Larry and I Get 'er Done
Sunday afternoon Larry Lavin arrived, driven over by his friend Carol from southwestern Minnesota. We loaded his gear on the boat at the Oahe Marina, agreed on a time to meet in the morning, and they went back across the river to Pierre. I thought Carol posed a very interesting question: "What has surprised you the most"? I replied that the seriousness of the phrase "pick our way" through the shallow river reaches since Montana surprised me the most. Larry was to be similarly impressed in the days to come.
Day 16. After replenishing gas and ice, and getting a late update from marina owner Steve and a visiting ranger, we launched and headed south. The wide bay we soon traversed was beautiful in the clear morning.
We went through a narrow chute where Antelope Creek carried a lot of sediment into the river, which was a problem area Steve had warned us about, but we followed some fishermen and found our way out into the main channel without incident. We were into deeper water in Lake Sharpe in a short time. Larry took the helm and jumped the boat on plane and made good time down to the Big Bend Dam. Larry has been a boat guy in the lakes around Okoboji, Iowa, for decades, so had complete comfort working with Little Sadie.
The terrain around the lake was fairly hilly and somewhat wooded, and very lovely where we pulled into the boat ramp at Big Bend. That was a good thing, because we were to spend a little time there.
We contacted the local fellow with whom we had arranged portage, and got out of the heat in a picnic pavilion nearby. After some time, Pat Koster pulled up towing a trailer. But it was just a little trailer, suitable maybe for loading Pogo's flat-bottom fishing pirogue. Communication is a tough business. But Pat was undaunted. He made a couple of calls and took off to get a trailer big enough for a 20-foot V-hull wide boat. After some more time went by, and a follow-up call by Larry, Pat arrived with a bigger trailer. He backed it into the water and Larry drove the boat up onto it. I stood to the side, looking at the neat circle of bubbles coming up from around the wheel rim on the right wheel. By the time the rig was pulled up onto flat ground, the tire was entirely flat.
Pat was undaunted. With the front of the trailer perched precariously on a car tire jack, he went for another wheel. After some time he returned, changed the tire, and took us around the dam to a ramp at a downstream campground. There was no one around because the campground had been inundated by last year's flood and was still closed. We ended up thinking Pat was a trouper. Despite repeated stumbling-blocks due to bad equipment, he had stayed in the game -- focused, diligent, polite, good-humored, and very hard-working. He is a jack-of-all-trades, supporting his family doing odd jobs (sounds like about three at a time), with a rock-solid work ethic. Our kind of guy. We didn't mind that the portage operation had taken three hours.
We beached the boat in a little protected cove, nosing the bow up onto the bank a bit, so it would be somewhat stable. We tied off, set up the table and cooking gear, and had one of Larry's batches of chili for supper. Marvelous recipe. We moved things around, from cooking to sleeping configuration (which is by now a well-practiced routine) and turned in. The enclosure was buttoned up against the wind and the possibility of rain.
Day 17. During the night we had the impression that the boat was a little lower in the stern, because our crossways bunks were a little inclined that way. In the morning we found the reason. Since the dam release was cut back, the water level had dropped most of two feet, and we were as high and dry as Noah's ark in those fanciful pictures you'd see in tabloids of it supposedly being discovered on a remote mountaintop.
We thought that the water level would come back up when they started the daily release of water from the dam, but we didn't know when that was or how soon it would float us. Apparently that schedule is related to the need to generate more electricity to meet the peak (air-conditioning) usage, in whatever market the dam is serving. In our experience, water level was expected to come up by mid-morning. So, we had a leisurely breakfast with eggs and coffee, did dishes and got ready to go. The water was not rising very much very fast. Fortunately, we saw a group of five men up in the parking lot, and Larry applied his winning ways to enlist their help. (I learned this great intro when asking for help: "Have you done your good deed for today"? Works every time.) It was all that six of us could do, with Larry revving the engine in reverse, to launch the boat, but we eventually did. We bid our thanks and goodbyes and left Ft. Thompson.
We had good water for the 60 miles or so before getting into Lake Francis Case, not long after running under the bridge at Chamberlain.
