We lodged first sandbank just moments after wheeling our two-metre wide aluminum livestock tank into the North Loup River in the Nebraska Sandhills. My son leapt into the ankle-deep water to push our tank back into the current, where we swirled along a cattail-lined bank.
What a delightfully lazy way to travel, I thought, as we sat in lawn chairs inside the circular tank. Its shape left us facing each other, and I could see the joy written on my kids’ sun-kissed faces. Rarely were we all this relaxed. We had no paddles or life jackets, just potato chips, Gatorade and trust that the river would take us where we needed to go.
Welcome to Nebraska, a state that pokes fun at itself. After being named 50th out of 50 states tourists would like to visit for four years straight, it launched a tourism campaign with the slogan, “Honestly, it’s not for everyone.” I had come to realize that was a good thing. We drove for miles without seeing any sign of human life, which gave us plenty of time to take in the green bluffs, prairie fields and sunsets.
Thousands of years ago, the winds in the northwestern part of Nebraska whipped the loose sand into large dunes. Today, they’re carpeted in prairie grass. The slightest tear can lead the wind to “blow out” the ground covering, exposing hundreds of feet of sand.
Some ranchers use ecotourism like “tanking” – the name given to river floating – to earn a supplemental income to stay on their land. Other outfitters offer higher-end tanking experiences akin to tailgating; their tanks, fabricated from plastic or galvanized metal, are custom- fit with picnic tables seating three to six people.
At Uncle Buck’s, a rustic lodge in Brewster, a town of 17, the experience was simple. Owner Walt Rhoades, whose wife’s family has worked the land since 1881, drove us out a dirt road with a tank hitched to the back of his pick-up truck, and then helped us roll the tank down a weedy bank.
My kids jumped in and out of tank, clung to the back of it and dragged their legs in the water to wash off the heat of the sun. The tank never tipped. As they played, I gazed out over the land. In some ways, it was unremarkable, nothing but undulating hills and open spaces. But the longer we were on the river, the more I began to appreciate our solitude. It made me feel like we had found what we longed for as a family: quiet in an increasingly noisy world of chirping phones.
Four hours later, we reached our pick-up point, a low-lying beam bridge. My daughter sprinted around a sandbar while my son and I helped Walt tug the tank back up the bank. I did so reluctantly. I wasn't ready to say goodbye to the river just yet; its simplicity seemed to sweep away every bit of modern stress.
It’s not that there’s nothing in Nebraska, I thought. It’s that there’s too much everywhere else.
When You Go
Our writer tanked the North Loup River but options abound. Tank the Calamus River with Calamus Outfitters in Burwell, Tank Down the Elkhorn near Waterloo, float the Cedar River with Crazy Rayz Tanking or Get Tanked in Spalding, while Little Outlaw tanks navigate the Niobrara River.
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