Tag Archives: Platte River

A Gathering of Water & Cranes

April 27, 2018 by
Photography by Nebraska Game And Parks

The bald eagle is unusually loud. From the riverbank, just beyond the trees, comes a descending whinny, then a high-pitched kree, kree, kree. That’s not what I came to the river to find, but sometimes you get what you’re not looking for.

It’s a sunny afternoon in late February, unseasonably warm, and I am looking for sandhill cranes. I’ve heard reports that a few are about, and this is the sort of day that should make a crane spread its wings and coast on wind currents near the river. At least that’s what I would do, if I were a crane.

Descending the soft, sandy slope to the river, I’m startled to see right before me a huge dark mass in an old tree whose branches stretch over the water: the eagle. No, wait. A pair of eagles, sharing a branch. Eagle chicks may soon be on the way.

The eagles fly off one at a time, with powerful, stiff wingbeats, and I am alone on a river bank with neither eagles nor cranes. I gaze at empty blue sky and at the sandy north bank and the sandbar where cranes often congregate—when they are here.

I know that 600 miles away, someone like me is standing near the Platte River where hundreds or even thousands of cranes are feeding in cornfields and rattling the air with their calls. But I am at the Wisconsin River, not the Platte, and to see sandhill cranes here, I will have to wait.

The dry switchgrass stirs in the breeze. A chickadee sings his descending three-note courtship song: DEE dee-dee. I turn away from the river and walk back up the small slope. There, nestled between a stand of pines and a patch of restored prairie, is a tiny brown building with a white door and shutters. If not for the brick chimney and the lean-to wing on the south side, it would look like a chicken coop, and in fact, that’s what it once was. But not just any chicken coop. This one is a National Historic Landmark.

An old pump stands out front; its water once nourished the nearby pine that, even in this robust stand of trees, is especially large. And just outside the door is a lilac bush, covered with tiny yellow-green buds that await the spring. Whenever I find old lilacs like this near unoccupied buildings or empty foundations, I think, “Somebody once loved this place.”

And indeed, the shack is a place that many still treasure. This was the weekend retreat of conservationist Aldo Leopold and his family, and it’s the setting for the 12 consecutive months’ worth of essays that begin his beloved book, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There.

Leopold purchased the 80-acre “worn out farm” in 1935, and the following year he and his family began the long, slow process of restoring the land’s health. Depleted by drought and over-farming in the 1930s, the land was so stripped of plant life that it seemed the Leopolds could see for miles in every direction. They planted pine trees over much of the ground to stave off erosion. They started a vegetable garden. And on the field in front of the shack they set to work “creating” a small prairie, learning as they went. Leopold, one of the first practitioners of ecological restoration, used the farm as a sort of laboratory.

But apart from the sometimes backbreaking work, this was a place for the family to fish, hunt, and enjoy reprieves from city life in Madison. The Leopolds formed a deep connection to the place—a connection built on their shared effort and also on the joy they shared here.

Leopold, who had been a prolific writer throughout his life, was also a prolific note taker. In the Sand County Almanac’s July essay, “Great Possessions,” he describes rising before dawn, sitting on a bench before the shack with coffee pot and notebook to record the chorus of birds as they chimed in one by one: the field sparrow, the robin, the oriole, and indigo bunting. Year-round notes from the shack became essays that made up the “almanac” part of his book. Then he added sketches from other places he had known. The book concludes with Leopold’s “Upshot,” an essay about a concept he called “the land ethic.” He wrote, “That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.”

Since its publication in 1949, A Sand County Almanac has sold over 2 million copies, and many conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts, natural resource professionals, and scholars regard it as a touchstone. Many Sand County Almanac readers, upon learning that the shack is a place that actually exists, want to visit, as a sort of pilgrimage. They’re able to do so because the Aldo Leopold Foundation, whose mission is to advance Leopold’s land ethic and conservation legacy, now owns the Leopold property and welcomes visitors.  Some people want to see the scenes of their favorite essays: the place where the Great Oak was felled, or the hillside from which the family observed the Wisconsin River’s spring floods.

My own favorite essay is “Marshland Elegy,” in which Leopold lyrically describes the interconnection between sandhill cranes and central Wisconsin’s ecology. First published in 1937, when the eastern population of sandhill cranes was near its nadir, the essay raises the possibility—which was then quite real—that cranes might vanish altogether from Wisconsin’s wetlands. I picture Leopold sitting on his bench before the shack, scanning the sky and listening for that distant, far-reaching bugle.

Happily, his prophecy did not come to pass, and sandhill cranes in this region have instead gradually recovered. Birds now regularly nest within earshot of the shack. And in the late fall, southbound cranes migrating from their northern breeding grounds gather here in such numbers that the Aldo Leopold Foundation hosts “Crane Congregation” evenings, allowing visitors to enjoy a spectacle that would surely have gladdened Leopold’s heart. Before leaving, I scan the sky one last time, not with regret, but with the knowledge that cranes will be here in Wisconsin soon, because they are now a part of this place.

I’m walking down the old Levee Road toward my car when a sport utility vehicle comes bumping along behind me and stops. An older man wearing work clothes and a big smile calls out, “When’re you heading south?” As I raise my sunglasses and start to respond that I’ll soon head not south but west, he realizes that he has mistaken me for a Wisconsin River neighbor and apologizes. On hearing that I have been looking for sandhill cranes, he exclaims, “They’re here!” and beckons me over to stand in the middle of the road while he scrolls through photos on his phone, looking for the one he simply must show me. As he searches I watch for oncoming cars and ask myself, “What is it about cranes?” They are like a universal language, connecting humans who might otherwise think they have nothing in common. They are like something primal, like the headwaters of a river that we have almost, but not quite, forgotten.

Before dawn on March 1, I am in my car, driving toward the full moon—toward Nebraska. It is a trip I have made every spring since moving from Nebraska to Wisconsin eight years ago. As I drive, I picture sandhill cranes on the move, on routes perpendicular to my own.

In my rearview mirror is part of the breeding range of the sandhill crane’s eastern population. These birds, now numbering perhaps 100,000, spend winters in the southeastern U.S. and are now en route to breeding grounds in Michigan, Wisconsin, eastern Minnesota, and points north and east. By the time I return home to Wisconsin, they’ll be staking out their respective nest territories.

Far ahead of me, streaming toward the Platte River, are some 600,000 sandhill cranes, mostly of the lesser subspecies, which is about three-fourths the size of the greater sandhill cranes that make up the eastern population. These birds of the mid-continent population winter in places like Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. They are just stopping in Nebraska on the way to nesting territories in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia.

From what I have seen, the cranes’ behavior on arrival at their various destinations seems to mirror our own response upon reaching a familiar or beloved place: their jubilant trumpeting sounds like joy.

