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.
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.