unaware of the power of tradition until confronted with its blatant violation.  The capital is not your standard, domed, neoclassical structure; it is a towering monolith on an asymmetrical base, rising perhaps ten stories and looking clean, lean and spare.  It is a reasonably attractive building—not beautiful but not repulsive and clearly better than most contemporary attempts at architectural beauty.  It is somehow disorienting, however, to encounter a state capital building that looks so starkly administrative.  Couldn’t we just stick with tradition and keep the illusion of illustrious grandiosity?

By the time I returned to the library in late afternoon, the sky was beginning to clear, so when in the last hour of daylight I finally left for the day it waKobuk at the Broken Oars only modestly surprising to be greeted by bluebird conditions—cloudless skies and an urban landscape bathed in golden evening light.

The Bismarck Tribune had an article today about the problem of water release from the Garrison Dam that Kobuk and I circumvented last week.  It seems that the fishing here in the downstream area depends on the stocking of Trout smelt that act as food for the Walleye and other game fish.  But Trout smelt only do well in cold water and Lake Sakakawea is running out of cold water.  The water that runs through Garrison power house and turns the turbines is taken from the bottom of the lake where the water typically is cold, but the lake level is so low that the process is threatening to deplete the diminishing supply of remaining cold water.  The engineers are going to address the problem by replacing the lower portions of the intake grate with plywood sheets (even the most expensive projects occasionally have to resort to such unsophisticated tactics) and then hope that this will cause the power-generating water to be slightly less cold than before, thereby preserving some of the cold water supply at the very bottom of the reservoir for later use.  Nobody knows for sure that the system will work.

The problem here is that the Corps is reacting to—and being buffeted by—political forces.  When cruel Mother Nature was in charge, no heed was given to the selfish interests of individual species, human or otherwise.  Decisions were absolute, divine, and irrevocable.  People might complain.  They might suffer.  They might even attempt to combat or circumvent the awful consequences of Nature’s dictate.  They would never presume, however, that the decision might be challenged.  It would be as mad and as foolish as presuming to change the call of a baseball umpire.

No matter how powerful the Corps might be it can never aspire to such a level of authoritarianism, and as a result its decisions are never accepted without challenge and nobody truly believes in its divine right.  As a result, the fate of the ecosystem will be in the hands of one narrow interest or another.  Will it be the boaters and anglers or will it be advocates for hydropower energy?  Will it be the environmentalists who wish to protect one sort of fish or another or will it be the farmers who crave irrigation water?  Will it be the downstream navigation lobby or the upstream lobby of states where nearly all the water originally comes from?  Whichever interest prevails, or whatever compromise is struck between these and other interests, the decision will be childish and immature, incapable of commanding respect.


Friday, July 1

Inertia sets in whenever I stay in one place for a little while, and that is what has happened here in Bismarck.  A daily routine of sorting out the boat and going to the library has seized hold of me and the thought of heading down the river has gotten tucked away in some dusty corner of the mind.  It is the return of sunshine and blue skies that reminds me ofSandbar South of Bismarck my priorities and gets me thinking once again of moving on down the road.  There is shopping to do and boat maintenance to complete, but now today I do it with a sense of urgency so that some miles can be put behind us before the sun sets.

After two days of heavy rains, all sorts of on-board items are damp or worse and so everything is laid out to dry.  I wipe down the interior of Kobuk and evacuate all the rain water that has collected in the bilge.  In the process, I discover a spot near the forward end of the keel where the plywood bottom planking has been damaged. The wood has been exploded upward enough to have fractured at least a couple layers of the ply and so I spend quite some time getting the bilge completely dry so as to tell whether there is any leakage coming up through the fractured layers of ply.  No water oozes through the fractures there, but eventually some repair work will have to be done.

No wonder Tony and I heard a crunching sound when Kobuk hit that rock.  It was the sound of plywood splitting apart.  The damaged area is located right next to a stringer that parallels the keel.  The distance from the keel to that first stringer is less than a foot but if the hit had come in the middle of that span rather than right beside the stringer than Kobuk probably would have been holed and Tony and I would have been scrambling to get Kobuk to shore before it filled with water.  Of course, if the hit had come on the keel or the stringer—each of which is the better part of a foot wide—then no plywood damage of the crunchy sort would have occurred and the only mark would have been a dent in the bottom of a hull.  Whether this was “lucky” or “unlucky” depends on your general outlook on life, but from my point of view anything short of a puncture falls in the lucky category.

Upstream from Lake OaheAfter gassing up in the rich man’s yacht harbor across the river, I set off for Lake Oahe which is some unknown distance downstream.  When the reservoir is full, Oahe fills the Missouri River valley upstream for about 250 miles, reaching almost all the way to Bismarck.  But drought and the Corps’ water management plan have combined to drop the lake level many tens of feet.  This puts the upper end of the lake many tens of miles downstream from Bismarck—so far removed from town that you do not reach it until you are in South Dakota.

Whenever the Missouri River enters one of these reservoirs, the slowing current creates a stretch of the waterway in which shallows and sandbars (and of course mud flats} are everywhere, invisible beneath the muddy waters.  A narrow, sinuous, ever-shifting river channel must exist, but locating it and staying in it is not simple.  For the inexperienced—that is, for myself—the only safe strategy is to proceed no faster than one might walk and concentrate on not losing the channel.  Once it is lost, there is no choice but to slow down and angle back and forth across the entire river searching for it, a high-tension activity since the odds are quite high that at some time during this foray across the shallows the hull is going to ground on a submerged sandbar.  Then there is no choice but to get out of the boat and wade around looking for the channel, hoping that it is not too far away since muscling Kobuk off the sandbar can sometimes mean scrubbing it across long stretches of sand before finally coming free.

But anyway, the scenery is faintly reminiscent of the Eden that Meriwether Lewis described and the solitude is almost as great as well.  On a warm, sunny day like this one, the slow pace and frequent interruptions do not seem like work.  Progress is slow, but by evening I get to Huff’s, a bar and restaurant located up on a hill near the river, and reward myself with beer and a prime rib sandwich.  A short while before arriving, I had come upon a burly, sunbaked man on the side of the river and we had talked momentarily when I cut the engine and drifted.  Now the man appears in Huff’s and sits beside me at the bar.  His name is John McFarland and he is canoeing from the Missouri headwaters to New Orleans.  From where we met a few miles back, he has come down here to Huff’s at about John McFarlandthe same speed as I did.  In this type of water environment, a canoe is obviously more serviceable than a large power boat like Kobuk.  It will be a little different on Lake Oahe, however.

After eating, on the way down to the river, I pick up a half dozen ticks on my jeans and then spend hours thereafter wondering if any of them have managed to get onto me.  That night after I went to bed I found two more in my hair, and so now I am resigned to the prospect that one or two of them are going to get imbedded in me somewhere.

John and I decide to camp together on an island in the river, and after setting everything up there we spend hours watching the sunset and then watching the campfire.  We talk about how sensible our two projects are and how misguided all those people are who think of us as self-indulgent fools.

Huff’s Bar and Grill:                   36° 37.768’ N  /  100° 39.444’ W

Distance:                                     27 miles
Total Distance:                           651 miles
 

Saturday, July 2

As the hours pass with Kobuk creeping around in these unknown waters, I cannot help but feel ambivalent about the slow progress.  On the one hand, it would be liberating to reach open water where we might get up on a plane and let the wind blow in our face; but on the other, this landscape of broadwaters, sandbars, gray tree snags, and riverbank cottonwoods is peerless and unspoiled—and after Lake Oahe there will be precious little more of it.Approaching Lake Oahe

Even at Fort Yates, a reservation town on an island that usually sits in the middle of the lake, the river is still flowing in a passing channel filled with water grasses and submerged sandbars.  Kobuk hangs up there, in fact, and I spend a little time prying her free.  From the water, Fort Yates is a surprise—a silhouette of substantial houses arrayed along the crest of a significant ridge that runs down the island parallel with the run of the river.  I suppose it is my prejudice that had me expecting this reservation town to be a seedy, flatland village instead of a shining citadel on the hill.  My prejudice is so great, however, that I continue to believe that a closer inspection would reveal it to be less attractive than its proud profile promises.

Eventually, Lake Oahe opens up and Kobuk runs free.  The setting and the conditions are exquisite.  Nearly windless and shimmering with tiny wavelets, the lake sits under a broad blue sky with gentle, treeless hills on both sides looking like pillows lying under an emerald green spread carefully arranged to leave no wrinkles.  A period of timelessness ensues, an interlude during which the engine drones, the afternoon air breezes through the ventilated cabin, and the ever-changing landscape passes by without ever changing in any fundamental way.

I had thought it might be neLake Oahecessary to tie off near Fort Yates and hike overland to town with a couple jerry cans to get gas, but when I got there the fuel situation seemed good enough to make it non-stop to Mobridge, a fairly substantial town located roughly midway along the lake.  Late in the day, less than ten miles from town, the second of the built-in fuel tanks ran dry and I had to stop to pour in gas from one of the two jerry cans I carry full on board.  But then after this the main engine would not fire properly.  It started but fired intermittently, failed to achieve high rpms, and eventually died.  I got it running a number of times, but each time it ultimately quit, and so eventually I had to run the rest of the distance using the auxiliary.  It is very reliable but can only move Kobuk along at 5-6 miles per hour, which means that we did not reach the destination until shortly after the sun had set.

Mobridge ordinarily sits next to the lake, but with such a low water level there are extensive marshes and weed covered lowlands separating the lake’s edge from the rail line and main street that define the waterside edge of town in the distance.  I managed to find a small embayment and run Kobuk up against a muddy bank behind a fretwork of tangled driftwood lying between it and the open waters of the lake.  In the thickening twilight I zipped on the curtains, got myself something to eat, and prepared to rest after a long day of boating.  In spite of the fact that I was tied off in front of the Mobridge city lights and could hear the cars and occasional trains passing in the distance, this site proved to have the noisiest collection of wildlife of the entire trip so far.  Giant fish were jumping—they must have been giant to sound like rocks thrown in the water by small boys.  A motley collection of insects was buzzing and bumping in the usual vigorous way.  Birds and frogs and other creatures carried on with abandon.  It was a good way to go to sleep.

Mobridge waterfront:                45° 31.809’ N  /  100° 27.096’ W

Distance:                                    98 miles
Total Distance:                          749 miles
 


Sunday, July 3
Route Map 3

In late morning when I finally got under way, the engine started without any hesitation.  This is exactly the same thing that happened that last day on Lake Sakakawea when after a stop to switch over from one fuel tank to another the engine would not start properly—only to fire up fine a few hours later.  Could it be that something gets too hot and that this causes no problem for running but inhibits the engine from starting?  The temperature gauge offers no support for this theory—it shows a rock solid 170 degrees, just as it has done since Kobuk was first put in the water nearly three years ago. 

The booklet of maps and information on Lake Oahe put out by the Corps of Engineers lists only three locations on the 250-mile long length where boaters can find fuel.  There are many launch ramps but very few places where fuel is available.  One of them is Indian Creek, a small embayment a few miles down lake from Mobridge.  When I got there and tied off, I learned that the fuel is located next to the small store only a short distance away, but at the top of a very steep hill.  It is evident that almost all the power boating done here is day fishing with the boat going in and out at the same ramp.  Virtually nobody has a need to buy fuel while on the lake. 

Shuttling fuel in jerry cans is not particularly hard work—and I am, after all, used to the routine since I have had to do it ever since the trip began.  Only in Bismarck was I able to motor over to a gas dock and fuel up without leaving the waterfront.  I would have been able to do it at Captain Kits Marina near the dam on Lake Sakakawea but the price there was quite high and since Kobuk had to be hauled around the dam anyway it only made sense to get fuel at a regular gas station while she was on a trailer. 

I didn’t leave Indian Creek until mid-afternoon, by which time there was a healthy following wind on the lake pushing up a 1-2 foot chop.  Kobuk bounded along on this lively surface in a gratifying way—surging up over the top of moving waves and slicing neatly into the troughs.  At one point I pulled over and tied off along an isolated stretch of windward shoreline to take a swim and clean up.  When I set out again, the main engine refused to stay running, just as it had done the day before.  I motored along with the auxiliary for an hour or so until finally the engine decided to start again.  Once running, it purred flawlessly, and on most occasions it starts immediately with the turn of the key, so I am baffled as to why these situations arise when the engine will not start up properly. 

