| Heat Wave in the Northern
day on a Greyhound bus and a day bouncing around in
Tom Enney was the
bus driver on the small shuttle running up
And Tom didn’t stop there. Like a smiling walrus with neither the mustache nor the tusks, he managed the shuttle bus down the highway with occasional looks back at me over his shoulder—moving on now to the finer details of gutting and filleting and cooking Walleye. He drove with a small cooler beside him filled with Diet Cokes and ice and he always had an open can, a sort of beverage equivalent of chain smoking. His directions for frying fish involved a special procedure for ensuring that all bones were removed from the two large filets, for preparing a batter of crumbled Ritz crackers mixed in with beaten eggs and garlic, and for keeping the fry time to a minimum. All in all, Tom gave me a mini-course on everything you need to know about Walleye in the mere forty minutes I was riding on the bus. I am sure I have forgotten as much as I remember, but when at last I start learning how to fish I am sure that Tom’s directions will lurk in my unreliable memory.
With a little
hitchhiking to cover the final dozen miles or
so, I found Kobuk as I left her—tied up and tightly tucked under her
canvas cover. It took all the rest of
the day to clean her up—for I had left her a mess—but by nightfall she
ready to go and I had an arrangement with a nearby marina for her to be
out and relaunched below the dam the following day at noon. There was only one problem: one of the
batteries was delivering no electrical power.
Jim Wall, the owner of Bayside Marina, pulled Kobuk out of Lake Sakakawea shortly after noon and in a mere fifteen minutes managed to locate the source of the electrical problem—a faulty fuse that separated into pieces when removed from its little plastic retainer. With that repaired, all systems worked fine and Kobuk was ready for relaunch.
I left the
vicinity of the dam with no more ambition than to
make it to the vicinity of
When I first started out in May, I was anxious to cover distance for no better reason than to prove to myself that this voyage is feasible. Now that that question has been resolved I can stop worrying so much about performance and begin letting the auxiliary do more of the work. The hardest part is to readjust my own mentality so that “getting there” is no longer such a preoccupation.
All this sounds like excuses, I suppose, but in any event I missed the Knife River and ended up tying off next to a boat ramp in the shadow of a power station located about five miles downstream from Stanton. It was not a particularly inviting spot but it had the dual advantage of ready access to a road for bicycling to town and ready access to assistance if I should need it. One surprising thing about this particular launch ramp was that boaters were coming and going with ferocious frequency. I was amazed. Nowhere to date had I seen more than the occasional fisherman, but now in this little out of the way place the fishermen were lining up to get on and off the river. I learned later that the Walleye were biting.
Tied off to a
stranded driftwood tree not more than fifty
yards upstream from the launch ramp, I looked suspiciously at the nasty
shore. These were not river pebbles or
river boulders; they were rock shards that looked more as if dynamited
fragments had been strewn along the shoreline. Still,
there was no major reach of river water in any
direction so wind
would not be able to whip up particularly large waves.
Furthermore, it was a very calm evening with
no signs of unsettled weather on the horizon. I
left Kobuk and pedaled to
29.466’ N / 101° 25.686’ W
I went to sleep last night around —about the time it gets really dark—and at in the morning I was awakened by a loud bang and a sudden lurch. I had been sleeping out in the open space aft of the cabin, but now I found myself tilted at such an angle that I would slide down toward the starboard side of the boat if I did not resist by extending my legs against the hull there. Kobuk was listing badly. When I got up to take a look I could see that we were no longer in the river. We were stranded high above the water level. Of course, when you are a boat any distance above the water level seems high. In any event, there was no part of Kobuk still in the water and it seems that I was awakened when for some reason Kobuk decided to roll over and rest on her downhill chine rather than her uphill one. Before the event, the floor was pretty near flat, but after it the slope was extreme. There was nothing to be done until morning so I rearranged myself so as to sleep wedged in the V formed by the intersection of the floor and the ends of the steering console and driver’s seat. It was not an optimal arrangement but I was too sleepy and too lazy to pull out the tent and create a civilized campsite on flat ground away from the river.
In the morning, as fishermen arrived and launched their boats in steady succession, I began the tedious process of clearing away the rocks and boulders lying between Kobuk and open water. As nasty as they appeared, they were embedded in mud and when the surface layer of them was stripped away the result was a reasonably kind looking skidway down which I hoped to lever Kobuk broadside using a couple soaped planks as facilitators. Above water level the rocks could be pried loose with relative ease, but in the shallows they clung to their muddy resting places like ticks on a dog. A couple hours, though, were enough to do the job and just as I was finishing up a man who had just launched his boat yelled over to me that “You don’t have to do that; the water will come back up in a few hours!” The news was simply too good to take at face value so I began asking other boaters about this matter.
Sure enough, it turned out that the river has a daily regime, up and down like a tide as the Corp of Engineers releases greater amounts of water for power generation during the peak demand periods of the day. Eventually, I happened across one man who works for the Corps of Engineers and although he did not know the particulars of the daily regimen he did have the phone number for the Garrison Dam power station where all the action occurs. A call to that number confirmed that water flow was increased—more or less doubled, in fact—during the morning hours, and that the fixed nature of the regimen should result in a predictable timing and range for water level changes. In other words, I should be able to get Kobuk clear by no later than the time when I tied off the previous afternoon.
reassurance, I abandoned all work, hopped on the
bike, and went to town once again—this time to see the
In retrospect, I
think I learned a lot from the visit. The
circular earth lodges were remarkably
large—much larger than the sod homes of the early plains settlers out
East—and the sense of community must have been intense for the Mandan
to compact them into what almost resembles a hexagonal net with no
distance between buildings. Also, it was
clear that the villages were not so terribly small.
The one site I visited seemed to have at
least a few dozen lodge foundations. It
is not at all unlikely that when the
When I got back to the boat the water had risen noticeably, so I sat around and read until Kobuk was rocking like a cradle. By mid-afternoon I was on my way downstream, headed for Washburn.
Washburn is one
of the larger small towns in
At three in the morning I awoke to the biting of mosquitoes and an eerie stillness in the air. As I lay there considering what to do I saw flashes of light in the distance and knew that a thunderstorm was near. No question about it—time to zip on the curtains. Even before I finished the task the wind was tugging at the canvas, making it hard to snap the snaps and zip the zippers. I finished as the first raindrops fell, and then the fury of the storm came close behind. Thunder and lightning and rain and wind—they all seemed intent on intimidating Kobuk. I went back to bed with water leaking in at a prodigious rate at the bottoms of the plastic windows and along the edges between the canvas and the boat. In the cabin, though, and up forward in the bunk it was as cosy and as dry as a perfect haven should be.
morning I had to evacuate at least 20 gallons of
rainwater from the bilge, but otherwise the heavens and earth were
peaceful. I had already decided to spend
the day working on the boat and circumstances had sealed my choice by
Kobuk once again. This time, though, the
opportunity to get clear did not arrive until nearly when a fitful rainstorm was playing itself
out. I was puzzled by the late hour since I had
tied off in early evening the night before, but then I realized that
thunderstorm in the middle of the previous night must have dragged my
anchor toward shore and allowed Kobuk to be blown up onto the beach in
middle of that night. Why the water
level should be so high at this late hour is a mystery to me. It
is hard to believe that a morning release
of supplemental water from Garrison Dam would take so many hours to
site only 35 miles downstream. In any
event, I donned my Costa Rican plastic poncho and with flashlight in
maneuvered Kobuk over to the dock next to the launch ramp and tied up
there. With deep water all around, I
felt confident of being clear in the morning.
Spilde is a
reporter for the Bismarck Tribune who called me a few days ago about
interview regarding the boat trip. We
ended up arranging that he would travel with me from Washburn to
During its 1600
mile course from the
The beauty along
this run of the river has an indefinable
serenity to it. It is grand yet
intimate. It is simultaneously soothing
and inspiring—a queer and rare blend of emotional reactions. But there is another side to it as well: the
river here is devilishly hard to read. Often
one reads about how difficult and deadly the
When you actually attempt to navigate these waters, you quickly develop a much more visceral understanding of how hard it must have been for the Lewis and Clark expedition to make progress in either direction. I was somewhat aghast when I learned that those poor men hauled their heavy boats upstream using lines—an exhausting line of work if ever there was one. Now at least I see that they generally could do so by wading in the river. Still, where was the channel and how did they keep their boats in it?
Then there was
the era of the paddlewheelers and commercial
boating on the
Yes, let’s make
it a national park. Lets put a few
paddlewheelers on it and
recreate the problems of early navigation. Let’s
During the day, Tony and I eased our way along, rarely proceeding at more than 7-8 miles per hour. Many were the groundings, but all save one were minor events that required only a minimum expenditure of energy before getting free. The one time we got seriously caught, we had made the mistake of wandering out into the middle of the river where the channel is least likely to be. We had to nudge Kobuk over a good distance of sandbar before finally breaking free into somewhat deeper water near one river bank, and thereafter we were more careful to stay near the sides of the river, only crossing over when we were utterly convinced that the channel must be over there.
