School time is about here. The first, dreaded essay awaits elementary students everywhere. “What did you do on your summer vacation?” Here’s ours.
For three years, Laura and I have talked about taking a trip to Valentine in north central Nebraska just nine miles from the South Dakota border. We wanted to kayak the Niobrara River. This summer we finally made the trip.
Why, our friends would ask? We tried to explain that the Niobrara River begins in the high plains of eastern Wyoming and flows 535 miles to its confluence with the Missouri River in northeastern Nebraska. Or how six major ecosystem types converge in the valley and support an exceptionally large variety of plants and animals.
None of that mattered to others or really to us. The river ran wild, the camping sounded great and we could ride our bikes all day without hardly seeing a soul.
Here are the highs and lows.
Highs: Camping along the River. Our campsite had two levels. RVs stayed up top while tents could be set up down a trail beside the river. We pitched our tent and settled in for four nights. Only on one night were there other campers. After rides, we stripped down and soaked weary muscles in the river in total peace.
The Tent. We have camped quite a bit, but never in the United States. Our two European trips proved our tent’s ease of set up and the fact we enjoyed the confines. But the first night in Nebraska, as strong thunderstorm roared down the river with winds of 30 mph, the tent barely moved. The wind echoed against the river walls with the whine of a distant, ghostly train roaring along the tracks of the plains. What a rush. What a tent.
The Riding. The Cowboy Trail, a converted rails-to-trail path, streamed out from Valentine both east and west. Eventually, the trail will cross Nebraska for 321 miles. We never saw another soul on two long mountain bike rides, but the cows and horses all raced along with us thinking these strangers surely were bringing feed. Our one day of road riding into the McKelvie National Forest covered close to 50 miles under bright blue skies doted with puffy white clouds. It also featured one of the steepest climbs we have ever faced climbing out of the river valley. As we finished, we remembered we had been passed by only one car. Talk about a sweet ride.
Kayaking. We dropped our car off, picked up two kayaks and were off for 18 miles of space and time warp. Could we really be in Nebraska? The high cliffs of the river brought to mind the old Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe movie, “The River of No Return.” It was easy to imagine Sioux or Pawnee Indians riding along the ridges looking down on the beautiful, flowing river. There are no wild rapids to negotiate, but we did have to paddle and negotiate the river throughout.
Jordan’s Fine Food and Sports Bar. Valentine is surrounded by ranches that spread far and wide. The town of Valentine, except for the short summer months when the river brims with visitors, is a delightful, small cow town. The largest store in Valentine is the western wear store. Naturally, dining is pure meat and potatoes. Breakfasts are eggs and bacon in portion size that easily fed both of us. The healthiest meal we could find was the local Subway.
One night we were eating in Jordan’s, a fairly-new, giant, barn-like structure. One portion housed the sports bar with a bank of televisions. The bar was filled with area ranchers. Pressed Wranglers, snap shirts, big belt buckles and summer straw cowboy hats and even some spurs. There we sat, watching a ball game, munching on a salad in our shorts and flip flops. When the news of Michael Jackson’s death broke, the bartender changed some of the channels to the news. The din dropped and everyone listened until one of the cowboys went to digital juke box and pumped in some serious money. For the rest of the evening in Valentine, a town so far removed from Michael Jackson’s world, we were treated to nothing but music from the “King of Pop.”
“Beat it, beat it!” How are you going to beat that?
The Lows: Bugs. Like Kansas, Nebraska had a very wet spring and early summer leading to some serious bug infestation. Camping along the river, we battled swarms of mosquitoes and other bugs. Nothing funnier than watching us try to unzip our tent doors, dive in and then get tent zipped up before the bugs made it their new home.
The Hangover. The bug swarm led to one of the worst mistakes we have made in a long time. We decided to escape the onslaught by taking in an evening movie. Tragically, that was “The Hangover.” Today people seem to enjoy this senseless, primitive, raunchy and perverse form of comedy. We didn’t. That movie made me thank God I was old. Hopefully, never again.
For Valentine photos, click here.