Quality Time

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.

As we were driving into the Niobrara Valley Preserve, we spotted a small group of bison from the road and drove over to take a look.  They were hanging around a low area that was clearly a well-used dusting area.

We parked close by, sat quietly, and just watched them.  After a while, the bison got pretty comfortable with our presence, with several coming over to lick the mineral deposits (I assume) off the side of the truck.

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.

After watching the bison, we decided to go check out a small prairie dog town along the south end of the bison pasture.

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.

Most prairie dogs dove for cover long before we got close, but this one stayed aboveground long enough for us to get a good look at it.

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.

We found the spot where this little creek flowed right out of the sand and started on its way through a wooded draw and down to the Niobrara River.

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.

Finally – the part of the trip John was really waiting for.

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.

I made John stop and walk up to see Stairstep Falls, one of many waterfalls on the north side of the river (on land owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy).

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.

This was one of many short stretches of mild whitewater.  Most were rough enough to splash a little water into the kayaks, but not really enough to do much else.

Toward the end of the trip, we went through the Egelhoff rapids, where the entire river squeezes tightly into a very narrow run.  We got out and scouted it ahead of time, and then decided it was safe enough to paddle through.  I went first and then got out to watch John come through.

This might have been the best part of the day – we just floated slowly through a deep and gentle stretch of river, with John cooling off and relaxing in the water while I babysat the kayaks and tried not to float too far ahead.

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.

How (Not) to Photograph Prairie Dogs – Part 2 (Why are you laughing??)

Back in March, I wrote about a failed attempt to photograph prairie dogs about 15 miles south of where I live.  Apparently, many of you thought it was hilariously funny and had a nice time chuckling at my expense.

Thanks for that.

Well, I got another chance this summer.  This time, I found myself in the Nebraska sandhills on a beautiful evening with a 4-wheeler, a camera, and a couple hours to kill.  I headed down a two-track dirt road, looking for something to photograph, and came upon a small prairie dog town.  Now, my memory’s not fantastic but traumatic episodes do tend to stick in my head, so I very nearly decided to just keep on moving.  But for some reason – call it stupidity or stubbornness – I stopped the 4-wheeler, unstrapped my tripod, and got my camera out.

As I sat on the 4-wheeler getting everything put together, I watched the nearest prairie dog out of the corner of my eye.  He (I prefer to think of it as a “He” – so sue me) was just sort of loitering around the edge of his hole, maybe 20 yards from where I was parked.  Someone not as experienced with prairie dog photography would probably have assumed that the prairie dog was paying me no attention.  I was under no such illusion.

I knew the prairie dog would be perfectly happy to hang around outside, doing all kinds of cute things, until I moved to the edge of photo range.  Then he’d dive, cackling all the way, into his hole.  I knew that, but I started walking slowly toward him anyway.  I didn’t crouch down like they do on TV or pretend I was a bush. (Why look like a fool for no reason?)  I just walked steadily toward him, figuring that once he disappeared, I’d find a nice comfortable place to sit while he and his friends laughed at me from the safety of their underground bunkers.  Eventually, it would get too dark for photography, I would go home, and they would resume their petty little lives.  It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was a plan.

Sure enough, as I got just about to where I figured my 300mm lens would be worth trying, the prairie dog made a quick feint to the left and dashed back to the right – toward his hole.  But then he pulled up just on the edge of the mound.  Big mistake.  With cat-like quickness, I spread my tripod legs, focused, and snapped a mediocre photo.

Got him!

Ha HA!  I flashed him a big grin to make him think I was really happy with the shot – just to give him something to think about once he got belowground.  I figured he’d stew about that for days.

Knowing what was coming next, I stepped forward again, figuring I might as well get it over with.  He froze and watched me with his beady little eyes, his whole body tense and ready to dive.  Then, just as I reached the point at which I might actually get a decent shot, it happened.  His head went down…

…and came up with a little grass shoot.

…and he started to chew on it.

My head spun.  What was happening?  Hands shaking slightly, I squeezed off three or four quick shots that were… actually… pretty decent.  In a sudden panic, I whipped around – fully expecting to see three or four of the little buggers making off with my 4-wheeler while their hoodlum friend was distracting me.  But no, everything was quiet behind me.  And in front of me, the prairie dog – who was actually kinda cute, once I actually looked at him – was still chewing on his little piece of grass.

Look at those gorgeous eyes…

So I took some more photos of him.  Then I sat down and crawled a little closer.  And took some more photos of him… while he sat up, walked around a little, ate something else, and generally acted completely unconcerned by my presence.



Yeah, yeah, very perky.

Eventually, I started to get bored.  I mean, he was cute and everything, but photographing him just sitting there and enjoying the pleasant evening didn’t really have the “edge” I had prepared myself for.  I stood up and started walking slowly toward him – just to see how close he’d actually let me get.  As if he was reluctantly playing a part his agent had signed him up for, he looked me over, and then slowly ambled toward his hole.  When he got to the edge of the burrow, he gave me one more glance to be sure I was really still walking toward him, and then dropped from sight.  After a moment, he popped his head up one more time to see if I was really going to force the issue, and then sighed and disappeared.

One last look.

One last look.

The light was still pretty nice, and it seemed a shame to waste it so I took a couple half-hearted photos of some flowers – but my heart wasn’t in it.  Everything just felt wrong.  Where was the challenge?  The frustration?  The mocking laughter?  This wasn’t how prairie dog photography was supposed to go!

Just then, over the nearest hill, the barking of a prairie dog woke me out of my lethargy.  I was being challenged!  It was if the little bugger was saying, “Sure, you put one over on my stupid cousin Stan, but you can’t photograph a REAL prairie dog!”

That was more like it…

I crept up to the crest of the hill to find my new adversary.  Once I spotted him, I hunched over and worked slowly down the hill – careful not to make eye contact.  As I got near the edge of photo range, I watched, closely but surreptitiously, for the telltale tensing of his body that would precede his dive down the hole.

It never came.  It turns out, he was just as dumb as Stan.  I kneeled down and took some photos of him, but pretty soon I got tired of it and walked back to my 4-wheeler to head home.  After all, how many photos of stupid prairie dogs does a guy really need?

Doesn’t look that bright, does he?

(By the way, there’s no way I’m telling you where this prairie dog town is.  Mine Mine Mine!  So there.)