Here’s to Alaska! Canoeing the Chatanika with Cousin Mindy

DSC_0667(State #41/50) I woke up in an empty terminal, surprised to feel rested. I’ve tried before, with little success, to sleep in airports. Typically, there’s a frequent, booming robotic voice saying “Welcome to…” and reiterating why it’s a bad idea to let a stranger place a bomb in your carry-on. The main objective, it often seems, is to prevent any travelers from dozing more than ten minutes. If you somehow manage to sleep a few hours, you will inevitably wake up to a gate swarming with crying children and beaten down families waiting on their next flight. Sometimes, it’s almost like airports aren’t meant for sleeping.

So, when I arrived in Fairbanks at midnight, with no intention of getting a hotel, I assumed I’d spend a restless night on the floor. I found an empty gate and built a nest in a corner, beneath a row of seats. I drifted off and, in a true North Pole miracle, slept undisturbed. I awoke after eight o’clock to discover I was the only traveler in the terminal. I stood up, stretched, put on pants and wandered down a few gates to order a coffee — a pleasing start to my first morning ever in Alaska.

DSC_0673 (1)That evening I sat on a bear barrel in a puddle-filled parking lot, waiting. A van arrived and out poured my brother and two cousins. They were fresh off the train from Denali, where they had backpacked over squishy tundra and through low trees. They checked in and snuck me up to the hotel room, where their backpacks had exploded; clothing, water bottles and zip locked bags of oatmeal coated the beds and floor. Wesley and Shane, having already served their time in my canoe, geared up for a Gates of the Arctic adventure. Now, it was cousin Mindy’s turn to join me and brave 40 miles of an Alaskan river.AlaskaFamily

Mindy, the poor thing, has one brother and three male cousins on the Straw side. At home, she took dance, played flute and collected small glass horses. At our country place, however, we conscripted Mindy into our plastic gun-toting armies, dam constructing detail and, often, just digging holes with unclear goals in mind. Now, my older cousin joins us for long backpacks and runs marathons. Perhaps there’s some connection between the senseless dirt-moving activities of our youth and her penchant for strenuous physical feats. Nevertheless, Mindy remains skeptical of any activities we drag her into.

Remember, I haven’t canoed in a long time,” Mindy reminded me as we drove out of Fairbanks. She worried that we were going to canoe a fast flowing, rapid-filled affair. So when Cat (from Alaska Dream Adventures) deposited us on the banks of the more mild Chatanika, Mindy was relieved.Chatanika

After I gave Mindy a brief tutorial on paddling, we launched an un-named, new canoe under the misting sky (Rider waited, high and dry and rightfully jealous, back in Seattle). The Chatanika wasted no time on introductions. Within a hundred feet, the river wound through cut-banks, where the water narrowed into fifteen-foot channels. Pressing, the water formed slopes against these bends like the outer lanes on a racetrack; a phenomenon I’d never seen. Adding to my unease, the current undercut weak-rooted (from permafrost) spruce and aspen, which fell into the river, creating “sweepers.” Though Mindy was unaware, I stressed while trying to prevent swamping in the freezing waters or being skewered by the dead trees.

DSC_0691“Something’s in front of us,” a faint voice said. I saw a big strainer, fifteen feet off the bow. I maneuvered to avoid the log, which would have scattered us into the river. “Mindy, call that out louder!” I said. A couple minutes later she did; I leapt out of the boat and stopped the canoe from going into a series of disastrous logjams. We scouted the gravel bar for a way to portage, but it was stacked chest-high with washed-down trees. So, Mindy got out some cord and we used it to lead the canoe around through the rushing waters and past the dangerous obstructions.

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An Aspen to avoid

By evening, I was happy to make camp. We chose a mossy permafrost upland and placed the tent atop the great northern shag carpet. Some aspen and spruce grew, stunted and thin, while many of their relatives stood dead and burnt or lay strait across the ground, like big used match sticks — slow rotting relics of a hardy life*. With bear-spray in-hand, we stepped over moose tracks and piles of scat and stared at the shallow arching hills of the river valley. We looked and looked for moose and bear. Nothing. Just silent and still wilderness, rolling on over the hills to more Alaska.DSC_0715 (1)

Gathering firewood, I studied the tiny wintergreen spruce trees, some sprouting only a few inches high from the orange and green and white array of mosses and lichen; I felt like a giant, plodding around camp. Aspen saplings joined in, helping the allusion of the micro forest. I’d grown used to tantalizing views of mountains and sunsets over water, but never had peering down at my feet been so captivating. Along with the baby trees and dead wet logs, mushrooms abounded. “What about this one, Mindy?” I asked, pointing to a red and white capped toadstool, “Can we eat this one?” Mindy shook her head. “No! We’re not eating any of these mushrooms!Always so damn sensible, I thought (My cousin didn’t budge from that position, even after I told her it might be the only way we’d see the Northern Lights).

The Alaskan summer evenings last forever. Hours and hours of low-angled light pass by and you’re only halfway to remote darkness. The light rain abated and bits of blue sky and sunshine broke through the gray dome. Though it required a lot of maintenance, we got a fire going. I prepared whiskey and cokes and, breaking normal protocol, Mindy played her Alaskan mix as the sun took it’s time setting. Sometime… maybe eight, maybe ten o’clock… we stuck sausages on black spruce branches and roasted our dinner over the taiga fire.DSC_0703 (1)

DSC_0783A cold, rainy morning gave way to clearing skies and a warming sun. After breakfast burritos, Mindy-made coffee and we set out for the second day. As we continued down, thicker forests replaced the burned, bare sides of the sweeping hills. Glittery minerals sparkled beneath the Chatanika as the sun found gaps between white clouds. The enveloping scenery wasn’t the dramatic faces and glaciers of the Alaska Range, but it was enamoring — unlike many places on my journey, there was no doubt where we were canoeing.DSC_0727

DSC_0823We found camp on a sandbar that evening as the sky clouded over and temperatures dropped. Mindy and I bundled up and set a collected mass of driftwood ablaze. Warming by the fire, we made drinks and ate canned chilly for supper. It was our last good chance to see the Aurora, so we devised a strategy. It was simple — I’d look skyward when I got up to pee and wake her up if I saw anything.DSC_0844

Around 2:30 a.m. I stood outside the tent and stared at a patch of clear sky. In the Alaskan summer, the sun doesn’t as much set as just skip off the horizon, as a light blue glow follows the unseen polar star across the northern sky. I didn’t spot the Northern Lights, but it was worth the chilly minutes to behold the night.

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I know, poor me

On our final day, the low, wide hills gave way to higher summits, thick with verdant, sun-soaked spruce forests. Even the trees along the river grew taller and more robust. Already behind from a porcupine sighting, the Chatanika took one last shot at swamping us. After flying around a small island, piled with logs, the river swept our boat into a ten-foot wide channel. The current rushed towards the left cut-bank, beneath a jagged, downed spruce. In heroic fashion, I managed to point Mindy away before I crashed into the tree, arms outstretched for impact. We avoided flipping, but the spruce gave me a nice little gouge on my left hand.

