I’m a firm believer in the concept of Hike Your Own Hike, both as it applies to outdoor sports and to life in general. You have to do what’s right for you; other people will do what’s right for them. I will never be an adrenaline junkie, nor are my exploits ever likely to be featured in Outside magazine or its ilk. The activities I like mostly fall under the category of mule-work: If it’s slow and involves a lot of sweat, I’ll probably enjoy it.
Of course, even a plodding pack mule-type can get into a scrape, and the great – and terrible – thing about life in the outdoors is, there are are plenty of scrapes out there to get yourself into. If you are my grandmother, you will interpret this to mean that death lurks in the wilderness in many forms, its primary form being Imminent. If you are my mother, you are undoubtedly worried for me as well, though because I have been making successful trips into the woods for years and years, you have probably developed some confidence in my planning forethought and general capabilities. I like to believe I deserve this confidence … most of the time.
Late May of last year, J and I went on a packrafting trip. Spring had arrived, bringing with it warmer weather, and in Wyoming, where winters are most definitely winters, you pay attention to these things. The weekend was in front of us, and we both needed a break from grad school. Because neither of us had been there before, we decided to go to the sand hills of northwestern Nebraska.
It was J who found a website describing the Dismal River. The Dismal, at least the part we planned to visit, is a long, smooth stretch of water frequented by the occasional canoeist. At its worst it’s an easy Class II float, meaning that there are a few small waves and drops, but nothing big enough to upset small inflatable rafts like ours. The most significant hazards on the river are downed trees and the occasional barbed wire fence crossing the channel. According to the website, the worst of the dead-fall was kept pruned to allow for recreation traffic, and most of the fence blockades could be safely floated under. Those that couldn’t had portage options.
Our original plan was to float the fifteen river-miles between the Nebraska Highway 97 bridge and the Seneca bridge. The website predicted that the trip would take 6-8 hours. J relayed this information to me, because I hadn’t actually spent time researching the trip myself. The thing is, when your husband is both a map nerd and an extremely enthusiastic planner of outdoor activities, being lazy is easy. I had gotten used to J organizing our joint trips. But even the best of planners can make a mistake, and since our weekend plans were thrown together at the last minute, both he and I should have been reviewing the details.
We were doing a shuttle, which meant driving two cars out to the river. My car we left near the bridge by our take-out. J’s car we drove to the put-in. For being in a place like Nebraska, which I’ve always pictured as fairly developed farm country, there are surprisingly few roads. The ones that access the Dismal River do so at perpendicular angles, shooting off in a northerly direction for some distance before meeting the east-west angled Highway 2. For miles to the north and south of the river itself there is little except rolling, open countryside and scattered strips of woodland. Ranching country. I knew the drive to the put-in would be circuitous, but I remember commenting at one point, “This is taking a while, isn’t it?”
“Don’t worry,” said J. “I know where we’re going.”
He found the Highway 97 bridge without trouble, but by the time we had our packrafts inflated and our gear together, it was 2:30 in the afternoon. J and I looked at our watches, and then at each other. “We both have our headlamps,” I said. “And we’ve finished a lot of our trips after dark. It’s not ideal, but we drove all this way. The packrafts are only about five pounds each, and the rest of our gear isn’t too heavy. If it gets too dark for floating, we can hike the last few miles.”
J agreed, and we set off down the river. It was a beautiful day. For once all the guilt and stress of grad school faded away, and I was simply on an adventure. Navigating the fallen trees in the river was a challenge at first. There seemed to be one around every corner, and if you made the wrong approach you would quickly find yourself face to face with a mass of tangled branches. Our maneuvering improved as we went downstream, and eventually the river channel opened up a bit. There was a lot of wildlife, too: deer, turkeys, a raccoon, even a bison. He wasn’t wild; one of the ranchers whose property bordered the Dismal had a bison herd. My dog, Ziggy, who was sitting between my knees in the front of my raft, watched the shoreline with the alertness of a hunting dog (which she is not), and whined quietly whenever we passed close by another animal. When we floated down the one real section of rapids, she got nervous, jumped out of the boat, and swam to shore. I pulled off to the side, picked her up, and on we went.
(A promising beginning)
As expected, when late afternoon faded to evening and the light began to dim, we had yet to reach our take-out bridge. J and I muscled on with our paddles around a few more bends before giving in to the inevitable. Soon it would be too dark to safely spot obstacles in the river. By this time here had also been a good number of portages around fence blockades in the channel, and the frequent getting in and out of the rafts had left me wet and cold. Pulling out would allow both of us to dry our hiking pants, and walking the remaining distance would warm us up more efficiently than merely sitting in the rafts and moving our paddles would.