Tony is a big man, far larger than I initially realized. At 6’4” and 240 pounds, he is a weighty addition to Kobuk’s already heavy load. When we started out, I encouraged him to not feel as if he needed to help me unless I asked him to do so, and he tried hard to stay out of the way. He obviously wanted to help, but kept restraining himself as I had asked. For most of our groundings I hopped out and did the gruntwork but the one time we got badly stuck I eventually asked him to get in the water with me. I was somewhat surprised to discover how much this singular alteration in the weight equation eased the task of pushing Kobuk free. And of course with both of us pushing Kobuk became a much more compliant patient.
Not far out of
As the day wore
on, it seemed to get increasingly sunny and
hot on the river, and so it was with a mild sense of relief that we
The Broken Oar: 46° 47.787’ N / 100° 49.335’ W
The folks at The Broken Oar had no objection to my remaining tied to their dock so I spent the night there and plan to spend one or two more. Kobuk will get a rest as I attend to other things here in the city.
In the morning I
made a few phone calls to determine where I
am going to get gas between here and
It rained heavily
last night, and also heavily off and on
throughout much of today. This kept me
on board Kobuk most of the time, reluctant to venture out into the
deluge. The wet conditions have
potential to keep
me here in
I awoke this
morning with my right eye swollen shut—a queer
phenomenon that occurs once every two or three years and appears to be
consequence of sleeping on it in a way that aggravates a soccer injury
received a few decades ago. Anyway, it
took most of the day for the swelling to go down and that too has
to stay put. One benefit of the more or
less enforced confinement is that I have now worked out a way to
the leakage around the plastic windows that occurs whenever there is a
rain. It is a jerry rigged arrangement
involving the use of the boat hook, the paddle, and the plastic bottle
for night time peeing, but it works and it suggests a reasonable
designing something a little more streamlined.
It continues to be overcast and threatening, and although the rain is no longer continuous it still comes down in the form of occasional showers that sometimes do little more than lay down a gentle mist but that occasionally take on the force of a real drizzle. I makes little sense to head down the river in this gray weather so I think I have unconsciously resolved to wait until the skies clear. I am without doubt a fair weather mariner—if it is possible for such a creature to exist.
Anyway, there is much to be done, and I spent almost all the day in the public library updating the online courses that are financing this venture. In mid-afternoon I took a break and cycled over to take a look at the state capital building. Sometimes one is unaware of the power of tradition until confronted with its blatant violation. The capital is not your standard, domed, neoclassical structure; it is a towering monolith on an asymmetrical base, rising perhaps ten stories and looking clean, lean and spare. It is a reasonably attractive building—not beautiful but not repulsive and clearly better than most contemporary attempts at architectural beauty. It is somehow disorienting, however, to encounter a state capital building that looks so starkly administrative. Couldn’t we just stick with tradition and keep the illusion of illustrious grandiosity?
By the time I returned to the library in late afternoon, the sky was beginning to clear, so when in the last hour of daylight I finally left for the day it was only modestly surprising to be greeted by bluebird conditions—cloudless skies and an urban landscape bathed in golden evening light.
Tribune had an article today about the problem
of water release from the Garrison Dam that Kobuk and I circumvented
week. It seems that the fishing here in
the downstream area depends on the stocking of Trout smelt that act as
the Walleye and other game fish. But
Trout smelt only do well in cold water and
The problem here is that the Corps is reacting to—and being buffeted by—political forces. When cruel Mother Nature was in charge, no heed was given to the selfish interests of individual species, human or otherwise. Decisions were absolute, divine, and irrevocable. People might complain. They might suffer. They might even attempt to combat or circumvent the awful consequences of Nature’s dictate. They would never presume, however, that the decision might be challenged. It would be as mad and as foolish as presuming to change the call of a baseball umpire.
No matter how
powerful the Corps might be it can never
aspire to such a level of authoritarianism, and as a result its
never accepted without challenge and nobody truly believes in its
divine right. As a result, the fate of the
be in the hands of one narrow interest or another.
Will it be the boaters and anglers or will it
be advocates for hydropower energy? Will
it be the environmentalists who wish to protect one sort of fish or
will it be the farmers who crave irrigation water?
Will it be the downstream navigation lobby or
the upstream lobby of states where nearly all the water originally
from? Whichever interest prevails, or
whatever compromise is struck between these and other interests, the
will be childish and immature, incapable of commanding respect.
Inertia sets in
whenever I stay in one place for a little
while, and that is what has happened here in
After two days of heavy rains, all sorts of on-board items are damp or worse and so everything is laid out to dry. I wipe down the interior of Kobuk and evacuate all the rain water that has collected in the bilge. In the process, I discover a spot near the forward end of the keel where the plywood bottom planking has been damaged. The wood has been exploded upward enough to have fractured at least a couple layers of the ply and so I spend quite some time getting the bilge completely dry so as to tell whether there is any leakage coming up through the fractured layers of ply. No water oozes through the fractures there, but eventually some repair work will have to be done.
No wonder Tony and I heard a crunching sound when Kobuk hit that rock. It was the sound of plywood splitting apart. The damaged area is located right next to a stringer that parallels the keel. The distance from the keel to that first stringer is less than a foot but if the hit had come in the middle of that span rather than right beside the stringer than Kobuk probably would have been holed and Tony and I would have been scrambling to get Kobuk to shore before it filled with water. Of course, if the hit had come on the keel or the stringer—each of which is the better part of a foot wide—then no plywood damage of the crunchy sort would have occurred and the only mark would have been a dent in the bottom of a hull. Whether this was “lucky” or “unlucky” depends on your general outlook on life, but from my point of view anything short of a puncture falls in the lucky category.
in the rich man’s yacht harbor across the
river, I set off for
But anyway, the
scenery is faintly reminiscent of the
After eating, on the way down to the river, I pick up a half dozen ticks on my jeans and then spend hours thereafter wondering if any of them have managed to get onto me. That night after I went to bed I found two more in my hair, and so now I am resigned to the prospect that one or two of them are going to get imbedded in me somewhere.
John and I decide to camp together on an island in the river, and after setting everything up there we spend hours watching the sunset and then watching the campfire. We talk about how sensible our two projects are and how misguided all those people are who think of us as self-indulgent fools.
Huff’s Bar and Grill: 36° 37.768’ N / 100° 39.444’ W
Saturday, July 2
As the hours pass with Kobuk creeping around in these unknown waters, I cannot help but feel ambivalent about the slow progress. On the one hand, it would be liberating to reach open water where we might get up on a plane and let the wind blow in our face; but on the other, this landscape of broadwaters, sandbars, gray tree snags, and riverbank cottonwoods is peerless and unspoiled—and after Lake Oahe there will be precious little more of it.
I had thought it
might be necessary
to tie off near
Mobridge ordinarily sits next to the lake, but with such a low water level there are extensive marshes and weed covered lowlands separating the lake’s edge from the rail line and main street that define the waterside edge of town in the distance. I managed to find a small embayment and run Kobuk up against a muddy bank behind a fretwork of tangled driftwood lying between it and the open waters of the lake. In the thickening twilight I zipped on the curtains, got myself something to eat, and prepared to rest after a long day of boating. In spite of the fact that I was tied off in front of the Mobridge city lights and could hear the cars and occasional trains passing in the distance, this site proved to have the noisiest collection of wildlife of the entire trip so far. Giant fish were jumping—they must have been giant to sound like rocks thrown in the water by small boys. A motley collection of insects was buzzing and bumping in the usual vigorous way. Birds and frogs and other creatures carried on with abandon. It was a good way to go to sleep.
Mobridge waterfront: 45° 31.809’ N / 100° 27.096’ W
In late morning
when I finally got under way, the engine
started without any hesitation. This is
exactly the same thing that happened that last day on
The booklet of
maps and information on
Shuttling fuel in
jerry cans is not particularly hard
work—and I am, after all, used to the routine since I have had to do it
since the trip began. Only in
I didn’t leave
Indian Creek until mid-afternoon, by which
time there was a healthy following wind on the lake pushing up a 1-2
chop. Kobuk bounded along on this lively
surface in a gratifying way—surging up over the top of moving waves and
neatly into the troughs. At one point I
pulled over and tied off along an isolated stretch of windward
take a swim and clean up. When I set out
again, the main engine refused to stay running, just as it had done the
before. I motored along with the
auxiliary for an hour or so until finally the engine decided to start
again. Once running, it purred
flawlessly, and on most occasions it starts immediately with the turn
key, so I am baffled as to why these situations arise when the engine
start up properly.