We paddled the final stretch, joking about continuing onward, down into an ever-snaking, never-ending wilderness of Minto Flats. Instead we pulled out at the bridge where Cat and Tony waited for us. We were two hours late, but they just seemed pleased we had survived… I mean paper work alone… Jokes aside, they were wonderful DSC_0871 (1)outfitters and even showed us sights driving back to Fairbanks. In town, we met Wesley, ate Thai food and saw the house where our Fathers had lived in 1961. Satisfied with the day, the trip and the glimpse of ancient family history, we strolled back to our hostel in the horizontal light of another slow burning, late summer Alaskan sunset.

*Black Spruce seeds after wildfires, which helps them reestablish burned areas. In the absence of fire, hardwoods, such as quaking aspen, will take over a grove. Wildfire, while appearing solely destructive, is a crucial part of most North American ecosystems, even way up in Alaska.

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Chatanika River, Alaska
  • Dates Canoed: 8/19-21/2017
  • Miles Canoed: 40
  • Weather: Rainy and overcast with nighttime lows in the upper 30s to partly cloudy with highs in the upper 60s
  • Elevation: From Approximately 1201 to 504 feet above sea level (no wonder there was such flow!)
  • Launch Point: Mile 60 (65.272976, -146.64731)
  • Campsite #1: Taiga burn area (65.215505, -146.972351)
  • Campsite #2: Sand Bar (65.15153, -147.380819)
  • Takeout Point: At Elliot Highway (65.083577, -147.726223)
  • Songs Sung on River: Alaska and Me by John Denver and Stephanie Says by The Velvet Underground (“Cause sheeee’s not afraid to die, the people all call her Alaska”)
  • Huge thanks to our outfitters, Alaskan Dream Adventures, for their knowledge,DSC_0868 (1) low prices and flexibility in meeting our specific timeframe. Cat and Tony are friendly, professional and good company, too. Cat dropped us off with a beautiful new canoe, good paddles and all the proper gear. Wonderful experience. Contact: alaskadreamadventures@gmail.com (907-460-2909). Also worth noting: Tony hosts kayak ultimate frisbee games during the summers, of course.
  • Thanks to Uncle Russell for creating my new fiberglass tent pole (replacing the thrice broken aluminum, which wouldn’t have made it to Alaska). Thanks to Wesley for being the courier and delivering it to me in Fairbanks. Thanks to Dad for researching places to canoe and doing all the leg work to put me in contact with Tony. Also, big thanks to Julie (and Marcus) for letting me park my car and canoe at her place in Seattle!
  • Birds: Bald Eagles (2 adult, 2 juvenile) Gray Jay, Crow, raven, song birds, kingfisher,DSC_0766 hawk
  • Mammals: Porcupine! and beaver (Grizzly tracks, moose tracks, droppings)
  • Noted Species: Grizzly Bear, Black Bear, Timber Wolf, Lynx and occasional Caribou
  • Dominant Vegetation: Black Spruce, Quaking Aspen, Paper Birch, Balsam Poplar and White Spruce
  • Ecoregion: Split between Interior Highlands, (105) and Interior Forested Lowlands and Uplands and (104). I had no luck finding Level IV designations
  • Current Threats: Potential pollutants from historic hydraulic mining activities
  • Trash collected: some rope, tin cans and micro trash (not much garbage!)
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $3447 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! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaignDSC_0850 (1)
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Fiordland of Idaho: Canoeing Lake Pend Oreille

DSC_0393(State #40/50)Who knew Idaho could look so good?” my friend Lawrence remarked in response to a picture. He wasn’t alone with this reaction. “That’s so much prettier than I would have thought for Idaho,” another friend said of a sunset photo. I had no idea the state wasn’t widely regarded as scenic; searching for someone or something to blame, I landed on the potato. After all, could a state known for brown, odd-shaped tubers be worth a damn?

I hadn’t visited Idaho since a 1993 family vacation and, I’ll admit, my takeaway also had nothing to do with the views…

Driving up from Salt Lake, we had only one Elvis cassette tape (a small, rectangular object that played music, which you had to rewind) that we played ad nauseam. By the time we reached Pocatello, ID, my parents were scanning the dial for anything. But, in search of variety, they landed on “Louie Louie Radio.” To our confusion and delight the station declared that it played “all Louie, all the time” and that you were “never more than two minutes away from Louie Louie!” We listened to slow versions, classical takes, harder tracks and, of course, the original 1963 jam by The Kingsmen. To this day, I can’t think of Idaho without hearing that song.

Twenty-four years later, I drove into the panhandle of the state, just below Canada and far from Pocatello. Rain cleansed the air of the smoky haze, which had plagued the western skies for weeks. When I arrived at Lake Pend Oreille (pronounced Pon-der-ray), the air was cool and fresh, though still cloudy. Not for long.DSC_0390

The moment I launched onto the Clark Fork River, the sun tore through the atmosphere and set the land aglow. Under this new light, I paddled into the wide, calm, turning channel. The current carried me past poplar trees, high grass and towards a steep mountainside, framed by conifer trees and low vegetation, turning red and orange. I passed swimming beavers, patrolling osprey and a single, attentive doe. The evening sun, unhampered by smoke, enriched all it touched to the most vibrant degree. The clouds, the cattails, the cottonwood trees, the rock faces, the clinging evergreens, the reddish coat of the deer, all appeared lit from within.DSC_0441DSC_0410

After two miles, I left the river delta and canoed onto the lake. I rounded a narrow strip of trees separating the river’s end and the lake’s beginning. There, on Long Beach, I pulled the boat up onto the polished stones and made camp in a small clearing between the trees.

DSC_0509 (2)I cracked a beer and met the only other person out there — a guy named Drew with a collection of dogs and a boat anchored on the river side. Drew was a native Idahoan, who had spent time in Texas, stationed at Fort Hood back in the 90’s. For almost an hour, we talked Texas and its important subsets, including bass fishing, tornadoes, brisket and salsa. After the sun set, Drew returned to his boat and I returned to mine for a twilight canoe out on the lake.DSC_0477 (2)

Lake Pend Oreille is a large, deep* lake prone to dangerous swell-producing weather. Therefore, I didn’t plan to stray far from shore. I watched the fading light, beyond the distant black mountains and between the mostly cloudy sky. Bats flitted and flew sporadically through the air, still sharp against the dusk sky. Laying back, I let the wind push me further out into the great lake. I drifted towards the tip of the nearby mountainside, which tilted at 45 degrees into the water. Silhouetted pines grew against the sky. Miles beyond, another mountain slope, carved by glaciers, fell, curving into the lake. I could have been in Norway.DSC_0493 (1)

Soon, the trees above camp were tiny as I drew even with the jutting mountain point, at the threshold of the grand lake. Trying to about face, I turned the bow to the left, but the small waves and a fierce wind, which had propelled me out, now worked against my plans; I was unable to turn on the first attempt. Not wanting to end up in the middle of the lake at dark, I dropped to my knees in the center of the boat and fought the winds. Cutting against the wind and the waves, I stroked back at what felt like ten mph.

