State 10 of 50: Nebraska: Niobrara River

Unexpected beauty in the Sand Hills of Nebraska
Date Paddled: 9/21/16
Nearest City: Valentine
Put-In: Cornell Bridge, Fort Niobrara NWR (river mile 4.8)
Take-Out:  day 1 Smith Falls SP (mile 15.8);  day 2 River Rd below
Egelhoffs Rapids (mile 30)
Duration:  day 1: 4 hours; day 2: 5.5 hours
River Miles: day 1: 11 miles; day 2: 14.2 miles
Shuttle: Scott of Stone Barn Farm
Weather: Overcast 70, breezy
Difficulty: quickwater and class I rapids except for Rocky Ford
Rapids (III) and Egelhoffs Rapids (II+)
Cfs: 550

In the past, Nebraska had been for me a state to be endured – endless hours on the flat interstate whizzing past a mind-numbing blur of cornfields on the way to (or from) the Rockies.  But tucked up in the northern frontier of this sprawling state is this lovely and historic (but largely unheralded) river that emerges from the deserty scrub land of eastern Wyoming and parallels the Nebraska/South Dakota border before emptying into the Missouri River near Iowa.

The Niobrara roughly skirts the northern edge of Nebraska’s famous sandhills, and it drains one of the driest areas in the country – indeed for a river of its length (over 500 miles in all) it has relatively low flows. Interestingly, however, since it gets most of its water from the also-famous Ogallala aquifer that lies under the sandhills and much of the rest of the state, its flow is relatively constant throughout the year.  This explains how the Niobrara can offer great paddling virtually any time – regardless of season or drought conditions – with its steady flow of cool clear water, some of which tumbles directly into the river itself from the steep banks.

After negotiating our shuttle with Scott, the proprietor of a local river outfitting company, we set out on a cool and breezy, but mostly sunny afternoon from the boat launch at Fort Niobrara NWR.  The current was swift and steady and there were only a few riffles and easy class I rapids to take our attention away from the lovely scenery in this peaceful oasis of greenery amidst the brown and tan sandhills of northern Nebraska.

Set down in a broad valley, the Niobrara meanders between high bluffs that are in places steep and rocky, often eroded by millenia of wind and rain, and in other places rounded and gentle and decorated with a mix of conifers, including Ponderosa pines and deciduous trees like oak, maple, and cottonwood.  That there were no signs of civilization was not surprising, as this section of the river wanders through Cherry County which is larger in land area that the state of Connecticut while being home to but a few thousand residents.

The first day’s paddle took us to Smith Falls State Park and a delightful campsite right on the river bank where we landed our kayaks.  A nearby footbridge carried us across the river to a quick path that provided a view of Smith Falls, the largest of many falls that tumble off the abrupt edge of the sandhills into the river’s south bank.  Thankfully we had the campground (and river) virtually to ourselves – we learned that on summer weekends thousands of folk come here (from where?!) to escape the prairie heat with all types of watercraft and tubes.

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                 Smith Falls

The second day brought some clouds and the threat of showers, and the cool temperatures made us bundle udscn4961p a bit before setting out.  The rain held off and we soon warmed up to the steady current and more gentle scenery, as the valley widened and the banks grew generally less steep and rocky.  We were treated to some avian wildlife, including hawks, osprey, and bald eagles, as well as many smaller birds.

We were also presented with some more challenging rapids – mostly class I and easier class II, but we eventually came to Rocky Ford Rapids, which we determined we ought to portage, as these class III rips would necessitate some quick maneuvering between large rocks while negotiating a drop of several feet.

The carry, on river left, was not a problem and soon we were zipping along to the next challenge, Egelhoffs Rapids, an interesting rock formation where the river is channeled into a narrow but deep slot for a distance of a hundred yards or so.  It was bizarre to see the full flow of the river so suddenly and turbulently narrow, but other than the initial drop leading into the slot the challenge looked straightforward and fun.  Diana plunged on in, and after seeing her successfully emerge in the pool below, I followed her through this high-speed natural rock sluice-way and canal.

dscn4995-2A mile or so below these last rapids we at last came to our take out, another lovely campground on the banks of this excellent river. Vincent was waiting for us, so we loaded up our boats and equipment and quickly agreed that we should soon return.

