29 September 2015

Effort Underway to Acquire Rocky Ford for Public Use

Efforts are now underway to purchase some few acres of property at Rocky Ford, along the Niobrara National Scenic River.

The National Park Service is actively working to purchase the locale from a willing seller, said Steve Thede, superintendent of the Niobrara National Scenic River.

"A key focus of our Niobrara River efforts are to provide easily available public access," Thede said about Rocky Ford. "We want to provide free access to everybody to enjoy the river, including outfitters, others enjoying a personal float, as well as people wanting to experience their time along the river."

"We are considering all options," on the purchase Thede said, including any potential partnership with the Niobrara Council, Middle Niobrara NRD, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and even private entities interested acquiring a site that would provide permanent, public access to the river.

Funds to purchase the land, buildings and business consideration associated with a 25-acre site have been requested from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is derived from royalties paid to lease public lands for oil and gas extraction. There would be no tax funds used for the purchase, Thede said.

The proposal is only one of two submitted by the Midwest region of the National Park Service for the current U.S.A. fiscal year.

The property is currently the location of Rocky Ford Outfitters, owned by Kerry Kreuger, a longtime outfitter that has provided river access for decades.

There are already a few public access points along the section of the Niobrara River where most float trips occur, including at Brewer Bridge and at Meadville. Fort Niobrara NWR is a federal refuge at the western end of the section and is a popular starting point for floating the river.

Smith Falls State Park is located on property which is leased from a private landowner. Some public access points are located at Brewer Bridge and at Meadville.

"Rocky Ford is an excellent site to provide river access for Nebraskans and others," Thede said. "Visitors wanting to enjoy the Niobrara should not always have to depend on the good will of private landowners for access. Quality of life in the state includes this river. People should be able to freely visit now, as well as by future generations."

"We want to guarantee public access at this site in perpetuity," Thede said.

If Rocky Ford was publicly owned, there would be new visitor opportunities, including perpetual access during any time of the year, as well as new opportunities that could be provided by facilities where people with handicaps could get riverside to enjoy the sights and sounds of the Niobrara, in their own manner.

Thede mentioned some important features of the ford, as it is one of the unique rapids along the central portion of the river: 1) it has been called the "heart of the river," 2) Rocky Ford is the only major rapids on a miles long section of the river 3) it is an ideal takeout spot, and 4) it provides access to the most prominent last seven miles of the floatable river.

Owning a few acres would also allow an opportunity to walk about and enjoy the flora and fauna, as well as the river valley.

Information on the potential purchase has been discussed at the last two meetings of the Niobrara Council, with consideration of a draft resolution where NPS and the council would support public access distributed at the September meeting.

Thede has been superintendent of the scenic river since December, 2013, and still learning more about the special features of the Niobrara. "I look forward to visiting more sites along the scenic river, especially toward its eastern extent, and perhaps elsewhere along the Niobrara, including westward in Cherry county when not working."

28 September 2015

Volunteers Improve Trail at Valentine City Park

A crew ready to work gathered at Valentine City Park on the morning of September 26th at 10 a.m. It was National Public Lands Day and attention was to be given to establish a new alignment for an eroded section of the Minnechaduza loop trail.

Volunteers included Mark Lindvall, Jim Dahlstrom, Kim Martin, Tom Borszich, Nathan Tillinghast and Jim Ducey.

Tools were ample with neariy all of them – including shovels, chainsaw, rake, a couple of adze, etc.; as well as some tasty donuts - brought by men in trucks of the National Park Service. Their contribution also included several appropriate lengths of 4x4 lumber needed to stabilize and provide steps for the trail. Borszich thankfully had a couple of long drill bits needed to drill holes for lengths of rebar hammered in to anchor the wood, as well as a spare power tool battery which helped in getting the work done.

Missing was a broom that could have been used to convey a clean situation, especially on the bridge were chainsaw work was done.

The day’s task started with removal of some worn pieces of 4x4 lumber on the hill slope. Three flags marked the new route for the trail. Shovel-fulls of dirt were moved to establish the new alignment. Tree roots were forcefully removed to get a properly wide and smooth surface. Lumber was placed and anchored. Eventually, some cedar branches were placed appropriately to stifle where erosion was most serious, adjacent to a groundwater spring which emptied into the adjacent Minnechaduza Creek.

Dirt was suitably placed to anchor the trail-side and get a proper setting for steps. Once the surface was leveled and smoothed, salvaged trail rock was spread over the dirt.

