30 January 2017

Polar Bear Festival Celebrates Winter on the Niobrara River

Frigid waters of the Niobrara river by the Meadville bridge were a place where many people shivered after taking a “polar plunge” to celebrate a community tradition at the annual Niobrara River Polar Bear Festival.

More than 125 people gathered at Meadville Park for what long-time attendees noted was the 20th anniversary of winter fun along the Niobrara river during the weekend of January 28th. Many of those present were from the local community of Brown and Keya Paha counties, as well as seen license plates also from Cherry county, the Norfolk area and elsewhere in eastern Nebraska. There were also visitors from South Dakota.

Hosts were Aaron and Becka Miller, current proprietors of the Meadville store, and Mike Petersen, owner of Meadville Park, who graciously did not require payment of an entry fee for the bunch of people on his property on Saturday.

The ice at the immersion spot this year was more than 15 inches, and while using a chain saw to remove the frozen ice, the blade of the machine was nearly not long enough, said Petersen.

A majority of the crowd watched while approximately 35 people took a plunge into the running waters of the Niobrara river. Some of the celebrants have made this frigid dip their annual tradition.

The “dippers” strode down a sandy, prepared path, stopped on a mat on the ice as a safety rope was placed and then mentally prepared themselves for complete immersion in the running waters. The eventual few steps were done in a grand manner of individualistic expression including some grand, personal actions at this winter place. One person would daintily step into the water, while others would simply jump. There were some costumes of colorful distinction. Others wore skimpy basics of a swim suit more suited to somewhere on a southern, summer beach. Every participant was individually and safely considered as attended to by two men next to the square of open water at the right spot. The local EMT group, out of Springview, was also present for safety reasons.

Anyone wanting to compete for polar king or queen had to make certain that they were completely wet, and someone or another had to dunk themselves again to make certain their head was wet.

A canine caper occurred when a big black Labrador jumped into the water, dog-paddled for a few moments and then climbed out, with an appreciatory applause from the crowd for a dog that realized the routine.

The king and queen of the festival this year were Steve and Laurie Hergott.

This event was apparently started initially when some guys at the Meadville Store, decided on a warm January day, that they would jump into the river waters, Petersen said.

Icy conditions were pervasive along the river, as there was only a small extent of not frozen water along the southern bank of the river.

The Saturday event was "an opportunity to get the community together and have some fun,” Petersen said. He also noted how the Niobrara river is an asset and indicated how he is considering how to provide float opportunities from the park and eastward along the eastern extent of the Niobrara National Scenic River.

During the festival there were other events of a warmer sort at the nearby and busy Meadville store on Friday and Saturday, where the Miller’s have been proprietors since November 1, 2016. The "plungers" gathered at the store to get warm and appreciate the gathering at a story with a legacy dating to 1886, with obvious changes during subsequent decades.

This is a winter event that celebrates the Niobrara River, and which is a distinct occurrence indicating how this scenic river can be appreciated throughout the year.

Elsewhere in the vicinity – while enjoying another wintertime activity of bird-watching - much of the river above the nearby Plum creek confluence was completely ice covered. While driving along the River road, there was a comment made that it would be a fine time to don a pair of cross-country skis and traverse ice over the river waters on a night when there is a full moon. Animals already appreciate the situation as they can go from one bank to another, without getting their feet wet. All roads in the area were easily travelled, despite the foot of recent snow.

Bird highlights were a Merlin flitting from one fencepost to another along Meadville avenue, three Bald Eagle soaring along the river near Meadville Park, a sublime Townsend’s Solitaire, and a wonderful view of a Great Grey Shrike in search of prey just south of the Meadville store. There were also other ornithological highlights. The expansive snow-cover has resulted in large numbers of Horned Lark along highway 12 shoulders where was open ground to forage. At least a few Eastern Bluebird were seen along the River road, west of Meadville.

It is obvious, that after multiple forays into the Niobrara river environs, that any day is a good day to appreciate this valley of unique habitats, and its people.