Paddlers rely on water.
And Oil.
The two don’t mix,
especially at the boomtown intersection of America’s longest river and its biggest oil field.
Welcome to the Bakken.
Story by Dave Shively
Photos by Robert Zaleski and Aaron Schmidt
Design by Greg Fassett

As the sun sets on another blistering late August day, the golden shift to dusk offers a prime window-seat view across the empty northern plains. The plane’s landing gear snaps down unexpectedly, and the pilot tells us we’re making an unscheduled pit stop in Dickinson, North Dakota. We need more fuel.With the 874-gallon tank of the tiny EMB 120 twin turboprop commuter topped off, we puddle-hop north to Williston at low altitude. In the gathering twilight, the gas flares of the Bakken Formation appear, one by one—hundreds of orange flickers dotting the darkening patchwork of farmland.

I’d seen this tapestry before in an image gone viral. It was a satellite view of North America at night, with a massive swath of light where no city should be. The cluster was bigger than Chicago, the Twin Cities, or any urban center between New York and L.A. Could this be right? I thought.

I soon learned that the light comes from gas flares in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields, where energy companies deem it more economical to burn $100 million worth of natural gas each month than to move it to market. The gas—a byproduct of using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to unlock oil from the Bakken shale—is a mere write-off for an industry extracting more than $2 billion a month from the North Dakota prairie.

I began asking Missouri River through-paddlers I knew, “What’s with that oil boom up there?” Alexander Martin, Mark Kalch, Janet Sullens- Moreland, Norm Miller and Scott Mestrezat all shared similar sentiments: surprise at the scale and pace of development, astonishment at the seeming lack of restraint or regulation, caution with the growing pains of financial windfall, from fleets of private jets down to the throngs of itinerant roughnecks looking to make a quick buck. In short, a taste of the Wild West at the intersection of the nation’s longest river and its fastest growing city.
Photo: Aaron Schmidt

“City,” however, is not a great way to describe Williston. The Census Bureau uses “micropolitan area” for cities with less than 50,000 people, ranking Williston’s population (20,000 at last count, though estimates factoring non-permanent residents claim 33,000) atop the U.S.’s micropolitan growth charts for the third straight year. Statistics are simply incapable of putting some things into context, however. When Aaron, Robert, and I step out of the one-room airport terminal into the muggy night, we realize there is nothing micro about Williston.

This is a boomtown. Nobody is trying to hide it. “Boomtown, U.S.A.” in fact, is the local Convention & Visitor Bureau’s chosen logo; we see it everywhere on billboards and brochures. Concrete stretches to the horizon, vast fields of pavement seemingly linking everything in the northern end of Williston—the airport, numerous hotels, rows of shipping containers and heavy machinery— into one massive parking complex emanating from the largest Walmart Supercenter any of us have ever seen.

We navigate a maze of frontage roads to the International Inn, where the pack canoes we shipped ahead via UPS are waiting for us at the front desk. It’s standing room only at the International’s karaoke night, so we divert to Applebee’s where we grab a bar table to avoid the wait, at 11 pm, for a booth.

The three of us soak in the scene, noting a lot of other three-guy tables. In our shorts and flip-flops we couldn’t look more out of place. Our chipper and very busy waitress, however, is getting more notice than our exposed shins and toes. Staring down at the remains of our sizzling 9-ounce sirloins, the conversation loops back to the obvious question:

So, what are we doing here?

“It’s your birthright!” I blurt, perhaps still a little too steeped in the Missouri River history I read on the plane. The preface to Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose’s preeminent biography of Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lt. William Clark, had struck a note. “It is your duty, your privilege, as an American,” Ambrose wrote, to interact with the river, to paddle in the wake of the Corps of Discovery.

The guys sip the end of their Long Island Ice Tea specials, unconvinced. Fast and deep rivers have a certain gravitational pull that is hard to explain. It’ll make more sense on the water.

If only I could get there.
Photo: Aaron Schmidt
The next day, Sheila from Alaska is driving 50 mph on the rumble strip dividing the two lanes of North Dakota Highway 200. The meter is running as she volunteers her life story, switching seamlessly over to a conversation on her cellphone in one hand while dispatching her small taxi service’s pickups on the CB radio, driving the cab a secondary concern.

I can’t recall a longer shuttle ride.

I am trying to get to our canoes, waiting with Aaron and Robert to launch into the last few miles of the Yellowstone River, which flows north out of Montana, meeting the Missouri just after crossing the North Dakota line. The doubled flow then banks east toward the dusty, beeping hard-hat area that is Williston, and the highway bridge where I had parked our rental car this morning.