My route crosses rivers large and small, and I mentally check them off, like a roll call or a countdown: the Pine River, which feeds the Wisconsin; the lower Wisconsin River on its way to the Mississippi; then the Mississippi River itself at Dubuque, where the water looks endless. Next come rivers that feed the Mississippi from the west: the forks of the Maquoketa, the Wapsipinicon, Cedar, and Iowa Rivers. At each crossing, I peer over and around bridge railings for glimpses of rivers I’ve seen countless times, checking the banks, trees, and water levels. In western Iowa, the countdown continues with rivers that, like the Platte, flow to the Missouri and thus also join the Mississippi.

In Nebraska, Interstate 80 enters the Platte River valley, and I start watching for birds. The migration is only beginning, but small flocks in flight lace the sky and most brown corn-stubble fields hold a few gray birds.

Though their winter and breeding ranges cover vast regions, at this point in their migration route, sandhill cranes are pouring into an area that is barely 100 miles wide, and their numbers will soon swell until it seems birds are everywhere. This is the place of convergence, because here they find suitable habitat: broad, shallow channels where they can roost safely at night, fields of waste corn in which to feed, and wet meadows along the river where they can gather at dusk to dance and to round out their diet with invertebrates, grubs, roots, and other wetland delights.

Snow geese are here, too, in hundreds of thousands. Their spring stopovers vary from year to year, but this year they’ve chosen the Platte, and I’ll get an even bigger spectacle than I was looking for.

After pitching my tent at the Fort Kearny State Recreation Area, I amble over to the walking path with its trestle bridge across the Platte. Countless geese overhead serenade me. Honks, squeaks, and yelps mingle with bugles of cranes, which fly over in flocks of 10 and 20. At the bridge I gaze east across rushing water with its sandbars and sandy banks. The Platte’s channels intertwine, separating and merging, carving new pathways and building new sandbars. I sometimes think of this spot when looking at the Wisconsin River.

As the sun sets, hundreds of geese and cranes in mixed flocks fly overhead and swirl in the orange-tinted western sky before settling on the water. About 300 cranes circle briefly and then fly off to the west. Downstream, a flurry of white geese buffets the sky. Like kerchiefs fluttering on the breeze they drift down, down onto the water. A glowing orange mound swells on the eastern horizon and soon the full moon rises, fiery orange, crisscrossed by the black silhouettes of flying cranes. I watch streams of birds interweaving and merging above me until it is time for sleep.

Days later I am in an observation blind with a dozen other people at Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary, just downstream from Fort Kearny. Situated on the water’s edge, the low wooden structure with large windows offers a wide view from west horizon to east. Several species of ducks—northern pintails, mallards, green-winged teals—paddle about and occasionally take flight when spooked by one of the half-dozen bald eagles on patrol.

The sinking sun paints the clouds’ undersides lavender and magenta, and cranes land by the hundreds on the north-bank meadows. We speculate about whether they’ll be spooked by the eagles as well.

This is how my connection with the Platte River began. As a volunteer tour guide at the sanctuary, I soon realized many visitors were making a long-planned pilgrimage to the Platte. It’s a strange responsibility to play host to another person’s pilgrimage. My first responsibility was simply to be hospitable and, to some degree, stay out of the way. But I also wanted to be knowledgeable, hoping to add meaning to their visit. Thus I began a systematic study of the river that continued for the six years I lived in Nebraska. I took hundreds of riverside walks, read books, and interviewed people.

In time, I thought less about what I could share with others, and more about what I needed to know and understand about the Platte. 

And I promised myself that if I ever returned to Wisconsin, the state where I had lived most of my life, I would make a similar study of all the places I should have learned about—and learned to love—before moving away.

Outside the blind, in gathering darkness, cranes rise from the north bank, swirling and gradually settling in the river upstream. Some fly low over the blind and we can hear the whoosh, whoosh of their wing feathers. Their calls, more vigorous now as they make for the river, seem to vibrate through everything and shake the air. This, perhaps, is the sound that led Leopold to describe sandhill cranes as “wildness incarnate” and to write, “When we hear his call we hear no mere bird.” To me at least, the call is a visceral reminder of our connection to everything else on earth.

On the Platte we witness a staggering number of creatures as they cross our continent. On the Wisconsin River there’s the satisfaction of seeing thousands of birds in a place where Aldo Leopold and others once feared they might cease to exist. In both places, the birds are emblematic of a precarious balance in which some wild species are able to coexist (and even thrive) with humans. But the delicacy of that balance tells us that we should take nothing for granted.

A great roar draws our eyes west toward Fort Kearny, where the pink horizon is suddenly clotted with swirling black flocks of geese. Meanwhile, more cranes thunder toward us from the east. The sky is dark with birds and we know why we came here.

Later, walking slowly in the dark on the way back from the blind, we whisper about all that we have seen. I answer a visitor’s question about where I am from. In Wisconsin, I tell him, I lead tours at Aldo Leopold’s shack, inspired in part by my time on the Platte. And previously, Leopold’s writing inspired my study of the Platte. Sometimes, we agree, life can be like that: like a river where various streams merge in gathering waters.

Inside the visitor center, we all bid each other good night. On my way out the door, I glance at the bookrack in the gift shop and among the books about cranes I spy a small white volume: A Sand County Almanac. I would not have thought to look for it here. Perhaps a visitor to the Platte will read it and, feeling the tug of distant water, will someday make a pilgrimage and stand with me on the bank of the Wisconsin River.


Places Where Doreen Pfost Has Volunteered to Guide Crane-Watching Tours

Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary

Phone: 308.468.5282

Address: 44450 Elm Island Road, Gibbon, Nebraska

Proximity to nearby cities: 40-45 minutes westbound from Grand Island; 20-25 minutes eastbound from Kearney

Aldo Leopold Legacy Center

Phone: 608.355.0279

Address: E13701 Levee Road (Rustic Road No. 49), Baraboo, Wisconsin

Proximity to nearby cities: 15 minutes northeast of Baraboo; 15 minutes southeast of Wisconsin Dells.

Crane-Watching Sites within the Nebraska State Parks System

Note: Fort Kearny is the primary viewing site of Nebraska State Parks.

Fort Kearny State Historical Park and State Recreation Area

Phone: 308.865.5305

Address: 1020 V Road, Kearney

Buffalo Bill Ranch State Recreation Area

Phone: 308.535.8035

Address: 2921 Scouts Rest Ranch Road, North Platte

North River Wildlife Management Area

Phone: 308.535.8025

Location: From Hershey, drive three miles on North Hershey Road, turn right, and go almost two miles east on gravel to find the blind.