More or less
midway between Mobridge and the Oahe Dam, I
took Kobuk into Sutton’s Bay for the night and settled into a mosquito
slough where I learned that even when all curtains are zipped on while
out on open and windswept water the mosquitoes and other flying
cannot be kept out once we enter their territory. I
had an army of them as visitors, and only
managed to maintain some distance from them by burning a Cutter Citro
Candle all night long. Its sweet fumes
forced the invaders to hunker down immobilized on the underside of the
awning, near the aft end, as far from the candle as possible. Impressive was the candle’s effectiveness,
but still it was somewhat disturbing to remove all my clothes in
for going to bed when all those hundreds of mosquitoes were stationary
healthy only a few feet away. During the
night I was more concerned that the candle might go out than that it
start a fire.
This end of
I left Sutton’s Bay fairly early so as to take advantage of the morning hours when the wind is still and the lake is quiet. The boaters were out and nearly every boat had a collection of immobile anglers with their lines overboard. I must have seemed mad to them, running down the lake at speed with no apparent destination. I am sure that many were furtively watching to see if I would zero in on a particularly promising spot for dropping a line overboard, but must have been mildly disappointed and perhaps a little puzzled when Kobuk and I disappeared around the next distant headland.
By we were close to Oahe Dam but once again the need to add fuel to an empty tank resulted in a refusal of the main engine to restart. This mysterious behavior on the part of the engine is causing psychological distress for me. It is like one of those perverse psychological experiments designed to ascertain how an individual will react to a somewhat predictable but totally incomprehensible situation. But this time I was psychologically prepared. I knew what was likely to happen but it did not concern me since I knew that it would only take a couple hours to reach the dam under outboard power.
Motoring along at
a leisurely pace, it decided to stop and
take a short swim. I rigged a rope
between the two cleats on the port side so that there would be a step
to assist me getting back in the boat and I let the final fifty feet of
line trail behind the boat in case Kobuk got a mind to drift downwind
uncomfortable pace. At last it is clear
lake water, the sort of stuff you certainly wouldn’t mind brushing your
in and probably wouldn’t hesitate to drink either.
When I got back aboard all refreshed and
cleaned up, I did a little housekeeping and decided that the final few
a slow pace would be a good time to do laundry by dragging my dirty
a net bag behind the boat. I thought the
water looked impressively clear and presumed that the mud problem I had
For a while, everything went along swimmingly but no sooner did I begin to think about what I would do if the cord on the net bag were to break than it did. It was a comedy of errors as I attempted to turn around keeping the rapidly sinking bag in sight. I guess you could say I panicked. I was so flustered that I tried to steer with the main wheel, which only operates the jet drive. By the time I recovered from this false move, the bag was out of sight. I trolled back and forth for a while, but it was clear that the bag of clothes was well on its way to bottom of the lake where it would join, I imagine, an eclectic mix of other boater’s items that are heavier than water. Losing the clothes was a disappointment because of course your dirty clothes almost always are your favorites.
Just before reaching the dam, the main engine decided to start again—just as I thought it would—but I decided to carry on with the small outboard as a sort of punishment for its misbehavior. The boat ramp next to the dam was the sum of the facilities there. There were no docks or buildings around (although an odd looking tugboat type affair was sitting near the end of the ramp just out of water). People were putting in and taking out at a furious pace and while all this activity was going on I tied off on a muddy bank and also set the stern anchor some distance out into the lake. It was not a very protected place and I was concerned that a stronger wind might bring on bigger waves that could set Kobuk broadside on the mud bank (which was, unfortunately, fitted with a number of occasional rocks). I could think of nothing else to do, however, and battened her down before setting out on the bicycle to find a solution to the portage problem.
Just on the downstream side of the dam is a boat launch area and general store where I was directed to a fishing guide named Dale who upon returning at the end of the day would help me get Kobuk around the dam. When Dale appeared, he looked like Bill Murray with a graying beard, but had a quiet and softspoken way about him. He was dubious that his trailer was large enough for Kobuk, but most kindly arranged for me to rent a trailer from a marina in Port Pierre, about six miles downstream, and so in early evening we pulled Kobuk out of Lake Oahe and took her to the parking lot next to the boat launch area.
around Garrison Dam I had not had a chance to
inspect the bottom of Kobuk, but this time because of the rock
It is hard to
imagine anything more American than attending
a rodeo in
I have been to a number of rodeos over the years, but it is impossible to get tired of them. There is something almost painfully real about the hopes and disappointments of all those small town buckaroos who try so hard to rope and ride and wrestle steers. As the long shadows crept across the dirt-filled arena, the events played themselves out. Oddly, in spite of the danger and risk to which the men expose themselves, it is the barrel racing women who most captivate me. There is something about the way they stretch their relatively small selves and their powerfully muscled horses to the absolute limit in their effort to dash across the arena, only to bring their mount to a near stop and wheel around a barrel before dashing to the next one.
But the crowd loves the bull riding, of course, and I do as well. When you see one of these bulls behaving the way he does, it looks impossible that anybody could stay on his back for eight seconds—and the thought of what it is going to feel like when the bull sheds you makes the entire body of someone my age cringe at the prospect. The bulls were by far the best athletes in the arena this night. There were over twenty contestants in the bull riding and only two of them managed to stay the course. Then, my friend, when finally you have “won,” how do you get off? So many of these tough young men get hurt that you would think that even youth would take pause at the odds. One cowboy I saw got thrown in the first couple seconds of his ride, got roughed up on the ground by his bull, and even though injured so badly he could not put his right foot on the ground managed to scamper away and fairly flew up one of the release gates to escape the rampaging 1800 pound creature intent on punishing him. When finally the control riders and the clown had lured the bull away the man was hurting so badly he had to sit down in the dirt and hold his head, until a couple of his compadres managed to lift him up and carry him off. Almost as rare as riding for regulation time was riding without getting hurt.
Then, when all
the competing was done and the purple sky had
a rosy glow in the west, the lights were turned off and the
It was almost before I started cycling the seven miles back to Kobuk. It was a moonless, cloudless, star-swirled night—a perfect ending to a perfect evening.
Oahe Dam pull-out: 44° 26.713’ N / 100° 25.292' W
Here at the
put-in below the dam, there is a small store and
restaurant recently purchased by Eric and Michelle who, rumor has it,
divorced couple with three children, but who live together and (even
impressively) just went into business together as partners. Eric is a quiet, stoic sort of fellow who is
handsome and lean, but wears a look that constantly hints at bewildered
surprise. He has a hair lip, but rather
than diminishing his attractiveness it seems to give him a certain
individuality that makes him less obscure than his retiring nature
otherwise do. Michelle is a hard-working,
ever-upbeat redhead who speaks well of everybody and everything but who
distracted by her labors that a conversation with her has all the
brevity of that with a physician or a CEO.
extraordinarily nice to me this morning: she
offered me the use of her car and suggested that I could have it for as
the day as I need. I accepted her offer
and went to town.
There was plenty to do, but one errand in particular was a major concern for me. A more thorough inspection of Kobuk revealed a flaw that may actually account for the starting problems that have plagued the engine: the simple, rubber flapper on the flaring metal tube where the exhaust exits the transom is torn so badly that in could not be efficiently doing its job. Perhaps whenever Kobuk is brought to an abrupt stop water can wash up the exhaust tube and wet engine parts that will not function correctly until they have dried out. I spent some time in the city trying to locate a replacement exhaust flapper, but in the end it became evident that I would have to fabricate something. The solution was the Goodyear Tire shop where one of the workers suggested a tire patch. He not only got me one; he cut it to shape—and late in the day I installed this makeshift part. It is slightly stiffer than the original flapper, but it seems to be to be quite comparable in thickness and in method of fabrication (a mesh layer sandwiched between two layers of rubber). I am optimistic—not only that it will work but that it also will solve the balky engine mystery.
In the evening I
crawled under Kobuk to reexamine he damage
there with the intention of starting work in the morning.
Only then did I realize that I would have to
trim back extensive areas of damaged fiberglass along the keel and
waterlogged wood underneath before doing any sort of patching. Not only that, the amount of water that had
its way up into the layers of plywood was so great that Kobuk probably
have to sit a while waiting for the keel to dry out.
After a couple hours of cutting and digging
and gouging I had everything prepared for the next stage:
application of waterproof Bondo. But
even though this fiberglass reinforced
body filler used on cars is waterproof and theoretically can be applied
wet surface, I was unwilling to rely on theory and resolved to wait
until the keel
was dry before doing the application. As
I lay under Kobuk with my face only inches from the keel I gazed in
at the extent of the repair project. The
entire run of the keel was excavated to a greater or lesser degree and
its full length it was weeping water at such a pace that you could
water bead and swell until eventually a drop would fall.
