(Ed. Note — Thomas J. Elpel, of Pony, Montana crafter a canoe, Bella, from a log and decided to revisit the 1804-06 route of Lewis & Clark in the 21st century. He wrote a series of columns about his experiences. Below is his experience floating through Lake Oahe.)
“At 6 miles passed the mouth of La Bullet or Cannon Ball River on the L. Side about 140 yards Wide, and heads near the Black Mountains above the mouth of this River, in and at the foot of the Bluff, and in the water is a number of round Stones, resembling Shells and Cannon balls of Different Sises, and of excellent grit for Grindstons— the Bluff continus for about a mile, The water of this River is confined within 40 yards.”
—William Clark, October 18, 1804
After a pleasant week paddling the Missouri River near Bismarck, North Dakota, we came face-to-face with Lake Oahe. While the name sounds Hawaiian, “Oahe” is actually a Sioux word meaning “a foundation” or “a place to stand on.” Christian missionaries established the Oahe Indian Mission among the Lakota Sioux near Pierre, South Dakota in 1874. The mission was salvaged, moved, and later restored when Oahe Dam was constructed in the 1950s.
At 230 miles long, Oahe is considered one of the most hazardous lakes for small watercraft on the Missouri. Mostly less than two miles wide, it is easy to cross the lake, except for the risk of sudden, severe winds. Submerged trees reportedly bob up and down in subsurface currents, sometimes lurching unexpectedly up out of the water. And when the reservoir is drawn down in late summer, a person may slog through a hundred yards of mud to reach shore.
While I admire those who have the gall to battle wind and waves for three or more weeks to conquer the lake with a paddle, that’s not our mission. From the outset I envisioned our expedition like a car camping trip, touring national parks. We substituted canoes for cars and float down the river, stopping to see sites of natural or historical interest along the way. For Oahe, we lashed our canoes back together to reform the Contraption and fired up the outboard motor to traverse the lake.
The upstream end of the lake is shallow and typically a quagmire of sandbars that are difficult to navigate. However, with high water this year, GPS maps indicated we were boating right over sandbars, our path inhibited only by great patches of smartweed
standing erect in the water. It was a floating flower garden with dark green leaves and spikes of little pink flowers. We could have paddled straight through with individual canoes, but the more cumbersome Contraption required zipping back and forth across the lake in search of open water.
With a windstorm moving in, we puttered into the mouth of the Cannonball River and found a nicely protected campsite within the bay. The “cannonballs” Clark referred to in the journals are sandstone concretions, formed almost like pearls as minerals build up in layers around a small nucleus. Most of the cannonballs are now hidden under the waters of the lake. Although harmless, the site has a charged history.
The Cannonball River marks the northern boundary of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. It was here, immediately north of reservation lands, that Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) chose to route the 30-inch Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River. The pipeline connects the Bakken oil fields we encountered in western North Dakota to oil ports in Illinois.
Members of the Standing Rock tribe gathered and protested the pipeline project, concerned that it might leak and contaminate the Missouri River. There were also charges of environmental racism, that ETP routed the pipeline by the reservation to avoid more politically-connected white settlements near Bismarck.
As the protest gained national and international attention, outsiders showed up in droves and “NO DAPL” became a symbol for the need to end our dependence on oil and take serious action to halt global warming. However, the $3.78 billion pipeline was already 75% complete, and the end was a forgone conclusion. ETP started the project without all the necessary permits in hand, knowing that nobody could stop the project once started.
The United States functions as a corportocracy where corporations pay lawmakers to write laws, and law enforcement is required to enforce those laws. Such is the influence of corporations that lawmakers granted the power of eminent domain to ETP to route their for-profit pipeline through private lands with or without landowner consent.
With law enforcement enlisted to protect corporate interests, and out-of-state protestors agitating the situation, the focus of the protest shifted from pipeline to police, degenerating into a “he said, she said” confrontation, each side hurling accusations of misconduct at the other. I heard it all from friends on both sides of the political divide.
We took a layover day due to high winds on the lake, so I hiked up to the pipeline to get a boots-on-the-ground perspective. Like battlefields of the past, the site is eerily quiet except for the blustery wind. The pipeline route across the hills is visible primarily by the different hues of grass used to revegetate the land. A prairie dog town has re-asserted itself around the drill pad where the pipeline dives under Lake Oahe. Although pipelines are considered safer than rail transport for oil, the Dakota Access Pipeline has already leaked several times, thankfully not yet into the Missouri River.
In another matter, we haven’t seen Josiah in weeks. He twice paddled ahead to work odd jobs in towns along the way, this last time missing the rendezvous point after Williston. He shuttled ahead to catch up with us at Bismarck, but ran into friends traveling east and ended up in Minnesota. The Corps of Rediscovery is officially comprised of four men and a dog.
Thomas J. Elpel lives in Pony, Montana. He is the author of Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams. Go to www.Elpel.info to learn more about Tom’s books and the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery.