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.