Additional Nebraska Crane-Watching Sites

Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center

Phone: 308.382.1820

Address: 9325 S. Alda Road, Wood River

The Central Platte NRD maintains two crane viewing sites, both of which are free: 

1. The Richard Plautz Crane Viewing Site, 1.5 miles south of I-80 at the Gibbon exit (No. 285)

2.The Alda Crane Viewing Site, two miles south of I-80, off the Alda exit (No. 305)

The following Nebraska Parks sites are on the periphery of sandhill cranes’ primary roosting areas in mid-February through mid-March; each offers convenient camping and easy access to Fort Kearny (the Nebraska State Parks’ primary crane-viewing destination).

Mormon Island State Recreation Area

Phone: 308.385.6211

Address: 7425 South US-281, Doniphan

Windmill State Recreation Area

Phone: 308.468.5700

Address: 2625 Lowell Road, Gibbon


This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. Read editor Doug Meigs’ review of Doreen Pfost’s book, “This River Beneath the Sky: A Year on the Platte.”

Book Review: This River Beneath the Sky

Photography by Nebraska Game & Parks

This River Beneath the Sky reads like an ode to sandhill cranes in the style of Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. How fitting. Leopold was born in Iowa but produced his seminal work of ecological prose in Wisconsin. Doreen Pfost was likewise a transplant on the sandy banks of Nebraska’s Platte River.

Pfost moved to south-central Nebraska with her husband’s career. She admits an initial lack of appreciation for her new home. To escape a depressive funk, she began volunteering at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary between Grand Island and Kearney—a place of crucial importance to sandhill crane conservation and tourism—situated along the Platte River, a “dreary, inconstant river that as if through lack of initiative, followed the route of the interstate system.”

Her initial attitude soon changes. Pfost embraces fly-over country and comes to perceive the central Platte as a sort of essential “airport” hub on the bustling Central Flyway Migration Corridor. Her ensuing book is a beautiful work of woven memoir, ecology, journalism, history, and literature braided together (much like the braided stream of the Platte where Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart met her demise. Pfost even refers to Leopold and Cather alike.)

The bugling hubbub of sandhill cranes ignites Pfost’s passion for the once-seemingly dreary landscape: “This is how spring arrives at the Platte—not with the flip of a calendar page, but from the little clouds blown in on a southerly wind,” she writes of the cranes’ springtime arrival, which quickly amplifies from a “sprinkle” to a torrential “shower.”

She vividly captures the cranes’ sunrise wakeup call at the peak of their layover, a raucous tumult that echoes across the horizon as tens of thousands of large birds simultaneously burst from sandbar roosts midstream and blacken the sky before landing in nearby cornfields to refuel on grubs and grains.

Pfost’s book is organized into 12 chapters corresponding roughly to the calendar. Her first chapter concludes with an afternoon departure of cranes for Arctic summering grounds and a call for environmental stewardship: “The cranes will go north—for now—and those of us who stay behind will keep an eye on the river.”

Throughout most of her book, sandhill cranes are absent in seasonal migrations to the north or south. Yet their presence always seems near, even when Pfost is writing about bison, whooping cranes, bobolinks, or annelids. After the cranes’ departure from the Platte, Pfost mulls over the history of pioneer trails, human settlement along the river, and the taming of the once-unpredictable river to meet incessant water demands from hydroelectric power, reservoirs, and agriculture.

Pfost’s earnest dedication to botanical and zoological minutiae emerges in rich descriptions of the environment while she hikes and jogs along the river. Also fascinating are anecdotes of people-watching at the Rowe Sanctuary, where “gossamer threads” bind birdwatchers and cranes along the “wild, dancing stream that used to be.”

River Beneath the Sky follows a journalistic path providing the backstory of sandhill crane conservation in Nebraska, its necessary infrastructure projects, local grassroots opposition, and the families of homesteaders, concluding, appropriately, with the close of another migratory passing of sandhill cranes through the Rowe Sanctuary. The Aldo Leopold Foundation’s website reveals that Pfost has migrated onward, now living in Wisconsin and giving tours at the Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm—a site of resurgent sandhill crane populations some 80 years after Leopold mused about the birds’ potential extinction. Although a migrant in Nebraska, much of Pfost’s writing resonates with my sense of personal connection to ancestors who homesteaded along the Platte and the sandhill cranes’ primordial staging grounds.

When I first read her book in the spring, sandhill cranes were passing through Nebraska in record number. Yet I was stuck in Omaha, the place of my birth, with the cranes’ cacophonous chorus echoing in my memory from past trips to the river.

The Platte may not be visible from my home in urban Omaha, as the river curves south and around the city to meet the Missouri, yet I am always drawn to its presence. It nurtured my maternal ancestors, immigrants from Germany, and it nurtured me on childhood visits to the family farm.

In 2014, I had proposed to my wife after a trip to view the sandhill cranes at the Rowe Sanctuary. Like Pfost, my wife is a newcomer to Nebraska. Sometimes Nebraska can be difficult to appreciate through all four seasons. With the gift of this book, I hope the author’s enthusiasm may be contagious.

 


A version of this review was originally published in the summer 2017 edition of Western American Literature (Vol. 52, No. 2), the journal of the Western Literature Association published by University of Nebraska Press.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. Read author Doreen Pfost’s new essay about sandhill cranes also in the issue: “A Gathering of Water & Cranes: How Sandhill Cranes Unite Residents And Travelers Along Migratory Routes.” 

The Origins of the Nebraska National Guard

May 15, 2017 by
Photography by contributed by Nebraska National Guard

Wanderings of a lame cow set in motion forces that led to the establishment of the Nebraska National Guard.

“It started when President Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, creating the Nebraska Territory and opening the frontier to settlers. That summer, an ill-fated bovine wandered from a Utah-bound Mormon wagon train into a large Sioux camp southeast of Fort Laramie (at the time located within Nebraska Territory, now Wyoming), where it was subsequently killed and eaten by young tribesmen. Demanding the arrest of those responsible, the Mormons reported the incident to Lt. John Grattan, the inexperienced leader of Fort Laramie’s U.S. infantry regiment.

Chief Conquering Bear (Brulé Lakota) refused to surrender the young men who had killed the cow, explaining they had done nothing wrong; the cow had voluntarily entered their camp, and, besides, the supposedly guilty men were visitors belonging to another band of Lakota, the Miniconjou. Grattan’s regiment opened fire and mortally wounded Conquering Bear; however, the infantry proved no match for the Brulé warriors, who completely annihilated the military detachment, killing Grattan and his 29 men. Author Douglas Hartman explains the anecdote in his book, Nebraska’s Militia: The History of the Army and Air National Guard.

The “Grattan Massacre” (aka “the Mormon Cow War”)—and the federal government’s failure to fulfill treaty promises—incited bands of Sioux to continue terrorizing settlers on the Mormon and Oregon trails. To augment federal troops, on Dec. 23, 1854, acting Gov. Thomas Cuming issued a proclamation creating the Nebraska Territorial Militia, which later became the National Guard.