Safe on the beach, I took in the night sky. To the west was a patch of light pollution, courtesy of the town of Sand Point, across the lake and over the low mountain. To the north was a thunderstorm, flashing with lightning every five seconds. Dark patches of star-studded sky lay between clouds. Between the openings was a single large cloud, which blotted out all light and celestial objects. It looked like a huge zeppelin, tethered to earth by an unseen rope. No, that’s not it, I thought. It was the bottom of a fishing boat and I was dozens of feet below an ocean, looking up at the hull. Indeed, it was a strange sky, worth the prolonged study and pointless, imaginary debates. I was thankful to oblige in both.

DSC_0457 (2)I slept well, waking to a sun-warmed tent. I stepped out into daylight and ran into Drew, walking through the path between the brush. “Come grab some coffee! I know what it’s like to live off of the instant stuff.” He told me. We walked the dock with his dogs, drank real coffee and watched the sea planes fly in and out of the Clark Fork valley.

DSC_0518 (1)Back at camp, the wind now blew across the wide lake, creating sizable waves. They rolled and crashed along the steep bank piled with some of the most ideal skipping rocks imaginable. I cooked breakfast at a picnic table as my mind wandered towards salsa and tortillas — good salsa and tortillas, from Texas. I missed them. You realize when you leave for a long trip you’ll miss your friends, family and girlfriend. But, it’s not until in the midst of the trip do you start missing the unsung heroes of normal life — Tex-Mex, cooking in a kitchen and walking a mile, pounding shitty, warming beers on the way to a Rangers game. I often missed our summer pool hangouts. Here I was, on some of the most spectacular waterways our nation has to offer, and I sometimes longed to be at a generic apartment pool in Plano, TX… Conversely, I didn’t miss checking work emails, stressing over my old job or watching hours of bad TV. All of it, I decided, would be there when I made it back. For the moment, I had a mountain lake before me and a hot plate of eggs and sausage to devour strait from a dirty pan.

After testing my canoeing skills on the rough lake, I loaded up my gear and launched from the dock on the river side, next to Drew’s boat. He gave me a cold bottle of water and wished me luck as I paddled up the river delta.DSC_0514

I still have much of the state left to explore. And yet, I know this — basing your thoughts of Idaho on the southern agricultural flatlands is about like viewing California through the lens of the hot, flat, Central Valley. Yes, Idaho does grow potatoes (which as a nation run on French fries and potato chips, we should all be grateful), but what makes it worth a visit are the remote northern Rockies, valleys, peaks, forests, rivers and lakes that look as much like Scandinavia as they do America. Pend Oreille is just one spectacular piece of the potato pie. Now, I have something else to add to my childhood memories. Though, to be honest, a small town radio station devoted to the many incarnations of Louie Louie will always come first.

*The Lake is 1150 feet deep (5th deepest in nation) and is notable for the Navy conducted acoustic underwater submarine research during World War II, when it was the 2nd largest Naval training ground in the country.

Lake Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Lake Pend Oreille/Fort Clark River, Idaho
  • Dates Canoed: 8-13/14-2017
  • Miles Canoed: 4
  • Weather: Smoke cleared from rain, partly cloudy and warm, windy in the morning
  • Elevation: 2066 feet above sea level
  • Launch/Takeout Point: Public boat launch (48.138949, -116.228761)
  • Campsite: Army Core Campsite on sand spit (48.149095, -116.249889)
  • Songs Sung on River: I can’t recall, though I hope it was Louie, Louie
  • Big Thanks to Drew for the coffee, cold water and good conversation. Thanks to Cynthia with Going Green for info about where to canoe and camp!
  • Birds: Bald eagle, 3 osprey, vultures, crows, ducks, loon or diving duck
  • Mammals: White tail deer, 2 beavers, many bats at nightfall, 2 Boston Terriers named Duke and Sally and one stump that looked just like a silhouette of a beaver, that fooled me several times and Sally kept barking at it.
  • Noted Species: Black Bear, Mountain Goat and Lynx
  • Dominant Vegetation: Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock, Black Cottonwood, Western Paper Bark
  • Ecoregion: Northern Rockies, (15u) Inland Maritime Foothills and Valleys and (15o) Coeur’d Alene Metasedimentary Zone (what a name!)
  • Current Threats: Stormwater runoff and pollution from local communities. Potential spills from rail traffic carrying coal and oil (there was a coal train derailed up stream on the Clark River the day I canoed). Aquatic invasive plants species such as Eurasian watermilfoil and Flowering rush are also threats to the great ecosystem. Additionally, Lake Trout threaten the existence of native species.
  • Trash collected: beer cans, plastic bottles, cigarette butts and
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $3367 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! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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Welcome to the Smoke Show: Canoeing Glacier NP, Montana

DSC_0076(State #39/50) Sitting on a peninsula no larger than a tennis court, I watched gentle waves lap against the colorful, flat, stones of the shore. In both directions, a smooth, long lake filled the bottom of a u-shaped valley. Peaks of sheer gray rock rose up, beyond the blue water, beyond the conifer forests, until they mingled only with snow, contrasting against the sky. Over a hundred years ago, someone dubbed this park the “Crown of the Continent.” Though I’m one to ridicule overindulgent titles, I approve of this one. Glacier National Park is beyond an international treasure and, for a night, I got to lay claim to a little piece of the fortune.

I arrived at the backcountry office where rangers only issue permits in person and within twenty-four hours of your excursion; there wasn’t much left by three o’clock. The ranger said I could show up early the next morning and hope to get a site on one of the more remote lakes. But, after he assured me the open site on Lake McDonald wasn’t the dredges, I opted on the sure bet and am glad I did.

DSC_0969 (2)Like Yellowstone, Glacier was smoked in by surrounding wildfires. So, when late afternoon storms overtook the high peaks, I reasoned well, at least this rain will help with the fires. The next morning, however, I learned that lightning had caused multiple additional fires in the park. Furthermore, Glacier was not issuing any new backcountry permits. Yet the rangers still honored mine, proving again, it never pays to wake up early.

DSC_0996 (1)At the edge of Apgar Village, I geared up my canoe. There, my fellow tourists filled restaurants, gift shops and parking lots. Retirees meandered, children ran loose and folks of all kinds rented kayaks. A group of Jehovah’s Witnesses sat under a tent in an open grassy area. I felt their smiling, beaming, come-hither stares upon me as I looked at my feet and made a long, elliptical pass. I nearly walked into another group, thankfully, in ranger uniforms. “What’s that all about?” I asked. “Oh, it’s free speech or something,” an older ranger said, unwilling to hide his feelings. “Can you imagine the outrage if that was a Muslim group?” he asked. I saw his point, but changed the subject. “What’s the telescope for?” It was a dumb question as the sun was the only visible celestial object above us. I took a look, through the protected filter, and confirmed that the sun was both still round and still orange. I thought about egging on a fight between the rangers and Witnesses, or at least going to tell the group the good news that the sun still shone, but I had a lake to canoe.