More or less midway between Mobridge and the Oahe Dam, I took Kobuk into Sutton’s Bay for the night and settled into a mosquito infested slough where I learned that even when all curtains are zipped on while still out on open and windswept water the mosquitoes and other flying creatures cannot be kept out once we enter their territory.  I had an army of them as visitors, and only managed to maintain some distance from them by burning a Cutter Citro Guard Candle all night long.  Its sweet fumes forced the invaders to hunker down immobilized on the underside of the canvas awning, near the aft end, as far from the candle as possible.  Impressive was the candle’s effectiveness, but still it was somewhat disturbing to remove all my clothes in preparation for going to bed when all those hundreds of mosquitoes were stationary but healthy only a few feet away.  During the night I was more concerned that the candle might go out than that it might start a fire. 

Sutton Bay:                   44° 53.071’ N  /  100° 22,035’ W

Distance:                      62 miles
Total Distance:            811 miles


Monday, July 4

This end of Lake Oahe is somehow less enchanting than the other end had been.  Both shorelines take on more of the look of badlands with diminutive bluffs and small, v-shaped valleys fronting the lake, but somehow this configuration was not as satisfying to me as the gentler terrain farther north.

I left Sutton’s Bay fairly early so as to take advantage of the morning hours when the wind is still and the lake is quiet.  The boaters were out and nearly every boat had a collection of immobile anglers with their lines overboard.  I must have seemed mad to them, running down the lake at speed with no apparent destination.  I am sure that many were furtively watching to see if I would zero in on a particularly promising spot for dropping a line overboard, but must have been mildly disappointed and perhaps a little puzzled when Kobuk and I disappeared around the next distant headland.

By midday we were close to Oahe Dam but once again the need to add fuel to an empty tank resulted in a refusal of the main engine to restart.  This mysterious behavior on the part of the engine is causing psychological distress for me.  It is like one of those perverse psychological experiments designed to ascertain how an individual will react to a somewhat predictable but totally incomprehensible situation.  But this time I was psychologically prepared.  I knew what was likely to happen but it did not concern me since I knew that it would only take a couple hours to reach the dam under outboard power.

Motoring along at a leisurely pace, it decided to stop and take a short swim.  I rigged a rope between the two cleats on the port side so that there would be a step of sorts to assist me getting back in the boat and I let the final fifty feet of the line trail behind the boat in case Kobuk got a mind to drift downwind at an uncomfortable pace.  At last it is clear lake water, the sort of stuff you certainly wouldn’t mind brushing your teeth in and probably wouldn’t hesitate to drink either.  When I got back aboard all refreshed and cleaned up, I did a little housekeeping and decided that the final few miles at a slow pace would be a good time to do laundry by dragging my dirty clothes in a net bag behind the boat.  I thought the water looked impressively clear and presumed that the mud problem I had had on the Yellowstone would now be a thing of the past.

For a while, everything went along swimmingly but no sooner did I begin to think about what I would do if the cord on the net bag were to break than it did.  It was a comedy of errors as I attempted to turn around keeping the rapidly sinking bag in sight.  I guess you could say I panicked.  I was so flustered that I tried to steer with the main wheel, which only operates the jet drive.  By the time I recovered from this false move, the bag was out of sight.  I trolled back and forth for a while, but it was clear that the bag of clothes was well on its way to bottom of the lake where it would join, I imagine, an eclectic mix of other boater’s items that are heavier than water.  Losing the clothes was a disappointment because of course your dirty clothes almost always are your favorites.

Just before reaching the dam, the main engine decided to start again—just as I thought it would—but I decided to carry on with the small outboard as a sort of punishment for its misbehavior.  The boat ramp next to the dam was the sum of the facilities there.  There were no docks or buildings around (although an odd looking tugboat type affair was sitting near the end of the ramp just out of water).  People were putting in and taking out at a furious pace and while all this activity was going on I tied off on a muddy bank and also set the stern anchor some distance out into the lake.  It was not a very protected place and I was concerned that a stronger wind might bring on bigger waves that could set Kobuk broadside on the mud bank (which was, unfortunately, fitted with a number of occasional rocks).  I could think of nothing else to do, however, and battened her down before setting out on the bicycle to find a solution to the portage problem.Oahe Dam Power Plant

Just on the downstream side of the dam is a boat launch area and general store where I was directed to a fishing guide named Dale who upon returning at the end of the day would help me get Kobuk around the dam.  When Dale appeared, he looked like Bill Murray with a graying beard, but had a quiet and softspoken way about him.  He was dubious that his trailer was large enough for Kobuk, but most kindly arranged for me to rent a trailer from a marina in Port Pierre, about six miles downstream, and so in early evening we pulled Kobuk out of Lake Oahe and took her to the parking lot next to the boat launch area. 

When getting around Garrison Dam I had not had a chance to inspect the bottom of Kobuk, but this time because of the rock collision just above Bismarck I was anxious to take a careful look.  What I saw was not pretty.  The gash from that boulder was long and ugly, and also the entire run of the keel was nastily gouged and scraped from so much time spent battling sandbars.  I prevailed on Dale to let me keep Kobuk out of the water for a day or so in order to do some superficial repairs and he made the appropriate arrangements with the marina.  That left me free for the evening to bicycle into Fort Pierre to attend the rodeo at the fairgrounds and then watch the city fireworks after dark.

It is hard to imagine anything more American than attending a rodeo in South Dakota on 4th of July evening.  Fort Pierre is working town across the river from Pierre, the diminutive capital of the state.  It is the working man’s retort to the pretensions and pretty parks of Pierre and so as you can imagine the rodeo and fireworks are the way in which Fort Pierre makes a statement.  It is THE place to be on 4th of July evening.

Fort Pierre RodeoI have been to a number of rodeos over the years, but it is impossible to get tired of them.  There is something almost painfully real about the hopes and disappointments of all those small town buckaroos who try so hard to rope and ride and wrestle steers.  As the long shadows crept across the dirt-filled arena, the events played themselves out.  Oddly, in spite of the danger and risk to which the men expose themselves, it is the barrel racing women who most captivate me.  There is something about the way they stretch their relatively small selves and their powerfully muscled horses to the absolute limit in their effort to dash across the arena, only to bring their mount to a near stop and wheel around a barrel before dashing to the next one.

But the crowd loves the bull riding, of course, and I do as well.  When you see one of these bulls behaving the way he does, it looks impossible that anybody could stay on his back for eight seconds—and the thought of what it is going to feel like when the bull sheds you makes the entire body of someone my age cringe at the prospect.  The bulls were by far the best athletes in the arena this night.  There were over twenty contestants in the bull riding and only two of them managed to stay the course.  Then, my friend, when finally you have “won,” how do you get off?  So many of these tough young men get hurt that you would think that even youth would take pause at the odds.  One cowboy I saw got thrown in the first couple seconds of his ride, got roughed up on the ground by his bull, and even though injured so badly he could not put his right foot on the ground managed to scamper away and fairly flew up one of the release gates to escape the rampaging 1800 pound creature intent on punishing him.  When finally the control riders and the clown had lured the bull away the man was hurting so badly he had to sit down in the dirt and hold his head, until a couple of his compadres managed to lift him up and carry him off.  Almost as rare as riding for regulation time was riding without getting hurt.

Then, when all the competing was done and the purple sky had a rosy glow in the west, the lights were turned off and the Fort Pierre fire department put on a display of fireworks that was inspirational.  It was especially so since much of it was accompanied by operatic and patriotic music consisting of songs such as “God Bless America.”

It was almost midnight before I started cycling the seven miles back to Kobuk.  It was a moonless, cloudless, star-swirled night—a perfect ending to a perfect evening.

Oahe Dam pull-out:                  44° 26.713’ N  /  100° 25.292' W

Distance:                                  56 miles
Total Distance:                        867 miles
 


Tuesday, July 5

Here at the put-in below the dam, there is a small store and restaurant recently purchased by Eric and Michelle who, rumor has it, are a divorced couple with three children, but who live together and (even more impressively) just went into business together as partners.  Eric is a quiet, stoic sort of fellow who is handsome and lean, but wears a look that constantly hints at bewildered surprise.  He has a hair lip, but rather than diminishing his attractiveness it seems to give him a certain individuality that makes him less obscure than his retiring nature might otherwise do.  Michelle is a hard-working, ever-upbeat redhead who speaks well of everybody and everything but who is so distracted by her labors that a conversation with her has all the urgency and brevity of that with a physician or a CEO.

Michelle was extraordinarily nice to me this morning: she offered me the use of her car and suggested that I could have it for as much of the day as I need.  I accepted her offer and went to town.In Fort Pierre

There was plenty to do, but one errand in particular was a major concern for me.  A more thorough inspection of Kobuk revealed a flaw that may actually account for the starting problems that have plagued the engine: the simple, rubber flapper on the flaring metal tube where the exhaust exits the transom is torn so badly that in could not be efficiently doing its job.  Perhaps whenever Kobuk is brought to an abrupt stop water can wash up the exhaust tube and wet engine parts that will not function correctly until they have dried out.  I spent some time in the city trying to locate a replacement exhaust flapper, but in the end it became evident that I would have to fabricate something.  The solution was the Goodyear Tire shop where one of the workers suggested a tire patch.  He not only got me one; he cut it to shape—and late in the day I installed this makeshift part.  It is slightly stiffer than the original flapper, but it seems to be to be quite comparable in thickness and in method of fabrication (a mesh layer sandwiched between two layers of rubber).   I am optimistic—not only that it will work but that it also will solve the balky engine mystery.

In the evening I crawled under Kobuk to reexamine he damage there with the intention of starting work in the morning.  Only then did I realize that I would have to trim back extensive areas of damaged fiberglass along the keel and excavate the waterlogged wood underneath before doing any sort of patching.  Not only that, the amount of water that had worked its way up into the layers of plywood was so great that Kobuk probably would have to sit a while waiting for the keel to dry out.  After a couple hours of cutting and digging and gouging I had everything prepared for the next stage:  application of waterproof Bondo.  But even though this fiberglass reinforced body filler used on cars is waterproof and theoretically can be applied to a wet surface, I was unwilling to rely on theory and resolved to wait until the keel was dry before doing the application.  As I lay under Kobuk with my face only inches from the keel I gazed in mild shock at the extent of the repair project.  The entire run of the keel was excavated to a greater or lesser degree and along its full length it was weeping water at such a pace that you could watch the water bead and swell until eventually a drop would fall.
 


Wednesday, July 6

Kobuk suffers.  Still the water oozes out.  I checked in the morning and unsurprisingly the wetness had not diminished much.  By late in the day, a few small patches of dry wood had begun to appear but in most areas the surface remained wet.  There was no choice but to wait it out so I spent much of the sultry day as a sightseer and cyclist.

I stopped in at the Oahe Dam Visitors’ Center where a young man dressed in a Corps of Engineers uniform sat behind the desk practicing his guitar.  He looked too young to be working there but he was competent and he answered questions like a seasoned employee.  When I asked him about the horn that frequently sounds at the power station, he explained that it always does so when water is going to be released for power generation.  This directly affects the water level downstream, causing it to rise at least a couple feet--quite impressive considering that the waterway immediately below the dam already is part of Lake Sharpe, the next reservoir downstream.  Lake Sharpe is eighty miles long so daily fluctuations of a foot or two in its level represents a whole lot of water.

Down below the dam, Lake Sharpe has flooded the river but has not overflowed the banks.  Even though there is no current, the stretch looks like a river setting with small islands midstream and cottonwood groves along both banks.  At the first significant bend there is a sandbar that lies exposed at low water but disappears whenever the Corps releases water.  A recent wedding ceremony on the bar found itself having to hurry through the proceedings when the Corp sounded its horn—a clear indication that business trumps pleasure.

The days are heating up.  The thermometer was chasing 100 degrees today and probably will catch it tomorrow or the next day.  With high humidity and little wind, it is a good time to be near the water.  It would be even better to be ON the water, but Kobuk is not yet ready for the major patch work to begin and relaunch is some indefinite time in the future.  Working under the hull is somewhat awkward since clearance between the pebbly parking lot and the keel is very limited.  It is shady down there, but there’s not much wind.

