Badlands immersion: Canoe trip along the Little Missouri River offers unique perspective of rugged landThe four-day adventure on the Little Missouri River would take eight of us in four canoes through the heart of North Dakota’s Badlands from the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Medora, N.D., to the north unit of the park some 90 miles downstream near Watford City.
By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald
SOMEWHERE IN THE BADLANDS, N.D. — The canoe had lurched to a halt with an unceremonious “scrok!” on top of a boulder hidden just below the currents that now swirled around us.
We were, quite literally, stuck between a rock and a wet place.
Getting out of this jam would require wits, adrenalin and sheer luck — and not necessarily in that order.
“God,” I thought to myself between the expletives my partner and I uttered to no one in particular as we struggled to free the canoe (not that anyone would have heard us anyway). “What have I gotten myself into?”
More on that later.
It was the first afternoon of a four-day adventure on the Little Missouri River that would take eight of us in four canoes through the heart of North Dakota’s Badlands from the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Medora, N.D., to the north unit of the park some 90 miles downstream near Watford City.
I was here as a last-minute replacement, the canoeing equivalent of a pinch hitter, after one of the regulars bowed out of the trip.
As for the others, they were continuing a tradition that brings them together for a few days of paddling each year. They’re not looking for publicity and so I write about the trip with that caveat.
For sake of perspective, the tradition in recent years has involved paddling the Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River in Montana, a shorter, less strenuous route that leaves more time for reading and debates and evening conversations around the campfire.
Good food and good times, all washed down with their favorite libations and generous doses of friendship.
This year, the crew decided to again tackle the Little Missouri. It was the first time they’d paddled the route in more than a decade.
As an outsider and an infrequent canoeist, I saw the adventure through different eyes, without the thread of shared experiences that united the rest of them.
My impression: It’s easy to be awestruck by this country.
This is the heart of the Badlands, a rugged, beautiful terrain with golden and reddish-colored buttes and sweeping vistas that’s as different from the Red River Valley as night from day.
There are places here, I thought, that look like something out of a fairy tale.
It’s here that Theodore Roosevelt came in the early 1880s. An avid hunter and outdoorsman, Roosevelt loved this country and established two ranches, including the historic Elkhorn Ranch site where we’d stop for a lunch break on the second afternoon of the trip.
“I never would have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota,” Roosevelt once said.
It’s safe to say the land has helped shape the lives of the paddlers making this trip, as well. Being part of that — and seeing the Badlands from a perspective only those who travel the river can appreciate — truly was something special.
Back to the rock
In context, even our encounter with the rock in the rapids that first afternoon was an experience we’ll look back on and laugh about in years to come. It wasn’t a life-threatening situation, after all, and rocks are part of the canoe trip experience.
It lasted only a minute or three, but it was a defining moment. Somehow, we got the canoe free, but we almost swamped at least once.
The key word in that sentence is almost.
Actually, I think “damn near” was the phrase I used that night at camp.
Almost and “damn near” are pretty good words where close calls are involved.
There’d be more encounters with rocks, including one late the afternoon of the third day when a mental lapse brought on by too many miles of paddling into a stiff headwind left both of us near the point of exhaustion.
That mishap also left my partner wet from the waist down.
Other times, unseen sandbars reached up to grab the bottom of the canoe, resulting in a hideous scraping sound we learned to hate and forcing us to get out and steer clear of the shallows. Vultures occasionally circled above the canoes, and we joked that maybe the birds knew something we didn’t.
A month earlier, the river had been more than 10 feet higher, and signs of the flooding — sheared-off brush, plastic orange fencing and other debris washed far up on shore — were everywhere.
River levels at Medora were adequate, though barely, when we made the trip; another foot of water would have made life easier.
But in canoeing, as in life, you take the good with the bad and make the best of it.
And close encounters aside, there was plenty of good.
The second afternoon shortly before we stopped to make camp, a huge bull snake glided across the river mere feet in front of the canoe.
That, my paddling partner said, was a good omen.
And he just might have been right.
We camped each night on public land along the river, eating like royalty on such open-fire finery as grilled steaks and baked potatoes, buffalo burger pasta soup and a chicken tortilla soup rich on zing.
The group draws names before their trips to determine who cooks, and this year, through pure luck, my canoeing partner and I missed out on the cooking details.
Perhaps it’s just as well because mealtime standards were pretty high. One night, dessert even included homemade ice cream made right on the sandbar where we camped.
Sunshine was abundant, and it rained only briefly — our last night on the river — when I was curled up in the one-person tent that sheltered me throughout the trip.
We saw bison and wild horses and deer, and crowing pheasants serenaded us each morning. And in an encounter I wish I’d experienced, two of the paddlers saw a small herd of bighorn sheep one afternoon high atop a bluff.
Signs of civilization
The bluffs and buttes of the Badlands often towered above us on each side of the river, and cottonwood trees lined the river bottoms in the lower areas. Still, there were frequent reminders that civilization never was far off. A procession of cows and calves crossed the river in front of our canoe one afternoon, and we went to sleep each night with the hypnotic beat of oil wells pounding in our ears.
It reminded me of the Orcs beating their war drums before the Battle of Helm’s Deep in “The Lord of the Rings.”
The final day of our journey, a screaming east wind that had started the previous afternoon threatened to impede our northern and easterly progress, and the mood in camp that morning was more somber than it otherwise would have been.
If a vehicle had magically arrived to offer us a ride to the north unit, I would have accepted in a heartbeat. I wasn’t tired physically, but the wind was taking a mental toll.
Mercifully, the gale shifted late morning to a more southerly direction, and we made steady progress as the clock ticked down on our time on the river.
We arrived at the north unit of the park late on a Tuesday afternoon right on schedule.
The trip had been an adventure in every sense of the word, perhaps a bit more than even the veterans had remembered it as being the last time they’d made the trek.
One of the regulars later described it as “a bit of a death march.”
With little fanfare, we schlepped our gear up the bank of the river at our takeout point to the vehicles that awaited us in the campground parking lot. There were no high fives, no shouts of celebration; we simply loaded our gear, said our farewells and hit the road for home.
We left the river with our own experiences and observations — some good, others not so good — but all of us, I think, were better people for having made the journey.
Proof, to me, that canoe trips are as much about self-discovery as they are about reaching a destination.
Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.