Little-Known Fact: Did you know that Backpacker Magazine ranked the Niobrara River among the top 10 canoeing rivers in the nation?
Seven hours, one speeding ticket, and several pitstops down the road, we’re standing on the shore of the Niobrara River under a full Nebraska moon. As we look out upon the Midwest landscape, a skeptic in our group questions how so much flat prairie could provide an exciting paddling trip. But hey, some 30,000 canoeists can’t be wrong.
Twisting across northern Nebraska like a watery serpent, the Niobrara River is lined by pine-studded canyons of its own making. These canyons, as well as lively springs and waterfalls and an eclectic mix of biological oddities, make the Niobrara an unparalleled wilderness paddling adventure through America’s heartland.
Although the Niobrara River courses 300 miles from eastern Wyoming all the way across Nebraska to the town of Niobrara, where it flows into the Missouri River, only a small section can be continuously canoed without portaging every 100 yards. It starts at Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge, east of the town of Valentine, and continues to the traditional take-out at Rocky Ford some 26 miles and seven hours downstream.
Longer trips of up to two days are possible if you continue downstream another 14 miles. At Egelhoff Narrows the Niobrara becomes broader, more shallow, and filled with sandbars, so canoeists must be careful when paddling past the traditional takeout. The deeper upstream stretch is part of a 70-mile segment designated a National Wild and Scenic River.
The morning we’ve long anticipated breaks sunny and clear. For the first 5 miles we paddle through the forested canyons of the 19,000-acre Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge.
The swift current, as well as varied skill levels, puts distance between our canoes. Each boat seems to be lost in the illusion of a solo journey. Some of us spot bison grazing, while others watch a motionless heron that’s waiting for an unsuspecting fish to pass too close. My wife and I notice a painted turtle and snapping turtle plop into the river barely a minute apart.
My personal highlight of the trip comes at the halfway point, when we stop at the newly created Smith Falls State Park. We pull off the river and head up a trail next to a crystalline brook, coming face-to-face with a bridal veil of water tumbling over a canyon precipice. At 68 feet, Smith Falls is the tallest waterfall in the Cornhusker State.
Canoeing the Niobrara, which is rated Class I and II, is like traveling on two very different rivers. The first part flows calmly all the way to Smith Falls, lulling you into a false sense of security. But once past Smith Falls, the Niobrara displays renewed vigor in the form of small riffles, rapids, and minor obstacles.
Not more than 40 minutes from Rocky Ford ~ journey’s end for us ~ is the biggest rapid of the trip. The river narrows and is split by Fritz’s Island. Passing around the island to the right, or south, involves negotiating the aptly named “Chute.” Some of us run The Chute, portage the canoes back up, then run the rapids again. The water funnels quickly between a breach in a rock ledge, hits a standing wave, and then drops into a deep but quiet pool.