State 9 of 50: Oregon – Little Deschutes River

Clean water, distant views of famous “Sisters” and Mt. Bachelor – former volcanoes
Date Paddled: 9/13/16
Nearest City: Bend
Put-In: Thousand Trails Bridge
Take-Out: Spring River Road Bridge
Duration: 3.5 hours
River Miles: 6
Shuttle: two cars, would be an easy bike shuttle
Weather: Sunny, headwind for last part
Difficulty: flatwater, quickwater
Cfs: not officially measured

What a joy to paddle with my daughter, Claire, in lovely Oregon on the Little Deschutes River.  The water was clean and clear with a good current for most of the paddle. While this section was not as remote as an upstream one Peter and I had paddled the year before, it still enchanted us with clean, clear to blue water, stately pines, and numerous, tight meanders opening up a variety of interesting views.

dscn3021Since we had two cars the shuttle was straight forward. We were a bit late to get paddling, but were happy to rent an extra kayak from Tumalo Creek Kayak and Canoe in Sunriver. This community south of Bend, has grown tremendously in recent years as “active retirees” make their way to the area.

Claire soaked up the aqueous beauty in her paddling-starved life with contented exclamations about the clarity of the water, the warmth of the sun, and the amazing view that greeted us as we rounded a meander. The Sisters (Charity, Hope, and Faith) and Mt. Bachelor asserted their startling presence in a most delightful way! All former volcanoes, Mt. Bachelor is a premiere ski mountain, while the Sisters prefer to peruse the fun while looking their alluring best.
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The Little Deschutes is a tributary of the Deschutes, the major river that provides household and irrigation water from the eastern drainage of the Cascade Mountains to central/northern central Oregon, eventually emptying into the Columbia River. We paddled the section where the Little merges into the Big. The flow increased at least ten-fold with an attendant shift in mood. Especially noticeable are the many more birds present. Osprey and kingfisher in particular love the clear waters that make for high levels of survival.dscn4752 Besides wonderful paddling resources, both Deschutes are hard-working rivers. There is plenty of flow when most other rivers in Oregon are just a spring-time memory.

Side Trip to British Columbia

 

For approximately two weeks we interrupted our 50-state USA adventure to head north into British Columbia, Canada for some sightseeing, socializing and, of course, paddling.   We traveled primarily in the Kootenay region of BC, a roughly triangular region of spectacular mountains, lakes and rivers bounded by the Canadian Rockies and continental divide on the east, the relatively dry and desert-like Okonagan valley to the west, and the US border below. It’s hard to think of another region with such an incredible range and variety of accessible and inviting mountainous terrain as British Columbia.  Between hikes and visits to hot springs we managed three excellent river excursions, including paddles on the headwaters of the mighty Columbia and Kootenay Rivers.

The three paddles described briefly below represented very different settings and characters but each exemplifies the wild and spectacular nature of this part of BC.

Columbia River headwaters
Date Paddled:  August 31, 2016
Nearest City:  Invermere, BC
Put-In:  Invermere, BC  public boat launch at outlet of Windermere Lake  (12:30 pm)
Take-Out:  Bridge in Radium  (4:00 pm)
Duration:  3.5 hours
River Miles:   11
Shuttle:  $50 Cdn for shuttle from Columbia River Rentals in Invermere
Weather:  sunny becoming cloudy low 80s
Difficulty:  all quickwater after 1 mile in stillwater of wetlands
Cfs:  110 cu.meters/sec downstream in Nicholson 

dscn2781The first leg of our Canadian paddling triple took us to the headwaters of the mighty Columbia River, second biggest river on the continent.  Well, actually the Columbia begins a dozen or so miles south of where we paddled as the outflow from Columbia Lake – it then promptly flows into Windermere Lake. We began our trip at the public boat launch of this well-developed lake. There we found an outfitter who offered a shuttle back from Radium  for a reasonable fee.

The Columbia that we met is a tranquil, meandering stream in the wide valley of the Rocky Mountain Trench.  It quickly picks up steam, however, from significant tributaries coming in from the Purcell Mountains to the west and the Rockies to the east.  Our paddle started with very modest and shallow flow leaving the lake and filling the expansive wetlands just to the north.  The water coming from the lake was surprisingly clear but just past the wetlands the volume more than doubled with the addition of the cloudy bluish  waters of glacier-fed Toby Creek and thereafter the Colombia had the classic siltiness usually associated with rivers in these mountains.  The amount of water in the Columbia more than doubled again a few miles on with the confluence of the combined Horsethief & Forster Creeks, so that by the take out in Radium it had grown into quite a big river.

