Tuesday June 10, 2014, 61 miles (98 km) – Total so far: 1,124 miles (1,808 km)
Some special places immediately strike you with their beauty and importance. The hot, bubbly energy of Yellowstone, the soaring granite cliffs of Yosemite and the towering sandstone walls of Zion demand an instant response. You do not have to live deeply or think too much to appreciate the direct values of such places.
But there are other special places that require a less shallow approach. The beauty is less direct, the importance not always immediately apparent. The Niobrara is one of those places. You probably have never heard of that sinuous silvery thread of water that winds its way through northern Nebraska. And if you have, you probably associate it with drunken summer weekends floating down it in a tube with a bunch of friends. But the Niobrara National Scenic River is so much more than that. It has so much biological and paleontological significance. And it was almost lost.
The Niobrara River is 535 miles long. It begins in Wyoming as a shallow indentation on a broad plain (we crossed it last year in western NE on our way to Chadron) and ends at its confluence with the Missouri River in northeast Nebraska (we camped near there a few days ago on this trip). It drains nearly 12,000 square miles of land and is the only river in Nebraska that flows directly over bedrock substrate. But those are just boring facts. Here is what makes it so amazing:
The river just east of Valentine straddles the 100th meridian – the point where the humid, eastern forests transition to the dry, western plains and forests. Here, on the river, six distinct ecosystems meet. It is the only place in the United States where Rocky Mountain pine forest, northern forest, eastern deciduous forest, tallgrass prairie, mixed grass prairie and Sandhills prairie converge. The valley provides an unbroken east-west corridor for flora and fauna to intermingle. More than 200 birds and 30 amphibians are found here. A staggering 160 plant species are at the edge of their natural range. 160!!! The nearest pine trees like those found here are in the Black Hills. This is the only place in Nebraska where a hybrid of quaking and bigtooth aspen is found. There are more hybrid species here than anywhere else on the continent.
Nebraska, in general, is an excellent, world-class location to find fossil mammals. The Niobrara National Scenic River and the nearby wildlife refuge take it one step further. At one particular site, more than 146 vertebrate fossils have been found. It is the most diverse single-site of Miocene fauna in North America. More than 160 mapped sites exist along the 76 miles designated as a National Scenic River.
And it is all still here. In the early 1980s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (or the U.S. Bureau of Wreck the Nation, as named by Ed Abbey) proposed building a 181-foot tall dam at Norden Chute – at the bottom of the most popular 30 miles of river for canoeists. Locals, conservationists, scientists and ranchers all united to oppose the dam and made the push for the river to be designated as a National Scenic River. For once, the conservationists won: the dam idea was shelved and 76 miles of the river east of Valentine was designated as a National Scenic River in 1991. It only makes this place more special, knowing all that was almost lost.
I am so excited to float the river today. The owner drops me off with a life jacket, paddle, kayak and a few instructions. The river is running so high, he’s not too concerned about me capsizing on any obstacles. “Well, normally, I tell people to just try to keep the nose pointing down river. You only get in trouble when you start going sideways. But today, I think you could go down just about anyway you’d want and you’d be fine. You won’t even need to paddle. Just use it to steer.” And with that, he gives me a shove, and I’m floating the Niobrara at about 6 miles per hour.
For the first 10 minutes, I remind myself what happens when you use the paddle in different ways – it’s been a while since I’ve been in a kayak. Then I mostly stay where I want to be the rest of the way down. For its width, you’d think the river would be deeper. It is only thigh-high to knee-deep the whole way down. I do bump over a rock here or there that I can’t see, but mostly it is just a fast, bobbing float downstream.
I crane my head in all directions. I wish I knew more of the plants – but just knowing that the biodiversity is tremendous and unique is enough. I do pick out American elms, paper birches, cedars, pines, cottonwood, linden trees and bur oaks. I see eagles soaring on the thermals high above the river on one bend. This is soooo amazing! I’m one happy chick today.