The proclamation recommended “the citizens of the territory organize, in their respective neighborhoods, into volunteer companies,” which were grouped into two regiments: one north of the Platte River and one south. Cuming further instructed, “Companies are not to use force in invading or pursuing hostile tribes, but only in self-defense, and then no longer than necessary.”

Funding did not exist, however, so the early militiamen were expected to provide their own arms and equipment. By spring 1855, the state’s first organized units were formed: the Fontanelle Rifles in the town of Fontanelle, some 40 miles north of Omaha, and the Otoe Rifles in Nebraska City. Nebraska Gov. Mark Izard ordered the Rifles to protect Fontanelle, Elkhorn City, and Tekamah after “the Sioux” killed two area settlers. The Indians were nowhere to be found when the militia arrived, so troops spent the summer catching large-channel catfish from the Elkhorn River while “protecting” settlers. This became known as the “Catfish War,” writes Hartman.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Nebraska militias became more involved in fighting against tribes, since most of the nation’s federal military was consumed by the war, says Jerry Meyer, historian for the Nebraska National Guard. Additionally, two Nebraska volunteer militia units fought for the Union in the Southeast.

When Nebraska achieved statehood March 1, 1867, it joined a nation in transition. With the war over, potential recruits had little interest in joining formal militia units, which the new state couldn’t afford to equip anyway.

Nebraska relied on loosely organized, independent militias until 1881, when legislation reorganized them into the Nebraska National Guard, increasing its role as a peacekeeper during times of civil unrest, settling conflicts with Native American tribes, and deploying the first Nebraska troops internationally for the Spanish-American War.

The Nebraska Militia of 1854-1867 wrote the opening chapters of an ongoing legacy of service to the nation, state, and communities. The tradition continues with today’s modern Nebraska Army and Air National Guard, says Lt. Col. Kevin Hynes, spokesman for the Guard’s Public Affairs office.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, more than 10,000 Nebraska National guardsmen and airmen have supported missions overseas and within the United States. When not on federal active duty, the service members remain in Nebraska, available to local authorities during emergency situations.

The Guard was instrumental in protecting Omaha and other Nebraska communities, for example, during the 2011 Missouri River flood, which threatened Eppley Airfield and OPPD power plants. The summer-long flood closed numerous traffic bridges, making it impossible to cross the river for more than 100 miles between Sioux City and Omaha, and between Omaha and Kansas City. Hynes says guardsmen provided surveillance and bolstered levees, and they also provided security for evacuated homeowners.

Currently, the Nebraska Army National Guard is undergoing its largest force restructuring in 20 years. Affecting about 1,100 Nebraska soldiers–or roughly one in three–the changes are bringing in new military occupational specialties, such as engineering and military police.

The realignment will provide current soldiers and those interested in joining with better opportunities for personal and professional growth, from the time they enlist until the time they retire, without having to travel extensively from their hometown communities.

The Nebraska National Guard Museum, located in Seward, Nebraska, is a prime resource for National Guard history, research, and local entertainment. Visit nengm.org for more information about the museum.

Famous Omaha Guardsmen

Warren Buffett

Long before becoming the “Oracle of Omaha,” he was simply Corporal Buffett, enlisting with the Nebraska Army National Guard in 1951 after graduating from Columbia University. The future Berkshire Hathaway founder served six years as a pay specialist, telling the Prairie Soldier newspaper that his financial background probably had something to do with the assignment. One of about 70 members of the Omaha-based 34th Infantry Division Headquarters Company, Buffett told the newspaper of the Nebraska Army and Air National Guard that his fellow guardsmen were “as good of a group of guys that you could’ve found.”

Andrew Jackson Higgins

Expelled his senior year from Omaha’s Creighton Prep for brawling in the early 1900s, Higgins later was praised by President Dwight Eisenhower as the man who won World War II. He designed and built the “Higgins Boat,” a landing craft that unloaded troops across open beaches instead of at heavily guarded ports. This Allied attack strategy was pivotal to the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Higgins served in the Nebraska Army National Guard, attaining the rank of first lieutenant, and learned about boat building and moving troops over water during militia maneuvers on the Platte River. A historical marker honors him in Columbus, Nebraska.

Visit ne.ng.mil to learn more about the Nebraska National Guard.

This article printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

The Morel of the Story

April 5, 2017 by
Photography by Doug Meigs
Illustration by Mady Besch

Morel-mania usually begins around mid-to-late April. Inconsistent Midwestern weather prevents forecasting the exact start of morel mushroom season year-to-year.

Morel (aka morchella) mushrooms begin to flush en masse when spring rains alternate with patches of sunshine atop warming ground temperatures.

Morels are distinctive and easy to identify, with their porous and sponge-like brownish heads atop tan/white stems. Their caps might also be described as honeycombed and cone-shaped; they come in grey (smaller) and yellow (larger) varieties.

Foodies covet the delicious morsels of fungal delight. Morels are known for a unique nutty flavor. Popular recipes include: battered and deep-fried, scrambled with eggs, used as garnish, or dried for later consumption.

As a general rule, the morel season coincides with the blooming of lilacs. Morels also return to the same place every year—if their mycelium underground remains healthy. That means avid mushroom hunters often keep their favorite spots a secret.

If you see one morel, stop. Slow down and scan the ground. They grow in clusters. Morels hide in the deep woods, near the bases of old-growth trees, overturned trunks, and decomposing vegetation. They pop from grassy areas, near the banks of rivers, and on hillsides.

Along with monitoring lilac bushes, paying attention to the weather forecast helps foragers to prepare for morel season. Be ready for periods of sudden downpours of rain combined with warm daytime temperatures (70 degrees or more) and nights that linger above 40 degrees for at least four days in a row.

If you anticipate a sunny day following a torrential spring downpour, get ready. Put on your rain jacket, and rush to your favorite mushrooming spot as soon as the rains lift.

Grab some good mud boots (or old sneakers), and make sure you have a mesh bag that allows the mushrooms’ spores to escape and spread. Local outdoors shops sell mesh bags for morels. Onion or potato sacks from the grocery store also work well.

If you’ve never been mushroom hunting, it’s time to start begging friends to show you how. Or, do a little research and go explore any publicly accessible backwoods along local rivers.

There are several popular local destinations for morel hunters. But any densely vegetated public land (with plenty of overturned trees) along the Missouri River or Platte River could yield a plentiful haul of morels. That is, if the area hasn’t been picked over already.

The website morels.com hosts a useful and interesting Nebraska forum. Other useful resources can be found at thegreatmorel.com, morelhunters.com, and the “Nebraska Morels” Facebook group.