DSC_1056Paddling away from the hubbub, I counted 400 consecutive strokes before stopping over a mile into Lake McDonald. Helicopters carried trailing buckets of water towards the new forest fire, which exhaled blueish smoke skyward from a mountain, adding to the haze. I made the other side of the lake and hugged the shoreline. Soon, the thick pine forests gave way to an old burn area. Beneath charred poles, juvenile pines, birch and flowering shrubs made their slow race towards the sun. I passed near a cliff and looked down at the clear water, which transitioned into deep glacial-blue as the bottom of the lake fell off into oblivion. I’m snorkeling today, I decided.DSC_1022

DSC_0218Arriving at camp by mid-afternoon, I kept my life vest on and explored with my bear spray out of its holster, finger near the trigger. Part of procuring a backcountry permit is the mandatory viewing of a twenty-minute video on grizzly bear safety. Typically, these are the types of videos people scoff at, but the entire room remained attentive. We only broke the silence when the narrator said, “play dead if it’s a defensive attack… However, fight back immediately if the bear starts to eat you.” Those words, said with utter sincerity, forced the room into nervous laughter (more on Grizzly safety below).

I made my rounds, investigating the cooking area, the food storage, the pit toilet and the tent sites. As instructed, I took my food and toiletries and strung it up on the 20-foot post, lashing it taught. Hot and done with camp chores, I made myself a whiskey/lemonade drink and grabbed the snorkel. I peered into the water from the shore; polished stones gave way to a sandy shelf, which sloped down at forty-five degrees into the dark blue. I tossed my snorkel gear in the shallows, counted down from ten and executed a surface dive into Lake McDonald. Oh, the glory.DSC_0070

DSC_0024Reveling in the cold shock, I snorkeled to the edge of the slope. There, I dove to colder depths to fetch stones and handfuls of white sands, which I let pour through the water column and return to the bottom. Beyond the sheer novelty of snorkeling in Montana and in a park named for huge chucks of melting ice, it, simply put, felt fantastic. Feeling clean for the first time in days, I walked onto the beach, plopped into my canoe chair and thrust my feet into the sun-warmed pebbles. I leaned back and stared at the high peaks across the calm mountain sea, letting the whiskey and sunshine exercise their warming effects. Again, oh, the glory.DSC_0042

Curious about the land I looked upon, I pulled out the National Park pamphlet and poured over the map. I was impressed by Triple Divide Peak, which separates water flowing down to the Gulf of Mexico, to the Pacific and up to Hudson Bay in Canada. I read about the flora and fauna and human history. Then I came to the depressing, but impossible to ignore part — the glaciers, the namesake of the park, are vanishing and it’s due to man-made climate change.DSC_0250 (2)

The melting glaciers in Montana aren’t the most worrisome impacts of climate change (like droughts, severe storms, floods, coral bleaching, sea level rise, etc.), but have become a tragic barometer for the warming planet. It is not hyperbole to say I’m glad I saw them now, in 2017. There were 150 estimated glaciers in 1850, 50 in 1968 and only 25 remain today, most of which are wisps of their former glory. Current estimates have them disappearing by 2030, which gives us thirteen years to workshop a new name. Perhaps, The Park Formally Known as Glacier?DSC_0349

I looked up from the brochure and noticed the air was clearing to the east. The smoke that, an hour before, hung thick above the distant tree line, creating a 2-d movie set backdrop, had lifted from the high mountains, leaving them with more color, texture and depth.DSC_0073 (1)

DSC_0093I enjoyed the tranquility before a tour boat interrupted, passing a few hundred yards out on the lake. The sound of a guy yammering on a microphone carried over the water. Immediately, I hopped up and began dancing, with wild exaggerated moves, to unheard music. Unbuttoning my long sleeve shirt, I helicoptered it above my half naked body before commencing further lewd stripper routines. I’m unsure if any of the twenty passengers saw, but I hope, with all my might, that a sweet old pair of birders from the mid-west got a glimpse of true wilderness in action.

Twilight fell and the mountain across Lake McDonald glowed red with flames. With night coming, the choppers ceased, allowing the fire to flared up. I canoed in the growing waves of dusk, watching it grow and spread. Back at the dark campsite, the thought of bears pressed upon my mind; I never imagined I’d be alone in Grizzly country. “In summer the bush fires rage and rage and rage on such beautiful days!” I sang, hoping to frighten off any bears. Un-mauled, I crawled into my tent, peered out the screen window and said goodnight to the lake, the bears and the burning mountain.DSC_0203

DSC_0214I woke up the next morning to another sunny, yet smokey day. I packed up, policed camp and launched Rider around noon. I stayed along the shore and, again, snorkeled near a cliff and above an underwater ledge. Approaching the takeout, I muscled out the last half mile and beat a kayaker to the landing. Partly tan, mostly red and fully glistening with perspiration, I peacock-ed around the landing as I loaded up my gear and boat. I must not have been the physical display I imagined because the other park goers went about their business as if not in the presence of a shirtless, canoe demigod. I didn’t take it too personally as it’s hard to compete with the surrounding National Park. With hours of light left, I headed up to the alpine zone to hike, see the mountain goats and view what remains of the ancient ice patches. Crown of the Continent indeed, I thought. Now, I implore you, go see the glaciers while you can.DSC_0292

My Take on Grizzly Safety:

Grizzly bears don’t set out to hunt and eat humans. Typically, they want absolutely nothing to do with us. People and bears alike, get into trouble when they learn to associate us with our tasty pic-a-nick baskets. A fed bear is a dead bear, as they say (once a bear links humans with easy food they become problem bears. Sometimes they can relocate them, but often they have to kill them once they’ve been conditioned to raiding trashcans and campsites.

Most attacks are defensive and are a result of people surprising a bear or, most dangerous of all, coming across a mother with cubs. Therefore, they instruct people to talk loudly, clap, bang rocks, and do whatever you can to ensure you don’t surprise a grizzly. If you do come across one, you’re supposed to hold your ground, and talk in a low and neutral voice. You don’t want to seem like a threat, but you also don’t want to appear submissive. Most charges, I’m told, are bluffs. Still, you’re supposed to hold your ground (while not encouraged, crapping your pants is acceptable). But, if there is a second charge, it’s the real deal. Bear spray, (pretty much just pepper spray), is an important last ditch deterrent. Rangers stress you need to have it on your hip and ready to use in an instant (they can’t stand seeing it packed away in a backpack, as it does you no good). I wore it on my hip and, when in high brush, kept it in my hand and ready to go. If you do, make sure you’re up wind and spray it low to the ground. When a bear charges, they come on all fours and the spray will drift up. If used correctly, the spray will deter the bear. But, unlike some people and their guns, you really hope you never have to use it.

