2014 Nebraska – Day 17 – Ponca State Park to Vermillion, SD: Meeting Ed Brogie

Wednesday June 4, 2014, 35 miles (57 km) – Total so far: 770 miles (1,239 km)

I wake slowly. There is flickering outside but no thunder. I open my eyes. It is just the shadows of the leaves playing with the bright sunshine on my tent fly. It is quiet. I am dry. All of my gear seems pretty dry. The tent is still very wet, however.

I climb out of the tent. Two men in a car are up the end of the road with hunting jackets and binoculars. Bird-watchers – their heads are craned upwards.

I inspect the bike. It seems to have come out of it okay. In fact, parts of the bike are cleaner than before after the thorough washing of last night. The underside is gritty with mud, though. So much mud has splashed up onto the tent fly, it looks like an artist has thrown wet dirt at it trying to create some sort of abstract painting. The fly is soaked, as is the webbing that holds the poles and clips. Ugh. I’m definitely not packing that up until it dries a bit more.

Our campsite the next morning in the sun. It all looks peaceful now, but last night was one of the more stressful ones in my 20 years of camping.

I wonder how bad it was last night. That was the longest and most intense round of storms I’ve experienced in a long time. Later in the day, I check out the NOAA storm reports and find that I was a very lucky girl. The storms formed further south than anticipated but were quite severe. The hail and wind damage reports are extensive to the south and west. I escaped in a little pocket. The report looks like this:


The hail damage is incredible in some places. I missed the damage by less than 50 miles – that big black disc of cloud I saw was one of the areas that was hit. For the next five days, I’ll see heaps of broken glass along the highways where vehicle windows were trashed. I’ll see tons of birds, not just the usual road kill specimens – but birds of all kinds, that are not smashed, but simply lying dead on the side of the road. I see everything from little yellow finches (never see them as road kill normally) to large crows to colourful things I never knew existed. All of the talk with people on the road will centre on what damage their car and house sustained and where they have to travel to file the insurance claim.

They classify the storm as a derecho – defined as a long-lived, widespread windstorm associated with a swath of damage greater than 240 miles long including wind gusts of at least 58 mph along most of its length and several, well-separated 75 mph or greater gusts. We were camped just along the northern edge, thankfully.

You can read a storm-chaser’s account of the day here:


These news reports show storm damage photos from across the state:



Proof for mom that we survived. Out hiking the wet and muddy trails in the morning. Lots of tree limbs to climb over – but most are from the storm two days ago instead of last night.

I head out on the hiking trails while my tent dries. I enjoy watching the vegetation change from the uplands to the creek valleys. I don’t know why I’m still fascinated by the basics of life – the role of sunlight, moisture and soil type – but I am. Simple minds, I guess.

The hike is not easy but only because it is incredibly muddy and slippery and there are tree branches, limbs and whole trees down in many places. Most are not from last night but from the storms that came through the night I was in Onawa. I do whatever trail maintenance I can as I go, tossing the branches and debris that I can lift away from the trail.

I climb over a bunch of the fallen tree bits. At one point I come up to an entire tree down across the steep slope. Its branches are splayed everywhere – I can’t go over or under. I’m going to have to go upslope or downslope. I choose upslope, picking my way over each branch while leaning into the uphill. I scratch my legs on twigs and leaves and who knows what else. Then, I slip in the mud and find myself on my butt on the slope and up to my eyes in leaves and short branches. Unfortunately, my right foot has slid underneath a large limb and I can’t pull it back out. I angle my foot in all directions but I’m completely stuck. I try to stand up a bit to recreate the angle my foot would have slid under, but to no avail. I laugh at myself. I survive the storm with no worries but then get pinned by a tree AFTER it is all over.

I wonder if I can remove my shoe and slip my foot under, then go back for the shoe. The only problem is that I can’t see what is really going on because of all the leaves everywhere. I try to lift the limb, but it is too heavy to budge. I think I could just dig into the slope and create a larger hole, but again, I can’t see down there to know what I need to do. So I work on clearing away some smaller branches and their leaves. I keep trying to wiggle my foot out. And then, somehow, my foot gets just the right angle and comes free, complete with shoe. Yippee!

I struggle up the slope and through the rest of the tree and back to the path. Once I get back to my campsite from this loop, I decide I’m done hiking. It is one of my last chances to hike in eastern deciduous forest, but climbing over all the fallen trees and getting completely covered in mud from the knees down isn’t really all that fun.

Heading out around noon. We slept in, then spent a couple hours hiking today since our attempts yesterday were cut short. It is very abnormal for me to hit the road this late.