The rafts, paddles, and gear fit, somewhat awkwardly, into our two bags, and Ziggy found herself attached to one end of a leash. She still wore her doggy PFD. J and I put on a few more clothing layers and donned our headlamps. My first inclination was to stay close to the river bank, but the thick tree cover immediately surrounding the channel promised a bushwhack. Instead we climbed up a long slope and broke out onto an ocean of sand, grass, and low shrubs. The river was no longer visible as such, but even in the dim starlight we could see the dark smudge of trees lining our drainage. Keep those trees in sight, I thought, remembering other hikes, and other mistakes. Around us the sand hills crested and sank like waves. It would be easy to get lost out here.
Up: Grass, sand, and aerobic workout. Down: careful footing, struggle through shrubs. Up and down, up and down. Grass and sand, shrubs and struggle. Always moving toward the east. 9:00 p.m. 9:30 p.m. 10:00 p.m. We reached the eight hour mark in our trip at 10:30, but there was still no sign of our road or bridge. I knew what our take-out looked like, and we hadn’t passed it. 11:00 p.m. Keep hiking. Surely we’ll see it soon. 11:30 p.m. Nothing. More hills. Keep hiking.
When my watch told me it was past midnight I put all my expectations aside. We were not lost — down there in the smudgy dark trees somewhere was our river — but we weren’t back to the car at the take-out, either. It was becoming increasingly obvious that something was wrong, but for the moment, all we could do was continue forward.
Sometime after 1:00 a.m. I finally turned to J and said, “Do you think the rafts could work as blankets?”
J, Ziggy, and I spooned in our improvised shelter for about an hour. Ziggy had fallen asleep right away, sprawling out as though it wasn’t so cold we could all see our breath on the air. I had the best spot — in the middle — and was able to doze for a while by matching my breathing to J’s steady rhythm, and burying my face in Ziggy’s fur. By 2:30 a.m. we were on our feet, J and I moving briskly at first to warm ourselves up again. I felt surprisingly refreshed after our short stop, and all three of us seemed to keep a better pace after that.
During the course of the night we had learned some things about the landscape around us. The sand hills sloped more steeply the closer we were to the river, and the occasional side gully encouraged us to keep the Dismal at a greater distance. Further away from the river the landscape was gentler, which meant less hill climbing for us, and because we avoided the side gullies we encountered fewer shrubs. It was harder to see the river drainage from where we were, so we had to find other ways to navigate. Feeling a little foolish, like wannabe navigators, we soon hit upon the idea of following the stars. There wasn’t much to it — we picked a cluster that hung in the direction we needed to go, and walked toward them. Every so often we would check to see that we were still following our drainage, look at how far the stars had shifted in the sky, and pick a new target.
There was one other marker as well. Off on the horizon to the northeast was a searchlight beam. It had to be from one of the few small towns off of Highway 2. “Seneca, maybe,” said J at first, when we noticed it. And later, “I think it’s Thedford.” Our takeout should’ve been directly south of Seneca. Thedford was the next town to the east. I liked seeing that light, even though we weren’t aiming for its town. It was a friendly presence in the night, a constant reminder that civilization existed somewhere nearby.
Sunday morning came gradually, lightening both the sky and our moods. By this time we were pausing more frequently, the three of us drooping together on a hill slope for five minutes or so in a tired stupor, until the cold air forced us to get up and move again. The landscape was also changing. There were more fence lines to cross, more two-tracks to follow. Just before sunrise we found ourselves approaching a cluster of houses, and decided it was time to float the river again. Down on the riverbank, a deer approached us as we shared leftover food from our bags and inflated our rafts. It was obviously used to people feeding it. Ziggy’s first reaction was to chase it away, but when it came close again Zig looked as though she might be afraid. J and I shooed it away as best as we could. Soon we were in our rafts, pushing out onto the chilly, mist-hung water, and I thought to myself that sitting down had never felt so good.
We spent half of Sunday floating the river. The day was warm again, and Ziggy spent much of the time asleep, her head lolling awkwardly over the raft’s edge. There were no more portages, although we navigated under several more fence lines. Finally, sometime after noon, we came around a bend in the river, and there was our bridge. We had floated and hiked all the way to U.S. Highway 82, which was 24 river-miles past the Seneca bridge, and a full 39 river-miles from our put-in. J later hypothesized that a gravel ranch road we had crossed in the middle of the night was the Seneca road. We had ignored it at the time, because it was too small to be the road we were looking for. And, though it should have been our road, it wasn’t. Our road was another twenty or so miles further east.
Later that day as we sat in a small-town cafe over big plates of food, I said to J, “That. Was the Best. Adventure. Ever. …But,” I added, “Let’s not do anything like it again.”
(A view of the Nebraska sandhills)