The people in a state like SouthCapital and Park in Pierre Dakota must feel empowered by the scale of things.  When the capital city only has 13,000 people in it and the city limits are never more than a short walk away, citizens must appreciate the fact that their politicians cannot disappear in the crowd.  While I was in the marina restaurant last night, I heard a couple local men talking about their recent foray to Sioux Falls, the largest city in the state with a population of almost 150,000.  They were dismayed by the rapid pace of growth there and both of them felt that the traffic was utterly intolerable.  One serious young man eating alone at a different table also appeared to be local and as he, too, eavesdropped on the conversation, he shook his head in dismay at this distressing news.  Can you imagine having to struggle through the downtown traffic of such a city?  It must take hours!  Well, minutes, at least.

There is a certain charm to Pierre because of its site.  It occupies the transition zone between the high plains and the river, a descent that is modest and gentle and consists of a series of ridges and valleys most notable for their understatement.  As a result, there is virtually no place in this small city where you cannot look out at some significant part of the whole.  The heart of town is near the river—sufficiently low down that before the Corp went to work Pierre was vulnerable to floods—but the residential districts splay themselves over two of the ridge shoulders while the valley between is a swath of greenbelt.  The capital building with its ornate, black dome rests at the downhill end of the valley and claims the unusual distinction of being prominent because it is down low.

All day long Kobuk sat in wait some miles upstream while I explored Pierre (locals, incidentally, pronounce it “pier”).  There are things that could be done to hurry up the drying process along Kobuk’s keel, but eventually I realized that efforts of that sort make no sense when there is no need to adhere to any sort of timetable.  I am not yet bored here so why should I push the process?

By early evening the Bismarck boulder gash had dried sufficiently that work could begin.  The problem was that a critical part of the damage lay directly above one of the trailer rollers.  For some reason, the simple task of moving Kobuk back on the trailer without inadvertently tipping the boat or even unloading her is the sort of thing that I love to think about.  This sort of problem is commonplace, but it does assume additional dimensions of complexity when the project is to be completed with just one pair of hands.  Anyway, all went well, and before nightfall the afflicted area had been patched and Kobuk was snug on the trailer again.


Michelle and Eric's Daughter
Friday, July 8

Since by morning the exposed wood along the keel had begun to dry, labor began in earnest today.  The entire keel received a Bondo filling that was planed and sanded to shape.  Only one small section about a foot in length remained too damp to repair so Kobuk will not be ready for launch until tomorrow sometime.  In fact, once all the repair work is done I intend to attach a rubber strip along the keel to protect the repair zone, and this project most likely will postpone relaunch until Sunday.  Eric and Michelle must think I have decided to spend the summer.

 

Saturday, July 9

By midmorning, when the last couple spots on the keel looked dry enough, I went to work.  Yesterday afternoon the temperature got to well above a hundred and it looks likely to do the same today, so I was eager to get the project completed.  The prospect of worming around under the trailer in the mid-afternoon heat made me a little more ambitious than usual.  The results were quite startling, actually; by not long after noon I had the patching done, the plastic keel protector installed and all finish work tidied up.

It was too hot to bicycle into town, so the afternoon was spent taking advantage of the two available cooling systems.  First, I went for a swim down by the boat ramp and then I hung around in the air conditioned restaurant drinking lemonade.  It gave me a chance to finish Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition told from the point of view of Meriwether Lewis.  Poor Clark gets short shrift in the story, not because Lewis failed to give him his due but because Ambrose lavished his attention on theRetrieving the Past man who Jefferson chose to lead the expedition.  Lewis hired Clark and did everything in his power to make Clark the co-leader of the expedition, but Jefferson hired Lewis and only in an abstract, intellectual way accepted the notion that Clark would be the co-leader of the Corp of Discovery.  For the two and a half years they were in the field, the two men shared command.  Jefferson never really accepted it and the army certainly didn’t, but the reality is that while in the wilderness Lewis and Clark were co-commanders who never had a falling out, never contradicted each other, and never struggled when they had to make a joint decision.  This should cast some doubt on the universally accepted principle that decisive action must be taken by a single leader and that shared command inevitably leads to disaster.  I don’t know how Lewis and Clark did it, but then I don’t know how successful marriages work either.  Anyway, I should think that the journals of Lewis and Clark would be an effective manual for marriage councilors since wedlock must certainly be the world’s most pervasive example of joint decision making (interestingly, Lewis never was able to find a wife).

With nothing left to read, I picked up a copy of the 2005 South Dakota fishing handbook put out by the Game, Fish, and Parks Department.  Being unspeakably ignorant about all aspects of the sport, virtually everything I read was revelation.  Did you know, for example, that “highgrading” is against the law?  This is the practice of keeping caught fish alive in a tank of water so that when you reach your limit for the day you can continue fishing and just release your least desirable catch whenever you hook something new.  Were you aware of the fact that delinquency in paying child support prohibits you from getting a fishing license?  How about the law prohibiting the removal of head, skin, and fins when you catch a fish on the lake and then eviscerate it?  And this only scratches the surface.  There is a law against packaging fish together when you prepare them to take home.  Also, “foul hooking” is a no-no.  This is when the hook catches the fish somewhere besides in the mouth.  Actually, it is ok to foul hook a fish, but you’re not allowed to do it on purpose.  It must be awfully tough for those fish and game wardens to figure out whether the act was intentional.

Even though foul hooking is frowned upon, it does have its place.  The Missouri River is home to the paddlefish, a creature that can weigh tens of pounds and that does its share of jumping.  When I was passing through the area where the Yellowstone meets the Missouri, I would occasionally hear enormous splashes in the evening and the only plausible explanation is paddlefish.  Anyway, paddlefish don’t take bait so you have to catch them by foul hooking.  Either that or you have to shoot them with a bow and arrow.  Whichever method you choose, you have to do it in the correct season—summer for the archery approach and fall for the foul hooking (at least in South Dakota).


Sunday, July 10

I wonder why I chose this life.  Each day is a progression of problems and the constant struggle is to react to the ones that crop up leaves no time to anticipate the ones that might be coming—at least for someone as ill adept at forward thinking as I am.  I don’t suppose anybody else’s life is that much different from mine in this respect; we all are beset by daily problems and if they are insufficient to fill our needs we react to the lack of challenges by fabricating ones that can keep us occupied.  I guess the real question is what kinds of problems we choose to take on.

All this philosophizing is nothing more than a reaction to the kind of day that this turned out to be.  It was a promising morning with plenty of sunshine and a handsome looking boat, but somehow the events of the day were not foreshadowed by the charm of its start. 

SpikeA careful check of Kobuk last night left me feeling confident that the morning launch would go flawlessly, but after getting her in the water I discovered that the Remote Troll would not work.  This is the bracket on the transom that holds the outboard.  It is equipped with a small electrical motor and pulleys so that the driver can steer the outboard from the cabin simply by working a toggle switch at the end of a long cable.  This was clearly an electrical problem but my capacity to troubleshoot electrical malfunctions is deplorably weak.  I did all the wiring on the boat, but it was a form of slave labor involving little more than following directions culled from a variety of technical sources—not the actions of a skilled craftsman who knew what he was doing.  Nevertheless, it eventually became clear that the problem was a simple matter of a detached connection and eventually Kobuk was ready for service. 

Lake Sharpe backs up to the Oahe dam, and it is nothing more than a flooded section of the Missouri River valley that is about eighty miles long, running more or less east-southeast towards the dam.  The wind for the day was from the east-southeast and as the day progressed so did the wind.  It got stronger and stronger and as it did so the waves on the lake got bigger and bigger.  At first, they were quite manageable; not until after passing Pierre did the wind and waves begin to become a serious consideration, but from then on the conditions were perfect for foiling forward progress.  Lake Sharpe itself is a rather uninteresting shape with few variations in its general linear orientation and a surprising lack of side bays and estuaries.  The one exception is Big Bend, a massive curlicue that creates a horseshoe so pinched off at its open end as to be more like the Greek letter ____.  But the fifteen mile loop of big bend is more or less the last hurrah before reaching the dam.  Kobuk and I spent the entire day fighting our way against the ever stronger wind and its foam-flecked waves. 

By mid-afternoon, the waves were at their worst—only 2-4 feet high but spaced so awkwardly close together that Kobuk was pummeled and battered, bucking like a bronco in the rodeo.  Even at just a few miles per hour, the timbers shivered, the windshield shed sheets of water, and the bow occasionally buried in the forward face of an oncoming wave.  Kobuk was game, her bow pitching up quickly from each inundation, but the beating was dreadfully harsh and on occasion the shape of the waves was exactly designed to launch her and cause her to slam unmercifully against the face of the oncoming wave.  Metal dishes launched themselves from their customary resting places on port side shelves and I often had to take extra precautions to guard myself against collision with the windshield or various protrusions about the cabin.

At higher speeds, I might have been able to maneuver Kobuk more effectively to take these harsh blows at a glancing angle,  but at only a few miles per hour, the helm is slow to respond and the throttle is the only available means of adapting to the small lake equivalent of rogue waves.  This entire struggle became more intense and unremitting whenever we would enter a section of the lake where dead trees protruded above the surface of the water and waves sluiced through them as if they were the teeth of a comb unsnarling hair.  The trick was to pass between the teeth.

Late in the afternoon, I was able to get in the lee of some bluffs where the wind and the waves were not so fierce, but at that particular time the first tank of gas ran dry and I was obliged to switch over to the second.  After having done so, the engine would not start, putting paid to the theoretical notion that the problem of engine malfunction was related to the torn flapper on the exhaust.  The small auxiliary engine is not powerful enough to fight against such inclement weather, so there was no choice but to put in to a small, exposed estuary that happened to be near.

Once tied off, the wind continued to wail and moan—although not scream—but the waves were no longer a concern since the wind was coming right off the land towards the boat.  To make the best of the situation, I made myself a meal and waited for the wind to abate, as it usually does late in the day.  It was a lovely, sunny day, but the boating conditions were not very good.

At one point, while at rest, I went back to check on the new rubber flapper installed on the exhaust fitting and was shocked to discover that the stern of the boat was almost entirely covered by flies that presumably were using it as a haven from the wind.  None of them was coming into the boat, but their almost unlimited numbers were terribly distracting.

After an hour or so the wind did abate and under the power of the auxiliary outboard, Kobuk once again proceeded.  But now a new problem: the flies migrated into the cabin and began to bite.  There were thousands of them.  I could do nothing to control them.  The auxiliary engine could not push Kobuk fast enough to blow them out and for a couple hours I was almost driven almost mad by the fly invasion.

My distress became so great that finally I declared war against the critters—a foolish action since their numbers were overwhelming and I already had my hands full trying to steer whilst being bit.  I went on the rampage, swatting and batting flies with rolled up maps.  Of course I killed hundreds—I could hardly miss.  But this only excited them.  They took particular pleasure in feasting on their smashed comrades and inspecting all the bloody spots on my legs where earlier bites had been scratched.  In the end, I realized that my suffering would be less if I left them alone and only dealt with the ones that attacked me directly.

I tried many different body positions to escape their ravages, but none were completely effective.  Eventually, I ended up sitting on top of the back of the cabin seat with my legs drawn up there away from the seat itself.  This was where the wind from the opened cabin top discouraged the flies most effectively, but even there tLake Sharpe Anchoragehe occasional intrepid would venture into the risky conditions to sample my blood.

When finally I reached the Big Bend, there was a short stretch of favorable wind and waves from the stern that allowed me to power Kobuk up to a much higher speed, and this helped enormously to blow the flys out of the cockpit.  Even at that, hundreds remained.

Part way around the Big Bend, I ran out of daylight.  I had been trying to get to the dam before the end of the day, but with twilight coming on and the dam still some miles away I started looking for a good place to park.  At first I passed up perfectly good spots hoping for something a little better farther on, but as the light faded I realized I better take whatever I could get if I wanted to escape from the vicious chop that was now punching us in the nose.  Of course, once I realized I could no longer put off seeking safe harbor, no more protected spots appeared and I began to reluctantly contemplate the distasteful prospect of heading back toward one I had passed earlier.  Finally, though, a nice little estuary appeared of the port side and I slipped up in there and tied off.

