I don't usually canoe with bison, but I don't usually canoe in Nebraska.
Canoeing and Nebraska may bring to mind images of portaging through cornfields past cows and combines. This isn't canoeing down on the farm, however, but a trip through the Nebraska Sandhills on the Niobrara River. Here in north-central Nebraska lies one of the most biologically diverse areas in the entire country. The Niobrara, or"Running Water" as it was known to the native Sioux, snakes its way from eastern Wyoming into northwestern Nebraska, running for 300 miles into the namesake village of Niobrara where it empties into the Missouri River. Here east meets west in a series of landscapes that form a singular mosaic.
Discovering the Niobrara
The Niobrara River valley has long been a fertile one and the surrounding Sandhills were once home to more than 20 prehistoric mammals. Among these, skeletal remains of long-jawed mastodons, giant bison, and three-toed horses have been unearthed at the Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge. These animals were succeeded by vast numbers of plains bison, elk, pronghorn, as well as grizzly bear. With the opening of the frontier and westward expansion the bison were almost decimated and in 1912, a Nebraskan named J. W. Gilbert offered six buffalo and seventeen elk to the federal government if land could be found to house them. The lands in and around old Fort Niobrara, built originally to protect homesteaders, were chosen to house Gilbert's animals and would become part of the refuge that exists today. In 1936, a herd of Texas longhorn cattle was also established on the refuge and its descendants continue to graze the grounds today.
Making the Trip
In 1991, a 76-mile stretch of the Niobrara was designated as a National Scenic River in recognition of a Great Plains river rich in biological diversity. Of these 76 miles, a route from Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge to the area before Norden Bridge offers paddlers a mostly uninterrupted trip of just over 30 miles. Longer trips are possible but require either numerous portages or hazarding low water.
Starting at the 19,000-plus-acre Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge gives paddlers a chance to start in relatively calm water before the typically swift currents of the Niobrara pull them along. It also provides for excellent wildlife-viewing opportunities. The river flows through the refuge framed by high cliff walls, rolling prairie, and scattered groups of bison, elk, deer, and longhorn cattle.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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