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Floating, drifting

Hot summer days on the high prairie smell like honey and hay. A haze of dust hangs on the horizon, but if you look right, straight up, the sky is such an intense blue you can hardly stand to look at it. Puffs of hot, dry wind punch into you, drying your sweat, but not leaving you feeling substantially cooler. Relief is available, however. Up in northwestern Nebraska, just about every piece of property worth having has a creek running through it. The water may be murky, green, and smelling of cow-shit, but that hasn’t put off too many roasty kids. The water table is high, and small ponds and springs are all over the place, as well as the Niobrara River, little more than a stream with big ideas on that end of the state. Come about this time of the year, “they let the dam out,” or rather whichever body holds jurisdiction over irrigation rights opens up the Box Butte Reservoir gates and starts emptying the reservoir into the river proper so that all of the farmers along the river can start drawing water to nourish their corn, wheat, soybeans, beets, and other crops.

Once the dam has been let out, an annual mania for “tubing” takes over, and people park at points along the river and go floating. The long-haul starts just southeast of the dam, at the intersection of Dunlap Road and The Dam Road. This is also a popular spot for thrill-seeking teens to jump off the culvert that diverts the river flow under the road and shoot through the chute into the splashy swimming hole on the other side. The long-haul float ends up some 5-7 miles east of there, usually not beyond one particular diversion dam, another popular spot for thrill-seekers who like to jump the small dam that conducts water into an irrigation pump.
When the water’s up in the river, right at the start of irrigation season, a strong adult has to brace himself or herself in midstream and bellyflop haphazardly into an innertube. If there are children along, the steadiest adults have to pile the kids into their respective tubes like a squirmy ring toss, then plunge into their own tubes and paddle after the kids, who have already got a head start on down the stream. Once everyone’s got their tubes and the group gets assembled in a somewhat orderly fashion, the fun starts. A float can be relaxing or as exhilarating as you wish. You can just chat, watch the scenery go by, and duck underwater from time to time to cool off, or you can be rowdy, trying to tip one another out of tubes, splash one another with water, and look for places where the water seems to be flowing faster and shoot around bends in the stream. The only damper on the fun is the occasional barbed-wire fence crossing the river, and some ranchers are mindful of the presence of tubers and will loosen up that stretch of wire so that you can just lift it up and float under, though often enough, there’s a scramble for the banks, and everyone clambers out of the water, shivering and muddy, heaves their tubes over the fence to dry land on the other side, then goes through the whole process of re-launching the children, catching up to them, and re-assembling the group.

As you float through broader patches of river, where there are considerable sandbar shallows to either side of the stream, that’s where you’ll start seeing dragonflies. Paddle over to one bank or the other, and sit quietly in your tube, and shortly you’ll see a dragonfly or two, hovering around you, trying to determine whether or not you come bearing food. If you’re lucky, one of the jewel-toned little critters will land on your knee or arm, and you can get a close up of its big-eyed alien face and stained-glass-veined wings. Further on, there are sandstone cliffs, carved out over the years, not any Grand Canyon, mind you, but pleasantly unearthly, like something out of a 1950s Sci-Fi movie set portraying Mars. Swallows build their mud nests up and down those banks, and when crowds of folks come tubing through, the little birds come divebombing out of their houses, squeaking “peeve, peeve, peeve” and circling low overhead, shouting their empty threats at the interlopers.

Of course the river carries some less picturesque sights. The occasional belly-up minnow or decaying crawdad drifting gruesomely along will part a floating party, squeamish weekend-warrior nature lovers scattering with squeals and grunts of disgust. Sometimes, if you’re passing through a fairly heavily populated pasture, you’ll have the choice encounter of an entire cow-pie drifting serenely and foully in the water. Yes, cows can have floaters, too. ‘Course all this is pretty biological, so overall not that terribly horrifying, but if you want to see me, or indeed my mom go spare, you should see us when we encounter someone’s old potato chip bag stuck in the cat-tails or an old Wal-Mart sack stuck on the wire of one of the fences. Nothing like the trashy, irresponsible selfishness of our fellow man to put some ugly blemishes on the world around.

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