The Great Storm: Canoeing the Sheyenne River, North Dakota

DSC_0113(State #35/50) I stood on a boat dock, South of Fargo, with the July sun beating down. Ty, the reporter for WDAY, asked questions while JR, the camera man, filmed. I intended to be thoughtful with my answers. Inevitably, however, I just made jokes about my terrible beard and looking like a hobo. As we finished up, Ty pointed to the sky and said, “look!” I turned and watched a bald eagle soar over our heads. “That’s got to be a good omen.” I said. As we watched it fly off toward the blinding horizon, I asked what they were doing the rest of the day. “Probably storm chasing,” they answered. That statement, as it turns out, was a better indicator of my night to come. That eagle… well I think it was just an eagle.DSC_0131

Massive thunderheads sprouted over the plains as I drove towards the Sheyenne National Grasslands. The temperature was still north of ninety degrees when, at seven o’clock, I parked by a small orange-painted bridge, and scouted the banks below. The river was down, so there was two feet of steep, cleaving mud between the grassy bank and the waterline. I put on my rubber boots, but still sank deep into the mud as North Dakota tried to swallow me whole.DSC_0176

DSC_0174After a long, awkward process of bringing the boat down and loading it, I slid Rider halfway into the Sheyenne. With a graceless lunge, I pushed off and into the Sheyenne, bringing half of the bank with me. My boots slid around on the floor of the canoe, spreading the black mud about in a design that, if done on canvas by an elephant, monkey, or high-functioning Oklahoman could fetch thousands at a modern art auction. No matter. I’d worry about the mud and how I was getting out tomorrow. For the moment, I was heading upstream into the National Grassland.DSC_0271 (2)

The river was muddy, filled with fallen trees, but surrounded by vegetation in peak summer form. Swaying high grasses, leafy basswood and wildflowers in bloom encased the slow flowing stream. Swallows built their adobe homes in the eroded banks below pastures. The last agricultural properties gave way to a thick wooded corridor — the last big patches of eastern forest before the plains completely take over. This riparian environment was much different from the tall grass sand dune savannas I had seen in the uplands. A mile away, stately bur oaks grew in the open, while short aspen sheltered below grassy hills. Between these patches of woodland, lay an undulating sea of prairie, where you’d imagine herds of bison and wagons, driven by scruffy pioneers, shouting at skinny oxen.DSC_0102

DSC_0245As the evening sped toward sundown, I found a suitable sandbar a mile up the river. I set up my tent five feet above the water on the inside of a horseshoe bend with a good 180 degree view of the surroundings. I made a warm whiskey and coke and sat to enjoy the sunset, smelling the warm air, pungent with blooms — not sweet, but more like a freshly mowed bar ditch in Central Texas. Many of the same species of tall grasses grow down there, so it made sense. I rubbed my sore left shoulder, took a drink and decided that a smell doesn’t need to be pleasant to be comforting.DSC_0265 (1)

DSC_0220 (1)As twilight dimmed towards night, distant thunderheads flashed lightning across the river to the North. I waited… counted in my head… ten seconds before thunder. They’re still far off and not headed my way. I told myself.

By ten o’clock, another cell crept closer from the west. At first it was all flashes with no sound. Then the sounds of fish splashing in the river, the lone cricket and hooting owl were joined by thunder. Soon, looking to the west was like peering down an alley where a workshop door is open and someone is welding — incessant flickering. The humid air cooled, large cold drops began falling as the first bit of wind preceded the storm. Uneasy, I crawled into my tent.

The storm took its sweet time and I feel asleep waiting for it at midnight. But thunder woke me at 3 a.m. as it neared. When I’m back home in a building with the aid of meteorologists and advanced storm tracking, I root for the severe weather. Friends and I text, make drinks, have little parties and watch summer thunder showers pass out of windows and from balconies. It’s wonderful. But, seeing a lighting show coming at you at 3 o’clock in the morning, in a tent, alone on a river, without phone service and on the northern end of Tornado Alley… well, that’s no-joke terrifying. You have no idea what’s coming and there’s no way to find out until it gets there.

DSC_0252Naturally, my mind raced towards the worst-case scenario — a large, rain-wrapped wedge tornado heading for my synthetic tent, framed with aluminum poles. Preparing for a last-ditch option, if you will, I hurried out of the tent, in my underwear, and drug the canoe to the lowest dip on the gravel bar. There, I turned Rider over, crushing down the tall reeds. I returned to the tent and found it un-staked, half crumpled up and moved three feet by the wind. I dove inside and tried spreading it back out and anchoring each corner with gallon water jugs and dry bags; this accomplished little. Then, the storm hit in full.

