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Voyage through a valley's heart
by Pat Underwood
It is a plain shame that I have lived in the Republican Valley of south-central Nebraska for almost seven years but had not in all that time experienced the increasingly popular activity of traveling down the Republican River in a canoe, kayak or inner tube.
In fact I have never been on a water-voyage anywhere in a kayak or inner tube, and it had been many years since I had been in a canoe at all. More than thirty-five years, if I'm counting correctly...and unfortunately I am.
Here are a few of the choicest thoughts I had the night before my recent trip:
What if I get into the canoe and don't remember how to use the paddle? What if I fall overboard into the roiling brown and very cold-looking water? What if I just make a darned old fool of myself?
Yes, and so what if I do?
I've at least gained enough knowledge in the time since I last sat in a canoe to know that almost everything fun in life carries a certain element of risk, and that anything at all done during any human life—fun or not—carries the very real likelihood of making a fool of oneself, probably frequently, at various points along the way.
Living a full life simply isn't for ‘fraidy-cats, now is it?
Finding a guide
You have to guess you're in for an interesting canoe trip when your "guide" shows up with two life jackets, a jug of drinking water...and a chain saw.
Unfortunately there are not, to the best of my knowledge, any private companies providing tour guides for recreational activities along this part of the river (now there's an entrepreneurial opportunity if ever I've seen one!), so I had to find someone who might be going down the river for some other reason and who might let me go along.
The person I've been lucky enough to talk into taking me on this trip is Merle Illian, River Project Coordinator for the Eastern Republican Riparian Improvement Project. Merle has worked every year since 2006 on clearing hundreds of miles of the river of silt, debris and invasive species in order to help Nebraska meet its water-delivery obligations to Kansas under the 1943 Republican River Compact. This visually impressive and increasingly successful work has been funded primarily by the Nebraska Environmental Trust the last few years, ever since a legislatively approved, local-tax-based source of funding was lost, a long story best left for another day.
The section of river we'll be travelling—from the Harlan County Dam to the Naponee bridge—has already been mostly cleared under the Riparian Improvement Project, but Merle knows of a large tree that has recently fallen into the water, creating a new silt-island in its downstream path and posing a potential hazard for the thousands of inner-tube adventurers expected to float down the river during an upcoming holiday weekend.
It isn't specifically a part of Merle's job to care about the recreational aspects of the river or the safety of those who travel here to enjoy it, but care he does, so into the boat goes the chain saw. He had already assured me, though, via telephone the day before the trip, that while he would be getting out of the canoe to attempt to clear the hazard, I would be able to stay in the canoe and "probably won't even get wet."
Those were his exact words; I remember them quite clearly.
Onto—and into—the water
Interestingly enough, given the previous day's conversation, Merle's first question as we slide the nose of the canoe off the bank at the South Outlet Park below Harlan County Dam is this: "Did you bring a plastic bag to put your camera in?"
Before I have time to follow that thought to its logical conclusion, I am already in the water up to my knees to help launch the boat. And yes, it will get worse—or more accurately I should say better—as the day goes on, but the first welcome lesson I learn about this river is that it is much friendlier than it appears from the bank, or from above looking down from bridge railings, which are the only ways I've seen it up until now.
The water on this early summer day is not icy cold after all, just comfortably cool. It is not mucky brown, either, but clear enough at this depth to see where we are stepping. And the "roiling"—we are standing already at the head of a section of small rapids—is actually only a pleasant swirling around my ankles.
On the International Scale of River Difficulty, the Republican in Nebraska is rated as "Class I: Easy," making it ideal for beginners, families, and maybe even ‘fraidy-cats. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is releasing 300 cfs (cubic feet per second) from the dam on this particular day, and while the current isn't to be taken lightly (there's a good reason for the requirement to carry life jackets), it is far from the intimidating tide of my imaginings.
The next thing I learn about is the quiet.