Kobuk suffers. Still the water oozes out. I checked in the morning and unsurprisingly the wetness had not diminished much. By late in the day, a few small patches of dry wood had begun to appear but in most areas the surface remained wet. There was no choice but to wait it out so I spent much of the sultry day as a sightseer and cyclist.
I stopped in at
the Oahe Dam Visitors’ Center where a young
man dressed in a Corps of Engineers uniform sat behind the desk
guitar. He looked too young to be
working there but he was competent and he answered questions like a
employee. When I asked him about the
horn that frequently sounds at the power station, he explained that it
does so when water is going to be released for power generation. This directly affects the water level
downstream, causing it to rise at least a couple feet--quite impressive
considering that the waterway immediately below the dam already is part
Down below the
The days are heating up. The thermometer was chasing 100 degrees today and probably will catch it tomorrow or the next day. With high humidity and little wind, it is a good time to be near the water. It would be even better to be ON the water, but Kobuk is not yet ready for the major patch work to begin and relaunch is some indefinite time in the future. Working under the hull is somewhat awkward since clearance between the pebbly parking lot and the keel is very limited. It is shady down there, but there’s not much wind.
The people in a
There is a
certain charm to
All day long
Kobuk sat in wait some miles upstream while I
Since by morning the exposed wood along the keel had begun to dry, labor began in earnest today. The entire keel received a Bondo filling that was planed and sanded to shape. Only one small section about a foot in length remained too damp to repair so Kobuk will not be ready for launch until tomorrow sometime. In fact, once all the repair work is done I intend to attach a rubber strip along the keel to protect the repair zone, and this project most likely will postpone relaunch until Sunday. Eric and Michelle must think I have decided to spend the summer.
Saturday, July 9
By midmorning, when the last couple spots on the keel looked dry enough, I went to work. Yesterday afternoon the temperature got to well above a hundred and it looks likely to do the same today, so I was eager to get the project completed. The prospect of worming around under the trailer in the mid-afternoon heat made me a little more ambitious than usual. The results were quite startling, actually; by not long after I had the patching done, the plastic keel protector installed and all finish work tidied up.
It was too hot to
bicycle into town, so the afternoon was
spent taking advantage of the two available cooling systems. First, I went for a swim down by the boat
ramp and then I hung around in the air conditioned restaurant drinking
lemonade. It gave me a chance to finish
Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, the story of the Lewis and
expedition told from the point of view of Meriwether Lewis. Poor
With nothing left
to read, I picked up a copy of the 2005
I wonder why I
chose this life. Each day is a progression
of problems and the
constant struggle is to react to the ones that crop up leaves no time
anticipate the ones that might be coming—at least for someone as ill
forward thinking as I am. I don’t
suppose anybody else’s life is that much different from mine in this
we all are beset by daily problems and if they are insufficient to fill
needs we react to the lack of challenges by fabricating ones that can
occupied. I guess the real question is
what kinds of problems we choose to take on.
A careful check
of Kobuk last night left me feeling
confident that the morning launch would go flawlessly, but after
getting her in
the water I discovered that the Remote Troll would not work. This is the bracket on the transom that holds
the outboard. It is equipped with a
small electrical motor and pulleys so that the driver can steer the
from the cabin simply by working a toggle switch at the end of a long
cable. This was clearly an electrical
problem but my
capacity to troubleshoot electrical malfunctions is deplorably weak. I did all the wiring on the boat, but it was
a form of slave labor involving little more than following directions
from a variety of technical sources—not the actions of a skilled
knew what he was doing. Nevertheless, it
eventually became clear that the problem was a simple matter of a
connection and eventually Kobuk was ready for service.
By mid-afternoon, the waves were at their worst—only 2-4 feet high but spaced so awkwardly close together that Kobuk was pummeled and battered, bucking like a bronco in the rodeo. Even at just a few miles per hour, the timbers shivered, the windshield shed sheets of water, and the bow occasionally buried in the forward face of an oncoming wave. Kobuk was game, her bow pitching up quickly from each inundation, but the beating was dreadfully harsh and on occasion the shape of the waves was exactly designed to launch her and cause her to slam unmercifully against the face of the oncoming wave. Metal dishes launched themselves from their customary resting places on port side shelves and I often had to take extra precautions to guard myself against collision with the windshield or various protrusions about the cabin.
At higher speeds, I might have been able to maneuver Kobuk more effectively to take these harsh blows at a glancing angle, but at only a few miles per hour, the helm is slow to respond and the throttle is the only available means of adapting to the small lake equivalent of rogue waves. This entire struggle became more intense and unremitting whenever we would enter a section of the lake where dead trees protruded above the surface of the water and waves sluiced through them as if they were the teeth of a comb unsnarling hair. The trick was to pass between the teeth.
Late in the afternoon, I was able to get in the lee of some bluffs where the wind and the waves were not so fierce, but at that particular time the first tank of gas ran dry and I was obliged to switch over to the second. After having done so, the engine would not start, putting paid to the theoretical notion that the problem of engine malfunction was related to the torn flapper on the exhaust. The small auxiliary engine is not powerful enough to fight against such inclement weather, so there was no choice but to put in to a small, exposed estuary that happened to be near.
Once tied off, the wind continued to wail and moan—although not scream—but the waves were no longer a concern since the wind was coming right off the land towards the boat. To make the best of the situation, I made myself a meal and waited for the wind to abate, as it usually does late in the day. It was a lovely, sunny day, but the boating conditions were not very good.
At one point, while at rest, I went back to check on the new rubber flapper installed on the exhaust fitting and was shocked to discover that the stern of the boat was almost entirely covered by flies that presumably were using it as a haven from the wind. None of them was coming into the boat, but their almost unlimited numbers were terribly distracting.
After an hour or so the wind did abate and under the power of the auxiliary outboard, Kobuk once again proceeded. But now a new problem: the flies migrated into the cabin and began to bite. There were thousands of them. I could do nothing to control them. The auxiliary engine could not push Kobuk fast enough to blow them out and for a couple hours I was almost driven almost mad by the fly invasion.
My distress became so great that finally I declared war against the critters—a foolish action since their numbers were overwhelming and I already had my hands full trying to steer whilst being bit. I went on the rampage, swatting and batting flies with rolled up maps. Of course I killed hundreds—I could hardly miss. But this only excited them. They took particular pleasure in feasting on their smashed comrades and inspecting all the bloody spots on my legs where earlier bites had been scratched. In the end, I realized that my suffering would be less if I left them alone and only dealt with the ones that attacked me directly.
I tried many different body positions to escape their ravages, but none were completely effective. Eventually, I ended up sitting on top of the back of the cabin seat with my legs drawn up there away from the seat itself. This was where the wind from the opened cabin top discouraged the flies most effectively, but even there the occasional intrepid would venture into the risky conditions to sample my blood.
When finally I
Part way around
Before I left
In the process, I
am chagrined to admit, I failed to
properly latch the anchor box hatch and as we drove down the road the
opened it up and ripped it off the box. It
smashed against the windshield, but by some miracle
failed to break
it. The repair job will not be easy but
as I thought about it I realized I was being taught a lesson on the
cheap. I had to admit that the box was not
latched while out on
How easy it is to become casual about matters of this sort. When I built the box I had realized the risk and had always been very careful to properly latch it. But somehow I stopped paying attention to this potential problem, and this is the result. Now I must think about where I can get the clamps necessary to properly glue it back together.
Once in the water below the dam, I headed out for Chamberlain, some twenty miles down the lake. The water was deep and calm so Kobuk and I cruised down the lake with little caution and lots of speed. Now for the first time trees began to appear in the ravines and around the bluffs that step back from the river. Always there have been cottonwoods and other riverfront trees, but this is the first sign of wooded landscapes away from water.
With its one-way
American Creek: 43° 48.889’ N / 99° 19.487’ W
In the larger scheme of things, the direction the wind blows is governed by differences in air pressure; it flows from where the pressure is high to where it is low, trying to even out the difference but finding itself constantly thwarted by the spinning of the earth which deflects it from its preferred course. This grand scheme of air swirling around high and low pressure cells is an elegant truth that appeals to our modern desire to comprehend the world using abstract models. This model works but it tells us far less than I realized about what the wind direction might be in any one particular location. It seems that topography has more to say in the matter than usually recognized.