Beware of gun-toting hunters in the woods. Morel season corresponds with the spring turkey hunting season. Also, avoid trespassing. Common courtesy (and the law) necessitates seeking permission to hunt for mushrooms on private property.

Remember that wild mushrooms can be deadly. Only pick and cook mushrooms you can identify with complete confidence. Search online for “false morels” and make sure you can tell the difference. False morels are poisonous.

In 2016, the website of Nebraska Game and Parks maintained weekly morel reports from April 13 through May 11. The Game and Parks website also provides tips for locating morels, and even suggests a few popular mushroom hunting grounds.

Proactive scouting is a good strategy—if only to monitor the human traffic in the woods. The morel season around Omaha usually only lasts from two to four weeks, depending on weather conditions. Sometimes the peak of the season takes place in May.

Evidence of over-picked stems and decaying mushrooms indicate that the morel season is well progressed.

Remember: if you share a mushroom hunting spot with a “friend,” there is a very good chance they will tell someone else. Then, all those other folks might just go pick all the morels while you’re stuck at work, in school, or caught in some other less fulfilling endeavor.

Heed the moral of this morel story. When the lilacs bloom, somebody is probably picking over your favorite morel grounds. So, if you’ve got a good spot, consider keeping it a secret.

Visit outdoornebraska.gov/morel for more information.

Morel Mushroom Hunting Sites

Suggested by Nebraska Game and Parks:

Public areas near rivers:

  • Eugene T. Mahoney State Park
  • Indian Cave State Park
  • Louisville State Recreation Area
  • Platte River State Park
  • Schramm Park State Recreation Area
  • Two Rivers State Recreation Area

Old-growth forests and creeks at:

  • Branched Oak State Recreation Area
  • Burchard Wildlife Management Area
  • Grove Lake Wildlife Management Area
  • Pawnee Lake State Recreation Area
  • Twin Lakes Wildlife Management Area
  • Yellow Banks Wildlife Management Area

 

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Nebraska’s Capital

January 25, 2017 by
Photography by Contributed

When Nebraska achieved statehood on March 1, 1867, it was the turning point in a 12-year-long, bitter, and sometimes violent struggle to move the capital from Omaha to…well, anywhere except Omaha.

“Divisiveness festered the moment Congress organized the Nebraska Territory on May 30, 1854. The first territorial governor, Francis Burt, arrived in October to determine the capital’s location. In ill health, Burt was besieged by “every influential man in the territory”—especially those with large landholdings in fledgling towns near the Missouri River. Though Burt appeared to favor Bellevue, a more established settlement predating Omaha, he died just 10 days later and “sought in the grave that repose which it was evident he could never find in Nebraska,” according to James Savage and John Bell in their 1894 book, History of Omaha.

“Our pioneer urban developers knew getting the seat of government would help drive their community’s economy. There was no tax base, and they needed all the federal money they could get,” says Harl Dalstrom, retired history professor, University of Nebraska at Omaha. “Even today we may complain about federal spending, but it becomes legitimate and welcome when the dollars come our way.”

The battle for the capital took shape on both sides of the Platte River, a geographical barrier for people north and south of it, and a political dividing line. The Kansas-Nebraska Act that created the Nebraska Territory also focused on slavery’s expansion. The act would destroy Democratic unity in 1860; it split the U.S. into two political parties, with Republicans primarily in the north and Democrats in the south.

Using the Platte as a line of demarcation, Thomas Cuming, territorial secretary and acting governor, divided the Nebraska Territory into eight counties: four north and four south of the river. Although a census showed more people lived south of the Platte, Cuming announced the first legislative session would convene in Omaha.

capital

A rising young Iowa Democrat, Cuming undoubtedly was influenced by his ties to Council Bluffs and his landholdings in Omaha. “Both cities were interdependent as the West expanded. It’s unlikely Omaha would have existed without its ties to Council Bluffs,” says Dalstrom. The Council Bluffs and Nebraska Ferry Co. supported Cuming’s decision, offering its meeting house on Ninth Street between Farnam and Douglas streets for the session beginning Jan. 16, 1855.

Rancor soon was apparent, with delegates from Bellevue and south of the Platte arriving dressed as Indians, wearing red blankets “to indicate their ‘savage’ intentions toward Cuming,” according to Upstream: An Urban Biography of Metropolis Omaha & Council Bluffs, co-authored by Lawrence Larsen, Barbara Cottrell, and Harl and Kay Calame Dalstrom.

Cuming ignored the blanketed delegates. A.J. Hanscom, unofficial leader of the Omaha delegation, was elected Speaker of the House, supported by his friend, Andrew Jackson Poppleton, a master of debate and parliamentary skill. Buoyed by rich Omahans who bribed delegates with money, land, and promises, the two led a joint resolution on Feb. 22, 1855, naming Omaha the capital, with the ferry company’s meeting house becoming the first capitol building.

The second territorial capitol was built in 1857 on the site of today’s Central High School at 20th and Dodge streets. Scarcely had the mortar set when Omaha’s adversaries introduced a bill in January 1858 that would move the capital to a new, non-existent town. Omaha did not have enough votes to stop it, so Hanscom and Poppleton began a carefully orchestrated showdown using parliamentary procedure, writes David Bristow in A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of 19th Century Omaha.

Through a technicality, Poppleton succeeded in getting Nebraska City’s James Decker, the new House Speaker and an Omaha foe, out of the speaker’s chair, and temporarily replaced him with J. Sterling Morton, an Omaha ally. Intending to filibuster until time ran out on the session’s remaining eight days, the Omaha contingent drew the wrath of Decker, who vowed to regain the chair “or die trying.”

Decker attempted to pry the gavel from the chair’s occupant, then tried to tip him out. Hanscom engaged Decker in a tug-of-war, igniting a brawl with bloody noses and black eyes too numerous to mention, writes Bristow. On the following morning, the anti-Omaha crowd adjourned to Florence (then its own city) and carried a motion to move the legislature there. However, Acting Governor Cuming refused to recognize the Florence legislature, supported by incoming Gov. William Richardson.

The struggle to relocate the capital continued year after year until December 1866, when the U.S. Congress passed a resolution naming Nebraska as the country’s 37th state, effective March 1, 1867. President Andrew Johnson opposed the statehood and vetoed the bill. But Congress overrode it, the only time in U.S. history that a statehood bill became law over a presidential veto, writes Tammy Partsch in It Happened in Nebraska: Remarkable Events that Shaped History.

To placate those south of the Platte River who were considering annexation to Kansas, the legislature voted to place the capital city in Lancaster County. Prior to the vote, Omaha Sen. J.N.H. Patrick attempted to thwart the move by naming the future capital city after recently assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. It was assumed Democrats would not support a capital named after the Republican president, but the Removal Act successfully passed in May 1867.

