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Seen Through New Eyes
From the pages of Camping Life Magazine
There’s much more to Nebraska than just corn
I was standing on a hill where Lewis and Clark once surveyed the land. From my vantage point, the cool, blue Missouri River stretched from horizon to horizon, just like it had 200 years ago. A large, bright orange sun rose on the eastern horizon as I gazed out over the quiet, waking landscape, imagining the wonder, the excitement, the destiny of those early visitors to this land of northeast Nebraska. My mind wandered back to the “Corps of Discovery,” as those in the Lewis and Clark expedition called themselves. Where did this magnificent river go? How much farther to the mountains? To the western sea?
We were camped on a hill overlooking the Missouri River near the mouth of the Niobrara River. It was the same place Lewis and Clark spent the night on September 4, 1804. The expedition had just finished meeting with representatives of the Yankton Sioux tribe in an effort to make peace with the Native Americans. Their journey was still young, and new adventures met them almost daily.
NIOBRARA STATE PARK
I was also finding new adventures in the area, although not as life threatening as theirs. From our campsite on a hill in Niobrara State Park the views were spectacular and new to me. I could see miles of the Missouri River, with yellow bluffs flanking its banks on much of the far shore, and two to three miles up the Niobrara River valley.Its shallow, wide and braided channel twisted and turned like two serpents playing in the sand. Pastures and open fields of grain stretched across the hillsides and through the valley bottom, while forests of oak, basswood and ash grew in the gullies and gave the landscape definition.
Most of the 1260 acres of Niobrara State Park are much the same as when Lewis and Clark first camped in the area. Grass still sweeps across the open plains, swaying and weaving in the wind like waves on the ocean. Wildflowers dot the landscape as well — purple coneflower, yucca, yarrow and yellow sweetclover are common throughout the park.
Although the numerous elk found by the Corps of Discovery are absent, many other species of wildlife remain. White-tailed deer, coyote, beaver, mink, muskrat and numerous species of bird call the park home or migrate through it. While there we observed an oriole, a goldfinch, wild turkeys, a blue jay, several cardinals, robins, and even a bald eagle perched in a dead snag above the Niobrara River.
Fishing opportunities abound at the park, both in the rivers and in a couple of ponds located in the rolling hills. In 1804, Captain Clark commented on the “...numbers of catfish cought,” adding, “Those fish is so plenty that we catch them at any time and place in the river.” Though not as numerous, catfish can still be caught in the river, as well as walleye, sauger and bluegill.
My brother and his three children decided to try for some of these fish in a nearby pond. So we all followed one of several trails through the park and down to the pond (there are more than 12 miles of trails in the park). After a moderately successful fishing experience the children insisted on hiking back to the campsite by themselves. Since one is a senior in high school, we reasoned there shouldn’t be a problem.
Well, just like one of Lewis and Clark’s companions, they got lost in the woods below camp. As it began to get dark we could hear their voices, but they were headed the wrong way. My brother went after them with a flashlight, and soon we heard laughter and stories of exaggerated struggles. (They were more fortunate than George Shannon, who was lost for 11 days before the Corps of Discovery found him upriver, nearly starved to death. He had thought the Corps went upstream without him, so he headed upriver and got ahead of the boats.)
Niobrara State Park has many conveniences for those not as hardy as the Corps of Discovery. The park has 15 cabins for rental that overlook the Missouri River, and they are open from mid-April to mid-November. A swimming pool, horseback rides, a group lodge for larger gatherings, 69 RV camping sites (with electrical hookups), and three boat ramps with access to the Missouri River are also available.
LEWIS AND CLARK LAKE
We had started our trek some 40 miles down Highway 12 to the east, at the actual site of the first meeting between the Native Americans and the Lewis and Clark expedition. Calumet Bluffs, as Lewis called the site, is now the location of Gavins Point Dam, forming the 32,000-acre Lewis and Clark Lake. The tall, golden bluffs that had impressed Lewis are still there, lining the shores of the lake in many areas, and the wildness of 200 years ago still mingles with the encroachment of civilization. The visitor center at the dam has very informative displays on the history of the area, with a special emphasis on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. There are six state recreation areas on the lake and most have boat access and camping facilities. Two of the areas, Weigand and Burbach, have a marina complex, concession store, showers, and cabins for rent.