It was a job well done as by everybody present that contributed to park improvement. During the time, someone involved with a Scout group in Valentine stopped by and expressed a conciliatory tone as he would have liked to have the scout group involved, but he had learned about the project just a day or two prior.

Alas, should have used the flash to take this picture, since it is the best available.

On Sunday, some personal time was spent picking up litter along the Cowboy Trail within Valentine. This may seem like an easy task, yet when trying to place the trash into either of the two available receptacles at the Valentine trail building, both were so completely full that there was hardly room to stuff in some pieces of paper with numbers, probably associated with some organized event on the previous day. To the east, bits of cactus were removed from the concrete – perhaps to help riders avoid a troublesome thorn piercing a bicycle tire – and some weeds were pulled from cracks in the trail surface and along its edge. The bench along the trail was the first place dealt with as weeds where feet belong is not welcoming.

Afterwards, some thorns were pulled from fingers because caution, or gloves are needed to deal with the prickly weeds.

25 September 2015

Rain Event Suppresses Avian Activity at Bluebird Shack

The rain on Wednesday started soon after what would have been sunrise time. It was a steady downpour spread across the creek valley and beyond, and certainly too much to venture forth via a bicycle. Despite an intent to attend a public hearing on a Nebraska legislative resolution.

Rain continued during the entire 22nd day of September. Usual antics and activities of the local birdlife were not seen.

Species that should have been around were several Eastern Bluebird, a few Mourning Dove, a bunch of House Finch and perhaps a glimpse or two of other sorts of birds.

It was late in the afternoon until the first American Robin was seen, perched individually on a power line outside the north window. During the hour, a Northern Flicker with variable feather coloration flew across the canyon. Even the diminutive and resident House Wren was not vividly skulking amidst the weeds about the corrals to its usual extent.

Drop by drop, the falling water continued unceasingly, with a continual patter on the roof of the shack.

Before evening, some other bird types seen were a Clay-colored Sparrow and a Lincoln's Sparrow. An American Crow deliberately flying south was the only dark spot against the shades of gray sky.

At 7 p.m. there was a complete rainbow in the eastern sky, so obviously some sunlight was shining somewhere.

Got sort of drenched cleaning up about the shack and while taking the trash can down the lane to Lake Shore Drive so it would be suitably placed for the ca. 6 a.m. arrival of the working man.

Rain continued after the time of official sunset, meaning the result was more than a dozen hours of continual precipitation. And then came some lightning and thunder, notably about 8:40 p.m., even though some faux clearing sky was seen to the west. Using the folklofe axiom to consider the distance of the rumblings, the weather was about ten miles west in Cherry county. A few minutes later another duo of a thunderstorm occurred, again to the south.

Counting a number for each second and then using division is only an approximation is just approximate, but it can still be indicative.

With lightning and thunder at 9;25 and drizzle the storm seemed to be lessening. Yet, by 10:30 p.m. there was a steady downpour with the falling drops enough to rouse a guy from his sleep in the bluebird shack.

A known tally for the locale was 3.58 inches in the nearby heart city. Further to the south, 30 minutes according to the pen man, there fell 7 inches.

In the morning on the 24th, there was a bunch of birds about, with moisture in the air either as a fog or slightly bit of active drizzle.

A new addition to the bird list was a male Indigo Bunting. There were a bunch of House Finch, as usual. Several Eastern Bluebird were subtly vocalizing as perched above the shack. One, on the wire, had a green worm-type bug it was going to devour. After thrashing it against the wire a couple of times, it finally wrapped the prey around the wire, as if waiting for it to be well done. The juvenile bluebird was still not satisfied so the edible was grabbed and tossed about and placed back on the wire. It was not a good choice, as the bug fell to the ground. The somewhat blue bird did not follow so the food item was lost. This bird was later seen nearby going after something else to eat.

A diminutive Eastern Phoebe perched on the fence, looking for a bit to eat. There was a bunch of activity going on.

Other typical species of the morning included American Goldfinch, a flock of House Finch, the raucous Blue Jay, and Mourning Dove on the wire. The House Wren was much more active.

After a jaunt, following a hard ride, and after the stop at the stupid library, and, at the auction barn, it was a soaked place. When it began to drizzle about the noon hour, there was a joke about the rain would help "settle the dust." The pens were already drenched, so Shirley's comment was an obvious paradox of commentary.

It was beneath grey lead skies and drizzle that my return to the shack occurred. The place was not welcoming in the afternoon due to efforts to "tidy up."

