Niobrara River Canoeing
The summer months are peak season for water sports, but we bet you never expected to fall in love with autumn on the Niobrara. Dream along with a family of veteran river guides as they peacefully drift on an offseason course down this beloved waterway.
ON A GRAY, DRIZZLY DAY in early October, with the temperature struggling to climb out of the 40s, Doug and Twyla Graham climb into the van with their family and head for the Niobrara river below Cornell Dam.
During their heavy and hectic summer’s tourist season, the owners of Graham Outfitters spend seemingly endless hours shuttling vanloads of guests back and forth along Highway 12 be-tween drop-off and pickup points. It is a routine journey this ad-venturous couple has taken for decades. They push in their clients and then pull them out. There’s the constant stacking up, setting out, flipping over, breaking down and cleaning up. It’s all part of the mission to ensure their guests find a fun-filled day.
So, one would think, after entertaining thousands of vacationing canoeists, tubers and kayakers in the summer, the Grahams would spend their fall and winter holidays relaxing on a warmer, more exotic version of waterfront property. Not this Valentine couple. October begins their “personal” season on the Niobrara.
Once in the water by Valentine, they’re floating down-river at a 4- to 7-mph pace until the next landing at Berry Bridge, west of Sparks. Although 76 miles of the approximately 568-mile-long river were designated a national scenic river in 1991, only about 31 miles of that portion of the river are easily navigable.
On this Niobrara joyride, the Grahams have two 16-foot white-water rafts that are much more stable than canoes or kayaks. These rugged crafts can take on Colorado rapids, but for this leisurely trip on the Niobrara, the raft is like a floating limo. Doug sits on a perch at the rear, where he navigates with paddles while the group sits back and enjoys the scenery and quiet conversation.
When most families gather around the dinner table for major holidays, the Grahams and their extended family pile onto the river for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and occasional moonlight floats on silvery water.
In the winter, ice forms on one particular segment of the can-yon through which the group floats as rivulets of water trickle down the sandstone sides. It freezes, thaws and refreezes until the wall looks like a huge waterfall frozen in time. Occasionally, adventure-loving athletes brave frigid temperatures to rappel off the top edge of the canyon and climb the columns of ice.
Doug prefers to negotiate the wintertime river from a kayak, working his way downstream through narrow channels of open water in the otherwise ice-covered river.
“You have to know where you’ll be getting in and getting out of the water,” he said. “If there’s nowhere to get out of the water, you’re in trouble.”
Doug remembers one trip when they had to stop four times to build campfires on the ice to warm up. Another time, an ice edge along the river broke under his and his buddy’s weight. Experience and sheer luck allowed them to jump back onto their kayaks and stay balanced on top of, and not in, the icy river.
Twyla grew up playing and working on the river with her siblings. They helped out with the outfitter’s business run by their father, Roy Breuklander. The Breuklanders attended school with Doug in Valentine, and the close-knit friends spent plenty of time on the river in the early 1970s. They still pass the grove of trees that had been their popular meeting spot for impromptu parties.
Eventually, Twyla and Doug married and started their own out-fitting business, which now involves their three grown children.
In an environmental masterpiece, nature has pulled from the paint palettes of diverse vegetation that coexists along the river.
Scoured sandstone walls – streaked with reddish colors from leaching minerals carried along by spring water that continually percolates to the surface – shoot 150 feet straight skyward.
Rich burgundy, yellow, orange and green against the neutral walls of the canyon textured with vines and flowing shafts of tall grass crowd down to the water’s edge. Along the cliff perimeter, a spiky crew cut of dark pine trees provides a lone eagle a sweep-ing view of the river, as well as the high plains prairie and pine-populated hills beyond.
And familiar landmarks mark off the hours a traveler can spend on the river. From Cornell Bridge, it takes two hours to pass under the Berry Bridge. An hour later is the landing at Smith Falls State Park.
The 70-foot-tall Smith Falls is the premier waterfall along the river, and it’s within easy access. But there are approximately 70 other waterfalls in the area, including nearby Fort Falls on the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge.
An hour beyond Smith Falls is Graham’s Camp near Norden, where the Grahams offer camping, as well as comfy services. They toss steaks on the grill as a sizzling ending to that long day on the river.
Passing beneath a fenced-in bridge, Doug explains the name, “Buffalo Bridge.” The 19,000-acre wildlife refuge, with land adjacent to both sides of the river, uses the bridge each spring and fall to move its bison herd.
“The buffalo have gotten used to the routine and anticipate the move,” Doug said. “They run along the fences during the days prior to the move knowing that, one day, the gate will be open.”
Whatever the season, from fall’s ornate landscape paintings, to the icy chill of winter, the spring fever of a river awakening, or summer’s babbling current pulling along rubber inner tubes, the Grahams will steer river-goers straight through the heart of Cherry County’s scenic treasure.
For more information on Graham Outfitters, visit their website at grahamoutfitters.com, or contact them at (402) 376-3708.