Go with the flow and float Nebraska’s water trails

July 13, 2021 greg wagner

Eager to get on the water? Yeah, me, too.

This is a perfect time to float Nebraska’s water trails.

There are many reasons to take a float trip on continuously flowing water.

You can do it for the openness and space that it offers and the adventure of going somewhere you have never been. You can do it to make connections and memories with people and nature, re-trace history, see a variety of wildlife species, get some fresh air and sunshine (vitamin D), burn calories and just plain have fun. You can do it to leave the house and technology behind, relax and clear your mind.

Canoeing the quiet, picturesque Calamus River water trail near Burwell, NE. Photo courtesy of Eric Fowler/NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

I have a passion for floating Nebraska’s water trails. Actually, I have an affinity for rivers. I grew up recreating along the Lower Platte River corridor in Sarpy County. I am a self-proclaimed “river rat.” In fact, I have paddled nearly all of the rivers in my 42 years at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. In my view, we have some of the most beautiful rivers and creeks in the U.S. I will tell you firsthand that each Nebraska river is unique; each has a character and personality, distinct and unmistakable.

Tank floating on the pretty Cedar River water trail near Fullerton, NE. Photo courtesy of Broken Arrow Wilderness Camp.

Whether it is leisurely floating a kayak on the broad corridor of the Platte River with co-workers or paddling the remote, wild Dismal River through an outfitter with friends, I  thoroughly enjoy exploring our varied Nebraska Water Trails. And I believe you will, too.

A kayaker leisurely floats the waters of the Lower Platte River Venture Park water trail near Platte River State Park not far from Louisville, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

On the International Scale of River Difficulty, our Nebraska rivers typically rate Class I: Easy. That’s defined as moving water with riffles and small waves, few obstacles, slight risk to the swimmer, and easy self-rescue if you are wearing a life jacket. There are a few exceptions.

The Dismal River in the central Sand Hills area, for example, is a narrow, spring-fed stream with hairpin turns that swiftly flows at about 6-8 mph. Barbed-wire fences, downed trees, stumps and rocks in the river are constant hazards. It is an “extreme sports” river. In a handful of places on two other rivers — the Niobrara and Snake — there are very difficult spots. Several rapids exist that require portage. These are Class II, III and IV rapids.

A kayaker navigates the swift waters of the narrow Dismal River in the central Sandhills area. Caution: The Dismal River has been nicknamed the “divorce river.” Photo courtesy of Glidden Canoe Rental/Sandhills Motel in Mullen, NE

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has established 10 water trails or recreational passageways on specific stretches of rivers and creeks. These are generally calmer waters perfect for small non-motorized vessels such as kayaks, canoes, inner tubes, stock tanks, inflatable rafts, etc.

The view from the bow of a kayak looking downstream on the Platte River water trail near Louisville, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

There’s even a new, exciting water trail on the Kearney Canal. In addition, paddlers are encouraged  to check out the newly designated Lower Platte River Venture Park water trail with redesigned, improved public access points.

The new access point at Schramm Park State Recreation Area near Gretna, NE includes a graded bank and parking off Highway 31. It is part of the Venture Park Initiative and a water trail linking Schramm, Platte River State Park and Louisville State Recreation Area. Photo by Eric Fowler/NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

You can find specific information about the water trails, including access points and places to go ashore for resting, camping, fishing and picnicking, on OutdoorNebraska.gov/watertrails.

Don’t want to go it alone? Find river outfitters and rentals on the Game and Parks Commission’s water trails site or on the Nebraska Travel and Tourism website, VisitNebraska.com.

Paddlers on the scenic Lower Niobrara River water trail east of Valentine, NE Photo courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Water levels in some rivers and creeks fluctuate with weather, so be sure to check conditions on the USGS Streamflow site, waterdata.usgs.gov, or by contacting local outfitters, nearby state park superintendents, conservation officers or other officials. Always wear your life jacket in the environs of stained, unpredictable moving waters. Know how to swim. Don’t let a low water level give you a false sense of security either! Be aware that air boating or other power boating traffic may be present on some of these rivers, as well.

Also, keep in mind that only the water in these water trails belongs to the State of Nebraska. You can float it, and some governmental entities own public land along the water trails, but the land is largely privately owned.

In Nebraska, landowners own the beds, bars and banks of rivers and creeks. Therefore, it is up to you to do your homework to find out who owns the land and get permission from them to rest, swim, picnic, camp or fish on your journey. Most landowners along our water trails do not mind floaters as long as they ask permission well in advance of their trip, are careful with campfires, do not alter livestock fences, leave the property as they found it, and pack out their trash and recyclables. Nebraska state statutes give you permission to portage around fences and other obstructions; however, you are responsible for any damage caused to the property.

On sandbars, recreationists must avoid violating federal and state laws by keeping a good distance from protected shorebirds that are nesting. These at-risk shorebirds are the interior least tern and piping plover.

Prior to your float trip, make plans to do a little fishing for an array of river species. That means buy your fishing permit, pack your fishing gear and take a container or two of earthworms or nightcrawlers along for fish bait. Who knows? You could catch your dinner!

This channel catfish was caught along the the Lower Elkhorn River water trail near Waterloo, NE.  Channel catfish are prevalent in many Nebraska rivers. Photo by Greg Wagner Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.


» Nebraska has approximately 79,056 miles of river, more than any other state.

» Nebraska has 10 designated water trails covering 518 river miles.

» The National Park Service has declared stretches of the Niobrara and the Missouri as Wild and Scenic Rivers.

SOURCE: “Floating the Good Life: A guide to developing water trails in Nebraska,” Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, OutdoorNebraska.gov/watertrails

Inner tube floaters take a break on a sandbar where they had permission to stop on the popular Lower Elkhorrn River water trail near Waterloo, NE. Photo courtesy of Brock Beran/Tubing and Adventures near Waterloo, NE.

The post Go with the flow and float Nebraska’s water trails appeared first on Nebraskaland Magazine.

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