Oahe Spillway Marina:              44° 26.378’ N  /  100° 23.393’ W
Big Bend estuary:                      44° 09.313’ N  /  99° 32.150’ W

Distance:                                    75 miles
Total Distance:                           942 miles


Monday, July 11

Before I left Pierre, I had been given the name of Kevin Swensen as someone who might be able to help me around the Lake Sharpe dam.  He and his brother own a marina in Chamberlain, a town on Lake Francis Case which is the next Corps project downstream from Lake Sharp.  I called him when I reached the dam and a couple hours later he appeared with a trailer in tow and hauled us around the dam.

In the process, I am chagrined to admit, I failed to properly latch the anchor box hatch and as we drove down the road the wind opened it up and ripped it off the box.  It smashed against the windshield, but by some miracle failed to break it.  The repair job will not be easy but as I thought about it I realized I was being taught a lesson on the cheap.  I had to admit that the box was not properly latched while out on Lake Sharpe and it really ought to have been torn off then.  If that had happened it almost surely would have come through the windshield right when the waves were at their biggest.  It would have been a far more complicated situation.  I was lucky.

How easy it is to become casual about matters of this sort.  When I built the box I had realized the risk and had always been very careful to properly latch it.  But somehow I stopped paying attention to this potential problem, and this is the result.  Now I must think about where I can get the clamps necessary to properly glue it back together.

Once in the water below the dam, I headed out for Chamberlain, some twenty miles down the lake.  The water was deep and calm so Kobuk and I cruised down the lake with little caution and lots of speed.  Now for the first time trees began to appear in the ravines and around the bluffs that step back from the river.  Always there have been cottonwoods and other riverfront trees, but this is the first sign of wooded landscapes away from water.

With its one-way Main Street and ancient steel girder bridge over the lake, Chamberlain has a distinctive look that makes it more appealing than most of the towns along the river so far.  In the evening I went to the theatre on Main Street and watched Cinderella Man.  For reasons I won’t go into, it saddened me with nostalgia.

American Creek:                      43° 48.889’ N / 99° 19.487’ W

Distance:                                   31 miles
Total Distance:                         973 miles


Tuesday, July 12

In the larger scheme of things, the direction the wind blows is governed by differences in air pressure; it flows from where the pressure is high to where it is low, trying to even out the difference but finding itself constantly thwarted by the spinning of the earth which deflects it from its preferred course.  This grand scheme of air swirling around high and low pressure cells is an elegant truth that appeals to our modern desire to comprehend the world using abstract models.  This model works but it tells us far less than I realized about what the wind direction might be in any one particular location.  It seems that topography has more to say in the matter than usually recognized.Chamberlain on Lake Francis Case

On these lakes, for example, which are typically very long, reasonably straight, and relatively narrow, the wind typically blows up or down them but only occasionally across them.  The river valley itself has surprisingly little relief to it.  The dams that have been thrown across the valley to create the lakes typically are a couple miles across but only about a hundred feet high.  The high plains running back away from the valley, therefore, are rarely more than a hundred feet above the lake level and of course near the dams the valley is filled to the brim and the vertical distance between water level and high plains is a matter of mere tens of feet.

Even so, this river valley seems to have the ability to take any prevailing wind except one that is more or less perpendicular to its axis and deflect it so as to travel along the axis.  I had always thought that only much more pronounced physical features had such ability to reorient the wind, but experience always trumps theory.  I now know that here on Lake Francis Case I should expect that the wind will blow either with me or against me rather than quartering or striking on the beam.  It is not like the open ocean.

Since the odds are nearly even that the wind will be foul, I decided to leave early, when conditions are usually calm, and get as far down the lake as possible before wind and waves made the journey more challenging.  It turned out to be a quick trip down the lake, cruising along at near top speed.  At times like these I realize what a monster I have created; the wake behind the boat is a deep trough with primary wake waves that would intimidate all but the very best water skiers.  Some thirty to forty feet back, where the trough is still almost as deep as when it comes out of the back of the boat, the pressure from the jet drive forces up an arc of rooster tail water that carrys more flow than a couple dozen garden hoses.  All the while the engine drones powerfully and the silent landscape slips by.

Around midday I reach the marina at Fort Randall Dam and John, a retired insurance salesman who is today substituting for the local operator of the convenience store, hems and haws and generally agonizes before finally deciding to borrow one of the many empty trailers stored at the marina while their boats spend the summer season on the water.  He is of course worried that he might damage a borrowed trailer and get himself into no end of trouble.  I completely understand his concern and make no effort to talk him into doing what John and His Friendwe both know probably ought not to be done.  John, however, can’t resist.  He is not the laid back sort, and his natural desire to take charge of things obviously will get the better of him sooner or later.  All I have to do is wait, say nothing, and look like a puppy dog—and sure enough, John finally screws up the nerve to snag a trailer and haul Kobuk out of the water.  He has recruited a friend for the enterprise and the three of us are able to get Kobuk settled on a trailer that can carry the load.  The first trailer was overwhelmed by her size and weight, but the second trailer did the trick.

Once back in the water, Kobuk waited patiently as I take lunch dockside.  And then we depart.  This stretch of the river is not flooded by the next lake downstream; it is a few tens of miles of relatively unmodified waterway with all the usual characteristics of a natural river—snags, sandbars, sloughs, and Missouri Valley scenery.  Most definitely now, the forest is closing in.

Before depositing itself in the Lewis and Clark Reservoir, the river runs through a corridor of untouched natural splendor.  Some distance downstream there is an exception: a riverfront residential strip development along the Nebraska side.  Small bungalows and mobile homes shoulder one another for access to the river, each with its riprap to protect the shore and each with its floating dock for swimming and boating.  The river channel follows this bank, and eventually I wander too far out into the middle of the river.  Not very far, but too far nonetheless.  Kobuk hangs up on shallows and I have to shut down the engine to sort it out.  Once back in the channel, I find that the main engine won’t start (it’s the same old problem).  The channel is narrow and I am quickly drifting towards the riprap along the shoreline so I give up on it and fire up the auxiliary—only to discover that the Remote Troll is not working and there is no way of steering the boat when the engine is running.  I shut down the auxiliary and prepare to fend off the rocky shore.  Fortunately, there is no strong wind to match the strong current, and I find it relatively easy to wade in the shallow water, stepping from rock to rock, and eventually manage to maneuver Kobuk alongside the next private dock downstream.

After tying off, I knock on the door of the dock owner’s home but nobody is in.  A short hike up and down the development confirms that none of the nearby houses have any occupants, and so eventually I return to settle in for the night.  One very nice aspect of this trespassing is that it permits me to moor Kobuk in deep water—something that has been a concern because locals have told me that the Corp varys the water level of this stretch of the river perhaps as much as 5-6 feet.  I do not want a repeat of my Stanton grounding.

Around sunset, as I am lounging on Kobuk, drinking rum and sitting half dressed, the owners show up.  After hastily putting on my shirt, I go up to speak with them and receive, as you might expect, a rather cold reception.  I explain what happened and then the elderly gentleman then asks me to leave.  I tell him “ok,” and head towards the boat.  As I am leaving he asks how I am going to move the boat if the engine doesn’t run and I tell him I will do it by hauling Kobuk along the bank using a line.  He has a conference with his wife and they decide that it would be alright for me to stay at the dock overnight after all.  I thank them and go to bed.

Illicit dock:                    42° 49.813’ N  /  98° 09.720’ W

Distance:                      112 miles
Total Distance:            1,085 miles
 


Wednesday, July 13

I try to get up early, but even though I succeed by my standards, I discover when I look out of the boat that my landlord already is well along with painting his porch.  After I get myself organized, he comes down and invites me to go to breakfast with them at a nearby establishment.  They have decided I am neither threatening nor deceitful, and we spent a very pleasant time together talking about farming—from which he has recently retired—and writing—which she finds as rewarding as I.  By the time we finish breakfast, we are on very good terms and he is very happy to give me directions on how to find the river channel during the next few miles.  Since the engine now runs flawlessly, I set out as soon as possible.  As I leave they apologize to me for being so unfriendly the preceding night and I explain to them that I would have been exactly the same way if I had come home to find someone camped in my front yard.The Missouri Near Niobrara

A few miles downstream, the engine quits.  Since the auxiliary cannot be steered, I have no choice but to sit and wait.  Eventually, the engine starts again, and I proceed.  Over the next couple hours, this happens two more times.  It is all rather stressful.  I keep having to remind myself that I am not in a hurry—that I have plenty of time—that there is no sense in getting agitated about something so uncontrollable.  The good thing about this trip is that in addition to learning how to control the boat (and I am improving) I also am learning how to control myself.

Progress is slow for this section of the river is full of hazards and the balky engine evidently needs an occasional rest.  Eventually, though, we find ourselves at the delta where a maze of channels and sloughs lie between the running river and the open waters of Lewis and Clark Lake.  This delta region is hard to navigate because all maps are useless, each channel is quite narrow and has a barely detectable current, and the sides of the channels all look the same—flatland islands overrun with grasses too tall to see over.  No channel that I come across has any depth to it and it is necessary to proceed at only a couple miles per hour in case of grounding.  Hopefully, shoaling out would be a real grounding and not one of those hang-ups in Missouri River muck such as I encountered up at the head of Lake Sakakawea.

Will the engine quit?  Will I hang up in muck? Is the channel real or just a slough?  I try to keep these unhelpful questions at bay and motor on slowly.  After what seems an awfully long time, I steer Kobuk around a bend and see open water in the distance.  The depth finder, which has been reading 2.2 feet ever since I entered this maze, continues to record that same depth.  At last I am in the lake and the depth finder still does not budge.  I motor along at the same slow pace a mile or two into the lake before at last there is a slow increase in the reading.  Only when it gets to about 12 feet, by which time I am at least a couple miles from shore in any direction, do I take Kobuk up to speed and run down to the dam where boaters are abundant and Lewis and Clark Marina has a fuel dock.

After Kobuk has been refueled, I ask the dock attendant if there is a mechanic who could take a look at the two problems I have, and he eventually rounds up a mechanic named Dave.  I like this man Dave because he doesn’t rush into things.  When I explain the problem I am having with the main engine, he does not immediately react, but spends some few minutes silently thinking to himself before making a suggestion.  Eventually, he confirms the widely held view that the most likely explanation is vapor lock and he advises me to install a squeeze bulb in the main fuel line to the engine.  Late in the day I do that, but it does not solve the problem: the engine still does not start properly and each time it fails to start the squeeze bulb runs dry.

As for the other problem—the malfunctioning Remote Troll—I am chagrined to admit that it was nothing more than a blown fuse.  I checked one fuse but forgot that there is a second one is located in the plug-in fitting outboard of the transom.  Dave found it, though.

Lewis and Clark Marina:           42° 52.361’ N  /  97° 29.483’ W

Distance:                                     41 miles
Total Distance:                           1,126 miles
 

Thursday, July 14

In the morning Dave returned and solved the mystery.  It turns out that this particular engine has two fuel pumps and although one of them showed all signs of working properly, the second—which apparently is intended to deliver the precisely correct amount of fuel pressure to the supercharger—had a wiring harness that was getting suspiciously hot.  When disconnected, the female plug looked as if the male plug would never be able to properly fill it.  Dave took me to town—to Yankton a few miles away—where an auto parts store promised that a replacement harness could be gotten in by the following morning.  This was good enough for me and so we returned to the marina where I wiled away the afternoon and then bicycled into Yankton where I had business to do at the library.  Afterwards, I decided to go to the movies.

“War of the Worlds” may have been conceived by H. G. Wells in an earlier time when people were somewhat more titillated by the notion of alien invaders, but in a bizarre way the recent movie version of this classic story has a contemporary angle that I doubt Mr. Wells ever thought about.  In the end, the invaders are defeated not by human ingenuity or human heroism, but rather by their failure to anticipate the deadly effects of earthly microbes and bacteria.  The invaders had no developed resistance to earthly diseases and succumbed to their virulence.

