We’re sitting in lawn chairs inside a 7-foot-wide metal livestock tank, drifting down the North Loup River in the Nebraska Sandhills. Every now and then, our sturdy tank lodges on a sandbar. My 13-year-old son, Max, leaps into the shallow, warm waters to push us back into the slow-moving current.
We swirl along the bank like being on a State Fair teacup ride. We’re all alone out here, no life jackets or paddles, just the sounds of crickets and the unobstructed sight of swaying reeds. My 9-year-old daughter, Anna, picks a cattail before climbing out of the flat-bottomed tank, giggling as her feet plunge into the river’s sandy bottom.
Thousands of years ago, the winds in western Nebraska swept loose sand into huge dunes, some of which stand 400 feet high and 20 miles long. A thin layer of prairie grass now anchors the sand in place, making for the largest dune field in the Northern Hemisphere at 20,000 square miles. It’s largely used for grazing.
Since 2009, the Great Plains, which includes the Sandhills, have lost 53 million acres of grasslands to crop fields, says a report from the World Wildlife Fund. Habitat loss has put creatures like the American bumblebee and monarch butterfly at risk. Meanwhile, overpumping has reduced the amount of groundwater in the Ogallala Aquifer, putting crops at risk.
But Nebraska nonprofits and for-profits have banded together, through the Great Plains Ecotourism Coalition, to try to save more land from being razed, and my kids and I have come to the Sandhills to help be part of the solution. Our tourism dollars will bring some extra revenue to help ranchers stay on the land and aid in their conservation efforts, while they educate us on the area.
“Ecotourism is good for everybody,” said Katie Nieland of the Center for Great Plains Studies. “It’s good for landowners, it’s good for wildlife, and it’s good for people who want to come see open spaces.” The hope is that visitors leave as Great Plains advocates.
‘You are what you are’
On our first night, we stayed at the rustic Uncle Buck’s Lodge (unclebuckslodge.com) in Brewster, Neb., population 17. Marilyn and Walt Rhoades built it in 1994 after splitting their ranch between their grown children and now earn income through ecotourism.
“Ranching doesn’t always make a living for three families,” said Marilyn. Her family has lived on the land since 1881, when they “floated in” cedar trees to build a two-room shack. The couple often host hunters from the coasts.
“We’ll eat whenever you’re ready,” Marilyn called out from behind the hand-carved bar when we returned from our three-hour tanking journey on the river (which is available through the lodge). She does most of the cooking herself, as good help is hard to find out here, and I was struck by how hard she works. That night she made meaty spaghetti, my daughter’s favorite meal, along with green beans and bacon, as well as fresh cucumber and onion. She served it buffet-style — or “home style,” as she called it — in her chef’s kitchen.
Sandhillers, she said, are a practical people. A hospitable people. It’s not a place where people show off. “You are what you are, and if somebody likes you, that’s fine, and if they don’t, don’t put on airs for anybody,” she said.
While in some ways the Sandhills feels like a forgotten part of the U.S. (we drove for miles without seeing much sign of settlement), to Marilyn it is home, and steeped in a culture that she doesn’t want to see bulldozed away.
“It’s one of the last places in the Northern Hemisphere that’s still like it was 100 years ago,” she said, which makes her protective of it. Winds can tear the land, causing a “blowout” where hundreds of feet of sand are exposed. “You drive the wrong way in the wrong place, and it’ll take maybe 20, 30 years for the land to heal back up.”
Depending on the land
From Uncle Buck’s, we drove about an hour east to the Switzer Ranch near Burwell, founded in 1904 (calamusoutfitters.com). They use ecotourism activities like bird-watching along with cabin rentals and Calamus River recreation to supplement their income from their 12,000-acre cow/calf operation.
Sarah Sortum, who owns the Switzer Ranch along with her parents and brother, took us on a Jeep eco-tour. She appeared hot dressed in jeans, but said if you start the summer that way, you adjust.
When we got to the first gate, her son, Emmett, who was 11 and training to wrestle steers, jumped out to open it. He seemed comfortable on the land, like he was used to physical work. The grass came alive beneath his boots, and grasshoppers flew up. One landed on the windshield, and I flinched while my daughter shrieked. It left me with the feeling that if we all got lost in the woods, he’d be the one to find his way out.
Sarah plucked plants and grasses and showed us a windmill that churned up water from the ground for the cattle while calves eyed us from behind their moms.
Then we drove to the top of a sandhill that gave us a peaceful 10-mile panoramic view beneath a clear, blue sky. It made me think of the “Little House on the Prairie” books I’d read with my daughter, and made me nostalgic for a land I never knew. It helped me understand what Marilyn Rhoades was trying to say: that we aren’t just losing a landscape, but a way of life that humbles you. Living here you understand that you’re dependent on the land and subject to its whims and weather.
“It’s easy in a country where we’re not hungry to complain,” said Sarah.
Emmett showed us two steers he was raising for his 4-H project. One will be slaughtered to feed his family, while the other he’ll donate as ground beef to a local school. He tenderly stroked their noses, and it broke my heart. Sarah seemed to understand where my mind went.
“We love animals just like anybody else,” she said. “They’re why we’re able to be out here as a family. Unfortunately, for us to live in this world, other things have to be used.” I looked over at my kids, hoping they’d understand why it’s important not be careless or wasteful, why you need to learn the difference between needs and wants.
I asked Sarah why she felt compelled to help save the Sandhills from being plowed under. She thought for a moment. “I think it’s dangerous to experiment with that game of ‘What is the tipping point?’ When species start to disappear, how long before everything falls apart? Are we going to develop ourselves out of food?” she asked.
“Right now, our bird population is doing great, and we’re glad of that. But if their habitat goes away and species suddenly find it hard to survive, then I think it is only a matter of time before humanity is going to find it hard to survive as well.”
Jennifer Jeanne Patterson lives in Edina and is the author of “52 Fights.” Find her at unplannedcooking.com.