Gov. David Butler and others toured sites and, by September, had zeroed in on the village of Lancaster, renaming it Lincoln. The state capitol building was completed Dec. 1, 1868, but despite the intervening months, nothing had been done in Omaha to prepare for the move. Many officials, including Butler, didn’t believe Omaha’s citizens would let the capital go.

So, during an evening snowstorm in late December 1868, men surreptitiously entered the Omaha capitol and cleared it of all documents, deeds, and certificates related to the governance of Nebraska, writes Partsch. By midnight the men and pack horses departed, spiriting the documents to Lincoln’s new capitol building, where the Nebraska Legislature would meet within a month. Like the history preceding it, the change was made under a cloud of politics and controversy.

Visit nebraskahistory.org for more information.

Where Family and Friends Gather

July 31, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Standard windows just will not do for Ed and Diane Foral. Their home’s view demands to let the outside in. 

Nestled on quiet Cottonwood Lane, which wraps around Villa Springs in Springfield, their south-facing home features a wide view of the Platte River designed to draw you outdoors. “We love the house so much because of all the windows,” says Diane.

Forals2Upon entering the couple’s home, guests’ first impression is impactful: An 18-foot tall wall of windows in a barreled ceiling room offers the initial view at the river. It is breathtaking.

That view is all part of the Forals’ thoughtful design that reflects where the couple is in life. They knew it would be their last custom-built home. Things had to be ideal, and the home had to suit their needs.

They had lived in Villa Springs for more than two decades, and they were not about to move from the lake community. Instead, they found a lot near the quiet piers of the lake.

Settling on a ranch-like blueprint with zero step entry, the Forals built on their own schedule. It is the third home they’ve built themselves, and they knew what they wanted: from the geothermal heat pumps, to walnut woodwork throughout, to the cabinets.

They also wanted an easily accessible living space, so the comfortable master bedroom is just steps from the front door. The master bathroom has heated tile floors and a walk-in shower, whirlpool, and walk-in closet.

Forals1Design changes were made to suit their life now—their kids no longer live at home so they didn’t need as many bedrooms upstairs. What they needed was more room for entertaining during the holidays. On the first floor, the majority of space was already perfectly designed for hosting parties. One part of the first floor that did change was a winding stairwell that blocked the view of the river. That was moved to the side.

Diane and Ed’s grown children, and their families, return for the holidays. On the ground floor, the kitchen—spacious with an island that invites gathering around—is a natural entertaining space. The servery between the kitchen and entry room invites people to linger, too; the bar area has a rustic winery feel to it.

The Forals designed two more spaces for their friends and family: the home’s second floor—with a rec room, playroom, and guest bedroom—and the detached three-car garage. The rec room was originally two bedrooms, but the Forals knocked down the dividing wall and put in a wet bar and home theater seating. The playroom’s movie theme is regularly used to entertain a younger set of guests: the Forals’ five grandchildren.

Forals4The heated garage is what Diane describes as a “bar-like” setting complete with an 80-inch TV and a full kitchen with a fryer, smoker, and charbroiler. With all the space, the house easily accommodates dozens, even up to a hundred, as they found with a family reunion last year. Just lift the garage door, Ed points out, and the party can spread out more.

Between the view and the inviting space for guests, it is no wonder their son’s wedding was held there. This home is where family and friends gather. OmahaHome

Villa Springs

July 29, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Drive about three miles south of Springfield, Nebraska, and you’ll find Villa Springs on the north shore of the Platte River, a private neighborhood more or less enclosed by a ring of cottonwood trees. If you drive around the neighborhood, you’ll find all manner of houses in an eclectic mix of colors, styles, and designs.

Many of the houses do feature one thing in common: boats in the driveways.

That is because Villa Springs is a lake community, sitting on the banks of a sandpit lake.

“It’s about a 40-acre lake, good for skiing, swimming, fishing,” says Gary Partusch, 50, president of the Villa Springs Homeowners Association.

Villa-Springs1

Partusch, who is married with four kids and works for a dairy company in Omaha, has lived in the neighborhood since 2001. The property lots, ranging in size from about a half acre to two acres in size, are spread out, making Villa Springs unique for a lake community.

“It makes it very nice to be spread out [and] have room,” he says. “More yard to mow, more stuff like that.”

The average house in the neighborhood costs about $300,000-$500,000. There are 90 homeowners on the lake, Partusch says, and they are a mixed group. Some are older people who are retired and spend their winters in warmer climates, while others are younger.

“People are very friendly, very nice,” he says. “[You] take walks and boat rides and see people on the lake and talk. It’s a good living community.”

The neighborhood has an annual picnic as well as a Christmas party. There’s also a spring cleanup in which all the neighbors pitch in to help keep the lake beautiful. Many people enjoy fishing, and last year, the community held a fishing tournament. The lake contains a great deal of fish, including large-mouth bass, bluegill, walleye, and catfish.

“We stock it with fish,” Partusch says, most of which are catch-and-release. “We take pride in having a good fishing lake.”

One can also find a great many birds in the neighborhood—turkeys, ducks, bald eagles, and migrating pelicans. A few families of geese with new babies are making their home there currently. There’s also some deer and a beaver in the lake. 

I got three walnut trees,” Partusch says. “I see lots of squirrels.”

In many ways, though, Partusch says, Villa Springs is a regular sort of neighborhood.

“People have difference of opinions,” he says. “It’s hard to have 85…people, different families, agree on everything.

“I think that’s with any community.”

Like any other community, it has its share of garden-variety neighborly disputes; though, true to character, some of the neighborhood’s disputes revolve around how to make the best use of the lake.

“There’s a group of people who…couldn’t care less about fishing,” Partusch says. “And there’s a group of people who love to fish. And then there’s also people [who]…want to waterski or swim or tube or whatever. And there’s some other people that don’t even own a boat.”

The lake adds value to the community, and at the same time, each homeowner feels some personal ownership in regard to it. However, he says, the neighborhood mostly manages to accommodate everyone’s wishes.

“I think we have a pretty good balance.”

The most surprising thing about living here, Partusch says, is how quiet and peaceful it is.

“The quietness of being out of the city,” he says. “You can sit there on a Sunday afternoon and just sit out on the lake.”

Villa-Springs2

Indeed, that is the big impression one gets when driving down Cottonwood Lane, the blacktop road that circles the lake. There are people out and about on a Saturday afternoon, but generally the area is pretty quiet. More than anything, drivers want to appreciate just how nice everything looks. The neighborhood boasts a robust number of cottonwood, elm, and ash trees due to its proximity to the river, making the scene shine with green and gold, especially when the sun peaks out. There are several spots along the road where people can stop, look to one side, and catch a view of the Platte River through the tree line. On the other side is the lake, the wind rippling on its surface.

“I really think it’s a really great place to live,” Partusch says. “I really have no intentions of going anywhere.”