On these lakes, for example, which are typically very long, reasonably straight, and relatively narrow, the wind typically blows up or down them but only occasionally across them. The river valley itself has surprisingly little relief to it. The dams that have been thrown across the valley to create the lakes typically are a couple miles across but only about a hundred feet high. The high plains running back away from the valley, therefore, are rarely more than a hundred feet above the lake level and of course near the dams the valley is filled to the brim and the vertical distance between water level and high plains is a matter of mere tens of feet.
Even so, this river valley seems to have the ability to take any prevailing wind except one that is more or less perpendicular to its axis and deflect it so as to travel along the axis. I had always thought that only much more pronounced physical features had such ability to reorient the wind, but experience always trumps theory. I now know that here on Lake Francis Case I should expect that the wind will blow either with me or against me rather than quartering or striking on the beam. It is not like the open ocean.
Since the odds are nearly even that the wind will be foul, I decided to leave early, when conditions are usually calm, and get as far down the lake as possible before wind and waves made the journey more challenging. It turned out to be a quick trip down the lake, cruising along at near top speed. At times like these I realize what a monster I have created; the wake behind the boat is a deep trough with primary wake waves that would intimidate all but the very best water skiers. Some thirty to forty feet back, where the trough is still almost as deep as when it comes out of the back of the boat, the pressure from the jet drive forces up an arc of rooster tail water that carrys more flow than a couple dozen garden hoses. All the while the engine drones powerfully and the silent landscape slips by.
Around I reach the marina at Fort Randall Dam and John, a retired insurance salesman who is today substituting for the local operator of the convenience store, hems and haws and generally agonizes before finally deciding to borrow one of the many empty trailers stored at the marina while their boats spend the summer season on the water. He is of course worried that he might damage a borrowed trailer and get himself into no end of trouble. I completely understand his concern and make no effort to talk him into doing what we both know probably ought not to be done. John, however, can’t resist. He is not the laid back sort, and his natural desire to take charge of things obviously will get the better of him sooner or later. All I have to do is wait, say nothing, and look like a puppy dog—and sure enough, John finally screws up the nerve to snag a trailer and haul Kobuk out of the water. He has recruited a friend for the enterprise and the three of us are able to get Kobuk settled on a trailer that can carry the load. The first trailer was overwhelmed by her size and weight, but the second trailer did the trick.
Once back in the water, Kobuk waited patiently as I take lunch dockside. And then we depart. This stretch of the river is not flooded by the next lake downstream; it is a few tens of miles of relatively unmodified waterway with all the usual characteristics of a natural river—snags, sandbars, sloughs, and Missouri Valley scenery. Most definitely now, the forest is closing in.
itself in the Lewis and Clark Reservoir,
the river runs through a corridor of untouched natural splendor. Some distance downstream there is an
exception: a riverfront residential strip development along the
After tying off,
I knock on the door of the dock owner’s
home but nobody is in. A short hike up
and down the development confirms that none of the nearby houses have
occupants, and so eventually I return to settle in for the night. One very nice aspect of this trespassing is
that it permits me to moor Kobuk in deep water—something that has been
concern because locals have told me that the Corp varys the water level
stretch of the river perhaps as much as 5-6 feet. I
do not want a repeat of my
Around sunset, as I am lounging on Kobuk, drinking rum and sitting half dressed, the owners show up. After hastily putting on my shirt, I go up to speak with them and receive, as you might expect, a rather cold reception. I explain what happened and then the elderly gentleman then asks me to leave. I tell him “ok,” and head towards the boat. As I am leaving he asks how I am going to move the boat if the engine doesn’t run and I tell him I will do it by hauling Kobuk along the bank using a line. He has a conference with his wife and they decide that it would be alright for me to stay at the dock overnight after all. I thank them and go to bed.
Illicit dock: 42° 49.813’ N / 98° 09.720’ W
I try to get up early, but even though I succeed by my standards, I discover when I look out of the boat that my landlord already is well along with painting his porch. After I get myself organized, he comes down and invites me to go to breakfast with them at a nearby establishment. They have decided I am neither threatening nor deceitful, and we spent a very pleasant time together talking about farming—from which he has recently retired—and writing—which she finds as rewarding as I. By the time we finish breakfast, we are on very good terms and he is very happy to give me directions on how to find the river channel during the next few miles. Since the engine now runs flawlessly, I set out as soon as possible. As I leave they apologize to me for being so unfriendly the preceding night and I explain to them that I would have been exactly the same way if I had come home to find someone camped in my front yard.
A few miles downstream, the engine quits. Since the auxiliary cannot be steered, I have no choice but to sit and wait. Eventually, the engine starts again, and I proceed. Over the next couple hours, this happens two more times. It is all rather stressful. I keep having to remind myself that I am not in a hurry—that I have plenty of time—that there is no sense in getting agitated about something so uncontrollable. The good thing about this trip is that in addition to learning how to control the boat (and I am improving) I also am learning how to control myself.
Progress is slow
for this section of the river is full of
hazards and the balky engine evidently needs an occasional rest. Eventually, though, we find ourselves at the
delta where a maze of channels and sloughs lie between the running
the open waters of Lewis and
Will the engine quit? Will I hang up in muck? Is the channel real or just a slough? I try to keep these unhelpful questions at bay and motor on slowly. After what seems an awfully long time, I steer Kobuk around a bend and see open water in the distance. The depth finder, which has been reading 2.2 feet ever since I entered this maze, continues to record that same depth. At last I am in the lake and the depth finder still does not budge. I motor along at the same slow pace a mile or two into the lake before at last there is a slow increase in the reading. Only when it gets to about 12 feet, by which time I am at least a couple miles from shore in any direction, do I take Kobuk up to speed and run down to the dam where boaters are abundant and Lewis and Clark Marina has a fuel dock.
After Kobuk has been refueled, I ask the dock attendant if there is a mechanic who could take a look at the two problems I have, and he eventually rounds up a mechanic named Dave. I like this man Dave because he doesn’t rush into things. When I explain the problem I am having with the main engine, he does not immediately react, but spends some few minutes silently thinking to himself before making a suggestion. Eventually, he confirms the widely held view that the most likely explanation is vapor lock and he advises me to install a squeeze bulb in the main fuel line to the engine. Late in the day I do that, but it does not solve the problem: the engine still does not start properly and each time it fails to start the squeeze bulb runs dry.
As for the other problem—the malfunctioning Remote Troll—I am chagrined to admit that it was nothing more than a blown fuse. I checked one fuse but forgot that there is a second one is located in the plug-in fitting outboard of the transom. Dave found it, though.
Lewis and Clark Marina: 42° 52.361’ N / 97° 29.483’ W
In the morning Dave returned and solved the mystery. It turns out that this particular engine has two fuel pumps and although one of them showed all signs of working properly, the second—which apparently is intended to deliver the precisely correct amount of fuel pressure to the supercharger—had a wiring harness that was getting suspiciously hot. When disconnected, the female plug looked as if the male plug would never be able to properly fill it. Dave took me to town—to Yankton a few miles away—where an auto parts store promised that a replacement harness could be gotten in by the following morning. This was good enough for me and so we returned to the marina where I wiled away the afternoon and then bicycled into Yankton where I had business to do at the library. Afterwards, I decided to go to the movies.
“War of the Worlds” may have been conceived by H. G. Wells in an earlier time when people were somewhat more titillated by the notion of alien invaders, but in a bizarre way the recent movie version of this classic story has a contemporary angle that I doubt Mr. Wells ever thought about. In the end, the invaders are defeated not by human ingenuity or human heroism, but rather by their failure to anticipate the deadly effects of earthly microbes and bacteria. The invaders had no developed resistance to earthly diseases and succumbed to their virulence.
The invaders were
life forms from a different planet. That
they should die from what they picked up
on earth only becomes clear at the very end of the movie.
Still, they did die, and only the microscopic
critters saved humanity from certain extermination by a superior
species. It is all so Darwinian, and the
such perfect examples of the biologist’s interest in how such invaders
to seize control of a biological niche. But
for the germs, humans would have been put out of
business as the
aliens took over. From a biological
perspective, displacement of a particular creature from its original
of dominance happens frequently in this world. When
The seven dollar wiring harness came in as promised and now the engine seems to run as smooth as butter. This turn of events inspired me to get active and do a few boat repairs that have been crying out for attention. Two in particular: reattach the lid for the stern anchor box (which came off when I stepped on it to climb aboard Kobuk after pushing free from a sandbar) and do something about the broken hatch on the forward anchor box.
I was working
contentedly at these tasks when a fellow named
Bill showed up on the dock to set up his handsome sloop for an evening
sail. He brought beer and congenial
conversation, and in a short while we both were buzzed as we pursued
separate projects. Bill has had a boat
here in the yacht harbor for many years and seems to know each passing
including a fellow named Dick who in turn knew a man—a communications
professor—whose trailer would fit my boat. Dick
took charge and by early evening a plan was in place
for Kobuk to
be moved around the dam first thing in the morning.
