Platte Basin Timelapse Story

Platte Basin Timelapse co-founder Michael Forsberg with a custom camera trap.

Mariah Lundgren

Rivers have been on the minds of many Nebraskans recently. Lincoln photographer Michael Forsberg has been thinking about Nebraska rivers for as long as he can remember. Well, one prairie river in particular.

The Platte River has long been described as a mile wide and an inch deep. That braided stream runs even deeper through Forsberg. By using photography and the latest technology, Forsberg and his team’s images are revealing the true nature of the river spanning the length of Nebraska. It’s an aquatic story more than 900 miles in the making, a chronicle that for Forsberg began during childhood.

The South Platte River begins in Colorado and enters Nebraska southwest of Big Springs. The North Platte River is born in Wyoming and Colorado and flows into the Cornhusker State near Henry in Scotts Bluff County. The two meet near the community of North Platte and flow east to join the Missouri River in Cass County, near appropriately named Plattsmouth (Platte’s mouth) on Nebraska’s eastern border. The rivers undulate, twist and churn for more than 500 miles across Nebraska.

That much we know. What happens elsewhere along the length of the river has largely been a mystery, until now. Forsberg and his team can’t be everywhere along the watershed, but the more than 50 remote cameras in the Platte Basin Timelapse project come close.

Forsberg is known for aiming his lens at Nebraska and surrounding prairie states, capturing breathtaking images and raising awareness of conservation issues. His 2009 book, Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild, is a 260-page photo-driven book about a region he said “doesn’t knock you off your feet at a glance the way the snow-capped Colorado Rockies or the rugged coastline of the Pacific Northwest do.” But, he added, “It can be every bit as remarkable.”

He was still dragging film cameras through mud and muck while following sandhill cranes for his 2004 book, On Ancient Wings: the Sandhill Cranes of North America. Forsberg shot 1,000 rolls of film and traveled 65,000 miles from Nebraska to Cuba, Mexico, Canada and across the United States for the five-year project. He has since traded those film relics for digital photography equipment, but the Platte River is still with him.

The photographer remembers Forsberg family vacations to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. “We’d drive from home in Lincoln on I-80 across Nebraska to I-76, through the High Plains of Colorado and up into the mountains,” Forsberg said. “We followed the Platte all the way in a steel and glass bubble on wheels, and as a kid, I never thought about where the water came from.”

Appreciation for the river would rise to the surface for the first time while visiting grandparents in Kearney. He was a high schooler more interested in plinking tin cans with BB guns than he was the nearby Platte. That changed when Grandpa Forsberg turned onto a dirt road south of the river.

“Grandpa liked big cars and kept them immaculate, so Grandma was flabbergasted when he cranked the wheel of his shiny Chrysler New Yorker onto that dusty road to show me sandhill cranes,” Forsberg said. “They flew in like arrows over the trees and set down in the river through the setting sun. Experiencing it with my grandparents helped me fall in love with those birds, and the Platte has flowed through me ever since.”

Like the sandhill cranes that he holds dear, Forsberg is a spring regular in the Platte Valley, speaking at conferences, or decked out in cryptic camo hoping to capture beautiful images of the river and cranes. He’s an expert on the birds, and he knows the Big Bend region of the Platte River well. During the filming of a documentary about the Great Plains for PBS, Forsberg shared his curiosity about the watershed’s long-term movements with filmmaker and producer Michael Farrell. They concluded that cameras placed in specific locations could help tell the story of the living and breathing river, each taking one photo per hour, every hour during the day.

“As a photographer, living where we live, I hear often from landowners, ‘You should have been here yesterday’ or, ‘I remember when ...’ By putting cameras on the landscape for a long time, we can show change,” Forsberg said. “We can’t stay out there all the time, but the cameras can.”

For the rest of the story see the July/August 2019 issue of Nebraska Life.

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