Visit villaspringslake.com for more information.

Obviously Omaha

June 29, 2016 by
Bohemian Cafe

Bohemian Cafe

Outdoor Adventure Center

Outdoor Adventure Center

Farmers' Markets

Farmers’ Markets

Alpine Inn

Alpine Inn

Farnam House Brewing Company

Farnam House Brewing Company

Omaha's Original Greek Festival

Omaha’s Original Greek Festival

APPRECIATE
Omaha’s Czech community will lose a cornerstone of culinary heritage with the shuttering of the Bohemian Cafe (1406 S. 13th St.) scheduled for September. Enjoy dining on their signature plum dumplings, svickova, goulash, hasenpfeffer, and kolaches while you still can. Closure of the south Omaha staple is the latest in a trend affecting many of the city’s most historic restaurants.

PADDLE
Escape the sweltering heat by river. The University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Outdoor Venture Center (OVC) offers affordable canoe, kayak, and stand-up paddle board rentals. Paddling from Schramm Park to Louisville State Recreation Areas is a mild 5.6-mile trip that takes roughly 2.5 hours on the Platte River. The OVC also rents camping equipment for those heading to the Niobrara River or other far-off destinations.

FORAGE
Summer is the season for farmers’ markets. Support local agriculture and artisanal vendors all across the metro area: Saturdays in the Old Market, Benson, Village Point, and Bellevue; Sundays at The Florence Mill and in Aksarben Village; Wednesdays at Charles Drew Health Center Market in North Omaha, and in Papillion; Thursdays on Council Bluffs’ Main Street; and Saturdays and Wednesdays in Plattsmouth.

GO WILD
The Alpine Inn feeds deep-fried dinner scraps to wild raccoons once daily outside their restaurant, 10405 Calhoun Rd. The feeding frenzy is not set by clock time; rather, the feast begins once customers’ leftovers fill a 5-gallon bucket. Raccoons linger impatiently opposite a large glass windows before and after evening meals.

DRINK

Farnam House Brewing Company’s Bière de Garde won a silver medal at the 2016 World Beer Cup in May. The once-every-two-years event—billed as “the most prestigious beer competition in the world”—featured 6,596 beers from 1,907 breweries and 55 countries. The only other Nebraska brewery to medal was Lincoln’s Ploughshare Brewing Co. Bière de Garde means “beer for keeping” in French, and Farnam House keeps the farmhouse-style ale on tap year-round.

CELEBRATE
Remember to say, “Opa!” and head to St. John’s Greek Orthodox Church (St. Mary Ave. & Park Avenue) for Omaha’s Original Greek Festival on August 19-21. Authentic Greek music, culture, food, and alcohol await. Adult entry costs $3, and the event is free for children under age 12, students, military, police and fire department staff.

Rediscovering the Platte

September 3, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann & Doug Meigs

Three hundred years after Europeans first documented the Platte River, I push a canoe into the current and head downstream. The two-day excursion takes us back in time to a French explorer’s arrival.

We depart from Two Rivers State Park near Waterloo. The Platte is high and rising, due to flooding on the Elkhorn. Floating logs and debris rush past. The foamy water surface resembles a road of chocolate milk, draining the riparian woodlands of eastern Nebraska.

Huge cottonwoods and willows stand sentry along the Platte’s swollen banks. Leafy branches stretch high into a clear blue sky. A steady south wind blows 30 mph against the current, shaking the shoreline’s long green wall.

Storms filled the weekly weather forecast. Rains would continue every day, except for a sweltering two-day window during midweek. We set out on a Tuesday. The tri-centennial of Bourgmont’s arrival at the mouth of the Platte—the day prior—had just passed with little fanfare.

Étienne de Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont led a small French expedition to map the uncharted Missouri River and establish friendly trading relations with Native tribes along the waterway. His journey was part redemption. He had deserted his military post at Fort Pontchartrain in Detroit, and had allegedly eloped with a fellow officer’s wife for a life in the wilderness. The Governor of Louisiana, Sieur de Cadillac (for whom the car takes its name) offered to pardon Bourgmont in exchange for assistance. The 35-year-old voyageur from Normandy accepted 

Cadillac’s challenge.

Bourgmont came as far as the Platte. His round-trip journey upstream from the Mississippi River took half the year. Our present-day canoe trip is far less arduous. This is an expedition of rediscovery.

I grew up in Omaha. My great-grandparents farmed along the Platte. As a kid, I spent countless summers playing on the river’s shifting sandbars. Yet, never before had I visited the mouth of the Platte. The river remains essential to all life in Nebraska. But its significance for many local residents has shrunken to a roadside landmark. For many, it simply demarcates the halfway point between Omaha and Lincoln on I-80.

Today, the Platte offers some of Omaha’s most convenient nature destinations. Parts of the river feel almost pristine (except when pesky airboats spoil the ambiance with their jet-engine roars). Nearby Platte parks include Two Rivers, Mahoney, Schramm, Platte River State Park, Louisville State Recreation Area, Schilling Wildlife Management Area, and more.

As I paddle into the wind, trying to maintain course in the main channel, I wonder how anyone could have navigated upstream. Then my mind wanders, tangled in the drifting scenery.

A bald eagle takes flight from a nearby branch, circling overhead. A spotted fawn startles back into the shadowy woods. Two beavers stampede from the underbrush, kerplunking underwater like a couple of cannonballs.

Civilization is nowhere to be seen until an hour after Two Rivers. Then a lone camper trailer appears on the far shore. A few more hours pass. Bridges emerges on the horizon. Eventually we paddle underneath. A feathered spectacle appears.

Swallows flutter from hundreds of mud nests. Their homes hang on inaccessible sides of the bridge. The birds bring a smile to our faces. Then we remember. Our final destination—Bourgmont’s arrival point—still requires more than a day of paddling.

When he arrived at the mouth of the Platte, Bourgmont met the Otoe tribe living along the river’s confluence with the Missouri. The Frenchman asked what they called the river. Nibraskier, they replied in the Otoe language, “Flat Water.”

“This is the first recorded mention of the name that was to become attached to the state,” says Harlan Seyfer, the town historian of Plattsmouth.

Seyfer has researched Bourgmont since 2010, when he accepted his non-paying historian position at Plattsmouth city hall. Seyfer realized that the 300th anniversary was approaching, so he wrote two academic papers for the Missouri Valley Historical Conference, and he began planning a weekend celebration for the milestone with fellow history buffs.

Bourgmont wrote in his navigation logs: “Saturday 16 (June, 1714) travelled north one league; at the start an island of half a league; to the west a prairie of one league, at the end of which the river of the Pawnee (the Platte River) is found. Its mouth is wider than the Missouri at that point. About 30 leagues up this river are 10 villages of the Indians called the Pawnees.”