This paddling route through the Missouri confluence coincides with the southwestern edge of the Bakken,an underground layer of oil-saturated shale that covers 200,000 square miles from here to Saskatchewan. And this overland route proves what we’d heard around town about the main vein of boom activity from Williston south to Watford City, roughly paralleling the Yellowstone. As the cab creeps along, the view unfolds: a stream of every size truck in both directions, every claim of land with some kind of industry at work; wheat fields peppered by drill pads; trailer rigs pulling gravel loads from a pit; CAT machines at every county-road corner; a line of trucks minus their trailers, eight in a row, heading back to Watford after dropping their loads; a newly ‘dozed and paved lot with sectioned row apartments; logos for Enbridge and other energy companies small and large—Raven Drilling, Slumber J, Halliburton—blazoned across drab holding tanks sprouting from the otherwise verdant rolling countryside.

Sheila’s life story keeps coming. Cab driving, like most ventures in a state boasting the country’s lowest unemployment rate, is good business. In a year she’s gone from a single cab to six, pulling in four figures every day. “Everyone here is making money,” she says as a line of three loaded 18-wheelers blow past us on the two line highway, shaking the cab.

“So ... we’ve got a big day ahead of us on the water,” I interject, but before I can finish my request for her to speed up, she pulls over to an unlikely pump station carved out of a field.

We need more gas. Lush trees Big Sky As the overhead sun beats down, the cool water of the Yellowstone soothes all. Sheila is speechless for the first time as she drops me at the boat ramp outside Sidney, Montana. She shuts down her mobile dispatch center to takes photos of this amazing thing, this resource that she never gets to enjoy.

Aaron and Rob have our two folding canoes rigged and ready to shove off. We’re more than ready to be swept away into another world.

“There’s just something that makes you feel tough paddling into the wind,” Aaron says as we plug strokes into the mounting gusts. We round a turn into whitecaps and the stoic sense of self-pride turns into an obligatory lunch break. We try to wait out the wind, but don’t have the patience for it. When sun is gold again, we’ve made minimal progress—maybe nine miles on the day. The group morale wears thin; tensions escalate. When the wind drops the mosquitoes and flies become a nuisance.
Photo: Robert Zaleski
By the time we find a sandbar to set camp, we’re still within sight of the Highway 200 bridge. Trucks blaze across its perch upriver between two blinking red antenna lights on the low cliff tops that at least block the flaming derrick folded into the hillside. A small pump hums at a house across the river. I can’t help but think of how different a scene this once was.

Lewis described the “wide and fertile vallies” of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers where “the buffaloe Elk and Antelope are so gentle that we pass near them when feeding, without appearing to excite any alarm among them.”

After shooting one of those buffalo calves for his small observation party to lunch on, Lewis describes camping on April 25, 1805, just south of the Yellowstone-Missouri confluence amid willow-lined “bottoms of redberry, serviceberrys, redwoods gooseberry, choke cherry, purple currant, and honeysuckle.” ALT TEXT GOES HERE Maybe we’re in the same spot. Probably not. Would that party even recognize their camp today? As our driftwood fire grows and the mood changes with our full bellies, I think how our state doesn’t feel so far removed from theirs. We stick our bare feet in the cool sand, lean back against a log, look up into the band of the Milky Way on a moonless night.

Our conversation veers to our tiny place in the cosmos—the simple beauty of camping on an island beach the same as it ever was. ALT TEXT GOES HERE We arrive at the confluence, where the mud of the Missouri awaits. We trudge through knee-deep muck in hopes of refilling our water at the Fort Buford historical center. We walk up through the rows of RVs and truck campers parked on gravel pads, generators running. Emerging from the riparian corridor, the viewscape we’ve missed traveling low in the river suddenly opens. Past the remnants of the fort where Sitting Bull once famously laid down his arms, the bobbing derricks seem to swing into motion when you look in their direction—three, four, five. Flames burn atop most, no infrastructure built yet to capture all the natural gas flowing up with the crude. So it burns.

This is where America’s longest free-flowing river ends: at a stark Saudi A-prairie-an landscape where development begins. The metronome-like ticking of the derricks’ pump cycle is too harsh a reminder of the bigger business at hand. We head straight back to the river.

We’ll take the muddy banks, the muddy beaches and the gnats. Lots of gnats. The river feels remote, quiet, open. Herons take flight. Coyote tracks cross our lunch spot.

“Where is everybody?” Robert asks as we pass a dock marked as the Northern Plains Natural Gas Pipeline Crossing.
Photo: Aaron Schmidt

Paddling the Missouri River
I study my shadow, analyze my J-stroke, work different muscles to battle fatigue, contemplate my campfire-construction options, study the bend ahead where the hills end and the cliffs start. Favorable winds block the gnats but not our steady whisk down the empty brown highway.