The invaders were life forms from a different planet.  That they should die from what they picked up on earth only becomes clear at the very end of the movie.  Still, they did die, and only the microscopic critters saved humanity from certain extermination by a superior species.  It is all so Darwinian, and the invaders are such perfect examples of the biologist’s interest in how such invaders manage to seize control of a biological niche.  But for the germs, humans would have been put out of business as the aliens took over.  From a biological perspective, displacement of a particular creature from its original position of dominance happens frequently in this world.  When North and South America connected up a few million years ago there were many South American animals that died out because they could not compete with invaders from the north.  Mr. Wells’ fantastic story is a fine example of exoticism gone interstellar.
 


Friday, July 15

The seven dollar wiring harness came in as promised and now the engine seems to run as smooth as butter.  This turn of events inspired me to get active and do a few boat repairs that have been crying out for attention.  Two in particular: reattach the lid for the stern anchor box (which came off when I stepped on it to climb aboard Kobuk after pushing free from a sandbar) and do something about the broken hatch on the forward anchor box.

I was working contentedly at these tasks when a fellow named Bill showed up on the dock to set up his handsome sloop for an evening sail.  He brought beer and congenial conversation, and in a short while we both were buzzed as we pursued our separate projects.  Bill has had a boat here in the yacht harbor for many years and seems to know each passing person, including a fellow named Dick who in turn knew a man—a communications professor—whose trailer would fit my boat.  Dick took charge and by early evening a plan was in place for Kobuk to be moved around the dam first thing in the morning.  It’s time to move on.

Saturday, July 16

Sioux City, Iowa, is about seventy miles down the river.  Most of that distance is relatively natural although the last twenty miles—from Ponca State Park down—has been channeled by the Corps.  This will be the last stretch of wild and scenic waterway on the Missouri and I am not likely to see a pristine environment again until after reaching Lake Michigan.

No towns, only one bridge, and the occasional boat—that is all the civilization to be seen on this stretch.  About midway through it, I came around a bend and entered a very broad stretch of open water with driftwood logs scattered everywhere across it.  They were good indicators that shallows were abundant and so I began looking in earnest for the channel.  I was at the time on the starboard side of the river but the water ahead looked slack and sinister so I angled across towards the other side.  In the middle of the crossing, Kobuk went aground.

Under a heat hazed sun, with the current flowing like a broad sheet, I set out to find a channel.  Wading in ever widening circles around Kobuk, I was unable to find any deep water anywhere within a couple hundred yards.  Eventually, after an exhaustive search, I settled on a curling route that snaked along in a more or less downstream direction until at last reaching a channel that had four or five feet of water in it.  This route was deep enough for Kobuk, but only barely; almost the entirety of it was at or just below my knees as I waded.  But by now I know exactly how much water it takes to float Kobuk so I was sure she would not hang up in a serious way.  The problem was that at the end of this path to freedom was a shallow bar over which Kobuk would have to pass to get into the channel.  The bar was less than a boat length in width, but there the water was distressingly thin—not even up to the middle of my calf.  I knew this would be a terrible struggle, but there seemed no alternative.  I could have tried to lead Kobuk back the way she came, I suppose, but that is surprisingly hard to identify in an open body of water and all my walking around upstream of the boat had revealed no obvious conduit whereby Kobuk had come to her present state.

After working Kobuk free, I took her by a line off the bow and led her along the sinuous route.  When we got to the shallow bar, I shoved her onto it as hard as I could and then started doing what I could to muscle her across.  I eventually chose to move her broadside on the theory that the tipped hull would draw slightly less water and the fact that the broadside position would provide a slightly greater amount of assistance from the current.

I would alternate between moving the bow a few inches and then doing the same with the stern.  It was exhausting labor in which I would set my back to the hull, try to grip the guard rail with my hands and then use my legs to move the mass across a little of the sand.  All the strength I had was only enough to move one end of the hull an inch or two.  Many times I could not move it at all and would have to wait for two or three minutes to regain some strength before trying again.

Progress was agonizingly slow.  As the hours passed I became weaker and weaker.  It seemed as if this would have to be the campsite for the night.  The sand was perverse.  It was firm sand—not mud—but it would grab Kobuk and hold onto her with a devilish suction that was brutally hard to release.  At the same time, whenever I set my feet and with my knees bent pushed against the hull, the sand underfoot would inexorably slip away.

The last couple of feet were the shallowest of all, and it was there that I found I could not move the hull any more.  Since I couldn’t get the hull over the sand, I decided to get the sand out from under the hull.  I used an aluminum pail.  I lay down in the water beside Kobuk and scooped sand from the ridge separating the hull from the channel.  It was a respite of sorts.  The labor was considerable but still far less than trying to heave the heavy hull broadside.  Not only that, lying in the water was cooling me off.

But the sand removal project had its own difficulties.  I had become so weak that even lifting a sand-filled pail was something of a labor, and whenever I tried to empty the bucket the sand would stay suctioned up in it and not come out without all sorts of shaking and swizzling.  And the pail was pitifully small.  It all seemed somewhat hopeless and in the end I staggered around scooping sand and pushing on the hull, not thinking about what I was doing but just doing it because there was nothing else I could think to do.  In the end, it worked, but it took four hours.

When I finally dragged myself back aboard Kobuk and started up the engine, evening was well advanced and I was too weak to think well.  The channel we were in led to a constriction of the river where deeper water was a virtual certainty, but the neck was quickly behind us and opening up in front was another broads with the same look as the preceding one.  This time I decided to not be so foolish as to try a crossing from one side to the other and opted to continue through by constantly staying to starboard.  This was a bad choice for within a few hundred yards Kobuk had run aground—not hard and easily gotten free, but recent history had me oppressed.  ISunset at Mulberry Bend started wading once again to get a sense of where the water might be deepest.  I noticed at this point that a number of people were on a sandbar over near the far shore, and they had with them a couple power boats.  Obviously, the channel was over there.

After working Kobuk free, I led her like a horse on a bridle and began making my way across to the other side where the people were.  Whenever the water level would start to get down on my shin, I would change direction until I found more clearance for Kobuk’s 13” draft.  Of course, the plastic strip that I attached to the keel in Pierre has made the hull slightly deeper in the water and, I think, caused her to stick more in the sand whenever she grounds.  By leading her at the bow, I was able to make sure she did not run aground again.

Getting to the other side was slow business since most of it ended up being an upstream slog with the current trying to take Kobuk the opposite direction from where I was taking her.  In the end, though, we made it to the sandbar where so many people were having a good time.  As I nosed Kobuk onto the sand at the upstream end of the bar, three teenage boys came running up to ask if I needed help.  Hmmm.

This party actually ended up giving me invaluable help: one of them knew the river well and spent lots of time talking with me about where and how to find the channel in that stretch of the river remaining before Ponca State Park.  I took notes on what he told me.  One of the things he told me is that “you will have two more stretches where the river broadens out and gets just like it is here.”  That got my attention.

Lewis & Clark Lake spillway:             42° 50.990’ N  /  97° 27.743’W
Mulberry Bend:                                    42° 43.632’ N  /  96° 57.351’ W

Distance:                                               32 miles
Total Distance:                                     1,158 miles
 

Sunday, July 17

Armed with detailed directions on where to find the channel and equipped with advice on how to read the river, I nosed Kobuk out into the stream and set off with only one thought in mind: how to get to Ponca Park without running aground.

Avoid still water.  When you think the channel crosses the river, it probably does so abruptly and not on the diagonal.  Aim for the raw, cut banks where trees are under siege.  Avoid cut banks where grass and other vegetation is starting to generate.  If snags leave wakes the water is deep.  Ignore your maps: they are decades old and the river transforms itself every year.

To get through Annie’s Bend, the worst remaining section of shallows and sandbars was going to require crossing from bank to bank four times, a seriously intimidating thought since nothing is more risky on this river than getting out in the middle of it where sandbars and shallows swarm.

Like a novice in Driver’s Ed class, I was much too concentrated and far too conscious of my actions and decisions for the job to be done with any sort of style or grace.  Intuition was out the window and I was a slave to a set of guidelines that sustained me like a lifeline.  In the end, though, as ugly as it was, it was enough and we reached Ponca Park shortly after noon.

As we neared the boat ramp, the warning buzzer for the engine informed me that it was overheating.  I shut it down and powered in using the Yamaha.  It took a while for the walk on shore to draw the stress out of my system, but eventually we set off again to run the final stretch to Sioux City.  When the main engine wouldn’t start there was no getting around the fact that the old problem was back—now compounded by this surprising tendency for the engine to overheat.  Since I first turned it on three years ago it has run rock solid at 170 degrees.  Now it only stays there at lower rpm’s; at over 5000 rpm’s it heats up to above 180 degrees.  Well, at least now I can rely on the little Yamaha which combines with the current to move us downstream at a fair pace.  The Remote Troll is only a very crude guidance system but now that the river channel is broad and predictable, that’s good enough.

Sioux City on a Sunday has its boaters buzzing around on the river like agitated flies confined to two dimensions.  The river—normally so placidly roiling—was a confusion of waves and cross-waves with no consistent pattern and one can’t help but be impressed by the navigational acumen required of all these Sunday drivers.  They seem not phased, however, and that is as good a sign as any that Sioux City actually is a city.

I stopped at the new Cimarron Marina to buy gas and to have a meal.  The facilities are very nice but when I learned that an overnight stop would cost me $25 I decided to move on.  A short distance downstream, the Nebraska side of the river offered a grassy city park and a stretch of beach somewhat protected from the current by two extended groins.  I tied off there and prepared to spend the night.

When I climbed the embankment to search for the public showers, all the recreational facilities were in full use—the volleyball pits, the picnic tables, the campsites, the large and modern swimming pool, even the corn placarded meeting hall.  This is the waterfront park for South Sioux City which must be an ethnically diverse place.  Everyone I saw was Latino or Native American or Asian.  I did see a few Blacks, but no Whites.  I was the only one.  Such a curiosity was I that when I went into the swimming pool showers five little boys came in to watch and ask questions.

Scenic Park:                                         42° 29.181’ N  /  96° 24.251’ W

Distance:                                              44 miles
Total Distance:                                    1,202 miles
 

Route Map 4Monday, July 18

I had thought some of pushing off early in the morning but recovery from the stress of the preceding couple days was not yet complete and it was easy to come up with a list of things that ought to be done before setting out.  Ice, groceries, minor repairs, engine oil—those sorts of things.

It was a refreshing change, actually, to pedal around town doing errands.  South Sioux City is an unusual blend of handsome new public buildings, small and unpretentious but older tract homes, withered or dead commercial establishments, and an odd collection of small businesses that have found their niches in this town of small budgets.  It looks as if the place is coming back to life, rather like a burned forest twenty years after the fire.

It wasn’t until mid-afternoon that Sioux City and its south side sister disappeared in the rear view mirror.  This encounter with civilization had been somewhat disorienting.  In addition to the boat traffic, there had been the constant hum of city noise all night long.  Also, there were all those observers—people so situated as to observe every move that Kobuk and I might make.  Worst of all, though, were the three culverts sticking out of the river bank across from the city park where I had been tied off.  All three were pouring remarkable quantities of brown water into the river from some height.  As I watched these cascades endlessly running, I couldn’t help but think that thisSouth of Sioux City is just the start of things to come.  Sioux City, after all, is insignificant when compared to Omaha or Kansas City or St. Louis.  In the ranch country of Wyoming and Montana and the Dakotas, there would often be herds of cattle down at the river’s edge watering themselves, and their presence had kept reminding me of water quality issues whenever I brushed my teeth.  Now the industrial waste starts to kick in and little scummy bubbles begin to make an appearance.

The short run down to Decatur (population approximately 900) was my first experience with this new form of the river: channeled, buoyed, and tamed.  The little Yamaha pushed us along at an easy eight miles per hour.  It does its work so quietly that I was able to listen to Ray Charles and others while perched on the seatback, drinking in the cooling breeze coming in the open clamshell cabintop.  It was a leisurely cruise and I imagined many more like this on the way to distant St. Louis.

The Corp has this river all prepared for the big boats—the tugs and barges—but where are they?  Not a single sighting so far—scarcer than ducks at this point.  But it will change, I’m sure, it will change.

