Sunday, July 26, 2009

Pelicans In Nebraska

The itinerary for my last trip said nothing about Nebraska. Yet somehow I managed to spend six days there.

In the middle of the trip, I spent a weekend at Lake Ogallala Nebraska while I followed the Lincoln Highway and then The Oregon Trail. The campground was pleasant, a state park, one of three in a complex surrounding Lakes McConaughy and Ogallala, lakes all formed by the Kingsley Dam completed in 1941 to collect irrigation water for this part of the state.

Nebraska is a state of two climates. In the east it is humid and warm yet in the far west and north it is dry and seems arid. Dams such as Kingsley were necessary to have the kind of agriculture one sees here. The area to the north and east is dominated by the placid Platte River. I never realized how long or important the river was to the state until this trip. It seems as if it goes on forever and its placid waters, legend has it, were the origin of the name of the state, taken from the language of one of the six Indian tribes that once occupied the land.

Many think of Nebraska as a vanilla, a boring stretch of country to cross on the way to somewhere else. While I had some experience in Omaha where the uber rich Warren Buffet makes his home and the home for every company he has ever bought, the rest of the state, except for the Interstate was mostly a mystery. In my days there, I found it a place full of surprises and a substantial amount of history.

I had entered the state from the east after my stays in Minnesota and Iowa in the hopes of finding dry ground. Most of my spring was spent looking in vain for dry ground. I was following the Lincoln Highway at the time as well as the Oregon and Mormon Trails. I stayed a night at the eastern end of the state in a state campground which was in a city park in Grand Island. One night was enough in this urban oasis which, while pleasant enough, was plagued by bad weather, wind, and an annoying proximity to Interstate 80 which made the sound of trucks a constant companion.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecast was for no more than light rain in the northern part of the state. I decided to detour up there and see the parts I had never seen before, having passed through the southern part as most do the other times I had been there.

There is a scenic byway route designation given to State Route 2 which runs to the north and west across the state. It goes through the “Sandhills” part of the state which is the drier northern area where farming is by irrigation and many of the states more scenic yet less travelled areas are located. The Sand Hills are mostly written as the “sandhills” locally, by the way, while most reference works use the more plausible two word version. The largest place is Loup City on the Middle Loup River with a population about 5,400. It is the County seat of Sherman County and seems a pleasant place with a large courthouse and what seemed to me a small town surrounding it. It seemed odd to learn that only three people within 15 miles self identify as farmers. The majority are in service industries. My stay there was a short but well documented by a number of citizens on the street near the courthouse who seemed to take a curious interest in the funny looking man from California and what he was taking pictures of on a Saturday morning. Taken all together, Loup City, it'a square and lovely park seemed a pleasant if quiet place this Saturday in May.

I had heard of Anselmo before I saw it from a minimart clerk at a gasoline stop in Grand Island. I was warned, “not to miss the church.” What is in Anselmo is the “Cathedral of the Sandhills,” also known as St. Anslem’s Catholic Church, which is most remarkable for its size and architecture as well as its geographic location. It is not what one would expect find on the south side of SR 2 in Nebraska town of under 200 souls. It is impeccably kept and, unfortunately for me, wholly deserted on this day. I waited a bit as I took pictures, hoping someone would come so I could learn the story of it and not have to resort to the Internet. I have since and know little more about it except that the architecture is gothic. The Rectory is a craftsman house with added details to match the church. There is no long convoluted history recorded that I could find that documented how it came to be there or why it was built, although it is generally documented that Anselmo was built by and for the railroad and perhaps at its most populous had 500 residents. Except as first the rail terminus and then a stop on the way to Alliance, it seems to have had no other reason to have been there at all. As I wandered, I found the two other "attractions" of Anselmo. On the Main Street there is a jail built with no nails and a sod house, a “soddy” to the locals, who likely had ancestors that lived in one. There is a small grocery, a bar, post office, and the mandatory grain elevator to round out the “downtown” scene.