Just as I’m about to leave I meet Ed Brogie – one of the birdwatchers from this morning. He asks, ‘so how did you go in those storms last night’? I tell him I came out fine, but it was a pretty stressful night. He says, ‘yeah, we heard there was a crazy girl on a bicycle down here camping last night. We were staying up in the new cabins. They give us one for free to stay in, in exchange for our time doing bird surveys’.

He then asks the standard six questions, then asks what I do for a living. I explain that I had been doing university research but, in the end, didn’t enjoy it all that much so left to go bike touring. He is impressed and wants to know more about my research. We talk about the lack of funding, job security and work/life balance for early career researchers. We talk about women in science.

He tells me all about the birds here in the park, showing me pictures of the birds and the calls they make on an iPad app. He asks about my route across Nebraska and is impressed that I’ve seen a lot of the ‘gems’ of the state already, or plan to do so on this tour. He is excited that I’m excited about going to the Ashfall Fossil Beds. He personally knows the professor whom discovered the site.

If only more conversations were this fun. We talk about the loess hills and the unique vegetation there. He tells me I just missed the Loess Hills Prairie Seminar weekend, a free event full of talks and walks related to the natural and cultural history of the area. He says I would have loved it.

He tells me I should be a teacher, such is my enthusiasm for natural history. I tell him it’s never been something that excited me much. He says I should go into classrooms though and excite kids about outdoorsy stuff. He is the former executive director of the National Association of Academies of Science and is a retired science teacher. He still does a lot of work trying to get high school kids interested in science careers. He says he’s going to look me up on researchgate.com and check out my work. Whoa. You don’t meet too many really important people on a bike tour, but I’m so stoked I met this ornithologist. Good stuff! More fun conversations like this one please!

I climb the big hill out of the park and spend some time enjoying the Towers of Time sculpture. I don’t leave the park until after noon. Then it’s down the road through more hills and corn. My journal states: ‘the road is mostly flat to Newcastle, riding through fields of corn with hills providing a sheltered backdrop. A tree-lined creek provides contrast. Good god, I am totally out of ways to describe hills and corn’.

The “Towers of Time” sculpture near the park entrance. Each of the three towers represents a geologic period. The tower on the left depicts the late Cretaceous period when Nebraska was underwater. Underwater and land reptiles are depicted. The tower in the middle represents the Pleistocene – the great Ice Ages. Woolly mammoths, giant sloths and sabre-toothed cats feature on this pillar. The tower on the right represents the Holocene epoch – modern day animals of the Missouri River region are depicted, including bison and blue heron. The fountain in the centre features indigenous peoples from four eras: Folsom culture, Paleolithic culture, Eastern Mound Builder culture, and recent ‘woodlands’ culture – the Ponca whom were here at settlement.
Detail on the left tower and one side of the fountain at the “Towers of Time” sculpture.

The most exciting part of the day is looking at the roadcuts and stream cutbanks trying to see if any show the contact between the Graneros shale and the Niobrara chalk. Yeah, it’s nerdy and probably a bit sad that it is the highlight.

A bit after Newcastle we dive down a valley thick with trees, heading toward the Missouri River floodplain and the bridge into South Dakota. Yippee! We stop at the scenic overlook and check out the shallow braids and main channel of the river. This is part of a 59-mile stretch of river that is not channelized – one of only two stretches in this section of the river. It gives a good idea of what the river would have looked like to Lewis and Clark.

Bike porn. The Wizard looking all happy and shiny in front of the Missouri River.

We ‘ka-dunk’ our way over all of the expansion joints on the long bridge, then ride through the South Dakota floodplain and up the bluff to Vermillion. There are plenty of nerdy things to do in town, including the National Museum of Music and a history museum, but I’m just not into it today. It is already 3.30pm, and I’m just tired and hungry. You know my mood is a bit low when I don’t want to get nerdy.

Instead we head to McDonalds for wifi, check out the weather forecast and last night’s storm reports, then go get a bunch of fruit and veg at the supermarket. I didn’t eat dinner last night and haven’t eaten much yet today, so I’m starving. I take all of the food (spinach salad, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, bananas, strawberries, mozzarella cheese, some turkey breast slices and a huge, cheap loaf of semi-dried tomato focaccia bread) out to Clay County park and gorge myself. I’ve got enough for lunch and dinner tomorrow, too.

The county park allows camping and has plenty of space and shade underneath the tall cottonwood trees. There is a shower in the amenities block. Wow, how did I get mud there?!!

I think I just need time to recharge after the adrenalin and stress of last night. So I don’t do anything at all really, except eat and lie on the picnic table. Another hard day at the office 🙂

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