Thursday, July 16, 2009

The water that runs

Mike & Linda Cox, with a rotating assortment of friends and family, have been tubing, canoeing, and kayaking the Niobrara River near Valentine, Nebraska annually since 1976. This week marked the first time I've gone along with them.

The Niobrara River Valley is known as a biological meeting place, with several different ecosystems converging there. Many eastern animals and plants occur there at the western edge of their range and vice versa; hybridization has been documented in numerous birds, including Baltimore/Bullock's orioles, indigo/lazuli buntings, and yellow-/red-shafted flickers, as well as butterflies. Additionally, the cooler recesses of the valley harbor relict populations of trees such as aspen and white birch, common here during the last Ice Age but now typical of high-altitude or high-latitude locations hundreds of miles distant. A 76-mile stretch of the Niobrara is designated as a National Wild & Scenic River and is administered by the National Park Service.

The name Niobrara means "running water", and early French trappers translated the name to l'eau qui court or "the water that runs". (By contrast, Nebraska is a variation on Niobrathka, or "flat water", in reference to the Platte River and other slow, braided rivers typical of the state, such as the Loup and the Elkhorn.) The water was certainly running on Tuesday, thanks to the heavy rainfall associated with Monday night's epic thunderstorms. (A flood on Valentine's Main Street totaled Linda's Chrysler Sebring while sparing my Outback; clear evidence for the Subaru's invincibility in my opinion, but Ellie disagrees.) We were able to explore a few channels usually not navigable even by kayak, and rarely scraped bottom even at known shoals.

On to some pictures:

The founders: Mike and Linda on the river

Ellie in the front of our kayak

Sandstone bluffs on the south side of the river

Fort Falls

Berry Falls

Smith Falls

Bridge at Smith Falls Campground

Ellie at water's edge

Pictures I didn't take but wish I had:
  • The flooded streets in Val. I got as wet pushing Linda's car on Main Street as I did the next day standing under Smith Falls.
  • Cornell Dam. Located on Ft. Niobrara NWR, just above the put-in site, this is the only dam on the river.
  • Deb Cox's keeshond, Queso, on her kayak. True to her heritage (Dutch barge dog), Queso looked perfectly at ease on the water; in fact, I can't remember the last time I met a dog so relaxed in any environment.
  • Ellie's first leech. She took it well.
This year's was a shortened trip, in deference to our late start and Mike's health. He's been undergoing both chemo and radiation therapy for cancer; considering he was in the hospital as recently as Sunday, 12 miles or so of paddling is pretty impressive. We'll try for a longer float next year; the scenery is best on the upper stretch (especially through the refuge) but the more challenging water is below Smith Falls.


Chas S. Clifton said...

I pass through Valentine occasionally and have wondered what that river trip was like. Thanks for posting about it.

Mark Churchill said...

Chas, I hope you get to go sometime...