Information from the National Weather Service office conveys:
"Officially at the airport on September 23, the total precipitation in Valentine was 3.58 inches. This shattered the daily record 0.66 inches set in 1941. This also set the record for wettest any September day. The previous record was 2.92 inches set on September 1, 1909. Finally this was the 4th wettest calendar day every recorded. The wettest day was 4.00 inches set on May 25, 1920."

14 September 2015

Ranger Branum Leaving Niobrara River Position

After years of appreciating the Niobrara National Scenic River, Andrew "Andy" Branum is returning to the east.

As a field ranger, he’s paddled the Niobrara for seven summer seasons promoting appreciation and enjoyment of the river and its resources, notably the 20 miles between the Berry Bridge and the Rock Barn.

The Niobrara is a "river I will know the best," he said. "Every few yards brings back a memory" of past times including contact with visitors and enjoying the nature of the river. He has paddled the river during every month of the year.

"I know most every rock, swimming hole, snag tree, shallow place and deep hole along the river," Branum said. One of his last floats was during the night of 1-2 September, beneath the light of a half moon.

As a National Park Service ranger along the river, tasks included protecting people from people, protecting people from the resource, and, protecting the resource from the people, he said. Job responsibilities included public outreach, emergency assistance, crowd control, picking up litter, creating suitable trails, preventing erosion and, importantly, educating people on the value of the riverine resource.

Branum became a park service ranger in a roundabout manner.

While considering career options, he took a public service exam for a city maintenance position, and ended up being offered a job as a police officer instead!

While attending the training academy, other attendees were getting credentials to become a seasonal NPS ranger, so he did the same, and eventually received the proper accreditation. Previously, he received a degree in sociology and emergency management from an Ohio university. His background also includes having played drums semiprofessionally for a several rock bands. An appreciation of the outdoors is partially because of perch fishing with his father Joe Branum on the Great Lakes, and times at the Florida Keys. Snorkeling and ice skating on the water were other appreciated times outdoors.
Upon graduating, a decision to apply for a seasonal park ranger led to a change in career. "I applied for every job that had the word river" in the job location, he said. His first season along the Niobrara River was in 2009. I joke that I came for a six month seasonal position seven years ago and never went home.

Pictures courtesy of Ranger Branum.

He was surprised upon his arrival at Valentine, noting especially the river and being able to paddle on nationally recognized waters, the variety of the ecosystems, the McKelvie division of the Nebraska National Forest, and also, world class opportunities for mountain biking and rock climbing in the Black Hills.

After seasonal employment for two seasons, he moved to Valentine full-time and soon realized the unique character of the Niobrara River and its valley.

None of the river resources "would be worth conserving if ranchers, farmers, camp ground owners and outfitters" had not already established the values along the river, Branum said. "The scenery and quality of the land is due to the stewardship of landowners and users. Outfitters bring people that appreciate the valley."

"There are many reasons for visitation at the river," Branum said. The park service "has to accommodate different interests."

"The river gets literally wild at times," he said, as some visitors "let loose" during their float experience. "Wild life can include students letting loose." Others appreciate and enjoy a quiet time with their family.

The Park Service "takes the experience that every person has very seriously," he said during a recent interview at the scenic river office.

During weekends of the busy summer season, there are more people along the Niobrara River than within the city of Valentine, Branum said.

"It’s like a small floating city down there and we only have two pairs of rangers providing for public safety, emergency medical technicians, police work, litter clean up, and getting lost people back to their campsites each night."

During his tenure, Branum has noted changes in river use.

"While canoeing is growing in population nationwide, inner tubing continues to become more popular than canoeing and kayaking in our area, bringing in lots of visitors," Branum said. "However, people just don’t float in the water on a tube in the cooler spring and autumn weather like they used to do in a canoe or kayak. Without encouraging people to paddle a boat to enjoy the mild spring weather or to experience the changing of the leaves in fall, the busy season seems to get more condensed each year. Weekends in June-August are still just as busy, but we don’t see the amount of people paddling in the spring and fall months that we used to."

Each season, he has been involved with pre-season meetings with outfitters, but found that post-season meetings have been most important.

The Park Service focus has "changed due to comments and suggestions we’ve heard," Branum said. "We like to know what outfitter customers have said about the river season."

A primary regulation of concern for river rangers is the number of connected intertubes. The regulatory limit is ten being connected for safety and in consideration for other people floating upon the waters, Branum said.