Lake Stats and Fun Facts:

  • McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana
  • Miles Canoed: 12
  • Dates Canoed: 8-11/12-2017
  • Weather: Smokey, sunny, warm with a breeze coming on in the evening.
  • Elevation: 3153 feet above sea level
  • Launch/Takeout Point: Apgar boat launch (48.528546, -113.99156)
  • Campsite: MCD campsite (48.593965, -113.925516)
  • Songs Sung on Lake: Same Jeans by The View, Don’t Let It Bring You Down by Neil Young and The Wine Song by the Cat Empire.
  • Thanks to Sam and the other Rangers at Glacier Backcountry office for all the advice and convincing me that the MCD site would be stunning.
  • Birds: 2 Bald Eagles, Mergansers, Raven, Rufous Hummingbird, seagull
  • Mammals: Beaver, chipmunks and a vole
  • Noted Species: Gray Wolf (night before I got on river I saw one way down a dirt road just outside the park), Grizzly Bear, Black Bear, Mountain Goat, Lynx, Bull Trout (native), Roufus Humming Bird and Long-toed Salamander
  • Dominant Vegetation: Lodgepole pine, Ponderosa pine, Douglas Fir and Aspen in the drier areas along the shore. In the shade of the mountains on the southern shore, Western Hemlock and Western Red Cedar grow
  • Ecoregion: Canadian Rockies, (41c) Western Canadian Rockies
  • Current Threats: Climate Change, Aquatic invasive species (zebra mussels, etc.)
  • Trash collected: cigarette butt, a few plastic ties and piece of foil.
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $3192 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! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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Yellowstone with Taylor: Canoeing Lake Shoshone, Wyoming

DSC_0943(State #38/50) Right after I told her my Canoe 50 plans, Taylor claimed Wyoming. Visiting the Grand Tetons, as she explained, was on her bucket list. So was seeing a wild moose — something I assured her, with the utmost cockiness, that’d we’d accomplish without problem. Well, after our canoe to Lake Shoshone and five full days in the Northwest corner of Wyoming, I can say we accomplished exactly one half of my girlfriend’s goals…

We spent our first day exploring Yellowstone, traversing the thousands of spectators from the world over. We witnessed Old Faithful blow and stared at boiling thermal pools, exuding warm, sulfury breath. The best part, however, was talking to an older ranger, who told a terrifying story from last year — A man went to go hot-potting in an off limits thermal area. When testing the water with his foot, he was shocked by the extreme heat and fell into the scalding pool, dissolving in front of his sister. “All that was left,” she continued, “were his sandals.” Taylor and I stood with mouths wide, thinking about… and then trying not to think about it. I believe it’s true, but I have no interest in corroborating the tale with the grander internet; a story like that is just too horrible to ruin.DSC_0341

To my sincere delight, the rangers at the backcountry permit office were just as matter-of-fact and morbid when warning about the dangers of canoeing. “Wear your life jacket, so it will be easier to find you,” the ranger said, head tilted down, sizing me up from above his reading spectacles. “If not, I’ll have to get my sonar to look for you,” indicating he wouldn’t be searching for living versions of us. Then he explained how the wind and storms can whip up out of nowhere in the afternoon. “Stay along the shore and don’t take the short cuts across open water,” said the ranger. He looked at me a little longer, studying my dumb face and stupid grin, and then told Taylor she was in charge.

DSC_0614There are times and places — ballgames, fairs, concerts, public executions, etc. — where being amongst a massive crowd enhances the experience. For me, National Parks aren’t on that list. Therefore, I was thrilled to leave the swarming boardwalks and overflowing parking lots and show Taylor some true Yellowstone wilderness. And Lake Shoshone, the largest Lake in the lower 48 with no road access, was just the place. To get out there, you either hiked or paddled; either way, you’d leave 99% of the dawdling masses behind.

We set off onto Lewis Lake at noon. The day was sunny, warm and, technically, clear. But, forest fire smoke hung in the atmosphere and, along with the midday sun, washed out much of the color from the forests, lake and sky. The water was calm so, as the ranger suspected I’d do, I ignored his advice and paddled strait across, towards the inflow of the Shoshone River. For the first two miles, the river winds, lazy and translucent, between boulders, flowering meadow and piney hills. Then, with one mile to go, the swift water forces you out of your boat. It’s time to pull your boat upstream.DSC_0446

Looking for the channel of least resistance, I trudged up the cold Shoshone River, tugging on my canoe’s lead like an owner walking an unresponsive dog. Paralleling me, Taylor hiked along a semi-trail, over logs and through meadows. Ten minutes passed before I heard a slight squeal and turned to see Taylor standing in the midst of many blooms and their pollinators. Not a fan of bees, she stepped along, arms tucked in, fists clinched while making a series of unconscious, nervous squeaks. Half sympathetic, half amused, I told her to join me in the water. Though the walking was trickier, there was less chance of a bee attack or a bear dragging her away.

After over an hour of towing Rider, we reached the shores of Shoshone Lake and met a new challenge. The August air grew tumultuous and a few gray bottomed clouds blanketed portions of the lake with rain. The term flat water no longer applied to the lake as a bald eagle flew by and thunder cracked overhead. I kept Rider close to the steep, rocky lakeside and scanned the shoreline for spots to land and take cover if the lightning intensified. But, between the sheer rock cliffs and thick conifer trees, there were few places to pull up the canoe. This was why the ranger had told us to “get an early start.” Using partial common sense, we did follow one piece of advice and strapped on our life vests.DSC_0493

Continuing on the rough water, we watched the pop-up storms emerge from the smoke to the west. I strained my eyes to see light behind them, trying to determine if they were lone scouts or if they were just the foot soldiers preceding the cavalry. Either way, the shelling had begun. Flash! Boom! It was like the board game Battleship, but replace the red pegs and gray naval vessels with lightning bolts and a green canoe. Also, there wasn’t any way for us to fire back or cheat, so the game wasn’t much fun.

DSC_0460Despite the weather, Taylor kept cool and kept paddling. We bobbed on through rain and wind, trying to cut the larger white-capped waves, now rolling across the greater expanse of Lake Shoshone. Nearing the final cove, we canoed out into open water to avoid getting broadsided. Up and over with thuds and splashes, Taylor and I pressed on until spotting the small sign for our camp, sweet glorious camp! We reached land, threw up the tent and sheltered as the storm marched eastward.DSC_0491

Once the danger passed, we explored our little spit of land where the narrows separate the two larger ends of Shoshone. It was a charming little peninsula with a forested camp area, bear pole and our own section of gray lava rock and pumice beach. The evening light softened on the calming lake and the eight miles of canoeing, one mile of pulling and the gambling with the lightning gods felt worth it. We were now in what all of Yellowstone used to be — expansive, untouched nature without a single motorcycle, RV or fat kid in sight.

DSC_0481DSC_0509 (1)We sprayed down with mosquito repellent, made drinks and set up the tarp on the beach. Taylor and I gazed over the lake and discussed vital matters of life like the new season of Game of Thrones and whether Emily Blunt could pull off being Mary Poppins. By drink number three, we thought it an excellent idea to take turns singing songs. Taylor, knower of all things Disney, went straight to theme song of Hercules. I fell back on Sublime, a favorite from my youth. And yes, I do see the irony of finally finding a quiet, peaceful spot in the National Park, only to taint that silence with my off-key vocalizations. But, our singing had two important results: 1. We were thoroughly entertained and 2. We frightened off all possible grizzly bears within several miles.DSC_0518

The sun set between the pines and through the forest fire smoke, giving it that LA-orange glow. Originally, we discussed canoeing around the shores at twilight, searching for the illusive moose, but coziness and hunger had other plans. Night fell as we prepared one tasty Italian sausage pasta, which we devoured well after ten o’clock.DSC_0505

Slow to stir the next morning, we eventually got the bear bag down and made eggs, bacon and avocado burritos. We set out before noon and glided over the still lake towards the outlet. It was almost unfair how fast we navigated the section of river we had pulled the boat up. We floated over “rainbow rocks,” named because they bare the color of every craft, which scrapes over them. “You’re going the wrong way!” other groups joked as we flew by them, not the least bit envious of their toil.DSC_0538

Taylor and I spent the next several days exploring the parks and getting stuck in bison jams. Though we scoured the land and went to all the riparian hot spots, we never saw Taylor’s moose.

