Fort Robinson Summer Fun
Cloudy mornings at Fort Robinson begin with a distant shout. Vacationing guests don’t notice. They’re sound asleep. But livestock snaps to attention as a young wrangler looks to the bluffs and hollers “HaaarrrrrSaaaasss!”
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(This story first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)
LINDEN HUGHES, horse wrangler from nearby Crawford, leads the roundup. “Without the clouds, the horses would gauge the sun and arrive exactly on time,” he says. They straggle down from hills and valleys in groups bound by personalities, then slip into the corral and into their personal stalls like students arriving in class seats for first period. A dappled gray and a palomino are notoriously last in the trail-riding herd that, in terms of numbers, pales in comparison to the 12,000 horses gathered at Fort Robinson in 1943 as Army cavalry units traded in their hay-powered mounts for mechanized, gasoline-guzzling iron horses.
Along the fence rest saddles with names tooled in leather: Monkey, Optimus, Pistol and Peanutbutter. Monkey bites other horses and steals their grain. Peanutbutter is massive and mellow. Many are overtly friendly toward wranglers who coax them along with pats on the rump, speaking to them like children with loving, teasing comments about each horse’s idiosyncrasies.
The animals know the routine: There are guests to carry and there are oats waiting. At 8 a.m., long lines of excited visitors head for the hills on veteran mounts. Soon after, the rest of Fort Robinson awakes. Stagecoach rides begin and Maxine Balderson of Benkleman boards with her two young granddaughters, Catrina and Maxine. Their driver, Clay Andersen, coaxes his chestnut mules around a well-worn, wooded trail. “C’mon Betty! C’mon Bill!” he calls out with a snap of the reins. “It’s bumpy!” Catrina shouts. “But it’s fun.”
The girls next paint figurines in the fort’s craft shop. Silently they concentrate while Grandma watches admiringly. Young Jordyn Flavin of Hays, Kan., paints her ceramic duck orange while older sister, Megan, works on a sunflower. “We’ve been coming here our whole lives,” Megan says. Their dad grew up 20 miles away in Harrison. “Our favorite things are the pool and catching grasshoppers.”
Grasshoppers are expected in this dry and grassy place, but the pool surprises first-time visitors. It’s enclosed and it’s huge. Three diving boards line the deep end. Energetic whoops echo as children dive. A wrangler in a cowboy hat leans against the lifeguard tower watching stunts off the
high board. Vincent Schuetz from Shafter, Calif., is worth watching. Fearless back flips have land-lubbers cheering, “Do it again! Go higher!”
But this is Fort Robinson, a playground of outdoorsy adventure. At the corrals, some horses approach fences to be petted. Their immensity, their smell, the heat of their breath, the sound of tails swishing at flies – this is all new to many people here. It’s personal and powerful. Michelle, a teenager from Kearney, is here with her youth group. A wrangler boosts her into the saddle. “This is the first time I’ve touched a horse!” she whispers excitedly while stroking its reddish-brown neck. Her smile is contagious. Others trailer their own horses and spend days riding the bluffs. Peggy Butler of Wisconsin is tricked out in pro riding gear as she unsaddles Shiloh after a long ride. “He’s a good guy,” she says, stroking his brown speckled face. “We’ve been doing this together for a long, long time.”
Nearby, along the banks of the White River, eager families apply sunscreen in the shade of giant cottonwood trees before launching a fleet of kayaks hued in each color of the rainbow. Few know how to maneuver the plastic crafts, but it doesn’t matter. The White is a narrow, shallow, forgiving creek, deeply set, grassy and winding. Floating backwards and sideways with abandon, the novice voyagers bump along downstream.
Young Logan Jankovits has the duty of dropping off and picking up the kayakers. “It’s a pretty good job. They’re happy getting in and happy getting out,” he says. On a calm day, Jankovits can hear the drifters’ laughs for at least 15 minutes as they satisfy their appetite for adventure. But eventually no sound remains but the gurgling of the stream and the calls of birds and bugs.