During his time on the river, Branum has had his "moments" including canoe upsets at inopportune times.

"I only seem to flip a canoe when a bunch of people were watching," he said. Perhaps it was a scout group to whom he was explaining canoe safety or a bunch of other visitors. On occasion, the flip meant a swim from beneath a raft of inter-tubes.

Mishaps have also meant a twisted knee a couple of times.

"I’ve torn my knee over the years on a trail project and a rescue," he noted "Putting over 2000 miles a year on a canoe, I’ve also donated two rotator cuffs to the Niobrara lol. I like to say that I’ve donated most of my twenties, half of my sanity, one knee, and two rotator cuffs to the Niobrara."

Places and times he's appreciated include Eagle Rapid, fishing at Norden, swimming at the Fritz Island rapids, and minutes at little know places. A lunch break at a creek listening to the steady murmur of a nearby falls of a foot or two were also notable times, Branum said, also mentioning an appreciation for Big Cedar Falls and its creek. Other special times were hearing snow fall along the river and when valley waterfalls were completely frozen.

After being a permanent resident in Valentine for years, he found the people to be "warm and welcoming." During his residence, he helped maintain the city park trails and disc golf course, danced with the local square dancing group, played music with many local musicians and for a church, floated every small stream he could find, and biked everything there is to bicycle, with this mode used whenever possible for the ride to work from his residence east of the city by the Niobrara River.

Ranger Branum is transitioning to a NPS job at the Blue Ridge Parkway, with an office at Marion, North Carolina. "I’ll be closer to family, and can take advantage of mountain climbing opportunities and a vibrant local music scene." Within an hour’s drive is a "whitewater capitol of America" which is of particular interest.

He plans to again paddle the Niobrara, perhaps along with some nieces or nephews. Though leaving the scenic river, the place will always be a special.

Osprey Enjoys Fish from Mill Pond at Valentine

A Western Osprey found fishing to be good while visiting the Mill Pond on Minnechaduza Creek at north Valentine. It landed atop a utility line pole just north of the west end of the pond on September 10th. It ate a fish in complete comfort, tearing away the flesh of what appeared to be a bullhead. For a time as it was closely watched, it just stood there and looked around. A particular attention of the bird was to the aerial realm, as it was seen to several times look upwards at the sky, perhaps to be sure no other bird wanted to steal its meal.

The next morning, an osprey was again seen atop a pole along Lake Shore Drive on the north side of the pond. It was inadvertently disturbed and flew away with its catch carried in its talons. It went eastward and was again disturbed along the street. This time the bird kept its perch, but indicated its view of being disturbed by strident vocalization. My bicycling continued without any further disturbance to the bird, though a moment was taken to look back – from a distance – to appreciate a good view.

A single osprey was seen again on Sep. 19, eating a fish atop the same utility pole as on the 11th.

Nighthawk Migration at North Valentine

There were a couple of good evenings to watch Common Nighthawk migration at Valentine in early September.

At the Mill Pond on the 3rd, there were at least 27 nighthawks present about 7:15 p.m. Some were very close above the pier, with a couple seen picking bugs off the calm surface of the pond along Minnechaduza creek. It was a cloudy evening with no wind. Another seven nighthawks were seen at 8:156 while in Valentine watching Chimney Swift congregate at the 6x6 bricks chimney of the Sawyer Memorial Library.

A larger movement of nighthawks occurred on the 5th during an observation time of nearly two hours, starting at 6:45 p.m. Details were:

1 at 6:45
3 at 6:48
23 at 6:51 going northerly, then quickly another two moving in the sky
1 at 7:00
1 at 7:10
19 at 7:36 going westerly along the Minnechaduza creek valley
14 at 7:51 going westerly, with another 4 going in an easterly direction
9 were going easterly at 8:02, with 6 going towards the west beneath the colorful clouds at dusk
67 going east then back west at 8:12; this was the highest count of these birds seen in the skyscape at a single time, but it may not represent the entire extent of the number present
2 at 8:20 going easterly, then 6 more
1 at 8:24 flitting about, plus 8 going westerly
7 at 8:29
1 at 8:34 going westerly

The birds were obviously moving about the area to find aerial insects to eat. There would be a greater opportunity to find suitable insect prey along the wooded creek valley, which is perhaps the reason for the notable east-to-west movement.

There was no vocalization heard while watching the birds.

No nighthawks were seen on the next two days during the same hours of observation.

One was seen on September 7, with a similar single bird on
the 12th, again while watching swifts at Valentine.