From there we headed south on Highway 14. Our next destination was Grove Lake. I had been there a couple of times before, and was looking forward to another visit. But on the way we had a rendezvous with history.
ASHFALL FOSSIL BEDS
Twenty-five miles down the road and we were dabbling in dinosaurs. Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park is the site of ancient watering holes that were covered instantaneously by a thick layer of ash from a huge volcanic eruption in what is now Idaho. We arrived there in the late morning and made our way down the trail to the “Rhino Barn,” where current diggings are going on. It was only a short distance to the barn, but each step we took sent us back thousands of years in time. Two million, 4 million, 8 million — by the time we finally reached the barn we had walked through 10 million years of history.
Inside the 32x64-foot Rhino Barn, protected from the elements, were dozens of exposed fossils. A student paleontologist was scratching carefully at the soft, exposed soil between several bones. “I’m looking for the rest of this skeleton here,” he explained, pointing to some bones that belonged to a small horse. “You’ve got to be slow and careful,” he continued, “the bones are hollow, so they’re very brittle.” I watched for a while, amazed at the young man’s patience.
The sheer number and variety of fossils at the site make it one of the more impressive fossil sites in the country. Already unearthed are remains of rhinos, camels, five different horses, turtles and birds. In addition, a new, much larger dig is in the works. The park has a wonderful interpretive center, instructional video shows, and beautiful views of the surrounding grass-covered hills. Ashfall is easy to find. Turn west from the junction of Highways 14 and 59 and go seven miles, then turn south and drive three miles to the entrance.
Back to the car and fast-forwarding 10 million years we drove on to Grove Lake (from Ashfall head south five miles to Highway 20, turn east and go several miles back to the town of Royal, where you turn north again for two miles — follow the signs). Designated a wildlife management area so it will remain wild, Grove Lake offers a rare taste of the pre-European immigration era: the tall-grass of the North American prairie.
As we roamed across its 1700 acres of hills and gullies we felt removed from civilization, engulfed by the sea of green and smell of clover that surrounded us. The yucca plants were in full bloom with their spikes of creamy white blossoms looking like little rockets waiting to launch into the blue sky. Birds chirped melodies with gusto as the morning sun slowly washed its light over the landscape. My mind wandered again. I was an early pioneer, homesteading this vast and fertile land. Was there ever a breeze so fresh, the sun so warm and bright?
My brother’s voice broke me from my trance. “I’ve got a nice one on!” he yelled from the creek below me. He was fly-fishing in Verdigre Creek, a clear, spring-fed creek that is stocked with trout. It keeps Grove Lake filled with blue, sparkling water. He landed a nice, 12-inch brown trout and held it up slightly above the watercress along the bank so I could see it before he released it. Its wet, sleek body glistened in the sun, showing off its brilliant yellow color. Bright red spots dotted its body. “He put up a nice fight,” he added. “I thought I’d lost him when he made a run for the weeds.”
Trout are common in the creek thanks to the trout hatchery upstream. The lake harbors bluegill, crappie, largemouth bass, northern pike, and catfish for the enthusiastic fisherman.
If you’re a naturalist there’s a marvelous array of grasses and wildflowers to look for and photograph at Grove Lake. My favorite wildflower there is the jack-in-the-pulpit. I found it blooming in early May one year, at the bottom of a gully where a cool, fresh spring flowed. The droopy, brownish flowers were underneath the leaves and inconspicuous, like children playing hide-and-seek.
There are several campsites near Grove Lake that are nestled in a beautiful stand of hardwood trees. The sites are somewhat primitive, but the essentials are there, including lots of quiet and solitude. Access to the lake for boats and fishing is only a short distance away.
For many years I have thought that there just wasn’t anything to see in Nebraska. I learned differently on this trip. As a kid growing up there I had no idea how close we were to such pristine and historic countryside. It’s been exciting to discover anew the scenic freshness of my home state. I have come to learn that it’s not where you are that matters, but how you look at where you are. Northeast Nebraska was definitely worth another look.
BEFORE YOU GO
• Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park: 402/893-2000;
for more information.
• Lewis and Clark State Recreation Area: 402/388-4169.
• Niobrara State Park: 402/857-3373 for details and reservations.
• A good resource to learn more about the campsites in this part of Nebraska is the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (402/471-0641;
). Ask for a free copy of Nebraska Camping; A Guide to State & Federal Camping Areas.