In late May 2003, Todd Siefker and I pushed our sixteen-and-a-half-foot, cherry red Bell Canoe Works canoe into the Missouri River at Fort Benton, Montana. From there (the traditional head of Missouri River steamboat traffic) we planned on canoeing all the way to Sioux City, Iowa, a total river distance of 1,344 miles. Oh, it was a grand, bold, and in hindsight, absolutely unrealistic, plan. But we were confident in our skills as outdoorsmen, in prime physical condition, and neither one of us was tied down by a mortgage, a cubicle job, or any dependent children. In our minds, the trip appeared not only possible – but also incredibly adventurous. As a matter of fact, it was going to be a blast, a hoot, a hell of a lot of fun. Tackling hundreds of miles of winding, capricious river and six of the world’s largest reservoirs – no problem. Confronting rain, wind, cold, and heat – no problem. Facing the possibility of death by drowning, injury by odd accident, or a bullet wound from an armed, xenophobic, rural Montanan – no problemo. We’d deal with the challenges as they arose. We’d overcome, we’d make it to goddamn Sioux City (or as only those with roots there have a right to call it – Sewer City). We’d arrive in that cow town triumphant, modern-day explorers – heralded by the local media as men of daring.
But our dream died quickly. Fort Peck reservoir killed it. Fort Peck shook our confidence and forced us to rethink the entire trip.
Fort Peck reservoir is a monster. It’s the fifth largest reservoir in the United States. When filled to capacity (which rarely happens) the lake holds 18.4 million-acre-feet of water. That’s enough water to cover all of Iowa with at least six inches of the Missouri River. The lake stretches 134 miles from the upstream face of Fort Peck Dam to Carroll Landing. We first encountered Fort Peck reservoir at its headwaters.
Since the closure of the dam’s embankment in 1937 and the filling of the reservoir in the late 1930s and 1940s, the reservoir has acted as a giant silt trap. For decades, fine particles of sand, minute bits of clay, and larger pieces of stone have tumbled down the Missouri from the west and settled on the bottom of the man-made lake. By 2003, a shallow, muddy delta had formed at the head of the reservoir, the result of what hydrologists refer to as “alluvial deposition.”
To the consternation of Todd and I, the delta possessed a maze of narrow, reed-lined channels. These channels resembled green-walled tunnels. The reeds grew over six feet in height and when the wind blew, which it always does in Montana, the pointed tops of the reeds bent over the water, forming a sort of roof above the constricted river. Because of the reeds, we could not see the river bluffs in the distance. So we were unsure whether we were actually floating toward the reservoir proper or into one of the delta’s many backwaters. The high reeds and finger-like channels made the delta navigationally disorienting. While floating through it, we wondered how we’d ever find our way out of it. But eventually we learned how to read the river as it snaked its way through the delta. The trick was to look for small rapids up ahead and then aim the boat toward them. Those rapids meant fast water – and the fastest water kept us firmly within the main channel (also known as the thalweg). The thalweg carried us down into the big lake.
During the drought years of the early 2000s, Fort Peck reservoir shrank in size. In 2003, the shrunken reservoir began at the western tip of the UL bend, or at the top left of the “U.” UL bend earned its name because the Missouri there forms a readily apparent “U” before then cutting out a distinct, although tilted “L.” When looking at a satellite image of the UL Bend, the “L” is actually flush up against the “U,” its slanted bottom abuts the right side of the “U.”
I’ll always remember my first impression of Fort Peck reservoir. As the thalweg nudged us out beyond the last of the tall reeds, the Missouri suddenly widened out to the hills on either side. The water slowed to a standstill. The lake lay flat and smooth. The low gray clouds above us had turned the water into the color of mercury. The bluffs, recently soaked with rain, appeared ugly and dark. They resembled the heaps of brown coal waste piled up outside of power plants or within industrial dumps. Nothing grew on the immediate shoreline of the reservoir. Incessant wave action, bluff line slumping, and the unnatural rise and fall of the lake’s levels for hydropower production, prevented the growth of vegetation on the reservoir’s banks. The land and the lake looked dead.
Surveying the desolation around us – we noticed the sky to our west. There, in the direction we had just come, an ominous wall cloud rose above the valley. The distant sun had flecked its billowing, puffy top with white. Its heavy, sun-deprived underside appeared a mean, bluish-black. Beneath the lowest line of clouds, a solid grey sheet of rain fell to the ground. The approach of the rain did not bother us. We’d been soaked by intermittent showers over and over again during the previous week. But what put the fear of god in us were the sharp cracks of thunder pulsating out from the storm. Shock waves of thunder struck us with a rhythmic “boom,” “boom,” “boom.” We instinctively knew thunder meant lightening and lightening could mean death, especially for boaters in the middle of a vast, featureless lake. As the storm bore down on us, the thunder came on louder and more frequently.
The nearest shoreline lay over a mile away to the east. We decided we had to make it to that shore before the storm overtook us. Once there, we could cower under the bluffs, convinced their greater height would protect us from lightening. If we stayed in the middle of the lake, we risked being zapped by lightening or being overturned by a storm-tossed wave.
We started to paddle like madmen. I methodically shoved my paddle deep into the lake, displacing large amounts of water, trying to drive the canoe forward as quickly as possible. But the storm still gained on us. About a half mile from shore, the canoe rubbed up against the bottom of the lake and came to a halt. I dipped my paddle into the reservoir and discovered that the water here stood only a foot deep. I couldnt believe it – a half mile from shore and the reservoir lacked the depth to float our canoe. We tried to paddle, but the mud underneath the canoe made it impossible to go any further. We then decided to drag the canoe the remaining half mile to shore. But before exiting the canoe, I pushed my paddle down into the water a second time to test the firmness of the lake bottom. My paddle sank into the mud up to its handle. I could have pushed it still further if the paddle had been longer. I quickly realized that the soft mud might extend 10, 20, 30 feet or more below the lake surface. If we jumped out here, we’d end up either drowning in quicksand or becoming hopelessly bogged down. We were stuck. We couldn’t go forward, nor could we go back out into the center of the lake with the storm coming on. Both of us now understood that the storm would catch us here, in the open, completely exposed to wind, waves, and the dreaded lightening.
Within minutes the storm hit us. It started with big, fat rain drops striking the surface of the lake. The first drops landed on the reservoir with a slow “plop, plop, plop.” But as the rain came on, the “plop, plop, plop” sped up until the rain became a steady “shhhhhhhhh.” The lake’s surface literally bounced with the heavy rain. Since we hadn’t had time to don our rain gear, the downpour soaked us through and through. In the midst of it all, I looked at Todd and saw a combination of fear and exhilaration in his eyes. He must have seen the same expression in my eyes. With that mutual recognition, we both started laughing hysterically. I laughed at the sheer helplessness of our situation. I laughed at the drenching rain. I laughed at Todd’s pathetic appearance. I laughed at his laughing.
After our brief bout of lunacy, I yelled to Todd over the sound of the thrashing water. “We should get down and lie flat in the bottom of the boat.” I saw no reason to make myself a lightening rod by remaining seated and upright. I lied down and let the driving rain jab my face. There was nothing I could do. Lightening hit the hills to the west and east. Thunder reverberated through the atmosphere. The rain poured down.
In ten minutes it was all over. The storm moved on. The solid rain cloud broke up into patchy grey, black, and dingy white clouds. The sun remained hidden from view. We had made it, but not by wits, skill, or luck. We had just made it.
The storm did not end the trip. We were still determined to make it to Sioux City. But the tempest had shown us for the first time just how small and precarious was our existence while canoeing Fort Peck reservoir.