Memorial Day weekend kicks off the popular paddling season on the Niobrara River in north-central Nebraska. People from across the region come to Valentine, Neb., to float the river by canoe, tube, kayak or raft.
A 76-mile stretch of the Niobrara is a federally designated part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The western portion of the stretch — the 22.2 mile run from Cornell Bridge at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge to Rocky Ford Rapid — is the most popular section. Outfitters offer rentals for boating, tubing, fishing, hunting, horseback riding, camping and cabins.
It takes about six hours to canoe from the Cornell Bridge launch site to Rocky Ford. It takes twice as long for tubers to float the river, so most of them launch nearly eight miles downstream at Berry Bridge for an approximate eight-hour journey.
The river takes paddlers past riverbanks of undeveloped, pine-covered hills, prairie and steep cliffs along Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. Sites along the way include Smith Falls State Park, site of Nebraska's tallest waterfall.
Paddlers pass through the biological crossroads of the continent. Along the Niobrara, the ranges of closely related species of eastern and western woodland birds overlap. Rocky Mountain ponderosa pines reach their eastern limits.
Eastern deciduous forests of basswood, ironwood, black walnut and elm reach their westernmost limit.
At least 83 eastern species reach their western range limits and 47 western species approach their eastern limits in the Niobrara River valley.
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