By Andrew Dickinson
It’s hard to call it work, really.
Jacob and I spent the whole day driving between landing points on the Niobrara National Scenic River – Lauren and Nick did too until around 11 a.m. when they had to leave to get to the rodeo on the reservation.
The day started at 7 a.m. when we were supposed to arrive at “the bowling alley,” which is the office of Brewer’s Canoers and Tubes outfitters. It’s called that among the employees probably to avoid confusion with Brewer’s bridge, a common stopping point for tubers who want a four hour trip instead of six, and the office in Valentine is also a bowling alley during the winter months.
The river workers, many of whom we saw at the Derby bar with a beer in hand the night before, showed up mostly on time. They admitted to being hungover.
Jacob rode in one Brewer’s van and I followed out to Berry Bridge, a starting point for most of the day’s tubers, canoers and kayakers. Lauren and Nick did the same.
A few hours passed by without much activity. The Brewer’s guys put life vests on what they thought were enough tubes for the reservation list they had on a clipboard, and waited for shuttles to start arriving. There was plenty of yawning, lots of cigarette smoking, and one employee, who was off the clock for the day and floating in a few hours, started drinking a Coors Light.
You could tell when the yellow school buses started arriving that most of these people were out of towners. We get it a lot too, but you can just tell when a family or group of people is from the city and when they’re not. I tried to meet as many groups as possible so that when we ran across them again later in the day, they’d know who that guy standing on the bridge with a few cameras was.
We’re well received for the most part, many people started their drinking early and were very friendly. Loading was incredibly hectic, so many groups arrived at once, but it was organized chaos. For many of the Brewer’s employees, this is a job they’ve done every summer for years.
Finally, around noon, most of the groups were on the river. At that point Jacob and I split and took a quick trip back to town to pick up more business cards and download the morning’s footage and photos.
Our next destination was Smith Falls, where nearly everyone stopped. If you didn’t know, it’s the tallest waterfall in Nebraska, and it’s a beautiful place. You’re allowed to climb essentially wherever you want on the falls, and the cool air surrounding it was refreshing. Jacob and I spent a few hours shooting video and photos of the people who passed through the area. Most of the time, if I promised to e-mail people pictures, they would let me do my thing without a problem. Even without the offering, most people were friendly. A good chunk of the visitors at Smith Falls are obviously well on their way to being drunk, and maybe that made the cold, cascading water feel even better.
Next we went to Brewer’s Bridge.
It was a good spot to sit and people watch. Many tubers got off the river here – some had a few more hours to go down to Stan’s Landing. Lots of people offered to toss us beers while we sat on the bridge, and eventually a group of about 20 stopped and yelled at us for a group picture. One girl flashes us, at a male member of the group’s prompting.
“Are you guys the Fly Over Nebraska people?” a girl who was raised in Valentine yelled from the water.
Admittedly, it felt good to hear that, even if she didn’t quite get the name right.
She didn’t believe us when we say yes, we’re the Fly Over Me people, so we walked down and showed her a business card as proof. They let us hang out for a while, many of them were from Hartington, a small town in northeastern Nebraska where I spent a summer three years ago.
They told us where they’re camping and promise us venison if we showed up later. Of course, we headed back to town to get ready and went straight to the campsite.
There, we sat for a few hours and talked with the group. They were all tired now – a day full of drinking will do that to a person. One person was already asleep in a tent at 8 p.m. and he was snoring like a bear. Another said he’s “riding the struggle bus,” later he’s “driving the struggle bus,” and eventually, with two shots of Fireball, a cinnamon whisky, he’s “yanked the emergency brake and is off the struggle bus.”
Nick and Lauren came back out with us, and Nick joins a few of the tubers to take camping chairs and sit in the river.
I was content sitting on the edge of a picnic bench, staring at the trees across the Niobrara and watching the golden light change.
It’s hard to call it work, really.