The lightning provided good light as I packed away my valuables into dry bags. Then I got on my knees and propped the tent walls, being thrashed by the winds. Fearing I’d lose the tent, I put on my swim trunks, t-shirt, a life vest and a raincoat. Then, I wrapped my shemag around my neck and placed my phone in a small dry bag and put it in my pocket. Finally, I secured my sheathed 6-inch survival knife between my PFD and chest.

Call me ridiculous, but it did not feel like overkill at the time. I prepared all I could and would have done more if possible. If I would have had pool floaties, I would have strapped them to my arms. If I would have had a bike helmet, I would have worn it around my crotch. If I would have had a gun, I would have fired into into the flashing wall of fury. (One well-placed bullet can stop a thunderstorm. It’s true. All Texans learn it in science class (there was a lot of room, once the state legislature took out any reference to the Theory of Evolution (I’m only joking, of course — all Texans know you need at least two well-placed shots to stop a storm))).DSC_0241

I’d turn on my headlight to survey the water pooling in the corners and the mud mess I’d made. Then, I’d shut off the light and peak my head out of the tent, watching to see if the lightning would illuminate a tornado. But, it wasn’t just the tornado I feared, but big hail and a flash flood as well. Those options were nearly as dangerous and far more likely. If the water rose, I’d head to the trees. If baseball sized hail came, I’d take cover under my Kevlar canoe. At one point, believing it was going to bust with the next salvo, I came close to forfeiting the tent and retreating to my canoe shelter.

But, it didn’t come to that. As most storms do, it passed without major incident — wind subsided, rain let up and thunder grumbled, but further away. Then, once again, lightning flashed without sound. I took off my, let’s call it “Oh Shit! Gear” and unzipped the tent. Looking west I saw a few stars beyond thinning clouds. An owl hooted again from the woods. Pale blue light grew in the eastern sky — It was 4:40 a.m. and morning was coming.

DSC_0250 (1)I slept until 9:45 a.m., until the tent became hot and stuffy from the mid-summer sun. I sat up in a half damp, half dry tangle of sleeping bag, life jacket, clothes and mud, thankful to be in a tent and not wedged in a tree. And so I survived the great storm to canoe another day and, later, watch my acclaimed* Fargo television debut.

*I’ve since found out my spot was nominated for a “Fargie” — The North Plains highest award for best two-minute nightly news features, in the category of homelessness in America. Instead of a trophy, I stand to win 3 lightly-used pair of underwear, a bandana and an entire city-fountain’s worth of small coins. Here’s hoping.Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 9.12.52 PM

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • The Sheyenne River, North Dakota
  • Miles canoed: 5
  • Dates Canoed: 7-21/22-2017
  • Here’s a Fun Fact! The Sheyenne drains into the Red river, which flows north into Canada, ending up in Hudson Bay. I didn’t realize this until Dad informed me after.
  • Also, found out about the North Country Trail, running from Upstate New York to North Dakota
  • Weather: Hot and clear to cool and stormy!
  • Elevation: 983 Feet Above Sea Level
  • Launch Point/Takeout Point: Home Lake access (46.525007, -097.313585)
  • Campsite: Sandbar/storm shelter (46.517231, -097.313665)
  • Furthers Point Reached on River (46.513342, -097.327795)
  • Songs Sung on River: The Loco-motion by Little Eva and If you Need a Reason by Mason Jennings
  • Big Thanks to Casey with the Sheyenne National Grassland. Casey, a Ranger, told me about a bridge where he had put in to float the month before. He stayed an hour after work to give me more natural and cultural history of the area as well as helping me figure out where to float and what to look for on the Sheyenne. I enjoyed the hour of talking grasslands, history, canoeing, etc.
  • Also, Big Thanks to Ty and JR and all those at WDAY, Fargo for airing my story. I loved it.
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: owls (barred, I believe), golden finch, cedar waxwing, robin, swallows and great blue heron, small plover type-bird
  • Mammals: White tail deer, unknown small mammal borrowing in a cut bank
  • Reptiles/Amphibians: 2 ribbon snakes, frogs at put-in
  • Noted Species: Occasional moose, elk and wolf and the Greater Prairie Chicken
  • Dominant Vegetation: Tallgrass Prairie Species (Little Bluestem, grama species, several endangered flowers), American Elm, Basswood Scott Pines (introduced and planted as a shelter belt after Dust Bowl)
  • Ecoregion: Lake Agassiz Plain, (48b) Sand Deltas and Beach Ridges
  • Current Threats: Erosion and sedimentation from increased outlets from the Devil Lake Dam. Prairie Threats — Introduced Leafy Spurge and Kentucky Bluegrass (not even from Kentucky, introduced from the Old World)
  • Trash collected: several plastic and glass bottles
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $2716 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given!
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