Decatur may be small but it has a marina and that was my reason for choosing it as a stop for the night.  When I arrived at the river mileage reading where the Corp charts say the marina is located, however, all I could see was a dilapidated dock with a small runabout sloppily tied to it.  A gas pump was nowhere in sight but I presumed it must be up at a convenience store set back from the river (a curious arrangement but one that was not uncommon in the Dakotas).

After tying off on a driftwood log and hiking up the embankment, it became clear that this was not a marina and that I was parked on somebody’s private property.  I scouted around a little and found a narrow entrance into a small marina a short ways downstream.  It was nearly empty of boats and when I walked around the premises I found a sign indicating that Pop and Doc’s Marina is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.  This looked like a good place to tie up for the night so I went back and got Kobuk.

As I was tying off at one of the docs, two men appeared on the broad, second-floor balcony of the main building and stood there leaning against its railing and watching me.  When I finished and walked along the dock towards them one spoke out: “You must have made a hell of a deal!”  When I confessed my confusion and asked him to explain, he pointed out that twenty minutes earlier I had been wandering around the marina without a boat and now I had one.  Bob, who had spoken to me, operates the marina with his wife Judy while the surprisingly large man on the deck with him is a young, retired friend named Kent.

Bob confirmed that the marina and restaurant were closed but he invited me to stay tied off for the night and have dinner with them—an offer I couldn’t refuse.  We had hamburgers and cole slaw and sweet corn.  The operative phrase here is “sweet corn” for it quickly became apparent that the other items were mere supplements and that the sweet corn was the center of attention.  The three of them discussed the relative merits of corn from Blair and Tekama and other nearby towns or districts as if each were the unique source for a particular flavor.  A trip of forty miles had been made to purchase this particular batch and the general concensus was that it was good, and better than the batch from a different district that they had had a week earlier, but not as flavorful as the stuff they usually bought from a particular farmer in another locale altogether.

We ate the corn from special dishes, shallow and elongated bowls in which the corn could lie soaking up a Finger Lake of butter.  Not being a connoisseur myself, I found the stuff we were eating peerless and ate my limit of three ears—a personal best.  Kent, whose praise of the product was somewhat guarded, ate eight.

Decatur Marina:                        42° 00.646’ N  /  96° 14.553’ W

Distance:                                    41 miles
Total Distance:                          1,243 miles
 

Tuesday, July 19

The destination for today is Dodge Park, a public marina with a gas dock located on the west side of the river just a few miles upstream from Omaha.  As Kobuk cruised, I sat on the seatback watching the scenery slip by in slow motion.  There has been a recent change in the look of the land.  Whereas formerly the small bluffs to either side of the river demarcated a somewhat restricted floodplain within which the river rambled around and occasionally bumped against those confining walls, the river now seems to be in a broader floodplain with lower and less frequently visible valley sides.  Often now the view from the water is forested riverbanks meandering into the distance with nothing more than the riverside treetops etching a frilly, horizontal skyline.  The trees are crowding in now, lining the banks, jostling for position, and rooted in soil only a few feet above water level.

Occasionally there will be a break in the pattern as a string of homes lines one bank, each home fronting the river and equipped with stairs leading down to a small dock next to many of which a small boat is tied.  Sometimes the homes are year-round residences, sometimes summer cabins or mobile homes.  Nearly always, though, they are strung close together and have tried to preserve their seclusion by saving as many of the original riverbank trees as possible.  Even so, these isolated developments break up the solid green wall of riverbank vegetation and afford occasional glimpses of that other Nebraska and other Iowa: militant cornstalks all in a row edging some farmer’s field.

Dodge Park did not turn out to be such an attractive place.  Modern docks and expensive boats and a finely masoned entrance channel did make a positive first impression, but the only dock available for visitors was an old and unstable one, deep within the harbor—a decrepit and unpainted structure with missing planks, rusted cleats, half-waterlogged flotation blocks, and piles of dog shit everywhere.  I decided to press on to the big city.Omaha from the River

In my prejudicial mind, Omaha has always been a blue collar town in which the acrid odor of meat packing and the grimy visage of rail freight marshalling yards simply overwhelmed the delicate cologne of insurance company representatives.  It was a surprise, therefore, when I came around the final bend and the downtown skyline hove into view.  There was a futuristic look to the place.  The center seemed composed of nothing but modern buildings in which concrete in various shades of gray was the dominant motif.  Glass was not used extensively and so its glistening reflectivity was almost entirely absent.  The city center was built on a broad foundation of large, low, monolithic buildings all strung together with a cluster of only a few tall, slender structures pointing skyward.  But all looked integrated.  All looked as if a grand design had been implemented all at once.  In spite of its solidity, this concrete choreography had a muscular leanness to it, and a lack of edginess.

Along the waterfront, the harsh workplaces of longshoremen and stevedores had all been evicted and the entire sweep of the river bend’s outside perimeter had been redeveloped as a broad plaza with the look and amenities of blue America plunked down in the red heartland.

Over on the other side—the inside of the bend—Council Bluffs was hidden from view by natural and unregulated vegetation looking more like a rural stretch of the river than a piece of prime real estate sandwiched between a small city’s downtown and its nearby waterfront.  I wonder if anyone has thought seriously of leaving it just as it is.

That evening I cycled around on the wide promenade next to the river and stopped for dinner at Rick’s Boatyard Café—a large and modern building with a hint of white Victorian ornateness.  Sitting in there having dinner with dozens of well-dressed and finely-groomed sophisticates, I came to realize that I must have been a distinctive presence.  With bathing suit and untucked shirt and flip-flops, I must have only marginally met the dress standards of the establishment.  Surely my unkempt hair and oil impregnated skin marked me as a fish out of water, so to speak.  The businesslike managers and busy staff were quite professional, however; there were no disapproving glances and I enjoyed my beer and gourmet chicken breast sandwich with the sort of appreciative gusto that perfectly complimented my general physical appearance.

Omaha Waterfront:                   41° 15.814’ N / 95° 55.434’ W

Distance:                                   77 miles
Total Distance:                         1,320 miles

Wednesday, July 20

During the course of its waterfront redevelopment, Omaha saw fit to insert a small boat harbor into its plaza.  This fine facility can accommodate about thirty boats but during the time I stayed there it was otherwise empty—not just of boats but of staff as well.  They must have gone over budget when they built it because it charges $50 (!) for an overnight stay and asks that you pay by stuffing money in an appropriate coin (?) slot whenever the attendant is off duty (which is all the time except weekends).  Although this is pricey, during the weekday business hours you can tie off for free.  Last night I motored over to an unspoiled stretch of sand on the Council Bluffs side to camp for the night, and then returned this morning to go sigJocelyn Art Museumhtseeing.

Unlike many cities, Omaha retains its charm even at close range.  I spent most of the day moving about from place to place and almost everywhere I went in the core of the city was free of urban blight and even managed to avoid looking drab.

I went to two museums during the day, the Jocelyn Art Museum and the Durham Western Heritage Museum.  I was impressed; they had class.  The Jocelyn was housed in a striking building from the thirties that on the outside looked “neo-Egyptian.”  By this I mean it had bulk and a warm tan color and simple but effective patterns engraved here and there in the stone.  The museum’s standing collection had Bodmers, Catlins, Bierstadts, and many other works representative of American achievement in art—and especially Western art.  It also had plenty of paintings by old masters from Europe.  Whoever has been doing the buying has managed to select items with inherent appeal for novitiates like me.

There also happened to be a special exhibit of Russian art from the period just before the Revolution.  These works were highly original—typically very realistic in their portrayal of natural form but extraordinarily expressive of drama, moods, and emotion.  The artists are not well known but that probably is because the Marxists hounded them out of  business and assigned their work to what they assumed would be the dustbin of history.  Now that it is time to empty the trash, all sorts of precious keepsakes are being retrieved.

The other Museum, the Durham Western Heritage Museum, is actually a step back into the early days of Omaha, all housed in a restored Union Station, a classic passenger terminal dating back to the halcyon days when train was the way people got around the country and the country was at war.  The station is populated with life-sized bronze statuary of people in period dress buying tickets, waiting for trains, sitting at the soda fountain, and the like.  Their dull, bronze appearance accentuates their silence and somehow reinforces the illusion that you have stepped into an earlier era at a place where time has stopped.  I should imagine that it is a little like visiting Pompeii.  Like those Russian artists, the creator of these realistic human figures set in a realistic train station has managed to achieve a surreal effect.

Most of the museum exhibits are one floor down—where the passengers would have boarded their trains.  Although competent and effective, attempts to recapture the essence of Omaha in earlier times are little more than well-executed examples of established museum practices.  But in one respect this museum surpasses others I have seen: it confronts directly some of the uglier incidents in Omaha’s past without preaching to the observer about how this dreadful earlier behavior is something to be avoided in the future.  It is always irritating to be harangued abOmaha Waterfrontout the obvious.

Early in the twentieth century, for example, the good citizens of Omaha extracted a Black man from jail and lynched him for . . . well, there’s little need to elaborate—Black men were almost always lynched for the same offense, were they not?  When the mayor of the city tried to stop the crowd, they seized him and strung him up too (although he was cut down by two policemen who saved his life).  The museum presents this event as a series of enlarged and mounted copies of newspaper articles written about the event in the local paper.  No commentary is added.  I like this approach to narrating history.  The problem is that most museums are sponsored and built and staffed by those who care about whatever is being preserved, and often they find it hard to present it in a negative light.  It is refreshing to see here objectivity and love combined in such a mature way.

In the evening I wandered around in the restored Old Market district with its red brick buildings, uneven brick streets, and awning shaded sidewalks.  On the district’s southern perimeter I came across a local brew pub called “Upstream,” and spent much of the evening pulled up to the bar and talking with a young man named Cameron Joyner.

Cameron was a talker and had had a good day.  The combination is like a positive feedback loop.  This lean, dashing, cavalier with thick, dark eyebrows and dark, wavy hair engaged me with animated talk about the movie he recently had produced, working on it in his spare time.  In return, he admired my Quixotic venture, and soon we were, in spite of our polar opposite temperaments, kindred spirits discussing the insensitivity of the harshly practical world that surrounds us.

I was mightily impressed by Cameron’s animal magnetism: young women buzzed around him like fruit flies checking out a rotten banana.
 


Thursday, July 21

South of Omaha lies the independent little city of Bellevue.  Originally separate and isolated, it now is the proximate neighbor of growing Omaha.  On the river, however, there remains a real, physical separation—fifteen miles of riparian rurality.  Late in the day I motored the short distance downstream and pulled into the Bellevue Marina for gas and a night’s rest before the upcoming 140 miles of river running where towns will be few and small.

Before getting into the entrance channel, a boater with passengers on board and a radio in hand circled around, motioning for me to turn on my radio.  I did, but since I had never used it before I couldn’t figure out how to tune him in and so we had to turn off our engines and talk across the water.  When we finally managed communicate (whilst drifting down the Missouri at a speedy clip), he identified himself as Ron Valentine and said he had on board someone who wanted to talk with me.  When finally we met at the gas dock I was introduced to a congenitally happy, seventy year old hobbit of a man named Julian Wedgewood.  As the name insinuates, Julian is an Englishman. He is taking a canoe from the headwaters of the Missouri to New Orleans.  He has mounted a bracket and a small outboard on the stern of his canoe and up forward he has strapped in several small jerry cans for gas, an extra outboard, and a bicycle.  He had heard about me upstream and had seen my boat on the trailer in Pierre.

I had not heard about Julian but I had seen his green canoe.  It is hard to miss—so laden with non-traditional equipment and with “In the spirit of David Thompson” lettered in white on one side and with reference to Lewis and Clark and Sacajewea and Victor on the other.  For those who might not know, David Thompson was an English trapper/explorer who knocked about in the upper Missouri River region a decade or two before Lewis and Clark got there.  As for Victor, that was the first name of Mr. York, a slave brought along on the expedition by Captain Clark (and thus the only Black in the Corp of Discovery—a singular marvel to many of the Indians along the route).

