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10/24/16
Fat Bikes on the Prairie

I immediately noticed a familiar sound turning onto Whooping Crane Drive toward Crane Trust. The chirp of crickets and cicadas, the whispery rustle tall bluestem in the wind. It’s the sound of a living prairie.

 

I met with Ben Dumas, a recent addition to the Crane Trust team. Ben was hired to run a new initiative that offers VIP excursions through their historic tall grass prairie of Mormon Island and kayaking tours of the Platte River. Guests get the opportunity to experience this rare and complex ecosystem, equally enjoyed by the sandhill cranes and a herd of genetically pure bison.

 

It’s no secret I like riding bicycles, so when Ben offered to ride Crane Trust’s fat bikes around the prairie, I couldn't say no. Ben and I saddled up on our trusty steeds: a Surly Ice Cream Truck and Surly Moonlander. We headed south so he could show me some of the work they’ve been doing on their blinds to prepare for crane season. They also work on landscape management on the Platte River to maintain it as prime habitat for cranes. During lower flows they till the sandbars to rid them of vegetation, keeping a nice landing pad for cranes to roost. During higher flows the river naturally erodes this vegetation.

 

Next we headed North. The Trust maintains a set of trails in their prairie for these excursions that take you from the headquarters to the Nature center. Fat bikes are the perfect vehicle for this kind of terrain and ecotourism experience. It leaves very little footprint, is extremely capable off-road and without the noisy, erosive side effects of ATVs. To prove this Ben and I were startled when a doe jumped out of the tall grass just feet from us. Continuing on, we aimlessly rode around and shared our ideas on ecotourism.

 

I left the Trust that day with greater assurance that fat bikes are a perfect fit for experiencing the prairie. And a great guide like Ben makes the experience even better. It’s amazing how ecotourism continues to evolve as more people grow their interest in the prairie.

09/21/16
Q&A with Kirk Nelson - Nebraska Game and Parks

By Alex Duryea, Ecotourism Consultant, Nebraska Tourism Commission

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is implementing a plan to restore native prairie grasses and increase pollinator habitat along the Cowboy Trail. I talked with Kirk Nelson, the Assistant Division Administrator of Planning and Programing Division, who is leading the effort.

Q: Tell me about the Prairie Restoration Plan for the Cowboy Nature and Recreation Trail 
A: The trail is both a recreation and nature trail, it’s nationally designated as such. We’re interested in both facets of that designation. We want to increase the recreation aspect and increase the nature part of it to make it more of an ecological component of importance to wildlife. It's a narrow corridor, so it has it’s good sides and bad sides — but right now we’re focusing on prairie restoration.

Q: What was the catalyst in the pollinator movement?
A: There’s a national effort to help all pollinators. One of the big species that’s up front is the monarch butterfly. We’re focusing on milkweeds, first off, because we can get milkweed seedling and, second off, it’s something we can do that involves the communities [like] people planting the milkweeds and then learning about the plight of the monarch. So the milkweed is one component of that, the other component is a broader pollinator approach that benefits all pollinators. That's the prairie restoration part.

Q: Why the Cowboy Trail?
A: Well it needs work. We haven’t done much on it as far as habitat enhancement, and it was kind of a step-child that never got a lot of attention. It was expected to be a lot bigger of a recreational tourism component than it’s proven to be. So we’re looking at whatever avenues we can find to increase that. We’re hoping that people will be drawn to the trail if it has more ecological appeal. If you drive along it, ride along it, hike along it and see more butterflies, see more wildlife — watchable wildlife is one of the nation's biggest outdoor activities, and we’re trying to hook into it.

Q: Any challenges you’ve faced implementing the Prairie Restoration Plan?
A: It’s tricky, but it’s something that can be overcome. I think the biggest stumbling block we’ve got is the cost. It’s expensive. Prairie seed is expensive, it’s expensive to plant it, it’s expensive to maintain it. Those are items we’re going to have to have help with as we go on. That’s another thing that is something we can turn over to the communities.

Q: What role will the communities play in this plan?
A: Right now I hope they come out and help us plant and then maybe they can help us water these things, because it’s staying awful warm. These little milkweed plants need water ... that’s the first major emphasis. After that if they want to start to do more with other pollination species, we’re going to continue to expand this whole project to include them. We’re willing to work with people if they’re willing to work with us.

 

 

Learn more about the monarch migration here! See which of our ecotourism partners are good sites to see butterflies and other pollinators here.

 

 

 

04/11/16
Experience Nature on a Bike
Experience Nature on a Bike, by Alex Duryea, Ecotourism Consultant, Nebraska Tourism Commission

A bike can take you places. Well yeah, they get you from point A to B, but I’m talking about mentally. When I’m maneuvering my Litespeed around the flowy singletrack of Lincoln’sWilderness Park, I am in a different world. I am surrounded by nature.

The trusty steed waiting for me to catch my breath

My bike has taken me to so many unique places in Nebraska — it allows me to explore areas that just aren’t accessible by car or would take too long to hike. Just southeast of Fremont, Neb., there’s some singletrack that butts up next to the Platte River called Calvin’s Crest. The area is full of whitetail deer, bald eagles, and even owls. There’s a section that runs right along the edge of the Platte; I like to stop there and just take it all in. I hear the wind rustling the leaves on old oak trees and listen to all the life surrounding me.

Crystal clear, spring-fed water flows down the Long Pine Creek.

Some might think that to experience ecotourism, one has to travel to some exotic country and stay in a bamboo shelter. That’s ridiculous. There is so much incredible wildlife and diverse ecosystems right here in the Great Plains to explore. Ecotourism is all about letting yourself experience the nature around you. Honestly a lot of us are ecotourists and we don’t even know it. I thought riding my bike around and stopping once in awhile to enjoy the natural sights and sounds around me was me just being a typical weird tree-hugging millennial, but I was ecstatic to find out that there’s a word for it — ecotourism.