It’s time to move on.
No towns, only one bridge, and the occasional boat—that is all the civilization to be seen on this stretch. About midway through it, I came around a bend and entered a very broad stretch of open water with driftwood logs scattered everywhere across it. They were good indicators that shallows were abundant and so I began looking in earnest for the channel. I was at the time on the starboard side of the river but the water ahead looked slack and sinister so I angled across towards the other side. In the middle of the crossing, Kobuk went aground.
Under a heat hazed sun, with the current flowing like a broad sheet, I set out to find a channel. Wading in ever widening circles around Kobuk, I was unable to find any deep water anywhere within a couple hundred yards. Eventually, after an exhaustive search, I settled on a curling route that snaked along in a more or less downstream direction until at last reaching a channel that had four or five feet of water in it. This route was deep enough for Kobuk, but only barely; almost the entirety of it was at or just below my knees as I waded. But by now I know exactly how much water it takes to float Kobuk so I was sure she would not hang up in a serious way. The problem was that at the end of this path to freedom was a shallow bar over which Kobuk would have to pass to get into the channel. The bar was less than a boat length in width, but there the water was distressingly thin—not even up to the middle of my calf. I knew this would be a terrible struggle, but there seemed no alternative. I could have tried to lead Kobuk back the way she came, I suppose, but that is surprisingly hard to identify in an open body of water and all my walking around upstream of the boat had revealed no obvious conduit whereby Kobuk had come to her present state.
After working Kobuk free, I took her by a line off the bow and led her along the sinuous route. When we got to the shallow bar, I shoved her onto it as hard as I could and then started doing what I could to muscle her across. I eventually chose to move her broadside on the theory that the tipped hull would draw slightly less water and the fact that the broadside position would provide a slightly greater amount of assistance from the current.
I would alternate between moving the bow a few inches and then doing the same with the stern. It was exhausting labor in which I would set my back to the hull, try to grip the guard rail with my hands and then use my legs to move the mass across a little of the sand. All the strength I had was only enough to move one end of the hull an inch or two. Many times I could not move it at all and would have to wait for two or three minutes to regain some strength before trying again.
Progress was agonizingly slow. As the hours passed I became weaker and weaker. It seemed as if this would have to be the campsite for the night. The sand was perverse. It was firm sand—not mud—but it would grab Kobuk and hold onto her with a devilish suction that was brutally hard to release. At the same time, whenever I set my feet and with my knees bent pushed against the hull, the sand underfoot would inexorably slip away.
The last couple of feet were the shallowest of all, and it was there that I found I could not move the hull any more. Since I couldn’t get the hull over the sand, I decided to get the sand out from under the hull. I used an aluminum pail. I lay down in the water beside Kobuk and scooped sand from the ridge separating the hull from the channel. It was a respite of sorts. The labor was considerable but still far less than trying to heave the heavy hull broadside. Not only that, lying in the water was cooling me off.
But the sand removal project had its own difficulties. I had become so weak that even lifting a sand-filled pail was something of a labor, and whenever I tried to empty the bucket the sand would stay suctioned up in it and not come out without all sorts of shaking and swizzling. And the pail was pitifully small. It all seemed somewhat hopeless and in the end I staggered around scooping sand and pushing on the hull, not thinking about what I was doing but just doing it because there was nothing else I could think to do. In the end, it worked, but it took four hours.
When I finally dragged myself back aboard Kobuk and started up the engine, evening was well advanced and I was too weak to think well. The channel we were in led to a constriction of the river where deeper water was a virtual certainty, but the neck was quickly behind us and opening up in front was another broads with the same look as the preceding one. This time I decided to not be so foolish as to try a crossing from one side to the other and opted to continue through by constantly staying to starboard. This was a bad choice for within a few hundred yards Kobuk had run aground—not hard and easily gotten free, but recent history had me oppressed. I started wading once again to get a sense of where the water might be deepest. I noticed at this point that a number of people were on a sandbar over near the far shore, and they had with them a couple power boats. Obviously, the channel was over there.
Kobuk free, I led her like a horse on a bridle
and began making my way across to the other side where the people were. Whenever the water level would start to get
down on my shin, I would change direction until I found more clearance
Kobuk’s 13” draft. Of course, the
plastic strip that I attached to the keel in
Getting to the other side was slow business since most of it ended up being an upstream slog with the current trying to take Kobuk the opposite direction from where I was taking her. In the end, though, we made it to the sandbar where so many people were having a good time. As I nosed Kobuk onto the sand at the upstream end of the bar, three teenage boys came running up to ask if I needed help. Hmmm.
actually ended up giving me invaluable help: one
of them knew the river well and spent lots of time talking with me
and how to find the channel in that stretch of the river remaining
Avoid still water. When you think the channel crosses the river, it probably does so abruptly and not on the diagonal. Aim for the raw, cut banks where trees are under siege. Avoid cut banks where grass and other vegetation is starting to generate. If snags leave wakes the water is deep. Ignore your maps: they are decades old and the river transforms itself every year.
To get through
Like a novice in
Driver’s Ed class, I was much too
concentrated and far too conscious of my actions and decisions for the
be done with any sort of style or grace. Intuition
was out the window and I was a slave to a set of
that sustained me like a lifeline. In
the end, though, as ugly as it was, it was enough and we reached
As we neared the
boat ramp, the warning buzzer for the
engine informed me that it was overheating. I
shut it down and powered in using the Yamaha. It
took a while for the walk on shore to draw
the stress out of my system, but eventually we set off again to run the
I stopped at the
new Cimarron Marina to buy gas and to have
a meal. The facilities are very nice but
when I learned that an overnight stop would cost me $25 I decided to
on. A short distance downstream, the
When I climbed
the embankment to search for the public
showers, all the recreational facilities were in full use—the
the picnic tables, the campsites, the large and modern swimming pool,
corn placarded meeting hall. This is the
waterfront park for
I had thought some of pushing off early in the morning but recovery from the stress of the preceding couple days was not yet complete and it was easy to come up with a list of things that ought to be done before setting out. Ice, groceries, minor repairs, engine oil—those sorts of things.
It was a
refreshing change, actually, to pedal around town
It wasn’t until
The short run
down to Decatur (population approximately 900)
was my first experience with this new form of the river: channeled,
tamed. The little Yamaha pushed us along
at an easy eight miles per hour. It does
its work so quietly that I was able to listen to Ray Charles and others
perched on the seatback, drinking in the cooling breeze coming in the
clamshell cabintop. It was a leisurely
cruise and I imagined many more like this on the way to distant
The Corp has this river all prepared for the big boats—the tugs and barges—but where are they? Not a single sighting so far—scarcer than ducks at this point. But it will change, I’m sure, it will change.
After tying off
on a driftwood log and hiking up the
embankment, it became clear that this was not a marina and that I was
somebody’s private property. I scouted
around a little and found a narrow entrance into a small marina a short
downstream. It was nearly empty of boats
and when I walked around the premises I found a sign indicating that
As I was tying
off at one of the docs, two men appeared on
the broad, second-floor balcony of the main building and stood there
against its railing and watching me. When
I finished and walked along the dock towards them one
“You must have made a hell of a deal!” When
I confessed my confusion and asked him to explain, he
that twenty minutes earlier I had been wandering around the marina
boat and now I had one. Bob, who had
spoken to me, operates the marina with his wife Judy while the
large man on the deck with him is a young, retired friend named
Bob confirmed that the marina and restaurant were closed but he invited me to stay tied off for the night and have dinner with them—an offer I couldn’t refuse. We had hamburgers and cole slaw and sweet corn. The operative phrase here is “sweet corn” for it quickly became apparent that the other items were mere supplements and that the sweet corn was the center of attention. The three of them discussed the relative merits of corn from Blair and Tekama and other nearby towns or districts as if each were the unique source for a particular flavor. A trip of forty miles had been made to purchase this particular batch and the general concensus was that it was good, and better than the batch from a different district that they had had a week earlier, but not as flavorful as the stuff they usually bought from a particular farmer in another locale altogether.
We ate the corn
from special dishes, shallow and elongated
bowls in which the corn could lie soaking up a
there will be a break in the pattern as a
string of homes lines one bank, each home fronting the river and
stairs leading down to a small dock next to many of which a small boat
tied. Sometimes the homes are year-round
residences, sometimes summer cabins or mobile homes. Nearly
always, though, they are strung close
together and have tried to preserve their seclusion by saving as many
original riverbank trees as possible. Even
so, these isolated developments break up the solid
green wall of
riverbank vegetation and afford occasional glimpses of that other
In my prejudicial
waterfront, the harsh workplaces of longshoremen
and stevedores had all been evicted and the entire sweep of the river
outside perimeter had been redeveloped as a broad plaza with the look
amenities of blue
Over on the other side—the inside of the bend—Council Bluffs was hidden from view by natural and unregulated vegetation looking more like a rural stretch of the river than a piece of prime real estate sandwiched between a small city’s downtown and its nearby waterfront. I wonder if anyone has thought seriously of leaving it just as it is.
