Thursday, January 8, 2009

Niobrara National Scenic River

Back when I worked for the Park Service I seemed to end up working the water parks -- rivers and lakeshores like Buffalo National River and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore -- a lot. My colleagues would be keeping their feet dry at Herbert Hoover or Fort Larned, and I'd be leaping in and out of boats, counting lighthouses, and splashing across low water bridges. It wasn't a conscious choice, at least not most of the time. One of those water parks that I started off feeling pretty dubious about but wound up liking a lot is Niobrara National Scenic River in north central Nebraska. (The photo is of the Niobrara just west of Nebraska Highway 11 and was taken in January 2007.)

The first time I saw the Niobrara I had pretty much a "this is it?" reaction. Compared to what I thought of as real rivers, e.g., the lower Saint Croix, the middle Niobrara isn't much to look at. The photo above is deceptive -- in warm weather that stretch of the Niobrara is braided and shallow (i.e., lots of visible gravel and sand bars and not much water) -- so I had a hard time understanding why anyone would bother driving from Omaha to Valentine to tube, canoe, or kayak the Niobrara when the same amount of driving would put a person into Minnesota, land of a thousand lakes and multiple real rivers, ones with water more than waist deep. It took me awhile to figure out that one of the major attractions of the Niobrara isn't the actual river, but the drainage: ecologically it evidences extreme diversity in a very small area.

The middle Niobrara valley, a stretch of river approximately 30 miles long from Valentine down to Plum Creek, is a biological crossroads -- eastern and western zones for plant and animal life overlap, and there's also remnant northern boreal forest. It's possibly the only place in Nebraska where boreal species such as northern white pine can be found growing naturally. Ty Harrison, a University of Nebraska grassland ecologist, described the valley as a "natural experiment where native organisms interact, hybridize, and evolve on the edge of their respective ranges." Eastern deciduous forest, Rocky Mountain pine forest, northern boreal plant associations, mixed prairie grassland, and a typical sandhills prairie can all be found within a few miles of each other along the Niobrara.

Whether or not the typical recreational user of the Niobrara thinks consciously about the ecological diversity when he or she plans a float trip is debatable, of course. I'm sure most don't. The typical tuber or kayaker just recognizes that there's so much variety along the river they're not going to be bored. There's going to be eye candy: wildlife, wildflowers, waterfalls. Lots and lots of waterfalls. Nothing real big or dramatic, with the possible exception of Smith Falls, but definitely water falling over rocks. It really is worth the drive from Omaha.

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