On our final day, we sat outside the Jackson Lake Lodge, sipping local beers while watching the evening settle into the vast, marshy valley below. The air was warm and pleasant. We talked, joked with our neighbors and stared out at the Tetons. Yes, even through the smoky haze, they were still grand, imposing and majestic mountain peaks. Now, maybe I’m just deflecting from my failure to deliver a moose, but I think checking one out of two items off Taylor’s bucket list ain’t too shabby. And, more importantly, neither one of us dissolved in a hyperthermic pool.DSC_0927

Lake Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Shoshone Lake via Lewis Lake and the Shoshone River
  • Dates Canoed: 8/5-6/2017
  • Miles Canoed: 18
  • Weather: Smokey, highs in the upper 70s to lows in the upper 50’s. Isolated thunderstorms in the evening.
  • Elevation: 7795 Feet Above Sea Level
  • Launch/takeout Point: Lewis Lake Boat Ramp (44.282618, -110.628789)
  • Campsite: Site 8Q1, South Narrow Point on Lake Shoshone (44.363781, -110.718852)
  • Songs Sung on River: Feel It Still and Number One by Portugal. The Man, Elephant Love Song from Moulin Rogue, Lovin’s What I got and Wrong Way by Sublime, and Taylor sang The Gospel Truth from Hercules (one of her top favorite Disney Songs of all time) and an Afro Man Song, I can’t recall it’s name, surely something suggestive.
  • Thanks to all the helpful rangers at the backcountry office. Professional, but not without a good dry, morbid sense of humor, which I appreciate to an enormous degree. And I promise, I fully intended on following most of the advice they offered. It just didn’t work out that way.
  • Special Thanks to Monica and Kelley with for letting me hang out and use the wifi at their Library in Kaycee, Wyoming. They were friendly, funny and great representatives for the. I still have the old card catalog Return of the King card, which they recycled by writing the wifi password on. As we decided, it will remind me to read that series.
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: Bald Eagle, raven, seagull, loon merganser, ducks, and a variety of song birds
  • Mammals: Chipmunk and Red Squirrel
  • Reptiles/amphibians: Frog
  • Noted Species: Grizzly Bear, Gray Wolf, Wolverine and Lynx
  • Dominant Vegetation: Lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce, Subalpine fir and Whitebark pine,
  • Ecoregion: Middle Rockies, (17j) Yellowstone Plateau
  • Current Threats: I’m unaware of any specific threats. Comparatively limited human interface, protected buffer zone and good watershed. Threats facing Shoshone will be the common non-point source facing all global lakes, i.e. effects of climate change.
  • Trash Collected: A few bits of trash at the launch, but nothing from the river or campsite!
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $3041 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! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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The Niobrara of Nebraska: A Canoe with Uncle Russell

DSC_1005 (1)(State #37/50) To be honest, no one expects much nature from Nebraska. Like many states, it isn’t that its undersold, it’s that Nebraskan wilderness isn’t sold at all… Now, I wonder why.

My Uncle Russell and I drove in a two-car convoy, down a blacktop road and into the sunlit Sandhills of Nebraska. We passed beneath a brief evening shower before entering the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest (an odd designation as it contains about 14 trees). A few miles in, we drove over a cattle guard, onto a rutted sandy track and into a small valley. Stepping over yucca and small prickly pear, Uncle Russell and I hiked up a hill to watch the sunset. To the Northeast, the sun-shower had become an ominous thunderstorm. Unusual glacial blue glowed beneath dark gray as rain bands emptied onto the prairie. But, we all know summer storms track west to east, so we’d be in the clear for the night. Oh, the things we think we know.DSC_1007

We set up the tent, grabbed some beers and strolled along an “Oregon Trail” looking path. By the time we had reached a saddle in the valley, the storm was closer — back-building towards us and growing darker. We gawked as the low clouds pushed overhead until sprinkles sent us fleeing for camp.

Inside Russell’s rental car, we finished our beers as the real rain and wind hit. The storm continued raging from the wrong direction as night fell. I peered through the rain and saw my tent still standing. Ten minutes later, I saw nothing. I confirmed my fears with a DSC_1029 (1)flashlight. “Crap,” I uttered as I stared at a flattened tent. I ran out to survey the damage — the same twice-broken pole had snapped and was now protruding through a foot-long gash in the rainfly. When the storm ceased, we stood over the defeated shelter before digging out our soaked-through sleeping bags. With shrugs, we retired to our separate cars for a lousy night’s sleep.

DSC_1034The next morning we went to the True Value in town where my uncle and the owner discussed the “terrible design” of my aluminum poles (take note REI). We bought 3/8th inch threaded plumbing pipe to use as a splint and repaired the pole and fly in a public park. “After your trip, I can rig you up something, retrofit it with fiberglass poles because it’s going to happen again,” my uncle said. If I ever possess 1/10th of Russell’s handyman prowess, I’d be a satisfied man.

DSC_1052With the tent repaired, the cooler loaded, we put in the Niobrara River on a hot, sunny afternoon. The river was deceptive — we crashed into rocks beneath the green/brown water. Furthermore, the cut banks often had a sandbar where I’d expect a deeper, faster channel. We nearly got stuck on one under Buffalo Bridge, calling to question my already feeble grasp of stream geology. Yet, we got the hang of the river after a few miles and could focus less on the mechanics of canoeing and more on the scene we floated through.DSC_1058

The Niobrara flows between high sandstone bluffs covered in pines and oaks with aspens growing in the hollows. Bison, elk and mountain lions still roam the river valley. Spring-fed waterfalls pour in, draining the Sandhills to the south. We made our first night’s camp near the “Highest Waterfall in Nebraska” and were impressed, as that title brings to mind a five-foot trickle. In reality, Smith Falls is a sixty-foot downpour over dark igneous rock. It wasn’t a waterfall by technicality, it was a freaking waterfall!DSC_0044 (1)

We didn’t get on the water until noon the second day. There was no hurry as the river propelled us forth at a three mph rate. By mid afternoon, we watched the bottoms of “fair weather” clouds grow steadily darker. “We’ll be fine as long as they don’t start holding hands.” Uncle Russell declared. As we paddled on, passed more cliffs, pines and waterfalls, holding hands is exactly what those clouds did — filling the gaps of blue sky and turning darker on all horizons. By the time I hopped out of the boat to swim near a waterfall, thunder was rumbling.DSC_0074

I climbed in the canoe and we paddled as the storm in front of us grew and, again, back-built. Bits of cold rain fell and wind picked up as our boat came around a turn into a small section of rapids. “Damnit!” I yelled, “the wind is drying out my contacts… I can’t see much.” Through blurry vision, I saw the beach for Rocky Ford Campground, our destination for the night. Lightning bolts fanned out across the sky as we stroked at full tilt towards the landing. Once we reached the sand, we got out and, for the second time on the trip, ran for shelter. Yet, few days of canoeing end with such drama — lightning, rapids and cussing at the wind. It was great.

