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Dismal River, Nebraska

the first encounter
July 27-29, 2001

other trips: through barbed wire fences | in November rain| September 2005
map | flow data | Sandhills books| GPS photo log

Dismal River

The Dismal River is a true Sandhills river, having its beginning and ending in the grass-cloaked hills that cover some 20,000 square miles in central Nebraska. It is short by most Nebraska river standards, flowing only 80 miles to its confluence with the Middle Loup at Dunning. It is the state’s wildest and most undeveloped river and has been identified by the National Park Service as worthy of designation in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The origin for the water welling up from the springs is the Ogallala Acquifer, a vast underground reservoir extending into northern Texas. The seemingly endless water flows and lush grasses first attracted ranchers with their large herds of cattle to the Dismal in the late 1880s. Today it is flanked by private cattle ranches.

Canoe Trails of Nebraska web pages provide more information on the Dismal and other rivers of Nebraska.

Dismal River

The Dismal River reminds me San Marcos River in Texas. They are both fed by springs, so they have constant flows through the year, they are both wild and challenging. I planned a weekend trip to the Dismal as my paddling training for Texas Water Safari but I didn't neglect photography. It was also the first serious river trip for my new Sea Wind canoe.
Dismal River

The trip took place during the weekend of July 27-29, 2001. More than five hours of driving from Fort Collins to Mullen in Friday night and returning back on Sunday afternoon. We stayed in Sandhills Motel at Mullen which is also home of Glidden Canoe Rental supporting trips on the Dismal and Middle Loup Rivers.

Connie and Worf, the Newfoundland, provided land support, so I could focus on paddling. In my first day I paddled the segment A G of the river, in the second day I repeated the first 15 miles A E (see the map).

A Starting point at the confluence of south and north forks of the Dismal River. It is reached from a bridge on highway 97 about 15 miles south of Mullen. A steep trail leads down to the river.

Dismal River

The Dismal flows in a deep canyon cutting its way through sand hills. The scenery is beautiful. For the next 15 miles there are no signs of civilization exept barbed wire fences and some cattle. All barbed wire fences crossing the river in this segment were made canoe friendly: tied up and/or protected by some color plastic tubing. Swift current, sharp turnings, fallen trees. There is always a passage around fallen trees, though sometimes difficult to negotiate. The Dismal demands a constant attention from the paddler. This is the river for paddling, not floating!

B After few miles of paddling you will hear a noise of running water well in advance. There is a small narrow water fall that requires lining your boat the right shore. The current is pretty strong here.

Dismal River

C After next couple of miles there is a beautiful sandy spring on the left surrounded by hills. Sunflowers and prickly poppies. I spent a lot time photographing there or just waiting for the spring to release a next bubble of water.

Dismal River

D The red traffic stop sign posted on a tree?!

OK, do not ignore it. After the next turning you can hear and see a very narrow rapid. It is still not too late to stop.

Dismal River

It is possible to run these narrows, but I decided to land on the left shore and to drag my boat on wet grass around it. Another occassion for photography. It may be a more comfortable and a longer portage on the right if you stop at the sign. Next time, I will probably try to run it.

E 15 miles of the river, 5.5 hours of paddling: the "Seneca" bridge on a ranch road that starts on highway 2 at Seneca. You can drive this road south to the highway 92 and Tryon. A beatiful route across Sandhills (a little rough in a few spots with steeper slopes). A convenient landing on the left just after the bridge. Parking space.

The river was getting wider. The shallow places didn't allow me to maintain the full speed of my canoe. There were still some obstacles, sharp turnings with fallen trees and barbed wire fences less friendly than in the upper Dismal. It wasn't so difficult to cross these fences (most of them were marked with some color tape) but they required the paddler's attention. Except the stop for a lunch about 2 pm I din't make make any longer breaks here since I wasn't sure if I could reach the Thedford bridge before darkness. I was prepared for a night paddling if necessary.

F A campground (private?) with driving access from highway 83. I didn't explore this place, but there were some happy canoeists camping threre. These were the only paddlers I met on the river in addition to a family floating on tubes a little further. A few small bridges, some farms and houses visible from the river.

G Thedford bridge on highway 83. I reached it about 6 pm after 11.5 hours on the river. The good take out place is about 0.5 mile downriver under the next smaller bridge next to water gauge. That bridge is on the road looping from the highway 83. I considered to continue further downriver in the next day.

H The next recommended take out place below the Thedford bridge is Whitetail campground in Nebraska National Forest. It is a horse campground on the left shore of the Dismal River accessible through National Forest from Halsey by Forest Rt. 277.

According to Mitch Glidden the river below the Thedford bridge is rarely paddled, so one can expect more problems with barbed wire fences. He doesn't rent canoes for that part of the river. He also pointed out that the Whitetail campground may be difficult to recognize from the water. Since, we didn't have time to scout that location I changed my plans and decided to repeat the first 15 miles of the river in my second paddling day.

I started at 7 am and finished at the Seneca bridge about 11:30. My second run was equally excited as the first one. It was much faster and smoother but any lack of attention was immediately punished by the river. Both my runs included at least 1 hour of breaks for photography.

During my paddling on the Dismal I saw several turtles, a beaver, one or two muscrats, many, many birds and some curious cattle specimen.

Dismal River

other Dismal trips:
through barbed wire fences | in November rain | GPS photo log

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