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By Canoe

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt
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One of the best ways to see the national park, grassland and wilderness area is by canoe. But you can only do it in May and June, you'll need to bring your own equipment, and the shuttle is expensive, given that it's a several hour round trip.

The Little Missouri runs from South to North, draining out of Wyoming and South Dakota and joining the Missouri in Central North Dakota. It carries mostly snowmelt, so as the Summer continues the flow gradually declines. By July and August the Little Missouri is shallow and full of sandbars. You may do more pulling than paddling of your canoe.

There are some convenient one day trips, assuming you can arrange for a shuttle. The most popular is to put in at Sully Creek State Park just South of Medora, paddle past the town into the park, and take out at Cottonwood Campground. This would be about a four hour paddle, but if you stop for lunch and to take photographs it could take six hours total. Even in May and June, you'll have several sandbars to negotiate.

In the Northern Sector, the popular trip is from Juniper Campground to the Highway 85 Bridge. The put in is easy but the takeout is up a steep bank. You need someone above pulling the canoe up via ropes. Some people canoe from Highway 85 down to Highway 22, a long 12 hour push. It's a pleasant Class 1 float, but is not as scenic as the area in the park.

But the reason canoists trailer or rooftop their boats all the way to Medora is for the weeklong Sully Creek to Juniper Campground trip. Groups making this trip average 40 hours of paddling on the river. Most commonly, groups will figure on paddling about three hours, stopping for lunch, paddling three hours, and stopping to make camp, and continue this pace for seven days. On the final day, they'll reach Juniper Campground around lunchtime and have the afternoon for the shuttle back to Sully Creek Campground.

A wildlife fence crosses the river at the northern boundary of the Southern Sector. It must be portaged.

You are allowed to camp on National Park or National Grassland land but there are no designated campsites or water sources. You will have to have strong purification units and a heavy filter to bring water through before it enters your filter, because the Little Missouri carries a heavy sediment load in suspension. If you run the water straight into your filter it will clog it very quickly.

You need a backcountry permit for camping. There is no charge and they can be obtained at the Visitor Centers.

You need the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map,a National Grassland Map, and the appropriate topo maps. County quadrants are Bowman, Slope, Billings, McKenzie 3 and Dunn 1.

Key phone numbers are...

U.S. Forest Service 701-225-5151. (They administer the National Grassland.)

National Park Service, South Unit 701-623-4466, North Unit 701-842-2333.

Sully Creek State Park 701-328-5357.

You need to check depth and flow information. You need at least 2.5 feet at Medora. Then check Watford City Gaging Station for the North Unit cubic feet per second flow. You need at least 250 cfs. If the numbers are below these minimums, do not depart. There is a margin of error built into these numbers to allow for a gradual drop in depth or flow while you're on the river. So if you're not at 2.5 and 250, you'll be stranded.

The Medora Convenience Store on the main drag rents canoes and will shuttle you to put ins and take outs. Call 701-623-4479. Ask for Robyn.

Shadow Country Outfitters does not have canoes but will run shuttles. 701-623-4568.

If you're staying at Buffalo Gap Ranch they'll run shuttles for you.

You must bring all equipment, supplies and food with you. There are no canoeing or backpacking stores in Medora, Watford City or Grassy Butte. There is not even a grocery store. Dakotans go into their backcountry on horseback with dutch ovens. They do not backpack or canoe. They do not use lightweight stoves or frereze dried foods. You must be self sufficient.

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