One Big Lake! Sakakawea Offers It All

Written by: Rodney Wilson

“Hey what did you do this weekend?” it’s a common question, and even though you expect a return answer, let’s face it, you may not be paying attention to what is said.


Never do you expect a comeback that describes a weekend where you loaded up a 27 foot sailboat with enough provisions for three days, check the weather, and decide your camping destination based on the wind forecast for the next 48 hours. However, on most weekends that would be my answer.


“My wife and I jumped aboard our sailboat, Celebration, and headed west to Berthold Bay (which if you really want to confuse the issue, you explain it is the bay just south of White Earth) on Saturday night and returned to Sharktooth Bay on Sunday night and sailed to the new marina at Ft. Stevenson on Monday morning.” I won’t explain how it is that I learned to sail in the first place. That story is for another day. Let’s just say that we have owned Celebration since 2010 and have had many weekend sailing adventures on beautiful Lake Sakakawea.


For those of you who may have just arrived in our fair city, if you travelled in from the south on Highway 83, you crossed the embankment, a dividing point between Lake Sakakawea and Lake Audubon. For geographic purposes, Lake Audubon is on the east, and Lake Sakakawea is on the west. From the embankment, Lake Sakakawea, named after the Native American mother who was a guide for Lewis and Clark, stretches another 125 plus miles west to Williston, North Dakota. I once heard there was over a thousand miles of shoreline on Lake Sakakawea. It really could be when you consider the hundreds of bays that stretch back off of the main lake. All I know is that we have explored a small percentage of the many bays and camped overnight in many of them.


So how does that work, Rod? Let’s just say there are a couple of learning curves here. First, learning how to sail. I started sailing when I was eight years old in Canada. My first sailboat, however, did not come until almost 30 years later when we purchased a small, 21 foot boat to “learn on”. My wife Sue had not been raised near a lake, and although she can hold her own swimming, she will be the first to tell you that swimming requires some type of flotation device. Swimming has always been fun for me. We had a community pool, and every weekend we would camp near a small lake. A typical day would be fishing, swimming and water skiing. We had a power boat, but my love even then was sailing. There was and still is a satisfaction about catching the wind and having the boat heal over and bounce playfully through the waves. Which brings us to the second learning curve.


Most of us who sail keep your eyes on some type of weather app. We look 24 hours ahead for the winds and weather predictions. But that is only half of the lesson here. The weather folks, well they can sometimes be wrong. That is where keeping your eyes on the horizon is so important. Sailboats have motors, but they aren’t speedboats. At some points Lake Sakakawea is over 20 miles wide. A storm can come up in a hurry, and you do not want to be in the middle of the lake when winds are over 20 knots (had to throw that in, instead of saying miles per hour). 20 knots are roughly 24 miles per hour. This brings us to learning curve number three, survival on the lake.


OK, maybe I am a bit aggressive with my terminology here. I don’t want to scare you all from a sailing experience, but when there is a storm coming, you head for the nearest bay. You attempt to get off of the open water and into a bay that protects you from both wind and waves. Some folks prefer to drop and anchor, we prefer to tie bow in (bow is the front of the boat) to shore. We have heavy lines that make sure we can weather the storm. There have been some exciting experiences over the years. They make for good stories around the campfire, which of course is part of the camping experience once you are tied to shore and the storm has passed.


Sailing creates lifelong experiences…. Sailing with a family is a great way to spend a vacation. We are not talking about a 5th wheel, all utilities provided experience. Sailing by its very nature is pretty basic. You use the wind as your power source 90% of the time. You carry all of your food, water and provisions on the boat. There are no stops at the grocery store. Every meal is carefully planned out. At night you fall into your bed and look up either through a hatch or window at the stars above.
I can say that sailing is not for everyone. One of my sons is not a sailing enthusiast, one loves to sail, and one is OK with sailing, for an afternoon. If you catch me sometime and say, “let’s talk sailing”, well sail boaters will share a story, and then try to talk you into coming along on a sailing trip sometime.


Sakakawea is a great lake for a lot of things, but it is one of the best inland freshwater lakes for sailing in the U.S. We have chartered boats and sailed the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior. The experience is comparable, but on a larger scale.
The boat is Celebration, and the worst day of the year is the day we take it out for winter storage, the best is the day we launch it for the summer. Need I say anymore?

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