Piracy on
Lake Sakakawea

by Mike Quinn

As the last of the provisions get tossed into the boat I reach over and turn on the VHF weather forecast. The computer-generated voice of the national weather service tells me just what I want to hear, “ Wind out of the south from ten to fifteen.” That means the whole lake is mine on a reach. 

Now we have to choose a destination. East and west are the two main choices. West provides more scenery and seclusion, but east provides the chance to hunt down a slower boat laden down with supplies to make hors d’oeuvres. 

My neighbor Bob Johnson is along, and Bob knows the drill; bring two steaks, and twenty dollars. Somehow the notoriously cheap captain always seems to be financially embarrassed when we get to the other ports on the lake. 
As the wind gently propels us out of the deep bay at Dakota Waters toward the main lake, the conversation turns to the plan of attack. We hear Rovin’ Tar on the marine band and rub our hands greedily. Rovin' Tar is easy prey—a 26' Westerly Centaur that doesn’t carry enough sail to move at a decent speed with all the wine, cheese, and fine meats the cook insists on carrying. Sure enough Rovin’ Tar is on the lake and heading west. If Captain Butcher is headed toward Berthold Bay, as we suspect, we can use several plans of attack.

Berthold Bay is a nice secluded bay about six miles northeast of Dakota Waters with some of the rugged features of the badlands. We know Captain Bill Butcher will probably be heading to the deepest end of the bay to drop anchor, light the grill, and settle down to a nice glass of wine. Rovin’ Tar has to make about a fifteen-mile jaunt from Fort Stevenson at the eastern end of the lake. 

It is a pleasant evening, and, as usual on the huge lake, no one is in sight. Looking east, we can see nothing but water to the horizon. Twenty miles to the west the rugged badlands mark the place where the Little Missouri and the Missouri meet. 

Our ship, a 34' S2 aptly named the Sovereign, picks up a nice head of steam as we turn toward the east. The question is, do we hide in the mouth of Berthold Bay and ambush Butcher, or do we run him down on open water? 

We conclude that if Butcher sees us, he might duck into Walleye Bay. Walleye Bay is another good anchorage about seven miles east of us. If Captain Bill gets in the bay he might find other boats that would help protect him from hors d’oeuvres pirates. Our best bet is to use our speed to cross the lake to Berthold Bay. Deep in the bay, we will lay in wait out of sight.

The sail to Berthold is perfect. Bob mixes a couple of gin and tonics to settle our nerves for the attack, and we light cigars to celebrate our plan. As the warm sun reflects off the cliffs on the north side of the lake, we still don’t see Rovin’ Tar’s sails toward the east. 

As we make for the favored inlet in the far reach of the bay, we sail past swimming geese without disturbing them. We keep an eye out for deer that are often seen grazing on the green hillsides. Approaching our destination, we disturb a great blue heron and watch it gracefully take flight. 

After tying up to shore, we dive off the boat for a pleasant swim. This is an ideal spot; we can step off the front of the boat onto the little patch of level grass, but the shoreline drops sufficiently to safely dive from the stern of the boat. 

I am not sure how much time passed, but we enjoyed the wait. I decided to climb to the top of the little butte we were hiding behind and see if the treasure ship was in sight. Bob stayed behind and fished from the back of the boat for walleye. Sure enough our plan had worked, our prize was in the bay and soon to be commandeered. Quickly I made it back to the boat and gave Bob the news.

Bob and I agreed to act menacingly hungry and thirsty when they arrived. As they came around the corner, it became evident things were better than we could have hoped. Captain Bill was sitting low in the water, and not only was the boat laden with supplies, but also he had the deck covered with bikini clad deck hands. 

After we ate the leg of lamb his cook made, we bargained with the Captain. He could either turn his cook Dina over to us with some provisions and sail out in peace, or join us around our campfire to sing and carouse. 

Captain Bill was a clever man. He wouldn’t give up his cook, and agreed to sing around the fire. Bill had a plan. He plied Bob and I with drink, and kept us singing late into the night. 

When we awoke late the next morning, we found that Captain Bill had cleverly slipped out of the bay while we slept. I was enraged that he had slipped from our hands, and was determined to retake the ship. I knew he couldn’t outrun us to the east, where he surely would go for protection. Then it occurred to me that he might try to outsmart us by going west. He had a good start, but we had more than enough speed. 

When we reached open water, my worst tactical nightmare occurred. Both to the east and west were boats carrying sail. Which one was the treasure ship? I stuck to my plan. We headed for a bay named Heaven. Heaven was another secluded bay with everything any sailor could want. This idyllic spot has the beautiful scenery of the Badlands, a good anchorage out of the wind, and ideal camping and hiking.

The sail to Heaven took about two hours. As we furled the headsail and drifted to the secret spot, I was reminded why we called the bay Heaven. From the back of the bay you look out onto a lake that is 178 miles long. You are surrounded on three sides by multi-colored bluffs eroded from ancient sediments, which make you feel you have stepped back into the time of Lewis and Clark. Apparently the golden eagle landing on its nest near the entrance also liked the location. All this on a lake so unpopulated that you can sail all day and only see one or two boats. 

Captain Bill was there. His cook was reading and his crew was sunbathing. It looked like we had him again. That night we cooked, danced, and sang around the fire. We told old sailing stories, and watched the stars late into the night. Bill didn’t escape the next morning. He knew he was in little danger, most of his supplies had been depleted. We knew it would be in our own best interest to let him go. Rovin’ Tar couldn’t resist the lure of the western end of the lake. Captain Bill was in for a nice day long sail back to Fort Stevenson. I had to admire Captain Bill for his bravery. Not many of the bigger boats ventured this far west, unless they came in convoys.
We knew Butcher would warn the Eastern boats of the men with menacing appetites, so we headed on west to sail into the Badlands. For days we explored the countless bays, rested on the sandy beaches, and enjoyed every bit of the isolated country Teddy Roosevelt used to hunt. 

Our provisions were running low, and it was time to use Bob’s twenty dollars. At the mouth of the Little Missouri we replenished the Sovereign at Andherst Resort, taking on enough supplies to get us home. Out of the canyons of the badlands we sailed, and late that evening docked in our slip at Dakota Waters.

Piracy is not an easy life, but if you have to do it, Lake Sakakawea is the place.

Mike Quinn sails on scenic Lake Sakakawea, located in western North Dakota.