There is an almost total hush around us as soon as we pass the first rapids and glide the canoe into the main channel. It sounds as if we have entered a sacred place, and perhaps we have. The only noise is the swish of our paddles in the water, and when we stop paddling and let the river do the work, it is so still we can hear only the occasional droplet of water finding its way off the end of a paddle back down to the surface of the river:
Plunk. Very long pause. Plunk.
Ten minutes surrounded by this much quiet might be as good as a week's vacation somewhere else: my too-busy human mind is already emptied of all the silly things I used to think—just that very morning—were important. The nonstop motion and stark concrete of daily life have been obliterated by a tranquil, sultry watercourse habitat, where the "walls" are made of reed canary grass and cattails, and there is a "ceiling" only of arched branches under open sky.
Then seemingly suddenly, but only as suddenly as our human sight is slow to catch up to the world around us, dead ahead in the middle of the shallow channel stands a whitetail deer taking a drink from the river. We freeze and watch.
She turns her head to glance at us, drinks again, glances, flicks her tail, drinks, and then finally, tail up, leaps away as if someone has just that moment stepped up and whispered in her ear what dangers we might pose. The noise as she crashes through bank-side trees startles several great blue herons from their nests, and they glide away ahead of us, just barely above their own reflections in the surface of the water.
A flurry of colorful small birds—some might be Yellow-headed Blackbirds, but there are many others I can't begin to identify—bursts from the underbrush as we pass, cheeping and twittering at us for disturbing their peace. An iridescent, purplish-blue dragonfly hitches a ride on the forward tip of the canoe, looking not unlike that actress spreading her arms over the bow of the Titanic, and an even smaller, unseen insect buzzes past my ear.
This is when I finally understand that it is not quiet after all. It has simply taken a mile or so for my ears to attune themselves down to the countless small sounds of life all around us; lives smaller and quieter than our own lives, to be sure, but still not quite such negligible lives as the normal human mind seems often to account them.
I believe at that moment that if I could silence my own mind even more, I might be able to hear the very heartbeat of this valley.
We reach the tree that has fallen into the river, and Merle is right, it is huge and potentially dangerous, blocking all but a few feet on the north side of the channel. We beach the canoe and Merle, armed with the chain saw, starts walking through the water towards the tree. At this point I'm not so sure about the river's affability: the water is deep here, and two whirlpools have formed upstream of the obstruction.
When Merle is about waist-deep in the river, I notice several dark shapes turning slowly in the sky above.
"Hey Merle," I joke in a ‘fraidy-cat whisper, "are you sure about this? The vultures are already circling."
He laughs and assures me I don't need to worry, he's done this before, but I am wrong anyway, they are not vultures after all; instead they are—oh, splendid mistake—bald eagles, three of them, soaring with their supreme confidence high above us.
After clearing as much of the hazard as one man equipped with only a chainsaw and an unskilled helper can clear, we resume our trip down the river. And although I have now seen that Merle may work harder in a few hours than most people work in a week, I don't feel all that sorry for him, because I've also discovered that even laboring in this grand wilderness might be more fun than goofing off in other places.
The river means different things to different people
It must be acknowledged that for some people in Nebraska, the Republican River represents only a big political headache, a fight inherited from the past that may well be passed on to future generations regardless of anyone's present good intentions. For others, it is seen primarily only as a source of water for irrigation, a not-insignificant viewpoint, since agriculture is the very backbone of our local rural economy.
But for many of the people who visit or live here—now thankfully, finally including myself—and for all the animals, fish, birds, reptiles, and the occasional iridescent dragonfly, the river is a living, breathing part of our landscape. It is the natural heart of the Republican Valley, and a sight—and especially a sound—that must be experienced in person to find its right station in our human hearts, among the things we most cherish about the place we call home.
If you go...
There are a number of public access points for the Republican River along its 200-mile meandering path through Nebraska, and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission advises river travelers not to attempt to access the river from private lands without the landowner's permission. The NGPC provides a map showing public access, parking and camping areas for the eastern portion of the Republican (49 miles from the Harlan County Dam to Red Cloud) on their website at http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/boating/guides/canoetrails/rep-map.asp.
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