In the evening, after teaching me how to use my radio, Ron turned both of us over to Ken Killian, a different member of the slightly incestuous Bellevue boating community.  Ken looks as if he spends three hours a day in the gym, one in the tanning salon—and eats little besides carrots, low-fat yogurt, and appropriate amounts of bran.  He rents two slips at the end of the first dock in the harbor.  One slip he uses for his boat “Irish Lady;” the other he has decked over, covered with a shading pavilion, and equipped with such amenities as a refrigerator, storage cabinet, grill, picnic table, hammock, and shower.  He uses the place as a second home—lounging, entertaining, eating, and generally pursuing the social activities most commonly associated with the good life in a good old boy yachting community.

Ken and his lady friend adopted Julian and me, plying us with beer, extracting from us our tales of adventure (true or otherwise), cooking us a steak dinner, giving us the use of the shower, and insisting that we sleep there for the night.  He even took an hour to troubleshoot the Kobuk’s engine overheating problem.  His belief was that the external cooling system had accumulated silt in its heat exchangers and needed to be flushed out—which he attempted by using the water pressure from his garden hose to force water backwards through the piping.

Julian and I were most happy to have a place to stay for the night.  I tied off Kobuk at the end of the dock while Julian set up his tent on it.  We talked and talked until eventually Julian retired to his tent and Ken’s lady friend more or less passed out on “Irish Lady.”  Then, with the moon nearly full and the harbor in silhouette, Ken and I took shots from a bottle of rum and talked about god knows what until the gray light of approaching dawn threatened to spoil the mood.

Bellevue Marina:                       41° 07.816’ N  /  95° 55.434’ W

Distance:                                    17 miles
Total Distance:                          1,337 miles
 


Friday, July 22

Julian departed early but I had decided to stay in Bellevue for the day.  On the long, slender peninsula separating the marina from the river, crews were busy setting up equipment for Bellevue’s upcoming Riverfest, an annual event scheduled to kick off in the evening.  I spent the day touring town, trying to stay out of the heat, and waiting for the fair to begin.  For nearly three weeks, now, daytime temperatures have either broken or challenged the record highs but the most enervating aspect of it is trying to sleep in the still humidity of night air that rarely drops below ninety before the wee hours.

Late in the day when I returned to Ken’s club, dock neighbors were camped in his domain, cooling their feet in a plastic, inflatable pool that had been set up and filled with cool water.  Ken was asleep on his boat, I gather.  As they talked and drank, one of them inquired about my engine problems.  The preceding evening while moving Kobuk to Ken’s dock I had had the usual trouble getting the engine to start and run, and he had observed it all.  This man now took it upon himself to resolve my problem and spent an hour examining my fuel supply system.  He concluded that most likely was an obstruction in the vents or return flow for the fuel system, and he gave me several suggestions for how to test out this theory.  Although now he is a computer network specialist, in a previous career he had been a mechanic and he suggested I call him any time I had trouble.  He gave me his card—Jeffrey C. Wilson, Network Architect—and once again encouraged me to call.  With people like Ken and Jeff, and Ron, and all the others who have gone out of their way to help me on this trip, I have developed a new respect for American friendliness—something that Julian repeatedly commented on when talking about his trip down the river.

Then there was Riverfest with its temporary stage and eclectic local bands, with its assorted food stands and coupon-arranged beer hall, with its impossible collection of sales stalls for indescribably useless items, with its ambling adults and scurrying children and pack-like teenagers.  Like 4th of July in Fort Pierre, it was archetypically American and it reminded me of summer nights at the local fair when I was a child.  Nothing about it was special or spectacular, but the way it drew me back to days gone by was pleasure enough for a sultry summer evening.
 

Saturday, July 23

It wasn’t an early start but I did eventually head down the river and all afternoon the Yamaha hummed and purred, giving me the occasional start whenever a boiling current in the river would cause a momentary hiccup in Kobuk’s forward progress, creating the illusion that things might be going bad in the mechanical world.

The flow of the stream is gaining velocity: when we left Sioux City, the gps calculated our forward progress as averaging about eight miles per hour but now that figure is a half mile per hour faster.  It is true that practice is improving my ability to keep us in the most rapidly moving part of the flow, but this only accounts for a small part of the difference.  Now whenever I head upstream with the Yamaha it cannot advance us against the current at even four miles per hour.  Publications claim that the Missouri is an unusually rapid-flowing river, with rates in the 4-7 miles per hour range, but so far from my experience the surface flow is somewhat less than that.  Thirty thousand cubic feet of water moving past a given point each second, however, is a force to be reckoned with.  Whenever Kobuk is tied off at the river bank and I watch the flow go by, it glides along with a powerful sense of purpose.

With only an hour to spare before dark, we arrive at the small town of Brownville, a community that the official Nebraska state highway map says has a population of 196.  Virtually none of the community is visible from the river, so it is a little surprising when a small riverboat named “Belle of Brownville” passes by coming upstream with as many people on board as the town has residenBrownville Bridgets.  I tie Kobuk to shore beside the town boat ramp, next to the town park, and just downstream from the “Belle of Brownville” loading dock.

By the time the decks are cleared and the curtains are on, dusk has settled on the riverfront and the buzz of cicadas has filled the air.  In the distance I can see a neon light that looks as if it might be the sign for an eating establishment, so I set off in that direction.  It is actually a bar with raucous gaiety and yellow light pouring out of its open doorway.  Dozens of cars are parked outside.

The interior is a vast hall with the bar facilities tucked up at one end.  Off on one side is a brick walled courtyard with tables and trees and a DJ spinning discs.  The large crowd of partiers is dancing, talking, and generally acting as if they all know each other—which they do because it turns out to be a wedding party that has rented the place for the night.  When I order a beer at the bar and ask if they have any food, the bartender tells me they don’t but encourages me to help myself to the banquet of food items laid out for the event at the other end of the hall.  It is for the wedding party, she informs me, but everybody is done with it and plenty of food remains.

I do eventually make my way over to the buffet and help myself to fruit, cold meats, and pasta salad.  It all gets washed down with beer and as I sit eating I watch the celebration.  There are grandparents and babies, cousins and buddies, parents and teenagers.  It really does give a much different atmosphere to the bar environment, one that most bars could benefit from.  Perhaps we should find a way to not only permit minors to be in bars but actually encourage bars to attract people of all ages and types.

Angela and Jeff are the bride and groom.  Angela, a small and pretty blonde, is still in her elaborate, white wedding dress.  She has been drinking enough to affect her behavior, but not her balance or her speech.  She runs around constantly trying to find different individuals, always for some urgent reason, and seems to thrive on pseudo-crises.  Jeff, on the other hand is a tall, well-proportioned young man who seems not to have a care in the world.  With his shaved head and his arm tattoo and his black tuxedo pants, he catches your attention.  Not often do you see a groom with nothing on above the waist but an unbuttoned white vest.

Brownville Boat Ramp:                 40° 23.733 N  /  95° 39.027 W

Distance:                                        67 miles
Total Distance:                              1,404 miles
   


Sunday, July 24Brownville Barn

It is tempting to start down the river first thing in the morning because that would be the easiest thing to do in this oppressive heat.  After so many days and nights of such sultriness, it gets harder and harder to do anything but the easiest thing.  But then I remind myself that there is no sense in coming all this way only to bypass everything that might be on shore.

I cycle up into town, which turns out to be a little slice of middle America preserved and restored from a century ago.  The small shops along the two blocks of the main street are neither cute nor striking, but they are real.  By this I mean they look as if they are not self-conscious efforts to recreate a bygone era but rather functioning businesses that have survived the decades, gradually adapting to the changing conditions of modern life but only on their own terms.  That probably is not the case.  Most likely, they are new businesses and the patina of age is no less affected than the rosy cheeks and red lips of a woman who has done her makeup.  Still, it is no small achievement to create the illusion of natural and organic adaptation and I am instantaneously captivated by this town.

It sits in richly forested hill country with swales of newly cut grass surrounding homes that value clapboard hominess over size.  Running parallel to, and a block or so off to one side of, the main street is a small creek with overhangingBrownville Silos trees.  Churches abound, and none of them are new.  They all look traditional—as churches really ought to do.  Brownville is a miniature Williamsburg, except that it is occupied by real people running real businesses, and its era is early twentieth century rather than late eighteenth.

The coffee shop on the main street only has space for a handful of tables and I am fortunate to find one free.  This is the socializing center for the town, I suppose, and as I sit there eavesdropping on nearby conversations a man at the next table invites me to join their group.  It has taken less than a quarter cup of coffee to become a part of this small town.  One of the men in the group is a short, somewhat squat individual whose face frequently plays itself into a little secretive smile.  He asks me if I am doing a boat trip and as we become engaged in conversation I learn that he has recognized me because he is the owner (and captain, I presume) of the riverboat that passed me last night going upstream.  His name is Randel Jones and he looks a little like a frog.  There is a breadth to his face and his jaw and his midriff that stand in counterpoint to his slender limbs.  This combined with his wide mouth and thin lips suggests frogginess.  I do not mean this in a negative way.  He is charismatic and endearing and you cannot help but see him as a character from Wind in the Willows.

Randel, furthermore, is something of a town father, a moving force behind much of what goes on here.  This is not based on any explicit knowledge or revealing statement; it is an intuitive conclusion based on the authoritativeBrownville Lyceum manner in which he conducts discussions and the queer sensation that everyone around him is constantly aware of his presence.  In any event, he is fun to be around and only the arrival of his wife Jane bumps me out of his orbit.  Jane is one of those rare women who have found a way to turn the aging process to her advantage rather than combating it with hopeless defensive strategies.  She looks younger than she is, but she does not look young.  That matters little, however, when you have found a way to project empathy so powerfully that people end up associating your looks with personality, judging the former by the latter.

From the sound of it, Randel is an entrepreneur, motivated by risk as much as reward.  Jane, on the other hand, is a dreamer with the practical skills necessary to turn her fantasies into fact.  She is at the center of a new project on Main Street—the restoration of its largest building with intentions of turning it into a fantastic blend of lyceum, used book store, intellectual gathering place, and retreat for visiting artists.  She takes me up the street to show me the project and it is so near complete that the prospects are good it will open on schedule at the end of the summer.  She appeals to me to visit after it is done, and to attend her writer’s workshop in the spring.  I would like to: Jane and Brownville are so enchanting that they will lurk there in my mind, luring me to return someday.

Back on the river, Kobuk glides along towards her rendezvous with some unknown final fate—as do I.  The floodplain flatness so pervasive a short distance upstream now gives way to low, rolling, forested hills—a completely new lookBrownville Cafe for the river and one that enhances its natural beauty.  After some hours, including a brief layover at Rulo, where the dock is unstable and the boaters agitate it by powering around at speed—making it hard to talk with the local couple camped out there—the end of the day finds us within striking distance of Island Marina, a small establishment listed by the Corps of Engineers as having docks and gas.

With the sun perched on the western horizon and the land all golden green, a fast powerboat with a squad of young men comes flying by.  As it passes, all its occupants are eyeing Kobuk and me.  They do not notice that some large object has just launched itself from the back of their boat and arced skyward before dropping down and settling on the water way behind them.  I motion to them by extending my arm and pointing furiously at where they have just come from, but they only look at me with suspicious puzzlement and continue to fly on by.  I retrieve the floating object, which turns out to be a very nice life jacket, and think about how I may have just inherited a nice piece of ancillary equipment.  A few minutes later I am fantasizing about the prospect of replacing one of my cheap life vests sleek new one when the four fellows in the speedboat come flying back toward me.  When they get near and throttle back, we yell across the water to each other.  All four of them are macho, studly sorts with tight t-shirts and arm tattoos.  They continue to view me with wary curiosity and do not really believe me when I tell them that they have lost a life vest.  Only when I throw it to them do they absorb the fact that my peculiar pointing had had a purpose.

No sooner have we parted company than a pontoon boat comes downstream and idles back so that we can talk.  There are two men and a woman on board and one of the men wants to know my origin and destination.  We talk for a while and then as we are about to part I ask him if he knows much about Island Marina that is supposed to be located only a couple miles farther on.  He says he does.  He says he owns it and has arranged for his sister to operate it.  He tells me that I can get food there and that I will be able to tie off on shore there.  He assures me that he will stop to let his sister know.  Sure enough, that is exactly how the day comes to an end.

