The day before, we had been kayaking the Niobrara River in northern Nebraska, occasionally dodging submerged boulders in its swift-moving, clear waters. And now we were standing on the river bank a few miles downstream at the Norden Chute, watching the river plunge fifteen feet over a lip of bedrock that marked the Niobrara’s progress in downcutting its streambed.
The Niobrara flows over 500 miles from eastern Wyoming through the northernmost tier of Nebraska counties before linking up with the Missouri River. Seventy-six miles of its mid-section are preserved and protected as a National Scenic River. Backpacker magazine has designated the Niobrara as one of the ten best rivers for canoeing in the United States.
My wife Dianne and friend Dana had set up camp the night before at Dryland Aquatics, a kayaking, canoeing, and tubing outfitter located in Sparks, Nebraska, a few miles north of the river. Owners Ed and Louise Heinert had “bought the town” in 1998 when they began operating the outfitting service. They run their business from the General Store, where local ranchers drop in for morning coffee and conversation.
The unincorporated town of Sparks consists of the General Store, the owners’ family, and whomever might be setting up a tent or sleeping in the bunkhouse prior to their river excursions. At the far end of the campground an 1888-constructed community church harkens back to when the region was more populated than today. Euro-American settlers learned the hard way that the surrounding sandhills were more suitable for spread-out prairie cattle ranches than for small tillable farms.
But in the summer, the Niobrara valley today is typically well-populated with river enthusiasts. Even so, we avoided the crowds by kayaking on a Monday morning, after the weekend revelers had left. We had the river to ourselves for several miles, putting in upstream from the tube-renters, who float along at a slower pace and generally cover fewer miles. And even when we caught up and overtook them, the river was far from crowded. Sometimes Dana, Dianne, and I paddled together and talked about the river, the valley, and the sandhills, and sometimes we spread out, each of us in our own space and thoughts.
Unlike most rivers on the Plains that wander listlessly through broad valleys, the Niobrara is a youthful stream that careens between tall bluffs on either side. Boulders in the riverbed are prizes it has licked away from the cliffs. In places, the river has downcut 300 feet into the surrounding plains. Locals have watched the Norden Chute creep upstream over the course of a few decades as the Niobrara continues carving out its bed. Here the river narrows considerably and plunges over an edge of bedrock as if draining from the lip of an oversized pitcher.
Assuming one avoids the Chute, kayaking the Niobrara doesn’t require expert skills. But the river still commands a kayaker’s attention more than most Midwest streams with its swift current and boulders that could upend one’s boat.
The Niobrara also sits at the northern range of the Ogallala Aquifer that feeds the nation’s midsection from South Dakota to Texas. In northern Nebraska the aquifer lies near ground surface, and where the water table sits on top of impermeable layers, the aquifer spills into the river valley through a series of waterfalls and fast-moving streams. The tallest is Smith Falls, which drops over 60 feet from the blufftop and rushes the length of a football field to reach the river. Other falls are at river level, viewable from the kayak. Over 230 waterfalls drop into the river valley.
Over the years, the erodible cliffs have offered up occasional fossils of now-extinct, early-edition mammals: three-toed horses, rhinos, saber-toothed cats, and more. Ed gave us a short tour of his own collection, which includes an early bison skull and a mammoth jaw.
But the entire river valley might have disappeared in the in the 1970s when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation proposed to build a dam that would have inundated twenty miles of river valley, including the Norden Chute, for irrigation canals to outlying areas of questionable agricultural quality. Local opinion was divided—and still is—as to whether the dam should have been built, but an unlikely combination of conservationists, canoe/kayak outfitters, and ranch owners successfully stopped the proposal.
The Nature Conservancy played an important role as well in the battle against the dam. In 1980 the Conservancy purchased two ranches along 25 miles of Niobrara shoreline to create the Niobrara Valley Preserve (NVP). Today they act as good neighbors, paying property taxes on the land they own even though not legally required to do so as a non-profit organization. The NVP pays its way and protects the ecosystem by other means as well, by leasing lands to local ranchers for cattle grazing and by grazing over 1,000 bison in its 56,000-acre prairie. They likewise invite research teams and interns to the NVP to study the prairie and the river.
“We are so lucky to still have the valley, due to the all the local people who wanted to preserve it,” says Amanda Hefner, Conservation Assistant at NVP. “Other Nebraska rivers have been heavily impacted by crop agriculture,” Amanda says, referring both to agricultural runoff and the effect of heavy irrigation in drawing down the river levels. “The Niobrara feels like a river is supposed to feel.”
Ed and Louise were among those who opposed the dam. “People back then didn’t see the river as part of an ecosystem,” Ed says. “A lot of people didn’t agree with us.”
“But their grandkids might,” adds Dana.
Indeed, a church youth group were among the tubists ahead of us on this hot August Monday. We all exchanged simple greetings, looked about in wonder, and slipped quietly past the sandstone cliffs where the Niobrara River continued its work of cutting through the sandhills.
-- August 2021