The groan of a motor breaks the calm. A pair of massive Halliburton-red pumps in immaculate condition drown the conversation. We’ve reached the edge of the wildlife area. The noise carries over the wind and follows us downriver, 100 yards, half a mile. A mile past the pumps it still sounds as if we’re in a construction zone. ALT TEXT GOES HERE The sun has set, light is fading fast. We want to camp—we need to camp—but I refuse to stop where the noise of the pumps drowns out the sound of chirping crickets. We pass a world-class sandbar because of noise—on a Sunday night on a holiday weekend, at that.

Two miles past the pumps, we land on spit of sand and set camp in the dark. I’m still fuming. Nearly four great miles of river compromised.

So we settle in the thick sand. In the dusk, four drill towers gleam on the downriver horizon. The top of the upriver cliffs glow eerily with cast-off light, presumably from whatever rigs those big red pumps are servicing with Missouri River water. (An average well will use 3 to 8 million gallons over its lifetime; North Dakota now has more than 7,400 wells.) We eat the last of our food, share a few laughs, burn our driftwood, but when the conversation dies down we hear the hum of the motors, a distant BEEP-BEEP-BEEP, the white noise of combustion. It never ends. ALT TEXT GOES HERE At dawn something happens. The pumps turn off. I can hear cattle baying nearby, a couple gunshots in the distance. I poke my head from the tent. A sliver of the lingering moon reflects in the conveyor belt of glass. As the sun hits, I dive under the lukewarm water, kick against the current. Invigorated, I shake off the water like a dog and take a deep breath. I gaze into this moving expanse draining so much land, feeling as calm and refreshed as I have in years. I return to a tent filled with a handful of thumb-sized frogs.

Shame about the oil spill. In March, late winter ice jams flooded 16 low-lying wells in this area, dumping 14,000 gallons of Bakken crude from a holding tank. I wonder if those frogs are still there.

I wonder on our lazy float out how much more of this land can be sold off, how much more water can be sucked out to power the hydro-fracturing machine, before every sandy island camp is compromised and recreational floating is completely off the table. With advances in fracking technology skyrocketing output over the last three years (U.S. Energy Information Administration puts the Bakken’s current output at more than a million barrels of oil a day), these scars are only the beginning. An Oil & Gas Journal report notes that even with an accelerated projection of 2 million barrels per day, the wells wouldn’t run dry here until 2034.
Photo: Aaron Schmidt
A service pickup sprays gravel on a frontage road paralleling the river to welcome us back to civilization. The first people we encounter are a group of men tussling around the tall grass in a shady grove of cottonwoods. This is serious. Two of the men are throwing knock-out blows at one another’s heads. We’re close enough to hear the dull smack of knuckle on cheek that sends the smaller of the two men down onto the rocky beach. The larger man continues savagely beating the crumpled form as two other men watch. The grim reality locks us up. We share confused glances: Do we paddle over to intervene, or avoid incriminating ourselves as witnesses? As we approach the beach, the standing man helps the other up. Apparently they are friends.

“Got blood on the back of my knuckles,” Beater says. “You got me good,” Beated sheepishly responds.

We spot a sheriff, likely responding to call from a couple other bystander fishermen, who approaches the roughneck holiday weekend fight club. So we keep on floating to our takeout, forgetting our small grievances of hunger and gnat bites, our fortune in getting to experience what we could of the river.
Photo: Aaron Schmidt
We break down the canoes, and take the long road to a flight home out of Bismarck, driving through the heart of the Bakken. The scene blurs: alfalfa rolls, dairy cows, pristine pastures making a bucolic checkerboard between the red, white and blue derricks. The river slows as it enters the massive reservoir of Lake Sakakawea, and we’re back on pace, the perpetual tick-tock of time passing, oil moving, gas burning.

My mind drifts right back to that simple island camp on the Yellowstone River, the beauty hidden just slightly from the chaos of the boom. The words of Teddy Roosevelt, whose conservation ideals were born in North Dakota at the southern badlands edge of the Bakken, still echo a century later: “The beauty and charm of the wilderness are his for the asking, for the edges of the wilderness lie close beside the beaten roads of the present travel.” ALT TEXT GOES HERE On the buggy, beaten road out of the Bakken, we drive right up to a wideopen flaming derrick perched above the reservoir. We take a final look out at the downward-shifting state of the Missouri. Gunshot warnings from a nearby porch tell us it’s time to go. A truck aggressively tailgates us through New Town, passing us with honk and a middle finger for the road. Before we’re totally run out of town, we have to make one last stop.

We need more gas. ALT TEXT GOES HERE

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