Back in 2016 two of the outdoorpals founders, Kevin and Josh, embarked on one of their great adventures together. The plan was to canoe the Little Missouri River from the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park to the north unit of the park. This is a distance of 108 miles, none of which either of us had seen. Back in 2016 it was difficult to find information about doing that section and there was only one website with a trip report. Even the park rangers looked confused when we asked them about it prior to departure, which didn't give us a lot of confidence but didn't deter us either (now the park actually has a webpage with info about the trip, but that didn't exist when we did it https://www.nps.gov/thro/planyourvisit/canoeing-kayaking.htm). It recommended 5 days on the river, so of course we planned on 4 days. So how did this all begin?
Well it began when I was finishing up my final semester of college and I got myself plans to build a canoe as a college graduation gift for myself. Over the winter of 15/16 I worked on the canoe with the assistance of Josh and a few other friends. The canoe was fully completed about a week before the narrow window for canoeing the Little Missouri closed so we only got one short lake paddle to test it out. The Little Missouri gets pretty shallow during the summer months, and so April through the middle of May is the only window when weather and river flow cooperate.
The one pre-trip test with my brother Neil and my friend Rob
The idea to make this trip the maiden voyage was hatched by me when I had lived in North Dakota for a time but had never made it to the national park. So on a stormy Sunday morning in Utah, we attached the canoe to the top of my Mitsubishi Outlander and headed north. Through 13 hours of windy and rainy driving we crossed the Rockies and the plains until we arrived in Medora, North Dakota for the night. We slept out under the stars excited about the next days journey.
Departing Utah for North Dakota
After waking up early, obtaining our backcountry permit, and dropping off the shuttle car at the end we were finally ready to put the canoe in. We were nervous and excited, which was added to as we were carrying the canoe down to the river and almost stepped on a massive bull snake pretending to be a rattlesnake. It didn't take us long before we crossed the park boundary as we navigated the meanders of the river. Spirits were high and we were making better time then we thought we would.
It was soon clear that navigation along the river and through the river would be very important. Since the river is relatively shallow, there were plenty of sandbars and rocks that needed to be avoided. We quickly learned to identify where the best/deepest channels were and how to maneuver the canoe through the sections of class 1 rapids without wrecking or flipping the canoe. Somehow we avoided ever capsizing the canoe, though we did get some pretty good scrapes along the bottom and broke half a paddle off.
The other tricky part of canoeing this section of river is that almost all of the land along the river is private and camping is not allowed. There were periodic sections of public land that we would need to get to each night. We bought a detailed map that showed these boundaries, but without cell service and GPS trackers we had to get very good at tracking our progress along the map and identifying which land was fair game. Our method for doing this worked remarkably well and it was also reassuring later on when we wanted to check if we were on pace to finish in 4 days.
Each night we pulled the canoe off to the side of the river and slept out under the stars. The weather was perfect and the views through the badlands of North Dakota were stunning. We also saw a ton of wildlife from elk to bison to bald eagles to beavers to rattlesnakes. I've never seen as much wildlife on an expedition as I did on that trip. The days were spent paddling (and sometimes dragging the canoe through shallow sections), chatting, and relaxing. We got adept at steering and balancing the canoe through fun sections of rapids, each one being its own thrilling challenge though most of the river was flatwater. The mix of colorful bluffs, wide open spaces, and peaceful fields were a perfect scene of beautiful solitude. After passing Elkhorn Ranch, Teddy Roosevelt's badlands ranch, we christened the canoe "Alice" after Teddy's late wife whose death (along with the death of his newborn child on the same day) drove him to seek the solitude and healing of the frontier life.
The trip went really smoothly apart from dropping my phone in the river the first day, a broken paddle, and a run in with a herd of bison crossing the river. Our most memorable camping spot was the last night when the only land we could camp on was a little stretch of knee deep mud with a dry section in the middle of it just big enough for our sleeping bags and gear. The next morning we finished out the paddling and arrived at the Highway 85 bridge where our shuttle vehicle was waiting, marking the end of this expedition. We spent a few more days exploring the Black Hills of South Dakota before Josh headed east to Connecticut for the summer while I returned to Utah.
Our final night's camping spot
Paddling a 108 miles through the unknown in a canoe I built without having done a canoe trip longer than 5 miles was a step into the unknown for me. The confidence and experience I gained on that trip about exploring the unknown and trusting our resiliency has served me well over the years. It is a trip I remember fondly and was a great example of the spirit of outdoorpals in action. Canoeing is one of the activities supported by the outdoorpals app, so if you're looking to make some memories use outdoopals to meet/get into canoeing. There really is something so mindful and centering as quietly paddling a canoe down a stretch of wilderness flat water that everyone should experience in their life. Check out and follow our Instagram page to stay up to date on the apps progress at https://www.instagram.com/getoutdoorpals/. See you out there!