That evening I cycled around on the wide promenade next to the river and stopped for dinner at Rick’s Boatyard Café—a large and modern building with a hint of white Victorian ornateness. Sitting in there having dinner with dozens of well-dressed and finely-groomed sophisticates, I came to realize that I must have been a distinctive presence. With bathing suit and untucked shirt and flip-flops, I must have only marginally met the dress standards of the establishment. Surely my unkempt hair and oil impregnated skin marked me as a fish out of water, so to speak. The businesslike managers and busy staff were quite professional, however; there were no disapproving glances and I enjoyed my beer and gourmet chicken breast sandwich with the sort of appreciative gusto that perfectly complimented my general physical appearance.
Wednesday, July 20
During the course
of its waterfront redevelopment,
I went to two
museums during the day, the
There also happened to be a special exhibit of Russian art from the period just before the Revolution. These works were highly original—typically very realistic in their portrayal of natural form but extraordinarily expressive of drama, moods, and emotion. The artists are not well known but that probably is because the Marxists hounded them out of business and assigned their work to what they assumed would be the dustbin of history. Now that it is time to empty the trash, all sorts of precious keepsakes are being retrieved.
The other Museum,
the Durham Western Heritage Museum, is
actually a step back into the early days of Omaha, all housed in a
Union Station, a classic passenger terminal dating back to the halcyon
when train was the way people got around the country and the country
war. The station is populated with
life-sized bronze statuary of people in period dress buying tickets,
for trains, sitting at the soda fountain, and the like.
Their dull, bronze appearance accentuates
their silence and somehow reinforces the illusion that you have stepped
earlier era at a place where time has stopped. I
should imagine that it is a little like visiting
Most of the
museum exhibits are one floor down—where the
passengers would have boarded their trains. Although
competent and effective, attempts to recapture
the essence of
Early in the
twentieth century, for example, the good
In the evening I wandered around in the restored Old Market district with its red brick buildings, uneven brick streets, and awning shaded sidewalks. On the district’s southern perimeter I came across a local brew pub called “Upstream,” and spent much of the evening pulled up to the bar and talking with a young man named Cameron Joyner.
Cameron was a talker and had had a good day. The combination is like a positive feedback loop. This lean, dashing, cavalier with thick, dark eyebrows and dark, wavy hair engaged me with animated talk about the movie he recently had produced, working on it in his spare time. In return, he admired my Quixotic venture, and soon we were, in spite of our polar opposite temperaments, kindred spirits discussing the insensitivity of the harshly practical world that surrounds us.
I was mightily
impressed by Cameron’s animal magnetism:
young women buzzed around him like fruit flies checking out a rotten
South of Omaha
lies the independent little city of
into the entrance channel, a boater with
passengers on board and a radio in hand circled around, motioning for
turn on my radio. I did, but since I had
never used it before I couldn’t figure out how to tune him in and so we
turn off our engines and talk across the water. When
we finally managed communicate (whilst drifting down
I had not heard
about Julian but I had seen his green
canoe. It is hard to miss—so laden with
non-traditional equipment and with “In the spirit of David Thompson”
in white on one side and with reference to Lewis and Clark and
Victor on the other. For those who might
not know, David Thompson was an English trapper/explorer who knocked
In the evening,
after teaching me how to use my radio, Ron
turned both of us over to Ken Killian, a different member of the
Ken and his lady friend adopted Julian and me, plying us with beer, extracting from us our tales of adventure (true or otherwise), cooking us a steak dinner, giving us the use of the shower, and insisting that we sleep there for the night. He even took an hour to troubleshoot the Kobuk’s engine overheating problem. His belief was that the external cooling system had accumulated silt in its heat exchangers and needed to be flushed out—which he attempted by using the water pressure from his garden hose to force water backwards through the piping.
Julian and I were most happy to have a place to stay for the night. I tied off Kobuk at the end of the dock while Julian set up his tent on it. We talked and talked until eventually Julian retired to his tent and Ken’s lady friend more or less passed out on “Irish Lady.” Then, with the moon nearly full and the harbor in silhouette, Ken and I took shots from a bottle of rum and talked about god knows what until the gray light of approaching dawn threatened to spoil the mood.
early but I had decided to stay in
Late in the day when I returned to Ken’s club, dock neighbors were camped in his domain, cooling their feet in a plastic, inflatable pool that had been set up and filled with cool water. Ken was asleep on his boat, I gather. As they talked and drank, one of them inquired about my engine problems. The preceding evening while moving Kobuk to Ken’s dock I had had the usual trouble getting the engine to start and run, and he had observed it all. This man now took it upon himself to resolve my problem and spent an hour examining my fuel supply system. He concluded that most likely was an obstruction in the vents or return flow for the fuel system, and he gave me several suggestions for how to test out this theory. Although now he is a computer network specialist, in a previous career he had been a mechanic and he suggested I call him any time I had trouble. He gave me his card—Jeffrey C. Wilson, Network Architect—and once again encouraged me to call. With people like Ken and Jeff, and Ron, and all the others who have gone out of their way to help me on this trip, I have developed a new respect for American friendliness—something that Julian repeatedly commented on when talking about his trip down the river.
Then there was
Riverfest with its temporary stage and
eclectic local bands, with its assorted food stands and coupon-arranged
hall, with its impossible collection of sales stalls for indescribably
items, with its ambling adults and scurrying children and pack-like
teenagers. Like 4th of July
Saturday, July 23
It wasn’t an early start but I did eventually head down the river and all afternoon the Yamaha hummed and purred, giving me the occasional start whenever a boiling current in the river would cause a momentary hiccup in Kobuk’s forward progress, creating the illusion that things might be going bad in the mechanical world.
The flow of the
stream is gaining velocity: when we left
Sioux City, the gps calculated our forward progress as averaging about
miles per hour but now that figure is a half mile per hour faster. It is true that practice is improving my
ability to keep us in the most rapidly moving part of the flow, but
accounts for a small part of the difference. Now
whenever I head upstream with the Yamaha it cannot
against the current at even four miles per hour. Publications
claim that the
With only an hour
to spare before dark, we arrive at the
small town of
By the time the decks are cleared and the curtains are on, dusk has settled on the riverfront and the buzz of cicadas has filled the air. In the distance I can see a neon light that looks as if it might be the sign for an eating establishment, so I set off in that direction. It is actually a bar with raucous gaiety and yellow light pouring out of its open doorway. Dozens of cars are parked outside.
The interior is a vast hall with the bar facilities tucked up at one end. Off on one side is a brick walled courtyard with tables and trees and a DJ spinning discs. The large crowd of partiers is dancing, talking, and generally acting as if they all know each other—which they do because it turns out to be a wedding party that has rented the place for the night. When I order a beer at the bar and ask if they have any food, the bartender tells me they don’t but encourages me to help myself to the banquet of food items laid out for the event at the other end of the hall. It is for the wedding party, she informs me, but everybody is done with it and plenty of food remains.
I do eventually make my way over to the buffet and help myself to fruit, cold meats, and pasta salad. It all gets washed down with beer and as I sit eating I watch the celebration. There are grandparents and babies, cousins and buddies, parents and teenagers. It really does give a much different atmosphere to the bar environment, one that most bars could benefit from. Perhaps we should find a way to not only permit minors to be in bars but actually encourage bars to attract people of all ages and types.
Angela and Jeff are the bride and groom. Angela, a small and pretty blonde, is still in her elaborate, white wedding dress. She has been drinking enough to affect her behavior, but not her balance or her speech. She runs around constantly trying to find different individuals, always for some urgent reason, and seems to thrive on pseudo-crises. Jeff, on the other hand is a tall, well-proportioned young man who seems not to have a care in the world. With his shaved head and his arm tattoo and his black tuxedo pants, he catches your attention. Not often do you see a groom with nothing on above the waist but an unbuttoned white vest.
Brownville Boat Ramp: 40° 23.733 N / 95° 39.027 W
It is tempting to start down the river first thing in the morning because that would be the easiest thing to do in this oppressive heat. After so many days and nights of such sultriness, it gets harder and harder to do anything but the easiest thing. But then I remind myself that there is no sense in coming all this way only to bypass everything that might be on shore.
I cycle up into
town, which turns
out to be a little slice of
It sits in richly
country with swales of newly cut grass surrounding homes that value
hominess over size. Running parallel to,
and a block or so off to one side of, the main street is a small creek
trees. Churches abound, and
none of them are new. They all look
traditional—as churches really ought to do. Brownville
is a miniature
The coffee shop on the main street only has space for a handful of tables and I am fortunate to find one free. This is the socializing center for the town, I suppose, and as I sit there eavesdropping on nearby conversations a man at the next table invites me to join their group. It has taken less than a quarter cup of coffee to become a part of this small town. One of the men in the group is a short, somewhat squat individual whose face frequently plays itself into a little secretive smile. He asks me if I am doing a boat trip and as we become engaged in conversation I learn that he has recognized me because he is the owner (and captain, I presume) of the riverboat that passed me last night going upstream. His name is Randel Jones and he looks a little like a frog. There is a breadth to his face and his jaw and his midriff that stand in counterpoint to his slender limbs. This combined with his wide mouth and thin lips suggests frogginess. I do not mean this in a negative way. He is charismatic and endearing and you cannot help but see him as a character from Wind in the Willows.
Randel, furthermore, is something of a town father, a moving force behind much of what goes on here. This is not based on any explicit knowledge or revealing statement; it is an intuitive conclusion based on the authoritative manner in which he conducts discussions and the queer sensation that everyone around him is constantly aware of his presence. In any event, he is fun to be around and only the arrival of his wife Jane bumps me out of his orbit. Jane is one of those rare women who have found a way to turn the aging process to her advantage rather than combating it with hopeless defensive strategies. She looks younger than she is, but she does not look young. That matters little, however, when you have found a way to project empathy so powerfully that people end up associating your looks with personality, judging the former by the latter.
From the sound of it, Randel is an entrepreneur, motivated by risk as much as reward. Jane, on the other hand, is a dreamer with the practical skills necessary to turn her fantasies into fact. She is at the center of a new project on Main Street—the restoration of its largest building with intentions of turning it into a fantastic blend of lyceum, used book store, intellectual gathering place, and retreat for visiting artists. She takes me up the street to show me the project and it is so near complete that the prospects are good it will open on schedule at the end of the summer. She appeals to me to visit after it is done, and to attend her writer’s workshop in the spring. I would like to: Jane and Brownville are so enchanting that they will lurk there in my mind, luring me to return someday.
Back on the river, Kobuk glides along towards her rendezvous with some unknown final fate—as do I. The floodplain flatness so pervasive a short distance upstream now gives way to low, rolling, forested hills—a completely new look for the river and one that enhances its natural beauty. After some hours, including a brief layover at Rulo, where the dock is unstable and the boaters agitate it by powering around at speed—making it hard to talk with the local couple camped out there—the end of the day finds us within striking distance of Island Marina, a small establishment listed by the Corps of Engineers as having docks and gas.
With the sun perched on the western horizon and the land all golden green, a fast powerboat with a squad of young men comes flying by. As it passes, all its occupants are eyeing Kobuk and me. They do not notice that some large object has just launched itself from the back of their boat and arced skyward before dropping down and settling on the water way behind them. I motion to them by extending my arm and pointing furiously at where they have just come from, but they only look at me with suspicious puzzlement and continue to fly on by. I retrieve the floating object, which turns out to be a very nice life jacket, and think about how I may have just inherited a nice piece of ancillary equipment. A few minutes later I am fantasizing about the prospect of replacing one of my cheap life vests sleek new one when the four fellows in the speedboat come flying back toward me. When they get near and throttle back, we yell across the water to each other. All four of them are macho, studly sorts with tight t-shirts and arm tattoos. They continue to view me with wary curiosity and do not really believe me when I tell them that they have lost a life vest. Only when I throw it to them do they absorb the fact that my peculiar pointing had had a purpose.
No sooner have we parted company than a pontoon boat comes downstream and idles back so that we can talk. There are two men and a woman on board and one of the men wants to know my origin and destination. We talk for a while and then as we are about to part I ask him if he knows much about Island Marina that is supposed to be located only a couple miles farther on. He says he does. He says he owns it and has arranged for his sister to operate it. He tells me that I can get food there and that I will be able to tie off on shore there. He assures me that he will stop to let his sister know. Sure enough, that is exactly how the day comes to an end.
Monday, July 25
around, I was free to
skinny dip in the shallow bay. The
accumulated sweat and grime from the day before slowly soaked off and I
able to set out for
At least from the
water, St. Jo
was an unattractive place with little but grain elevators, bulk
facilities, and industrial plants next to the water.
I tried to park Kobuk on a small wedge of
sand next to an elevated highway somewhere near the downtown, but
extended a long way out from shore and rejected all efforts to reach
ground. I gave up the effort and decided
to carry on for a few miles to a private yacht club located on the
For the first
time since leaving
In spite of her
cabin, Kobuk’s speed is not much affected by the wind and only when the
force a decision to throttle down do they seem to have much effect on
either. What does make a difference,
though, is the surface of the water. A
calm, glassy surface can easily trim speed by three miles per hour. Even the smallest ripples break this suction
and allow speed to return to its “normal” level. Under
these circumstances, trying to maintain
the highest possible speed at a given rpm level requires finding the
of rapid current and rippled water.
mentioned it because I
don’t want to sound like a complainer, but ever since that encounter
I ended up
pleased to be spending
the night in
Last night the
broke. Thunderstorms arrived shortly
before dawn, signaling the passage of a cold front, and this morning I
cloudy skies, sporadic showers, and cool temperatures.
Even though the heat and stillness of the
night had made it hard to sleep, the change in weather was refreshing. I stayed in
In the years to
come when I think
back on Atchison it is nearly certain that the memory most vivid will
passage of trains through town—long trains bringing down the barricades
dividing the town in two at least a couple times an hour.
Late in the day I saw my first river rat, a brown mound scurrying among the rocks along the riverside near Kobuk. It was a fleeting passage and it made a couple of the city workers chuckle because, they said, their fellow worker a short distance away is bent on destroying these creatures and pursues the objective with the same single-minded madness as Bill Murray chasing gophers in Caddyshack.
The rain came and went, came and went.
When evening set in, I happened by a basketball gym in which a local team of teenagers—perhaps the high school team—was playing visitors who were inferior in height, skill, and total points scored. The gym was a small cavern with steeply rising rows of seats running 360 degrees around the court. And then there was a balcony where the seating arrangement repeated itself. It seemed like an NBA venue in miniature, and the contrast between warm, bright lighting on the court and dim, gray light off gave a sense of drama to the scene. The game was played in near silence, even though a modest crowd of spectators was on hand. A hush of tense concentration filled the arena, more like the atmosphere of a serious golf match than that of a basketball game. The players were businesslike and hard moving. The ball was never walked up the court and the pace of the action was so accelerated that it was hard to tell a fast break from ordinary play. The audience did not cheer, only clap when points were scored. The players did not talk to each other, and showboating was unknown. The only sound was the constant squeak of sneakers on the hardwood floor—as if the young men hereabouts are raised to embody the hard grinding ethic of those screeching-wheeled trains constantly passing through town.
I went to bed
early but just as
consciousness was slipping away I was aroused by the sound of
scrabbling as if
an animal were scurrying around on Kobuk’s deck just inches above my
head. I let out a yell to scare away
might be and launched myself out of bed. There
was nothing to be seen, however, and so my aroused
fear that Kobuk
was being invaded by river rats gradually abated.
Wednesday, July 27
I awoke before dawn to the sound of scrabbling on the hull. I realized, though, that it was not overhead but rather more at water level. It seemed that debris was scraping along the side of Kobuk and so I presumed it was driftwood riding down on us, bumping against the bow, and then getting drawn under to rake the bottom. The sound recurred, and then happened again. When I got up to take a look, the upstream water bearing down was littered with sticks and branches and even the occasional small log. Since the dock to which Kobuk was tied sits right next to the most rapidly moving part of the river, it was only natural for the flotsam to concentrate in its vicinity. In fact, on closer examination, I discovered that so much driftwood already had wedged itself between the dock and Kobuk that they were removed from each other by as much distance as the mooring lines would allow. In the eddy of the stern, furthermore, a train of small branches had filled the space between the jet drive and the Yamaha, and had even found a way to get jammed in the jet drive orifice. I suppose the sound I heard when I went to sleep last night was not an invading creature but only an inanimate stick. When sleeping up forward the hull is like a drum and any little tap or knock on the exterior reverberates remarkably. This is my excuse for being spooked by the thought of river rats.
As the sun rose
and the morning
mist began to dissipate, the air looked as if it had been scrubbed and
starched. This was the atmospheric
equivalent of distilled water and it gave the landscape a brilliance
hadn’t been there for weeks. A new
world, it was, and a perfect day for riding the current down to
Say the word “
As a small city,
week I must return to