"Jon. Jon. Lightning storm. It's a different deal". This greeting at about three in the morning from chase car driver John, who has been doing a bivouac out on the dock next to the boat. We let him in, secured the boat better, and zipped it all up as the mother of all lightning storms moved over us. We all lay there for a long time watching the most fantastic light show I have ever seen. It was a horizon-to-horizon web of dancing lightning on all sides, moving slowly over us from west to east. As it came over, strong gusts blew rain in through small joints in the boat's tent cover, so we were a little damp around the edges, but I was generally pleased with how the top performed. Pea-size hail hammered on us after the rain, but did no damage.
After the storm we all got a few more hours' sleep, and got up to a cloudy and windy morning. We deliberated for a couple of hours about getting out into Lake Sakakawea, because of the danger of unmanageable waves. We finally decided to make a run for it when the wind calmed a bit, agreed to meet John down at the dam in a couple of days, and headed out into the lake. It was slow going for a while in 2-3 foot waves, but the wind seemed to be steady.
After a time the wind moderated, and we made a good long run down the lake. Sak is a huge body of water, about 130 miles long and sometimes 4-5 miles wide. If the wind comes up, small boats can be in real trouble, so we were happy to have the weather settle down. We made 90 miles to the Indian Hills Resort, which earns its reputation as one of the best stops on Lake Sak. Kelly and Carol, the ladies running things there, were great hosts and offered good information. We got gas, took showers, and settled in for dinner and a good night's sleep.
We did notice that this area seems to have a strong fishing culture. The kids (practically toddlers to teens) in a couple of families stayed at it for hours, 'til near dark. We were happy that from time to time one of them would pull in a fish. All along through the Dakotas we were to see this fishing focus and hear the refrain: "What, you ain't fishin? Okay den. . .Well, whataya doin?"
George spent some time getting the VHF radio operating, and got it going with local area weather channels, which would be useful every day as we ran ahead of storms. As part of the procedural setup he demanded that I stop deliberating and settle on a name for the boat (to properly report in case of an emergency). I had pretty well gotten there in my deciding, so announced that the boat (which had already taken on a feminine entity) is Little Sadie, after my granddaughter. Here's Rachel's and Brian's little Sadie Caroline.
The next day we made good progress in moderate seas down to Garrison Dam, completing Sak and having John take the boat out and move it to the hotel in Riverdale. We had managed to get clear of another big lake without a weather delay, so were all happy campers.
Now this hotel, the only game in the twin towns of Riverdale and Pick City, was probably the most interesting hotel I can recall staying in. The rooms are spacious and nice, and the beds are great. It is in a building renovated from the old high school, and someone has spent a lot of money decorating, furnishing, painting, etc. But someone in the mix really likes red and black (maybe the high school colors?). So the halls were trimmed in red and black, and the lounge - reading room was dressed out in red. Kind of fun, in a way.
The hotel has a nice bar and grill, with a totally international waitstaff. We speculated about all kinds of scenarios, until one of the girls explained that they bring in college girls in an exchange student program drawing from all over the world, rotating through in three months or so. It was a nice program, the girls seemed to enjoy the interaction with each other, but getting the right beer ordered required some patience.
The next morning we awoke to high winds, and readily agreed that it was a no-go day. We found out that we could replace the oil in the helm with power steering fluid, and when we drove across the dam to buy some in Pick City, the lake looked like the ocean.
This steering thing was getting serious. Response of the motor turning with the wheel was getting slow and stiff and sluggish, and we had a lot of steering-intensive sandbar dodging yet ahead of us. We set up office at a table in the bar, and started to work. The result was surprisingly heartening. I called Dave Hewes at Hewes Marine out in Washington state, and explained what we were doing, where we were, and the probability of serious consequences if the steering went south. He without hesitation rallied his resources and they went to work. George explained the details to Bryan, their warranty manager, and he decided to send a new helm assembly to a boat shop downstream. By the end of that day he had sent out the equipment to a shop my friend Larry in Iowa had located in Bismarck, ND, to arrive about when we would. I told Mr. Hewes that this was an over-the-top service response that is seldom seen today.
The next morning the weather was better, so we topped up the steering fluid and launched the boat below the dam, agreeing to meet John in Bismarck. I did a morning of piloting down the river, working through some tricky sections, and George brought us into a boat ramp above town by late afternoon. We loaded the boat on the trailer and the three of us went to Days Inn. We walked up the street looking over the several restaurant choices, and readily chose Space Aliens. This was a fun bar and grill dressed out with flying saucers and futuristic trimmings and alien creatures. We were well fed on excellent burgers and ribs, and enjoyed the long walk back to the motel in the cool evening.
The next morning we got ready to go for our appointment at River City Sports, and no one could come up with the car key. In my haste in preps for the trip I had neglected to get a spare, and now Murphy had seen his opening. We took everything in the motel room and boat apart, and had AAA on the way, when John called Space Aliens and (whew) they had it. Needless to say, we left town with three strategically-placed car keys.
We dropped the boat off at the shop and were astounded to get the call in an hour and a half that it was ready. Larry, their service manager, had jumped in and handled it -- matching the excellent support we had gotten from Hewes Marine. We were very impressed. The rest of the day was spent catching up on logistics and downriver planning and we were ready to launch early.
We had many challenges the next morning in the river, getting into sandbar cul-de-sac fixes, and at one point retreating hundreds of yards upstream to find a way to some semblance of a channel. When we finally moved into open water at the inflow to Lake Oahe, we were delighted, in spite of increasing wind and chop.
We spent several hours motoring through 2-3 foot waves off our rear quarter, timing our speed to match the waves and minimize the pitching and rolling. The boat is very seaworthy, but more speed would have been punishing. We made about one-fourth of the lake's 250-mile length that day, and were fatigued when we ducked into Beaver Bay and found a nice sheltered spot to tie up behind a highway embankment for the night. I enjoyed being able to slouch a while before we cooked up another of Nan's fine dinners. This was the last of them, and our ice supplies and strict cooler management had allowed it to travel in good shape for a full two weeks.
The next day was sunny and Oahe was smooth as glass. We put the boat up on plane and made the sixty-odd miles to Mobridge, SD by lunchtime. The Honda 4-stroke just hummed along.
We stayed at Bridge City Marina, below town, and enjoyed getting to know the new owner, Mike Norden. Mike was rebuilding and improving the marina after the huge flood last year. We would continue to hear stories related to that flood all along the river. We stayed with John that night in a motel in town, and all three of us had walleye for dinner, for the first time ever. It is a very tasty fish, which we don't have in Colorado. I liked it so much that I ordered it the next night as well.
There was some chop on the lake the next morning, but we wanted to get to Oahe Dam at Pierre that day, so motored along aggressively through one-foot waves. Banging through waves sounded like we were hitting sunken trees, but Little Sadie slammed along like a tank.
We came to the dam by early afternoon, met John, and portaged the boat to the Oahe Marina and Resort, below the dam. This was the nicest, most full-service marina we had seen, with a good bar & grill, store, laundry, and showers in the adjacent campground. Steve Rounds, the owner, had just put in boat slips in their lagoon this year, as part of the renovation after last year's flood. Steve is a very nice guy, who took an active interest in getting me the best information on hazards that might exist downstream.