Island Marina:               39° 54.167’ N  /  94° 57.500’ W

Distance:                        74 miles
Total Distance:              1,478 miles
 

Monday, July 25 Island Marina

Island Marina is a weekend operation only, and so when I awoke I had the place to myself.  The establishment was out of business for eleven years and only reopened a short time ago.  It had had a dredged harbor with covered docks for dozens of boats but the floods of ’93 silted up the entrance channel, shallowed out the yacht basin, and converted the docks into a ghost town.  Now the marina relies on a small bay where boats can nose up onto the sand and only has a food and gas concession sitting on the upstream bluff protecting the bay.  The facilities are minimal but the setting is exquisite; the site on the bluff has a deck extending out to the end of the promontory and offering an unobstructed view of the river in both directions. 

With nobody around, I was free to skinny dip in the shallow bay.  The accumulated sweat and grime from the day before slowly soaked off and I was able to set out for St. Joseph clean and respectable. 

Sometime the previous evening, Kobuk left Nebraska behind so now with Missouri on one side and Kansas on the other I no longer felt as if we were traveling in northern states where winter is either just around the next bend or just back there behind the last one.  This was little comfort in the middle of a seemingly endless summer heat wave. 

Shortly before reaching St. Joseph, a tug and barge appeared around a bend in the river, coming towards us.  This was the first sign of commercial traffic on the river between cities and, as Corps publications suggest, I guided Kobuk to the inside of the bend, away from the channel and effectively in the middle of the river.  PeopleMissouri and Kansas have told fabulous tales about how massive the wave train is from barges—large enough to swamp boats and create mini-tidal-waves on shore.  Kobuk fronted the wake waves and took them with no problem.  In an all-American fashion, locals seem to delight in portraying the river and its hazards as supernaturally grand.  I think this is one of those times when the risk has been exaggerated in order to establish the credentials of the river as a dragon-like creature.  Of course, this was only one barge and tug, not one of those Mississippi monsters involving many barges all tied together and extending for a quarter mile out in front of the tug. 

At least from the water, St. Jo was an unattractive place with little but grain elevators, bulk shipping facilities, and industrial plants next to the water.  I tried to park Kobuk on a small wedge of sand next to an elevated highway somewhere near the downtown, but shallows extended a long way out from shore and rejected all efforts to reach dry ground.  I gave up the effort and decided to carry on for a few miles to a private yacht club located on the Missouri side of the river.  Even though I did put in there and strike out for St. Jo on the bicycle, the coarseness of the homes I saw and the few people I happened to meet dissuaded me from carrying on into the heart of the city.  I gave up the trip, returned to Kobuk, and hightailed it for Atchison, Kansas, where I hoped to find a more congeniality and style. 

For the first time since leaving Sioux City, I decided to run Kobuk on the main engine.  That would get us to Atchison in one hour instead of three and would free up the evening to look around town.  On the way, the wind played incomprehensible tricks with the river, blasting it for a mile or two and then disappearing altogether. Over and over it did this, each time creating a dirty little chop and rough ride whenever it blew and then leaving the river with barely a ripple whenever it didn’t.  In either event, Kobuk was able to run at speed.  Whenever it got bouncy and rough, the plates and cutlery would rattle around a bit, but not so much as to cause concern. 

In spite of her relatively high cabin, Kobuk’s speed is not much affected by the wind and only when the waves force a decision to throttle down do they seem to have much effect on speed either.  What does make a difference, though, is the surface of the water.  A calm, glassy surface can easily trim speed by three miles per hour.  Even the smallest ripples break this suction and allow speed to return to its “normal” level.  Under these circumstances, trying to maintain the highest possible speed at a given rpm level requires finding the best blend of rapid current and rippled water. Atchison

I haven’t mentioned it because I don’t want to sound like a complainer, but ever since that encounter with flies on Lake Sharpe I have been plagued with a fly problem on the boat.  Sometimes it is just a minor nuisance and occasionally it is a distracting irritant, but never is it a cause of half-crazed behavior as on that one day.  Nevertheless, fly swatters and supposedly lethal sprays have been utterly ineffective, so in Bellevue I decided to try the fly ribbon option.  For two days one of these ribbons has hung here in the cabin with its disgusting stickiness only inches away from the steering wheel.  It has not trapped a single fly but neither have any flies come into the cabin.  I have come to view it not as an effective fly catcher but rather as a sort of lucky charm that keeps flies at a distance.  I find it far less repulsive than I used to.  Flies, incidentally, were totally absent in Brownville whereas mosquitoes, rarely a problem elsewhere, were a major irritant.  One more piece of evidence that that place is special. 

I ended up pleased to be spending the night in Atchison instead of St. Jo.  The waterfront park where Kobuk found herself moored to a city dock is cleaner and more restful than anything to be found in the St. Jo area, and this alone justified moving on as far as I am concerned.  I recognize that the Atchison park only exists because the city was able to wheedle money out of the federal government on the pretext of cleaning up its image for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial.  I realize I shouldn’t support such porkbarrel projects, but St. Jo could do something for God’s sake.  Its riverfront looks like shit. 

Atchison Independence Park:                39° 33.935’ N  /  95° 06.725’ W

Distance:                                                 40 miles
Total Distance:                                       1,518 miles
 


Tuesday, July 26

Last night the weather finally broke.  Thunderstorms arrived shortly before dawn, signaling the passage of a cold front, and this morning I arose to cloudy skies, sporadic showers, and cool temperatures.  Even though the heat and stillness of the night had made it hard to sleep, the change in weather was refreshing.  I stayed in Atchison for the day, postponing departure until tomorrow morning, and that gave me a chance to do a lot of things that have been waiting for a day like this.

In the years to come when I think back on Atchison it is nearly certain that the memory most vivid will be the passage of trains through town—long trains bringing down the barricades and dividing the town in two at least a couple times an hour.  Atchison is small enough, furthermore, that the trains are within hearing distance of everyone—not just their whistles but the squeak of their wheels and the rumble of their cars.  Indeed, the whistles are rare and the trains always come through town slowly.  One can almost imagine hoboes running alongside looking for a way to hitch an illegitimate ride.

Late in the day I saw my first river rat, a brown mound scurrying among the rocks along the riverside near Kobuk.  It was a fleeting passage and it made a couple of the city workers chuckle because, they said, their fellow worker a short distance away is bent on destroying these creatures and pursues the objective with the same single-minded madness as Bill Murray chasing gophers in CaAtchison Basketballddyshack.

The rain came and went, came and went. 

When evening set in, I happened by a basketball gym in which a local team of teenagers—perhaps the high school team—was playing visitors who were inferior in height, skill, and total points scored.  The gym was a small cavern with steeply rising rows of seats running 360 degrees around the court.  And then there was a balcony where the seating arrangement repeated itself.  It seemed like an NBA venue in miniature, and the contrast between warm, bright lighting on the court and dim, gray light off gave a sense of drama to the scene.  The game was played in near silence, even though a modest crowd of spectators was on hand.  A hush of tense concentration filled the arena, more like the atmosphere of a serious golf match than that of a basketball game.  The players were businesslike and hard moving.  The ball was never walked up the court and the pace of the action was so accelerated that it was hard to tell a fast break from ordinary play.  The audience did not cheer, only clap when points were scored.  The players did not talk to each other, and showboating was unknown.  The only sound was the constant squeak of sneakers on the hardwood floor—as if the young men hereabouts are raised to embody the hard grinding ethic of those screeching-wheeled trains constantly passing through town.

I went to bed early but just as consciousness was slipping away I was aroused by the sound of scrabbling as if an animal were scurrying around on Kobuk’s deck just inches above my head.  I let out a yell to scare away whatever it might be and launched myself out of bed.  There was nothing to be seen, however, and so my aroused fear that Kobuk was being invaded by river rats gradually abated.

Wednesday, July 27

I awoke before dawn to the sound of scrabbling on the hull.  I realized, though, that it was not overhead but rather more at water level.  It seemed that debris was scraping along the side of Kobuk and so I presumed it was driftwood riding down on us, bumping against the bow, and then getting drawn under to rake the bottom.  The sound recurred, and then happened again.  When I got up to take a look, the upstream water bearing down was littered with sticks and branches and even the occasional small log.  Since the dock to which Kobuk was tied sits right next to the most rapidly moving part of the river, it was only natural for the flotsam to concentrate in its vicinity.  In fact, on closer examination, I Kobuk and Driftwooddiscovered that so much driftwood already had wedged itself between the dock and Kobuk that they were removed from each other by as much distance as the mooring lines would allow.  In the eddy of the stern, furthermore, a train of small branches had filled the space between the jet drive and the Yamaha, and had even found a way to get jammed in the jet drive orifice.  I suppose the sound I heard when I went to sleep last night was not an invading creature but only an inanimate stick.  When sleeping up forward the hull is like a drum and any little tap or knock on the exterior reverberates remarkably.  This is my excuse for being spooked by the thought of river rats.

As the sun rose and the morning mist began to dissipate, the air looked as if it had been scrubbed and starched.  This was the atmospheric equivalent of distilled water and it gave the landscape a brilliance that hadn’t been there for weeks.  A new world, it was, and a perfect day for riding the current down to Leavenworth, the next town on the map.  Late in the day I made the trip, and since speed under way with the little Yamaha was now even higher than a couple days ago I could only conclude that the current was flowing faster.  Someone had commented to me yesterday that the river had been rising in the last couple days and so I imagine that the flow was not only bigger but stronger as well.

Say the word “Leavenworth” and most people think of only one thing: a big, bad prison.  It is not uncommon for places to be defined by a single attribute and when that attribute has a negative connotation of some sort the usual reaction is for those who live there is to combat or counter or neutralize it.  Salt Lake City, for example, thinks that the outside world has labeled it as a boring and parochial bastion of Mormonism, and carries on an endless intramural debate over how to react to this.  Similarly, I feel sure that Omaha’s recent drive to modernize is at least partly an attempt to counter its image as an overgrown cow town.  Leavenworth, Kansas, however, seems to wear its bad boy image with a sort of lighthearted unconcern.  With three major prisons in town (not just the notorious one but also an important military prison and the largest privately operated prison in the country) you would think that people here would either dwell on them or avoid discussing them.  The Chamber of Commerce, however, simply treats them as part of the scene—facilities that visitors may or may not wish to view (from a distance) and that are part—but only a modest part--of what is to be seen here.

As a small city, Leavenworth has a reasonably healthy downtown.  Whereas most urban places in this country have central business districts that are struggling unsuccessfully to compete with shopping centers in the suburbs, Leavenworth looks as if the core area has managed to wrestle with those centrifugal forces without losing the match.  Assuredly the core is not winning the contest, but it does seem to have prolonged it to the point where a fair judge might declare a draw.  Such an outcome would be highly unusual and might legitimately claim greater significance as a defining characteristic for the town than all those prisons.  It never would, but it ought to.

Leavenworth Municipal Park:                39° 19.132’ N  /  94° 54.495’ W

Distance:                                                  27 miles
Total Distance:                                        1,545 miles
 


Thursday, July 28

Next week I must return to Salt Lake City and it won’t be possible to get back to Kobuk and carry on with the journey until late in August.  With an airline ticket out of Kansas City, it only made sense to seek out a storage arrangement for Kobuk there.  The problem is that Kansas City has no marinas, no small-boat docks, no significant recreational boating facilities of any sort.  Well, let me rephrase that.  Kansas City has plenty of boaters but virtually all of them opt to recreate on the surrounding lakes.  Evidently, those who choose to use the Missouri River running through the center of town are a vanishing breed.  I called around trying to find a storage arrangement for Kobuk there and the best I could do was going to cost many hundreds of dollars.  The Leavenworth Parks Department, however, would have no problem with my leaving Kobuk tied to the town dock here in the riverside park.  There is of course the risk of vandalism, but there is a locked gate (over which I climb) at the top of the ramp down to the dock and the prospect of free storage is highly tempting.  For now, I think, the journey is halted.  Instead of carrying on the final thirty miles to Kansas City, I will spend the next few days working on boat repairs and then leave Kobuk in the water here, tied to the Leavenworth dock.

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