DSC_0025

Russell Straw, the Legend of Sugarland, TX

We hung out at the camp store, on the fringe of the storm for an hour, watching rain bands vanish the hills and dark pines to the east. Winds blew dust from the road where raindrops didn’t matt it down. Eventually, the evening sun replaced the storm threat. With drinks in hand, we promenaded around the campsite to people watch and take in river views from higher ground. Russell told me old stories from our country place about the long-gone old timers. Some I’d heard and loved hearing again, while a few were new to me. Uncle Russell, along with being Mr. Fixit, is a natural storyteller; whether it’s an account of “Dale, Dean and Rus-Sill’s” childhood in the South Pacific, college rafting trips down the Salmon River or tales of the old ones from near our country place, I challenge anyone to not listen with intent and enjoy his stories.DSC_0116 (1)

The next morning, after our coffee and egg/sausage burritos, the Niobrara carried us towards Egelhoffs Rapid — a solid class II. From our vantage, the stream simply dropped off; white spray shot up from the looming unknown. In a snap decision, we executed a sliding, 180 degree stop into the left bank, right before the point of no return. Russell and I walked over and studied the twenty-foot-wide, two-foot-drop rapid into a deep and swift moving hundred-yard-flume. It looked easy to do right, but also easy to screw up. Either way, we concluded, it’d happen fast.DSC_0141

Back in the canoe, we tightened our life vests, dropped to our knees and flew towards the dead center of the mighty rapids of Nebraska. Uncle Russell and the bow dropped into the shoot and the stern and I bucked up and followed. I felt slight panic for a moment as the canoe rocked side to side. Rider stabilized, but then nearly clipped the left wall; we missed the tip-inducing collision by a hair. When the water slowed we pulled over and celebrated the mix of mild danger and exhilarating adrenaline. “There wasn’t much room for error!” we agreed, happy we scouted it out.

shoot

A Screen shot for Russell’s GoPro as we drop in the rapid

From that point the action fell as the Niobrara widened into and braided stream consisting of shallows, sandbars and slim crisscrossing channels. Park Rangers and locals had warned us about this five-mile section. Apparently, when the river’s low, your float becomes a drag, if you will. However, we only had to get out to drag five times. This was likely less to do with my way-finding abilities on the river and more likely due to the extra water from recent rains. We took out before the boring section became too interesting at the Norden Chute, a class IV of pant-shitting furry.DSC_0149

I can’t speak for Uncle Russell, but I’d think we’d both give the river our Straw Stamp of Approval. After canoeing thirty miles of it, I can say the Niobrara isn’t a National Scenic River by charity, it’s a National Scenic River by merit. With hair-raising rapids, western wildlife, spring-fed waterfalls, wide valleys and forested cliffs, it seems like a place that should be known to more outdoorsy Americans. But, perhaps, Nebraskans don’t wish to sell this river to outsiders. Perhaps they’d prefer to keep this unlikely wilderness for themselves. If that’s the case, I can’t blame them.

IMG_1372

Russell took this early one morning near Rocky Ford, while I slumbered in the tent…

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Niobrara River, Nebraska
  • Dates Canoed: 7/29-31/2017
  • Miles Canoed: 30
  • Weather: Highs in the 80s, ranging from clear to mostly cloudy with a pop up thunderstorm
  • Elevation: Approximately 2361 to 2111 feet Above Sea Level
  • Launch Point: Cornell Bridge Launch (42.899132, -100.483371)
  • Campsite #1: Smith Falls State Park (42.894387, -100.322382)
  • Campsite #2: Rocky Ford Campground (42.831784,-100.154366)
  • Takeout Point: Norden Bridge (a little tricky but doable, not an official launch area (42.786828, -100.036472)
  • Songs Sung on River (My List): Omaha by Counting Crows, Jack and Diane by John Mellon Camp, Happiness by Elliot Smith Black Betty by Ram Jam and Calamity Song by The Decemberists
  • Songs Sung on River (Uncle Russell’s List): Houston by Dean Martin, Chug-A-Lug, King of the Road and You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd by Rodger Miller, Lunatic Fringe by Red Rider, Me & Bobby McGee and The Silver Tongue Devil and Me by Kris Kristofferson
  • Delicious Local Restaurant: Coachlight Cafe in Valentine (Cowboy and Badger Burger… good stuff)
  • Big Thanks to Solveig Perrett with the National Park Service. We ran into her twice — once at the visitor center in Valentine and again on the river. She gave us good advice, answered an onslaught of questions and had an obvious passion for her work.
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: Wild Turkeys, Bald Eagle, American Kestrel, hawk, great blue heron, green heron, kingfisher, crow, woodpecker, golden finch, chickadee, plover (?) vulture dove, cliff swallows, Canada Goose, cardinal, robin, redwing blackbird, crow, and family of mergansers.
  • Mammals: 2 American Minks cottontail, 3 white tail deer (about a mile from river on drive out)
  • Reptiles/amphibians: Lizard on hike and small toad
  • Noted Species: Bison, elk, mountain lions and river otter
  • Dominant Vegetation: Ponderosa pine (eastern most limit), bur oak, paper birch, a hybrid species of quaking and bigtooth aspen, American elm, black walnut, green ash, basswood, hackberry and a bunch of mid and tall grass species.
  • Ecoregion: Border of the Nebraska Sandhills, (44a) Sandhills and Northern Great Plains, (43r) The Niobrara River Breaks
  • Current Threats: Agriculture using water for irrigation and draining the river when water is scarce. Also, people (floaters leaving trash, damaging sensitive riparian areas)
  • Trash Collected: plastic bottles, candy wrapers, a full beer, empty cans and plastic bags
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $3041 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! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
Posted in Canoeing the Midwest | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Canoeing* the Cheyenne, South Dakota with Cousin Thomas

DSC_0785(State #36/50) Walking the canoe into a pool of muddy water, my cousin, Thomas, turned around. “Should we try?” he asked. I nodded and we hopped back in the boat. We paddled forward for about ten feet and then ran aground. Thomas and I strained and pried at the sand with our paddles, but it was no use — all forward progress had ceased. He looked back and I shook my head. Without a word, we both jumped out of Rider and commenced dragging the canoe downstream. The Cheyenne River, my ass.

Thomas had flown into Rapid City a few days before. We had toured the Black Hills, chased prairie dogs, and stared, with patriotic obligation, at the stone faces of four dead presidents. Then it was time to canoe, which was going to be problematic — South Dakota was in a massive drought. I prepared Thomas for the likely realities of the low water and my cousin seemed up for anything. I was thankful for his attitude… Unlike our canoe, it’d go a long way on the river.DSC_0554 (1)

What stream?” the woman behind the counter responded. “The Cheyenne River,” I answered back, less confident. “We’re going to canoe down it and we’re seeing if we could, perhaps, park the car here overnight.” The woman looked me over with the proper amount of suspicion, trying to figure out my angle… It was, after all, an abnormal request. Her name was Karla and she was the Communication Director for the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. Before coming to South Dakota, she had worked with musicians, artist and organized concerts, etc. Karla has seen her share of grifters, users, charlatans, nogoodniks and ne’er-do-wells. But, after a few minutes of vetting, she determined we weren’t horse thieves. “You can park in the guest parking lot and use that gate to get to the river.” Karla said, warming to us. We thanked her and continued talking — what stories she told.

