Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Trip to Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge Evokes Sand Hills Memories

The Niobrara River. All photos by Alan or Lori Kehr
By Alan Kehr
In May, we got to visit the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge near Valentine, NE. After a short drive through the prairie dog town and the pasture lands we were able to hike down into the Niobrara River valley. It brought to mind the first time I’d been there as a child.
We lived 30 miles west on a hill a mile outside Nenzel in the midst of the Sand Hills, which are huge dunes covered with a thin veneer of grass. They’re a few rain drops sideways from an official desert, made habitable by the Ogallala Aquifer.  If a break in the grass develops, the wind carries away the sand below to create a blowout — a place of play for young boys.
We couldn’t build sandcastles, because the sand in the blowouts was as dry and sere as Frank Herbert’s Dune world, but reengineered by us to a world of massive construction projects, or battles between knights of old, or WWII gyrenes, or more commonly between cowboys and Indians fueled by the movies of the day – blood-thirsty savages trying to steal the land from bona fide owners by right of European heritage. Our earth moving equipment – shingles and a kitchen spoon – transformed the flat bottom into contoured hills and battle grounds. Firecrackers from the 4th of July celebration at Grandma’s supplied our demolition requirements. Our minions were twigs and the battalions pieces of wood scavenged from a remodeling job.
The landscape we devised in the sandy blowouts was most similar to the Middle East, but sectarian violence was unknown to us and our understanding of Arab culture based
on Three Wise Men from the East – probably even beyond Omaha.
On other days, my brother, Garry, and I played two man baseball with a ball battered to the firmness of cotton candy and covered with soft leather partially held in place with a few remaining stitches. One pitched and the other hit. Homeruns were frequent because they consisted of a run to first base and back before the pitcher fielded the ball and tagged the runner.
Days were hot with the smell of dry hay, and, if the wind was in the right direction, a hint of desiccated barn yard. Many days, it carried sand with the taste and feel of grit between the teeth.
Nights were cool and dawn was best with a slight breeze and the song of nearby meadowlarks standing on fence posts. Dew on the grass brought the smell of moisture to the desert air, full and fresh. The clear sky had a slight red tint. The future was bright and the prospects for adventure boundless.
Highlights of the summer were trips to the Niobrara River, 11 miles south of Nenzel in a valley filled with verdant pine and cedar and a narrow stream with a current swift and sure, so filled with sand that a submerged hand disappeared as absolutely as in the black of night. A few minutes in that current was enough to remove the grime of hard-playing boys all the way to spotless fingernails.
Fall was a magic time in the valley of the Niobrara. We would descend with aunts, a horde of cousins, buckets, and pails. We filled them with wild plums, currents, choke cherries, and grapes. Back home we crushed the fruit, strained the juices, and Mom made the jams and jellies to sustain us through the winter, transforming her daily fresh baked bread from a wondrous delight into sheer heaven.
One year, Dad reserved part of the wild-grape juice to make wine. He fermented it in the large crock Mom used to make laundry soap from lye and the fat rendered from the slaughtered fall pig. Precleaning must have been an effort.
In later years, Mom said that the wine had a high alcohol content. Dad was the drinker in the family, buying an annual bottle of whiskey for New Year’s Eve and, with the help of neighborly card playing visits during long winter evenings, finishing it off in time for the following New Year’s celebration.
According to her story, a few months after the fermentation had started, she decided to see if the wine was ready and pulled a small glass, which she deemed satisfactory. Unfortunately, the priest made a visit that morning – a very rare and unexpected occurrence – and she believed that he caught her in a state of inebriation. Not one to keep good gossip to himself, I suspect that her worries were unfounded because I never
heard the story from another soul.
But then, our story has drifted afar from the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, hasn’t it?
The Visitor’s Center has been modernized and the ranger we talked with was delightful and full of information. The prairie dogs were active with the babies running around, but sticking close to mom. With all the recent rain, the river was full and moving fast. Flowers were abundant and the forest smelled of spring with sunbeams drifting through the leaves and lighting the path.
Afterward, we drove back into Valentine and had an Americano for me and a latte for Lori, the smell of fresh coffee good enough to bring tears to the eyes and strong enough to propel us on to our next stop in South Dakota – I don’t think that coffee was available in my youth.

Alan spent his early years in Nenzel, graduated from North Platte, received a degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and now lives in Austin, Texas.

Fort Niobrara NWR is located about fives miles east of Highway 83 at Valentine, Nebraska, on U.S. Highway 12. A visitor center, with displays and exhibits, a bookstore is open 8:00 am – 4:30 pm daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and Monday through Friday during the rest of the year (except for Federal holidays). 

For more on what to see along Highway 83, read The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, by Stew Magnuson, available at, bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83. And The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a)

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