I think we should give the bike more credit. Sure it can be a great way to get some exercise and even have a little fun, but cycling is a is becoming a viable form of ecotourism. More and more ecotourism destinations are starting to offer bicycle rentals and host cycling tours (includingCrane Trust). Ecotourism destinations are showing us how bicycles can be used to enhance the nature tourism experience. I hope others catch on to this trend and give it a shot, I really think it’s a great way to get more people out there to experience all the Great Plains has to offer.

Picked up a hitchhiker on the Cowboy Trail near Norfolk.

03/26/16
My First Crane Migration

My First Crane Migration, by Alex Duryea, Nebraska Tourism

When I first heard about the Sandhill crane, I was a bit skeptical. I didn’t really get it. What could be so special about a common bird? They’re not endangered or rare and heck, they’re even hunted in other States like Kansas. I’ve also heard people call them the ribeye of the sky...I don’t know if I’ll ever get to test that out though.

I woke up in my hammock at 4 a.m. to the alarm on my watch. I listened to the groan of semi-trucks making their way along on I-80. It was still about 35 degrees outside with a steady breeze; I was reluctant to leave the warmth of my mummy style sleeping bag. I poked my head out and glanced at two other tents containing my dad and our friend Steve-o. I had the bright idea of signing us up for a 5 a.m. tour at the Crane Trust near Grand Island, Neb., and convincing them it would be a good idea to camp out the night before. I called out their names in the brisk morning air and got a grunt from each tent. We packed our gear and hopped in my dad’s truck to make our way to the Crane Trust.

After a short stint westward down I-80, we arrived at the Alda exit where the Crane Trust Nature and Visitors Center waited just south of the interstate. Inside the dimly lit facility we were greeted by an old farmer wearing coveralls. He welcomed us and gestured toward a few empty seats in a nearby room containing about eight other people. He introduced himself and listed off a few rules while in the blind: no flash photography, silence cell phones, and no bright lights were the ones that stuck. The old farmer directed us back to our vehicles and instructed us to follow him with our headlights off. We made our way down the highway a mile or so and pulled into a private drive where we exited our vehicles and made our way to the viewing blind.

I entered the blind and was met with an unforgettable view, the Platte River lay still with the moon clinging to the horizon, refusing to disappear. My eyes began to adjust to the darkness and shapes started to appear on the river. Those black masses resting on the Platte that I had originally assumed were sandbars morphed into groups of Sandhill cranes. I had no idea 
there would be so many.
The sun begins to spill over the horizon, and I notice something: the sound. No not the soft flutter of nearby camera shutters but the cranes, they are getting louder. The sound is oddly soothing, if you can imagine a bird purring and then multiplying it by 15,000. After experiencing this epic migration, every video I’ve watched afterward just doesn’t do it justice. You have to experience it in person to understand. 
Too soon it seemed like the old farmer quietly informed us that we were nearing the end of our time in the blind. We took a few last good looks at the cranes beginning to take flight into the sunrise. The others packed up camera equipment and discretely exited the blind.

Every year nearly 500,000 of these amazing creatures make this incredible journey across the Great Plains. Seeing the Sandhill crane migration is one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had. It is truly a treasure of the Great Plains.

See the Cranes this month at Crane Trust and Rowe Sancutary
09/09/13
Fishing? In the Fall?

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Nebraska is a state of variety.  The geography of the state, climate, habitats, fish and wildlife vary greatly from one corner of the state to another.  Fall is a great time to hit the state’s waters and sample some of that variety, but too many folks think fall is time to put away rods and reels and get out the shotguns, bows, and rifles.  It’s not, and in fact fall is one of the best times of the year to fish Nebraska waters.  At the very least, outdoorsfolks should plan to include some time on the water in conjunction with their hunting trips.  Here are some of the best places to look for excellent fall fishing in Nebraska.

Irrigation Reservoirs
Large reservoirs are the best habitats in Nebraska for a variety of open-water fish like walleyes, hybrid striped bass (i.e. wipers), white bass and others.  As baitfish begin to gather in deeper water for the winter, anglers can experience some great fishing for some of the biggest and fattest predator fish that follow and prey on those baitfish. In the fall, anglers are successful vertically jigging a variety of baits that imitate stressed and dying baitfish on reservoirs like McConaughy, Merritt, Sherman, and others.

Pine Ridge Trout Streams
The buttes and pines of Nebraska’s Pine Ridge offer some of the prettiest country in the state.  Nestled in the canyons and valleys between those buttes are some cold-water streams that contain reproducing populations of brown and brook trout.  Those trout species spawn in the fall and their intense spawning colors match the beauty of the fall scenery around them.  In the fall with the insects being gone, cooler weather and less vegetation and brush, a person can experience a pleasant day hiking along a Pine Ridge creek catching beautiful trout.  Try both the middle and south fork of Soldiers Creek on the Soldier Creek Wilderness area, the White River or Big Bordeaux Creek.

Sandhills Lakes
The lakes in the Sandhills are some of the only true natural lakes found in the state and are uniquely Nebraskan.  All of the lakes are relatively shallow and extremely productive. Aquatic vegetation can be extensive during mid- and late-summer and that can make fishing a challenge.  But, in the fall the aquatic vegetation begins to die back and the fish feed heavily.  Lakes on the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, Goose Lake, Smith Lake and many others bodies of water offer some of the state’s best fishing for northern pike, panfish and some of the fattest, prettiest largemouth bass found anywhere.

For more information see http://www.outdoornebraska.ne.gov/fishing/ or contact Fisheries Outreach Program Manager Daryl Bauer at 402-471-5005 or daryl.bauer@nebraska.gov.