I was at the Niobrara Valley Preserve for two different events last week. The first was a fantastic two day meeting/tour with university scientists that defined the likely focus of our primary research effort over the next several years. The second was much more impactful – I spent two days with my 17 year old son. We didn’t have much of an agenda for the two days, other than to kayak the Niobrara River on day two. Apart from that, we were free to wander the prairie, splash in the river, or just hang out anywhere and anytime we felt like it. It was pretty glorious.
John is the only one of our kids who hasn’t floated the Niobrara River, so that clearly needed to be remedied. More importantly, I was really looking forward to spending some quality time with my son before he enters his senior year of high school and prepares to go off to college. John and I have similar senses of humor, though he’s usually a little quicker off the mark than I am. He’s also brilliant at math and engineering, knowledgeable and opinionated about current events, passionate about soccer, and has matured over the last few years into an independent and responsible human being. I’m incredibly proud of him. (Also, he will probably read this, so I’m saying only nice things about him.)
When we drove up to the small group of bison at the beginning of our visit to the Niobrara Valley Preserve, I was worrying about how to keep John engaged and happy during our two days. He’s a kid who is comfortable in the outdoors, but not necessarily someone who seeks out or finds inner peace when surrounded by nature. When I first asked him if he wanted to spend a couple days at NVP with me, he said, “sure, as long as we can DO things.” No pressure, Dad…
After about ten minutes of bison watching, with just a little quiet conversation about what they were doing and why, we lapsed into a long silence. Concerned that he was bored, I asked John if he wanted to move on to something else. “No,” he replied, “I like bison. We can stay for a while longer.” About twenty minutes later, the bison started wandering off over the next hill, and we drove off in the opposite direction toward a prairie dog town.
My typical experience with prairie dog towns is that I get to see lots of prairie dogs from a distance, but they disappear into their holes well before I get into easy visual range. One of the few exceptions to that came a couple years ago when I visited this same prairie dog town with my daughter. As we drove into the town last week, I assumed the worst, and my expectations were confirmed by the first twenty or so dogs we saw – each of which squeaked and dove into their burrows as we approached.
The twenty-first prairie dog, however, hesitated, and as we inched a little closer, stayed alert but aboveground, along with one of its pups. We slide quietly to a stop and watched them for a little bit. After a few minutes, I moved the truck up even closer so John could get some better photos with his phone, and while the pup got nervous and left, the mother stuck around. While we sat there, we also spotted a burrowing owl and a fledgling horned lark.
Usually, when I’m at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, I try to maximize every minute of my time. It’s over four hours away from my home, so it’s an effort to get there, and I always feel pressured to get as much done as I can during each trip. As a result, I rarely have time to just relax and take whatever comes. After John and I finished watching bison and prairie dogs, and it was clear that John was enjoying the laid back trip, I began to relax and sink into the bliss of some agenda-less time with my kid. We decided to go see if we could find a small creek to explore.
On the way to find the creek, we ran across a bigger group of bison and decided to launch the drone and get some footage for my slowly-growing video library. John is a fan of the drone, but we only flew it for a little while before we moved on. After all, this wasn’t a work trip. We eventually stopped along the edge of the bluffs above the river and walked down into a draw that looked like a good place to find a stream. Sure enough, we started to hear flowing water as we descended, and we found a cold clear creek and walked upstream until we saw where it was seeping right out of the ground.
Later that evening, we met up with a couple other friends who happened to be at NVP at the same time, and the four of us splashed around in the river for a while before playing cards and going to bed. It was a good first day, but the main reason John had come was to kayak the river, and we needed to get up (fairly) early the next day to beat the crowd to the water.
The next morning, we got to Rock Barn Outfitters and got a ride upriver to our drop off point, where we slid the kayaks into the water. It was a Friday, and I was a little concerned that we might have to weave through early weekend tubers sharing the river with us, but while the scattered campgrounds along the river were full of people, we spent five hours on the water without seeing any tubers, canoers, or other kayakers. It was perfect.
We floated about 14 miles in five hours, stopping a few times to hike, swim, or eat lunch. During the entire trip, the Niobrara Valley Preserve was to our right, helping to give John a feel for the immense size of the 56,000 acre property. In fact, we only saw about half of the Preserve’s river frontage that day. As we slipped quietly downriver, we also saw quite a few bald eagles, along with great blue herons, spotted sandpipers, dragonflies, frogs, and other animals.
It wasn’t all quiet and contemplative nature watching, though. There were also a few kayak races, which included quite a bit of pushing, shoving, and splashing. In addition, John was really hoping to paddle through some rapids, and while I tried to temper his expectations, the river was running pretty high and we did manage to find a fair number of (mild) whitewater stretches. We also found a nice, quiet, and relatively deep stretch of river where he hopped into the water and just floated/swam downstream while I held onto his kayak for him. I think we checked all his boxes for the day.
We had a pretty quiet ride home after we got off the river. John, as usual, slept through most of it. I was pretty tired too, but also grateful for the opportunity to share one of my favorite places with one of my favorite people. Hopefully, John will remember the trip fondly as he goes off to become an engineer. And hopefully, he’ll come back and float the river with me again sometime.
If you’re interested in visiting the Niobrara River Valley, here’s a good website that describes the National Scenic River and some of the choices available. While you’re there, you can stop and hike the public trail at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. We don’t (yet) offer public tours of the bison herd or prairie dog town, but the hiking trail (just south of the river bridge on the road between Johnstown and Norden) provides some great overlooks of the river, and a chance to wander through many of the different ecosystems found in the valley.