by Andrew Norman
Sitting in bath-warm water rubbing clay, mud and sand on our skin while tiny minnows nip softly at our calloused feet, the Niobrara River feels like a high-end spa treatment. But whatever physical healing powers the river offers are drowned by its spiritual charms. The shallow stream that cuts through the spine of the Sandhills ― the country's largest and most intricate wetland ecosystem ― is surrounded by a bank of tall grasses and shrubs and giant cottonwoods, which cast cool shadows and provide a resting spot for bald eagles, Great Crested Flycatchers, Yellow-Breasted Chats, Warbling and Red-Eyed Vireos. Bank and Cliff Swallows hover by and a Green Heron flies over and lands near us on a dead tree along the bank.
Past the trees, an expansive floodplain looks like a soft, never-ending football field of all hues of green and yellow prairie grass that turns to hills and bluffs and finally, more prairie. A single, wooden windmill, slowly turning in the distance, and some knotted, wooden fence posts are the only manmade structures we can see.
We're resting today, preparing for another day of rest tomorrow on inter-tubes from Berry Bridge to Brewer's Bridge, with a stop at Smith Falls, the state's largest waterfall that drops jolting, ice-cold water onto you from 70 feet. Last night, we loaded a washtub bass, a musical saw, a couple guitars and ourselves into the back of an old red Ford truck and took a bumpy trip to the nearby bluffs at sunset. We held a sort of prairieoke before more stars than I've ever seen dropped brightly toward us from the pristine, absolute-dark sky that's free from light pollution of any kind. We even saw a satellite flare, a rare occurrence.
We're staying on the Hutton Niobrara Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary ― 5,000 acres of prairie, woodland, wetland and aquatic habitat and wildlife. The nonprofit organization is devoted to preserving and restoring this natural landscape, which is flanked on its edges by heavily irrigated soybean and corn ― much of it headed to the nearby ethanol plant. This land is a place where wandering deer and turkeys are commonplace, and you might even get to see a black mink rush across the road, like we did. Along with a peaceful break from the city and to see close friends visiting from Michigan, we're here to scout this location for a Nebraska Music Retreat.
An important element of Hear Nebraska's mission is to cultivate the state's creative class, support local businesses ― and to help plant and grow a statewide pride for its arts, from schoolkids to senior citizens. We believe gathering musicians, artists and their supporters from all across the state in one place for collaboration, cooperation and merriment is one good way to help foster these goals while tying these artists directly to their physical environment, hopefully, inspiring more great art.
What we're proposing: A retreat from the night of Thursday, Aug. 25 to Sunday, Aug. 28. The Niobrara Sanctuary (follow on FB) has two self-catering homes for rent, and the Lazy Easy Ranch House would be perfect for this group. It features four bedrooms and plenty of camping space for a dozen or so tents. We'll take one day and go tubing down the river, and spend our nights playing music by a campfire. We'll record a song or two from each musician who wants to perform, and produce an acoustic album whose proceeds would benefit both the Sanctuary and Hear Nebraska. We expect a three-night stay would cost about $50/person. Tubing is $35/person.
Who should come: Anyone who plays, captures, hears or supports music; and artists of all genres; photographers; videographers; and journalists. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more peaceful, gorgeous country in the state than this scene boasts ― it's the perfect place for creating, performing and documenting art.
How you can help: We need volunteers to record and mix the album. We need a Nebraska Music Retreat logo. And we would love to find a local sponsor or sponsors who could help offset the costs for the contributing musicians, for the album production, and for T-shirts.
More details are in the works. To learn more and RSVP, follow the Facebook event here. We need to hear what you think, tell us in the comment section of this story below.
* Photos by Angie Norman
(HEAR Nebraska below)