I also enjoy picking out the contacts between the rock types. Resistant cap-rock at the top is the Ash Hollow formation, but I don’t see much of this. I do see lots of the Valentine formation and the Rosebud formation. The contact point between these features lots of seeps and waterfalls flowing down the cliffs. The Valentine formation holds lots of water in its porous sediments. The Rosebud formation is impermeable. So the water percolates down through the Valentine then flows along the contact with the Rosebud formation. Every bend of the river provides glimpses of new cliffs, new waterfalls, new seeps and a prolific bright green wall of vegetation. Oh, you cannot wipe the grin off my face.
Many of the side canyons provide a cool, wet and sheltered environment for plants typical of colder conditions. These Ice Age remnants are no longer found in Nebraska – you have to go to Minnesota or the Blacks Hills to find them in abundance. These plants take you back at least 12,000 years to when Nebraska was covered in forest. I wish I knew the best canyons to wander around in, but I don’t, so I keep floating. Not that I could have steered myself over to a canyon and stopped anyway – the current is swift and it’s like being on a Disneyland ride thrust into fast forward.
I do manage to get myself over to the take-out for Smith Falls State Park. I manage not to embarrass myself exiting the kayak either! I hike up to the falls, the highest in the state. This cool canyon allows me to check out the boreal forest plants in more detail. There is only one other couple up there, and they are just looking at the waterfall. When they pass me, and I’m bent over trying to find some particular mosses and ferns, they ask what I’m looking at. When I reply, “oh, just trying to find some of the plants”, they raise their eyebrows and say, “Oh.” They continue on. Crazy gal on a bike. Crazy gal on a hike. I guess there’s not much difference.
I actually do have to paddle a bit in the stretch below the state park. There is a headwind blowing up the canyon. I manage to steer into the take-out point, where Randy is already there loading canoes. He confirms there is always a headwind in that last bit. On our 40-minute drive back to Valentine, Randy fills me in on all of the politics associated with the river and the federal government designation. By the time he drops me off at the office so I can pick up my bike, I feel like I have a much better appreciation for the business and management side of the river, too. My mind is just all stirred up trying to get my head around everything and process all that I’ve seen and heard. What a fantastic day!
And it is not over yet.
I head to the gas station to change into my riding clothes and pick up a rootbeer. Then we head west for the Sandhills – one of my favourite parts of my ride last year.
Hwy 20 follows the Minnechuzada Creek valley for some miles out of town, so it is fairly flat. As we progress into the Sandhills proper, my soul begins to sing. I am so connected to this landscape in some way I cannot understand. I feel like I’ve come home, even though I’ve never lived here.
In some places, fire has burnt across the prairie, leaving bare patches, burnt yuccas and a discontinuous cover of green that is certainly more scrappy-looking than areas unburnt. As I head west, I’m struck by how different the Sandhills character is here versus down on Hwy 2 where we rode last year. The dunes here are lower with a more chaotic pattern. Newer dunes have been superimposed on the barchan-ridge dunes which dominated further south. There are many more interdunal depressions – flat land in between the dunes – that support deep green meadows and many small bright blue lakes.
I love how the sculpted landscape is so revealing. If you just peeled back that layer of grass like a living room carpet, the sand dunes would be right there, just below the surface like an American Gobi desert. Riding through such a recently molded landscape gives my head a certain energy that one just can’t describe.
It is all so green! The texture is like one huge putting green interspersed with the deep blue lakes – water obstacles. Birds take flight from the water, winging over me as they soar upward into the wind. Ducks, geese, herons, and all sorts of smaller ones that I do not know, take to the sky or slide in for a landing.
There are not many people on the road, and I have a moderate tailwind. I’m sailing up and down the dunes on smooth pavement on a huge shoulder. The energy is just pouring into me like I’m a conduit for all of life. On one downhill, I stand on the pedals, throw my head back and yell, “I LOOOOOVE THIS!!!!!” Oh, the joy in my heart!