Clouds were building, but the lake was not rough, so Larry jumped the boat up on plane and we made a fast run to Ft. Randall Dam at Pickstown. Cory Donlin from Donlin Marine, a local boat sales and service shop, picked us up, ran us by a gas station to refuel the boat, and stopped into their store. His dad Chris was very helpful with information about the seriously difficult river reaches we would encounter the next day, and about a nice protected cove we could duck into for the night below the dam. As predicted, a storm blew through about four in the morning, with blasting wind and driving rain. Again, things were a little damp around the edges but the boat top did quite well. It was good that we were tied up to an old homemade houseboat and somewhat sheltered from the wind and waves.
Day 18. The next morning we set things out to dry while we contemplated the weather report. I told Larry I was very fearful about this stretch. Brother George had warned about the area around Springfield, and my concern was that with wind and/or rain roughing up the river surface, it would be doubly hard to get clues about where the channel now went. Larry was more confident, so we set out. Most of the day the weather was not bad, though we did get into a rainstorm in the afternoon, and did have to fight our way off sandbars on several occasions. The last of that stretch, the inflow to Lewis and Clark Lake, was a confusing maze of shallow channels threading through many small islands. Without George's waypoints pointing the way, we would never have found our way through it.
We finally got out on the lake, greatly relieved, and I picked up speed to run down to the dam. Before I could spot it happening on the depth finder, WHAM! -- I ran us aground. After some work we got off the sandbar and went on. It turned out that the lake was surprisingly shallow, so it took some time to work our way to the dam at Gavin's Point. We were happy to go into a nice marina there, gas up, park the boat, and head up to the Marina Grill for supper. We celebrated getting through what was expected to be the sketchiest stretch of river Larry and I would see. Our waitress Ashley was good company as we celebrated and had a nice meal.
On our way out we had a nice visit with Steve and Tina Kümmel, a couple visiting the river from eastern Nebraska. After hearing our story, Steve gave me his good wishes for the trip and a $20 bill, to be used to celebrate this week's part of the journey. We slept well under clear skies in the marina.
Day 19. The next morning we got the marina folks to portage us down below the dam and started out on the last river stretch before it starts being maintained by the Corps of Engineers, at Sioux City. We expected this to be much less of a sandbar-hazard section than the previous day,and be a relatively trouble-free 75 miles. We were now on the part of the river that separates South Dakota and Nebraska, and fairly soon passed under the bridge at Yankton, SD.
This day turned out to be the hardest challenge yet. The flood last year had blocked passages where the traditional channel had gone, so several times the waypoints displayed on the GPS had to be abandoned, and we were just on our own to find a channel. We ran aground or backed out of dead-end shallows numerous times. The mileage to Sioux City was very hard-won. The river often looked benign, but was laden with problem spots.
As we approached Sioux City, the last fifteen miles saw the river narrower and deeper, and the flood wreckage we saw above was replaced by miles of beautiful homes.
We were ecstatic to finally, in late afternoon, pull into the marina, gas up, and know that we had finished up the most harrowing part of my journey -- the natural, unmaintained river reaches in the dammed (sic) upper Missouri River. We enjoyed watching the boating fun going on in the river while waiting for Larry's son Philip to arrive to pick him up.
After a celebratory beer with Philip, we loaded out Larry's stuff and I sent them on their way. Larry and I had been close-quarters camping for most of a week, and shared many teeth-grinding challenges and a lot of laughs. We are now more Good Buddies than ever.
I secured things on the boat, and moved from the marina to the hotel next door, where I would have the next four days off while waiting for my next XO, my nephew Randy, to arrive. In my room I looked in the mirror for the first time in days, and reflected that I really was starting to look the part -- a gnarly old river rat.
Day 20 thru Day 22. After a good night's sleep I started making preparations for people and places downstream. As the sun came up, I looked out my window, up the river. Right before me was one of the little blue river mile markers, announcing that I was at mile 733 above the mouth of the Missouri. Three weeks and 1,115 miles had gone by since Little Sadie went in the water in Montana.