The sandhills seem an arid place, but that notion is deceptive. The grass-covered hills are of fine sand like soil that absorbs any moisture like a sponge, supports a varied crop of wild grasses, and gives it back to the people here as clear as crystal water in the shallow lakes and streams such as the Loup River. With only one person every square mile, it is an astronomer’s paradise due to the lack of light pollution. Some would say it is a lonely place, others would find it relaxing. I found it of interest but not a place I would want to put roots. It has a remarkable history not so much agricultural as old west. In the early railroad days it was a tourist area due to the many mineral springs. There is a small, very rustic State Park at Silver Springs along the road to Anselmo, one of the few places left to memorialize the places people came to seek the “restorative powers” of the spas and springs. The Complete Roadside Guide to Nebraska published by the University of Nebraska Press and written by Alan Boyes and Wright Morris is a phenomenal source of information not only about the sandhills but also about many other unique aspects of the state.

The day moved on, I reached Lake Ogallala. It is part of a larger complex formed by the Kingsley Dam and includes Lake McConaughy. It is an enormous place with at least three campgrounds and the dam is considered a marvel of engineering for its placement in such sandy soil. Bald Eagles are there nearly year round now as they have discovered the warm waters from the power plant. Lake Ogallala is the smaller lake in front of the dam and was formed when the gates were closed in 1941 from the area where soil had been removed to shore up the plates of the dam.

If one is lucky as I was, the campsite will face the lake across a flat expanse of grass from the shore. I noticed the usual suspects, the Western Grebe, Mallards, and ducks of all sorts were present.

After setting up and during one of the breaks in the light rain I went to see what the fishermen were catching just beyond the back of my campsite. It was trout mostly and Pelicans were fishing there too but keeping their distance.

It is rare that I am truly surprised by very much along the highway after the 103,000 miles La Coachasita and I have traveled but this was a first. Here were not one but numerous White Pelicans, with a nine-foot wingspan which at maturity weigh over 20 pounds. They are enormous, gregarious birds that move in formation yet unlike the Brown saltwater cousins do not “plunge” dive, but merely dip their extraordinarily large bill for fish while paddling on the surface. They have a lower jaw pouch which is much less discernible in flight than their Brown cousins. They fish in collegial groups, often surrounding fish and have a horn, or bump on the top of their bill that is only there as mating plumage on both the male and female and is shed thereafter. While I was lucky enough to find them fishing in abundance here at a crowded lake in Nebraska they prefer desolate shallow lakes and feed on nearly any type of fish and the occasional salamander. They are silent except when terrified so have no “call.” They nest on the ground and are partial to brackish water for their colonies. The male and female are indistinguishable in color and size. They share nesting duties, including construction and hatching the normal two eggs. Their nests are usually many miles from their feeding sites.

They are endangered but have repopulated in recent years and are now listed as a “breed of Least Concern.” 20 percent of the population breed in the Great Salt Lake Basin. There breeding range is into Alberta and northern Ontario and they winter in Mexico and California.

At the end of a long day of sightseeing, I had found the most remarkable. Here on a crowded lake north of Ogallala Nebraska, I saw my first White Pelicans. I would learn that they were abundant in other places. Despite my penchant for out of the way places I had never seen one or knew they existed.

I found them a marvelous surprise at the end of a day of surprises and their discovery and the others are a reminder of why I still do this. It is to see things I may not yet have seen and may never see again.

I am now able to say, if asked, or even if not, that I have seen Pelicans in Nebraska.


  1. Hi, Reamus!

    I enjoyed your travelogue of Nebraska here. I must confess to being one of those who imagines that Nebraska is "vanilla" boring.

    The White Pelicans sound fascinating and your line about them being silent "except when terrified" made me chuckle for some reason. When engrossed in reading, I'm silent except when amused....

    It was good to read your post, as I've been very wrapped up in my own silly little world here.

  2. Farm wife,

    I was surprised at the diversity I found there, in climate and interesting places. Not so vanilla.