Though the Columbia runs through generally moderate banks as it winds it way through this stretch, there are tantalizing views of the craggy ranges on both sides of the valley.  The peaks of the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide rise prominently to the east, on our right as we paddled generally north.  To our left and a bit more in the distance the ranges of the equally imposing Purcells marched off to the west.  Overhead, ospreys and other hawks circled above the river and its wind-eroded bluffs, and we saw flickers, herons, and the obligatory kingfisher.  Despite the relative proximity of civilization, the only mechanical disturbances came from two freight trains that passed on the adjoining track.  Overall, this was a nice relaxing afternoon paddle with great views … and the Columbia continues north like this for over 80 miles, making leisurely float trips of several days possible.

Kootenay River in Kootenay National Park
Date Paddled:  Sept. 1, 2016
Nearest City:  Banff, AB or Radium, BC
Put-In:  picnic site on Rt. 93
Take-Out:  Nipika Mtn Lodge access (Settlers Road)
Duration:  5 hours
River Miles:  9  (14 km)
Shuttle:  courtesy of Nipika Mtn Lodge staff
Weather:  cool 60s, partly to mostly cloudy
Difficulty:  class I and II rapids with fast moving water and a few snags and obstacles
Cfs:  2.25 cms??

dscn4258This paddle wasn’t going to happen – at least not in this way on this day.  It turned out to be one of the most spectacular adventures on our whole trip (so far).  This was meant to be an off day between paddles, and a drive to Banff was on the agenda, until we stopped at a picnic area in Kootenay National Park to make some breakfast. The picnic spot’s prime location on the bank of the still-youthful Kootenay River was certainly a draw as we had been contemplating doing some research on this famous and lovely river.  What we saw was certainly enticing – a fast-flowing rush of glacier-colored meltwater hurrying past us and around the next bed to who-knew-what-kind-of rapids.  We figured we needed to do further investigating when we got to Banff … until Diana spotted a group unloading rafts and preparing for a trip downriver.   She boldly initiated contact with the group, who turned out to be on a staff-enjoyment day trip from nearby Nipika Mountain Resort, and after I had spoken with them as well they assured us of the safety and do-ability of this stretch of the Kootenay while offering us a ride back to Vincent afterwards.  They even escorted us through a few tricky obstacles near the start, and later that afternoon showed us around their rustic camping resort just up the road from the take-out

The Kootenay was certainly a most spectacular and awe-inspiring river to paddle, and also a challenging one, but not so much for any one particular rapid or obstacle – everything was very visible and manageable on the river.  The current was very fast and unrelenting and the class I and class II rapids came on us quickly and continually. This required not only quite a bit of physical energy and endurance, to stay in the proper channel and avoid rocks and tree trunks, but also continual mental focus.  Eddies and other rest spots were infrequent, and the amazing scenery and wildlife certainly begged for a great deal of our attention.  So moments of rest and repose were few!

The cold water of the Kootenay was very clear but with a blue hue from the glacial sediments that became much more vivid in deeper pools where there was a lighter colored river bed, as when we encountered limestone bluffs and outcroppings. We saw at least half a dozen eagles, numerous hawks, a duck and small sandpiper, and … a kingfisher.  But the most memorable feature of this paddle was the ever-unfolding panorama of spectacular mountains towering overhead.

Slocan River
Date Paddled:  Sept. 5, 2016
Nearest City:  Nelson, BC
Put-In:  Perrys Back Road Bridge
Take-Out:  Winlaw Bridge
Duration:  4 hours
River Miles:  6 miles
Shuttle:  Mike & Ulla ( approx. 7 hwy miles)
Weather:  partly cloudy, few showers, 60s with light breeze
Difficulty:  slow, steady current with no rapids or obstacles
Cfs:  37 cms

The most memorable part of this paddle came in the form of a chance encounter at the start that not only solved the shuttle problem but sparked several friendships.  As we were unloading our boats and equipment at the put in and I was preparing for a bike ride back from the take out a couple, Mike and Ulla, drove up to unload their canoe.  We ended up paddling with them, meeting an artist/metal sculptor friend, Rabi’a, of theirs who lives along the Slocan, and then accepting their invitation for dinner two nights later.

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As for the river…the Slocan is a medium sized river that was at low end-of-summer flow, so it was somewhat shallow but flowed steadily and deeply enough the whole way that we had to do little paddling. It is set in a nice valley of small farms between forested mountains rising several thousand feet on both sides, and though there were signs of humanity, the day had a very peaceful feel to it. The water was very clear with a blue-green tint in the deeper pools. The bottom was mostly sandy and we saw a few fish of unknown type.  We also saw the customary kingfisher, as well as some ducks, hawks, and a turtle.  A bear made an appearance on the road near the take out in Winlaw.  A rail trail that follows the river would have made a nice, if slow, unpaved shuttle route.

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We were thankful for such wonderful experiences and paddles in British Columbia and are looking forward to a happy reunion!