Good Vibes at Blue Creek Lodge

Dreams do come true in Garden County, where Denver-born rancher Greg Polk chose to build his Blue Creek Lodge and Ranch. Years in the making, Polk's prairie paradise is open to visitors craving quality 'self time'.

(This story originally appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

THE STORY OF Nebraska is one of people working to live on the land. Many farms and ranches are built over decades and passed from family member to family member, with each generation doing its part to preserve, survive, and God willing, to grow.

Greg Polk was brought up in the big city of Denver and would visit ranching cousins a few hours north at Oshkosh in Garden County, Nebraska. He was a city kid, but learned to appreciate the land and the lifestyle that can go with it. One day, he told his cousins, he’d be a farmer and rancher.

“They said, ‘Unless you are born into it, you don’t have a prayer,’ ” Polk said as we drove 15 miles in his Dodge Charger from Oshkosh to his ranch near Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

His cousins’ words were a challenge, and Polk is a man who will rise against a challenge. His mom grew up on a feedlot in Colorado and his dad in Oshkosh. Grandma Polk still lives in Oshkosh, but his family moved to Denver before he was born. They were a hard-working, hard-playing city family who built an insurance business during the week and spent the weekends hunting and experiencing the outdoors together.

After college and without much money, Polk began working construction – first roofing and then paving. He eventually built a business spanning Colorado with 200 employees and worth a small fortune. With no wife or children, all of it was for the goal of making enough money to become a farmer and rancher in Garden County.

“I hunted at the Blue Creek as a kid and dreamed about owning it,” Polk said during our drive as the land changed from flat table to rolling sand hills.



As the main thoroughfare to the refuge, County Road 181 is wide and well-traveled – enough width for two cattle trucks to pass. Government officials once talked of paving it. Polk and others lobbied against the progress, preferring the scenic route to a fast and straight Sandhills version of a super highway.

The road crested and descended into a valley with Blue Creek flowing from left to right. The creek drains Ogallala Aquifer spring water from the wildlife refuge, but wildlife knows no boundaries. Trumpeter swans swaddle in the reeds at creek’s edge. Canada geese and mallard ducks congregate on ponds. White-tailed deer and Hereford cattle mingle on the hillsides. On the creek’s north bank is the incarnation of Polk’s life-long dream: Blue Creek Livestock and Blue Creek Lodge.

With a mix of urban and country, Polk brings a city flair to the ranch and lodge. A red barn and red machine shop come into view, orderly white corrals behind them. A long drive with mowed grass and trees announces the entrance. His home overlooks the creek and sand hills. A lodge overlooks a pond. Hundreds of jar lights that burn 24/7 line two pond docks and the fascia of the lodge and house. The farm and ranch beyond spans 10,000 acres of pasture and pivots, with some 1,200 cattle in pastures, in his feed lot or munching on corn stubble.

Outside investment dollars flow into land across Nebraska, but this part of the Sandhills is especially popular. Polk’s neighbors include a CNN-famed Ted Turner bison ranch, a Church of Latter Day Saints cattle ranch and the historic 140,000-acre Eldridge Ranch. The grass is good for cattle production, and the water flows freely into sandy soil with pockets of loam for irrigated pivots of corn, alfalfa and hay.

Once Polk’s asphalt business grew big enough in the 1990s, he began buying land. He’d spend four days in Denver and three working the ranch. As he was leaving the city on Thursday afternoons, city friends would ask how he liked the country. He’d reply, “It’s good, but you don’t have Sundays, but you don’t have Mondays, either.”

Back then, it was Polk and one hired man working the ranch. Polk sold his asphalt business in 2008 and moved to the ranch. He built a house and a 3,200-square-foot guest lodge that sleeps eight, which he rents out for $400 a night. Today, he has a crew of four that is part cowboy, part construction team. On any given day, the well-rounded bunch might be vaccinating cattle, forming up concrete or changing the drive shaft in a loader truck.

NEW COWBOY LEVI RAUCH moved here earlier this year from the Colorado Springs area, where he and his wife, Ali, managed ranches and ran a guest lodge. Ali didn’t want to move to remote Nebraska until she drove CR 181 with Levi, came over the hill and was hooked. Their daughter, Madison, is 10 years old, and after spending formative years in and around the city, they wanted her to have a real rural life. “I want her to work and know why and be able to train her own horses,” he said.

The other three Blue Creek cowboys are four-year lead cowboy Brent Waltman and Taylor Schwartz, both Oshkosh natives, and Arno Botha from Cape Town, South Africa, whom they call “Happy Feet.” Mornings at the ranch begin for the men at 7 a.m. and end around dark. Winter brings short days and an occasional evening around a fire pit filled with cottonwood logs.

Diesel splashed on the logs sends flames into the night sky and the cowboys to the back of their seats. Polk hands them all bottles of cold Bud Light while the night air turns from warm to chilled. Polk has been traveling, and the men are eager to pick his brain about the ranch. The round-fire conversation begins with cattle, genetics, crops and cross-pollination. After a few more cottonwood logs and douses of diesel, the stories begin to flow about high adventure.

Every day is different, and some are punctuated with excitement, like when Waltman and Botha spied a jackrabbit. Botha popped off a few rounds from a .22 caliber rifle then turned to Waltman and matter-of-factly said, “I shot myself in the foot.” With a trip to the hospital, a few stitches and three days of house rest, he was back at work by week’s end.

A little later, the men talked about why they like to live here and do this work. Most of them have lived elsewhere and chose this rural lifestyle that, if anything, is defined by work, responsibility and consequences. South African Botha had no farm or rural experience, but came to America and traveled with a wheat harvest crew until he met his wife at Oshkosh. Now, he’s settled down with a family and building up his own cattle herd with the money he makes from Blue Creek.

One of the good things about living in the country is no cell service, they said. The house and lodge have repeaters, but cell phones don’t work beyond that. It allows them to think, listen and pay attention to the world around them. Rauch, Polk and Botha all noted the “city hum,” the sound that rings in your head as a result of living in the city. Spend a few days in the country and the hum disappears, your eyes become sharper and your hearing picks up the details of the world around you. Just then, a flock of geese rise from the pond a hundred yards away, wings fluttering in the night, with the fire crackling at our feet.

Polk announced that he was flying to Nashville in a few days for a concrete and asphalt conference. Margins are tight in farming and ranching. Polk has an opportunity to buy a business in the city that will allow him to funnel more cash into the ranch. “If we want to grow as a ranch, we’ve got to make some side income,” he said. The men are in charge of the ranch while he is gone, he told them.

What his cousins meant is that farming and ranching is tough – even harder if you don’t have a family in the business – but there is a lifestyle that is worth preserving, building and growing.

Polk hopes to share this lifestyle with families who visit and stay at the lodge. Unlike the city, there are no amusement park rides or high-adventure activities at the ranch. Some people come to hunt or go fishing. Some swim in the ponds and float the river. Others come for “self time” and to spend time with family, sitting by the fire, enjoying the ponds and watching the natural world around them.

(This story originally appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

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