The Platte’s nom du jour entered usage only after a subsequent French expedition. “It wasn’t until 1739 that the Platte got its current name (La Rivière Platte, or simply, the Platte),” Seyfer says. “The Mallet brothers—Paul and Pierre—met the same Otoe Indians, and asked for the name of the river. The Otoe again said Nibraskier. Well, what does that mean? The Mallet brothers, being French, translated “Flat” into Platte.”

Nibraskier didn’t merely translate into the Platte River. The waterway has literally and geographically defined the state. Its braided channels and twisting sandbars originate in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming and Colorado, and extend across Nebraska via the North and South Platte rivers. The two branches converge at North Platte and continue downstream through their aptly named river valley. All of Nebraska’s interstate traffic travels the same corridor, hence the state’s undeserved reputation for pancake-like topography.

Around Omaha, the river frames the western and southern boundaries of the metropolitan area. When the Platte cuts south, it slices off some of Omaha’s biggest street names. Maple, Dodge, Pacific, and Center halt in the river’s buffer woodlands, levees, and trailer parks. Past the I-80 bridge, the river curves again before emptying into the Missouri near Plattsmouth. Ultimately, Nebraska and Nibraskier both end at the mouth of the Platte.

Back in the 18th Century, Seyfer says the mouth of the Platte would have stretched for a mile and a half. The Missouri River was likewise much wider (by a multiple of four) and much slower (before modern channelization). “We’ve tamed things down considerably,” he says.

Bourgmont observed huge buffalo herds in the area. But they vanished long ago. Gold Rushers, Mormons, and pioneers would use the river for westward navigation. Nebraska towns (including Omaha) built wells to siphon the river. Nebraska corn farmers remain dependent on the Platte for irrigation. Damming the river in Colorado and Wyoming, and at Lake McConaughy in Nebraska, has further stymied the river’s natural flow.

Meanwhile, the Platte has sunken flatter and lower. Segments of the river sometimes go completely dry. “We love the Platte so much, we’re loving it to death,” says Gene Zuerlein, a planning administrator for Nebraska Game and Parks.

Zuerlein says that Nebraska is currently working with Wyoming and Colorado to raise the Platte’s flow to avoid periods when the river runs completely dry in central Nebraska.

The Platte is changing always. During summertime, it dries to a sandy ribbon stretching the entirety of Nebraska. But spring snowmelt and storms transform the waterway into a gushing torrent.

During our trip, the river is unusually high. We skirt along levees made from giant tractor tires and piles of broken concrete. We pass dense underbrush and sunken trees. The gnarled roots of giant cottonwoods, caught on some hidden obstruction, protrude from the water like bony, white claws.

Logjams clog underneath bridges, forming white-water chutes. Our canoe snags at one especially blocked bridge span near Platte River State Park. But we escape without harm.

After eight hours of paddling into the wind, we reach the Louisville SRA. The one-day route might take anywhere from 6-12 hours depending on river conditions.

We unpack the canoe and pitch camp as the sun dips below the flat-water horizon with a tangerine blaze. The park superintendent, Patrick Bogenreif, stops by on his evening inspection. He offers a ride to the main office to pay for the campsite.

Bogenreif has been canoeing the Platte ever since his days studying animal science and agronomy at UNL. His friends would rent canoes and float to Louisville from Two Rivers. Then he bought his own canoe, and he’s still using it.

“Just last week, I took my grandson out in the old canoe,” he says, from behind the steering wheel of his pickup. “The river was down to about 3.5 feet, and we had to work hard paddling to find a channel deep enough.”

Today, the river has surpassed six feet. The Platte is even higher downstream, Bogenreif says, warning us that the flooding Missouri has submerged boat ramps near the mouth of the Platte. By the weekend, the river depth at Louisville would rise above eight feet, its highest level since the 2011 Missouri flood.

“From ice out until mid-April, the Platte can be too high to canoe today and fine tomorrow; just make sure to check the river level (at the National Weather Service website) and you’ll be fine,” he says. “When the river is below five feet, it’s very safe. Wear a life jacket, and make sure your kids wear a life jacket. However, when it gets above five feet, you’d better be experienced.”

Back at camp, we cook dinner on a propane stove. Fireflies blink across the darkening shadows. Soon, our bodies crash into a deep slumber.

Aching arms and clear skies soon greet us. Fluffy cottonwood seeds float through the park like fairy dust. We reload our canoe and push back on course. Only four hours remain until the final destination.

Splash! A creature jumps from the water. A ten-pound carp hits me in the shoulder. Then it disappears. For a moment, I don’t know what happened. Then the scaly surprise repeats. Large fish are jumping at us, into the canoe, bouncing out, flipping and flopping. Asian Carp.

The invasive species has spread up the Missouri and into the Lower Platte. We had startled one Asian Carp on our first day of canoeing. We see more than a dozen during the second day, as we try to keep our course close to the right/south bank in preparation for exiting at the Schilling Wildlife Management Area.

After the Highway 75 bridge, the Platte grows rough, back-feeding. White-capped waves increase in frequency. We crowd the shore and travel slowly, searching anxiously for an exit. Then we spot a flooded trail. We squeeze around the leafy tops of sunken trees. I pull the canoe ashore right at the mouth of the Platte.

Three hundred years ago, Bourgmont lingered around the mouth of the Platte to gather information about the different area tribes. Then he went back down the Missouri. He was rewarded with a grand title, “Commandant of the Missouri River.” He did some further adventuring in the Midwest, exploring Kansas, before retiring with an estate in his French homeland.

I wave to a passing vehicle. He stops and gets out, unable to believe we just canoed down the river. “The water is over 15-feet-high right now,” he says. “Yesterday, I called in a search-and-rescue for a fishing boat on the far shore.”

Uprooted tree trunks are zipping downstream just 100 yards ahead on the Missouri River. The buoys and signs that normally identify the approaching Missouri are all underwater. The fisherman points to an especially massive tree floating past. “If you had gotten onto the Missouri right now in that canoe, you would’ve been screwed,” he says.

The passerby is an avid fisherman scouting his favorite catfishing spots. Like most Nebraskans, this is the first time he’s heard of Bourgmont.

Bourgmont’s navigational logs eventually headed to Paris, where a cartographer transferred them into maps by hand. The maps were never published. Instead, they landed in the French national archives, where Plattsmouth historian Harlan Seyfer says they were lost until 1969.

Settled safely upon dry land, I reconnect to the modern era. I turn on my smartphone. I snap a screenshot of our Google Maps location. I send it to the person en route who will give us a ride home.

A mere 30 minutes on the road take us back where we started. After two days on the Platte, we carry a greater appreciation for 300 years along the river, the Nibraskier, the Cornhusker State’s flat-water namesake.

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