Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sand Hills

We crossed central Nebraska on Rt. 2, the Sand Hills Scenic Byway. The Sand Hills start just outside Grand Island and run for the next 272 miles. We're not going to traverse the whole distance. At 19,000 square miles this is the largest dune field in the western hemisphere. Trees only exist around ranch buildings, towns and river bottoms. High hills roll to the horizon in every direction. Stabilized by prairie grass, it's open range cattle country. We're headed to Valentine on the northern edge of the Sand Hills. Half way across we turn north, then drive most of the way to South Dakota. As we near our destination a big sign announces: “Cherry County, God's Own Cow Country.”

Valentine is the county seat of Cherry County, a town of about 2800. Its main street is mostly lined with small businesses catering to the ranching community. There's a big cattle auction every Thursday. A giant western wear store featuring clothing, boots, a full service tack shop, and boot rebuilding holds down the west side of Main Street. The First National Bank has a stunning carved brick mural of a longhorn cattle drive running the length of the building. They have a mounted longhorn head in the lobby. There are a handful of motels and some river outfitters on the edge of town but no big box stores of any kind. We pull up to the BunkHouse Restaurant and Lounge at the corner of Rt. 20 and Main St. for lunch. Cowboy hats are the norm for men. As we check out, “Uncle Joe” at the cash register does a few truly amazing card tricks for us with a deck from the nearby Rosebud Indian casino.

We drive along the north side of the river 18 miles to Sparks, population 3, where we are staying at the Heartland Elk Guest Ranch. They raise a herd of elk to stock their private hunting operation. Next to the main house is a pasture with five big bull elk. A larger pasture nearby holds about 100 cow elk and calves. Our cabin is across the road in a open Ponderosa pine grove at the edge of a steep canyon. We're high on the north side of the Niobrara valley. Through the trees a panorama of the sand hills glows in the south.

We were originally drawn to this place by the striking descriptions in the book Old Jules by Mari Sandoz. This book vividly describes her father and the pioneering life in the Sand Hills in the later nineteenth century. Merry stopped to see this area on her return from a trip to Utah a few years ago and was captured by the landscape and the beauty of the Niobrara River. We've planed a return trip here ever since.

In front of our cabin the land drops off steeply into rough country cut by small streams that lead eventually to the Niobrara. This land is fenced for pasture but seems little used. As a result it is a haven for wildlife and birds. Only minutes into her first walk Joli scares up three mule deer that bound away as if on springs, all four feet off the ground. We see small herds of both mule deer and whitetails every day. This is the furthest west for many eastern species and the furthest east for many western species.

Toward dusk our first day Merry gestures me to the cabin door to show me a Great Horned Owl sitting on the ground only a few feet away. Because of its ears and coloring it looks a bit like a large cat.

Just as it's getting light, Joli insists she needs to go out for a third time and will not take no for an answer. As we step off the porch I look up to see we are surrounded by horses. We step back onto the porch. Joli is awestruck as one of the horses comes right up to the porch and sniffs her. They are calm and curious. I wake Merry so she can see. The horses graze slowly away. Merry goes to the ranch house and is told the horses have been turned out to cut the grass around the cabins.

The spring fed Niobrara is managed by the National Park Service as a National Scenic River. During the weekends of the summer season hundreds of canoes and tubes float the section of the river from Valentine to Rocky Ford each day. Brenda, who manages the cabins, cooks for the elk hunters and drives the canoe shuttle van, meets us at 10 am. We are on the river by 10:30. No one else is at the launch at Berry Bridge; we see no one else on the river. The day warms into the low 60s. Clear green water rushes us along. We get into a paddling rhythm that allows us to avoid the rocks and sandbars and gives Merry time to take photographs. High bluffs of cream colored stone rise alternatively on our right and left. Sunshine lights multi-colored grasses and the remaining leaves of a few deciduous trees. We stop at Smith Falls, about half way along our trip, to see the highest waterfall in Nebraska. Too soon we're at the takeout at Brewer Bridge, feet damp, a bit tired but elated.

On Saturday we wake to about half an inch of snow on the ground. We pack the car and bid adieu to our eight horse friends. Then it's off on the two day trip across most of Nebraska, the western edge of Iowa and all of Missouri back to St. Louis.

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