I stop in Cody to get an OJ from the little market. It is made of strawbale construction and is run by the local high school students. A man and woman call out to me from a pick-up truck. “Hey, we passed you earlier. You almost beat us here”!
“Ha! Yeah, I’ve got a pretty decent tailwind there pushing me along!”, I reply.
They ask the standard six and are very impressed. The rancher then says, “You do know you are seeing the best part of Nebraska don’t you. We come out here to just drive around. The Sandhills are really special. We live out near Hay Springs.”
“Oh, yes! I love this area. I rode through on Hwy 2 last year and had to come back for more.”
The ranchers are very happy that a wandering tourist shares their appreciation for this landscape. They wish me well and tell me to come back soon.
I refill water bottles in the town park – which is quite suitable for camping – and then press onward. The beauty resonates and I just want to sing or yell or somehow whoop and holler. I am so alive. All the energy just pours in and pours out – all the beauty, light and power reflecting off the landscape and into my soul.
Further on, there is absolute turtle carnage. For 5-7 miles, there are tons of turtles trying to cross the road. Many have not made it. There are turtles squished all over. Verne is very upset and traumatized. I think I’m going to have to put him in the pannier, such is the density of death on the road. I save the ones that I can that are in either of the travel lanes. I escort eight of them to one side or the other and yell at a bunch (not effective, I know, but makes me feel better) that are in the shoulder. Six of the turtles don’t seem to mind; one of these never even pulls his head in. Another one hisses. One tries, unsuccessfully, to pee on me. I love that even turtles have personalities.
We didn’t start riding until 3.30pm today, so it’s now going on 6pm as we chase the sun down. In the last 10 miles, I see a white, fuzzy bank of clouds to the west. I don’t think much of it, because storms are not forecast.
We reach Cottonwood State Recreation Area. It is a ‘reduced services area’ which means they used to spend money on this place (and this is apparent in the old picnic shelters and playground equipment) but do not now. It feels run-down. The grass in the camping area could use a good mow. But we set up the tent a little bit away from the lake and take the bike over to a picnic shelter about 50 feet away. I’m not camping closer to it as there are a bunch of cacti over there!
The guys and I go over to check out the lake – a classic example of a groundwater-fed Sandhills lake. We see a muskrat and a heron. No turtles, though – here is a perfect place for them and they are all back there on the road instead! The beauty here is somewhat stark, but the ridges of sand curving down to the lake, and the staggered reflection of the moon, the trees and the long reeds on the water are quite aesthetically-pleasing.
The fuzzy bank of clouds is invading the sky and building into storms. Off to the southwest, the lightning flashes and illuminates the edges of the thunderheads, all puffy and pink in the setting sun. The thunder rolls across the prairie – I imagine it would look like a tumble weed if sound could be seen.
The first storm misses us. The next storm calls forth with more thunder. The dark blue against the bright green of the rolling hills is a contrast in color but not in beauty. The storm rolls in as the last of the light disappears. For 20 minutes, the world explodes in lightning and thunder with squalls of rain thrust onto the tent. The deep rumbles reverberate in the ground. One flash is not a flicker. It is like the flash held by an old-timey photographer with his head in the box. It is a bright, blinding strobe that stays in my eyes after the flash has concluded. The thunder is simultaneous. That one was close!
Eventually, the storm rumbles into the distance and the light show is on. The stars emerge crisp and clear overhead. The sky lights up in arcs and forks of ions in the distant darkness. As the lightning sparks, the outline of the clouds blazes for a moment, then disappears into the darkness. It’s been a long day, but I stay awake until midnight watching the stars and the storm. It’s just me – all alone by a lake in the prairie in the Sandhills. Bliss.
What an absolutely amazing day! You cannot get any better than spending the day in two unique and outstanding environments and mixing up the modes of travel to include paddling and pedalling. I feel so incredibly connected today, like my life is made of the same fabric as all that I encountered – all of life woven together on the land, in the water and in the sky.