NIOBRARA, Neb. — Hollywood once produced a movie called “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” about two travelers whose desperate attempt to get home for Thanksgiving forced them to adopt some strange forms of transportation.
In this Missouri River town, people who must cross the river to their jobs are producing a flood-soaked, real-life sequel.
Call it “Boats, Bikes and Kayaks.”
The highway bridge connecting Nebraska and South Dakota near Niobrara remains open. But the road to the bridge, Highway 12, is closed, thus shutting off access.
Except for those with a little creativity.
For the past four weeks, nearly a dozen people — most of them Nebraskans who work at a state prison near Springfield, S.D. — have used motor boats, kayaks, chest waders and a homemade “swamp bike” to traverse the flooded highway and reach the shuttle vehicles they've left parked near the bridge.
They drive the final 13 miles to the Mike Durfee State Prison, or to their other destinations.
Mark Pischel, 52, of rural Verdigre, Neb., is one of the corrections officers leading the Niobrara armada.
He said his fishing-boat commute beats the time and expense of driving 60 miles upstream to Pickstown, S.D., or 45 miles downstream to Gavins Point Dam to reach river crossings accessible by vehicles. The detours turn a typical 15-minute commute into a drive of nearly two hours or more that costs $30-plus in gasoline.
“There's four of us taking the boat. It saves everyone,” Pischel said. “We work the graveyard shift, 10 to 6. And at 6 in the morning, you don't look forward to driving 100 miles.”
Jeff Barta of Niobrara, another prison guard, has used a kayak. It takes him about 30 minutes of paddling to reach the highway bridge.
“I could never stay awake on that drive home. I needed to do something else,” the 55-year-old said.
“It was fun at first, but now it's getting to be kind of a bore,” Barta said. “After you get off work, you still have to kayak home. Some days you have to go into the wind.”
Two co-workers, including Pischel's son, Dustin, don hip waders to trudge through the floodwaters to reach a shuttle car.
The most unusual commute might belong to Steve Reynolds of Springfield, S.D., a stock car driver who travels to Niobrara so he can motor over to races in Nebraska.
Reynolds modified a bicycle to create a 14-inch clearance to the pedals, high enough to pedal down the flooded Highway 12 to Niobrara, where his stock car is now stored.
He calls his creation a “CX 300 Swamp Bike.”
“It would be a good seller because when you're up on the seat, you're up there a long ways,” said Reynolds' brother, Mike, who uses a boat to reach his job in Niobrara at Moody Motors.
For Mark Pischel, the unusual commute is old hat. For a few months before the Standing Bear Bridge was opened at Niobrara in 1998, Pischel used to boat across the river to work at the prison. He stashed a small Honda motorcycle in the boat for the South Dakota leg of the trip.
He concedes that the trip he now takes through the slack floodwaters isn't the safest. But Mike Reynolds said he cleared the watery commute with local emergency management officials.
To prevent night-time collisions with submerged highway signs, Reynolds said, he installed reflective markers on trees and signs to mark the route.
The commuters might be taking the water route for another month or two.
“It's a shame to build a multimillion-dollar bridge and not have a way to get to it,” Pischel said.
Said Barta: “It's something you have to do. It's not like it's going to last forever.”
It could be worse, Pischel said. Dozens of riverside cabins sit underwater upstream from Niobrara at the Lazy River Acres and Sunshine Bottoms areas.
“I see all these homes underwater, and I figure my problems are pretty small,” he said.
Photo Showcase: Creative Commuters
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