DSC_0690 (1)Thomas and I carried our gear down the sandy hill, past stables to the sand bar above the… Well, when Karla had asked “what stream?,” she wasn’t being funny. Standing by the Cheyenne “River,” I saw the drought’s true extent. The summer before, we were told, people jet skied here. It was difficult to imagine now, as my canoe was longer than the river was wide. I looked over at Thomas. He stood grinning, holding his paddle and wearing his life jacket. I laughed. “Take that thing off.” I said. “If we drown in this water then we deserve to drown.”

DSC_0696We fixed rum and cokes immediately, not even allowing the chance for frustration to drive us to drink. I pulled the boat out into the deepest water I could find — maybe a foot — and held Rider steady as Thomas jumped in the front. Then we were off, flying down the little yellow river for a good sixty feet until we came to a riffle and got stuck in the sand. “Alright, time to get out,” I said. Thomas guided the boat through and I helped her along until we reached the next stretch of suitable water. We jumped in, paddled a little, and jumped out to, again, walk the canoe downstream. We repeated this process until I lost count.DSC_0744 (2)

Yes, it wasn’t ideal floating conditions, but I’ll say this: if you have to push, pull and drag a canoe for two miles, this wasn’t a bad place to do it. The Cheyenne River splits the Black Hills and the great northern prairie. Along the river, willows and cottonwoods line the banks and lush green ferns and vines grow where cold spring water feeds into the stream. Birdlife abounded and we scared huge rafters of turkeys, watching them bob and scurry away into the high grass. We passed by sandstone faces and even floated under the shade of an overhang. Rolling prairie sprawled out towards the South. Escarpments of orange, white and yellow, dotted with dark green pines, rose to the North. Some of the wild horses, painted and speckled, patrolled the far-off pine ridges, hundreds of feet up.DSC_0732

The land on both sides was owned by the horse sanctuary. As Karla had explained, it was founded by Dayton O. Hyde in 1988 and is home to hundreds of horses that are too wild to adopt. Now they get to frolic and roam the lands of the sanctuary until they turn back to dust, as Karla put it. True, they’re not native (well, this horse species is Eurasian, though horses originated in North America), but you could argue they have more right to the western lands than any other introduced species. Surely, if there’s room in America for all of us non-native humans, there can be a little for wild horses as well.DSC_0855 (1)

DSC_0778 (1)In no rush, we explored and goofed around. Thomas climbed an old rickety deer blind (which, being the older, wiser cousin, I highly encouraged), we hiked out of the gully for views of the land, chased a big snapping turtle and ate tiny, tart green apples from an old tree growing from the bank. At one point, we found a section dammed by beavers. Thomas and I took advantage and canoed laps around a thirty-by-sixty-foot pool, enjoying the novelty of sitting in the canoe.

We had to carry the boat over several barbed wire fences, which crossed the stream. The third fence we approached, notably, wasn’t barbed wire. “I think that’s an electric fence,” I warned. Thomas didn’t hear. Pop! Thomas jumped back, shaking his hand, and turned to me. “That’s an electric fence!” he called out in surprise. He wasn’t bleeding from the ears, so we continued.DSC_0786 (2)

Finally, thankfully, after a few hours a sizable spring-fed stream flowed in from the hills. The cold, clear water provided a nice boost. Thomas and I got in the canoe and — I’m not making this up — didn’t have to get out for a half mile! We floated under the highway bridge, around rocks, beneath a barbwire fence and against cut banks.DSC_0809 (1)

DSC_0812 (1)As the sun lowered we found a camp on a grass bank above the stream. The sun cast soft light on huge cottonwood trees with thick, deep-creviced bark. “You watch, it’s going to get even better in a few minutes,” I told my cousin, cocky in my sunset prediction. Twenty minutes later all the colors faded to gray and Thomas, rightfully, made fun of me. That night we cooked quesadillas and watched all the stars come out. Laying out on a tarp, we looked up at the Milky Way, talked and watched shooting stars. It was supremely romantic.DSC_0830

The next morning, we canoed upstream and left the canoe at the bridge. After walking a mile up a dirt road, an employee from the sanctuary gave us a lift. Karla seemed happy we survived and rewarded our labor by letting us take showers. Then, as we left, the sky opened up and rain poured down upon the dust, the fields, the turkeys and the horses.

DSC_0714 (1)Driving to the Badlands that afternoon, I tried to distract Thomas as we crossed over the Cheyenne, again and again. Downstream from a reservoir, each stretch had three times more water flowing than where we had canoed… Yeah, it hurts to miss that one. But, but, but, our float was what people vaguely and all too commonly call “an experience.” I prefer the term ordeal. Yes, Thomas and I had an ordeal in South Dakota, but an enjoyable ordeal, which brings to mind a line from an ancient eastern parable, which I’m now making up… Sometimes, when traveling downstream, the canoe takes you and sometimes, you take the canoe.

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Cheyenne, South Dakota (Not to be confused with the Sheyenne of North Dakota!)
  • Dates Canoed: 7/26-27/2017
  • Miles Canoed: 3 total (about 2 dragging the boat, 1 actually sitting in the canoe).
  • Weather: Highs in the low 80s, partly cloudy to mostly cloudy with a cloudburst
  • Elevation: Approximately 3240 feet Above Sea Level
  • Launch Point: Wild Horse Sanctuary (43.313863, -103.605967)
  • Campsite/Further Point Reached: (43.302704 ,-103.554946)
  • Takeout Point: Bridge on highway 71 (43.305732, -103.563824)
  • Songs Sung on the River: “Rocky Raccoon by the Beatles (“Somewhere in hills of South Dakota there lived a young boy named Rocky Raccooooon”), Hurts So Good by John “the Cougar” Mellencamp, End of the World by R.E.M and Home on the Range. (How did we not sing Wild Horse by the Stones? shameful!)
  • Delicious Local Restaurant: Dew Drop Inn, Hot Springs — Thomas and I ordered greasy burgers and milkshakes. In the shade of a pavilion, we ate ourselves into a happy oblivion.
  • Huge thanks to Karla and the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary for all their hospitality. Thanks to Karla for letting us shower after the canoe. And thanks to Steve for turning his truck around to pick Thomas and I up and take us back to our car.DSC_0867
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: Wild Turkeys (about 100), vulture, night hawk, golden finch, dove, cliff swallows
  • Mammals: White tail deer and wild horses (heard coyotes at night)
  • Reptiles/amphibians: Snapping turtle, frogs (saw a Prairie Rattlesnake on way to badlands!)
  • Other: minnows and big carp
  • Noted Species: Big horn sheep, elk and mountain lions
  • Ecoregion: Border of Northwestern Great Plains, (43e) Sagebrush Steppe and Middle Rockies, (17a) Blackhills Foothills
  • Current Threats: Agriculture and irrigation taking water from the river. Mining runoff used to be a major issue. The Cheyenne still has a higher dissolved mineral content than other South Dakota rivers.
  • Trash Collected: bottles and plastic trash by the bridge
    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! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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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! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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