Nebraska State Parks Provide Vitamin N(ature)

Nebraska State ParksMost people – even young children – spend as much time in front of a screen as they do sleeping each day. You might think cuddling indoors with a computer is harmless, but new research shows your health improves with time in nature.

But how does Mother Nature compete with mega-malls and computer games? Perhaps we need things outside to be as exciting as on a video game. The Missouri River is North America’s longest river and was the backdrop for the great Lewis and Clarks’ Corp of Discovery Expedition. Homesteaders followed and settled along the fertile Missouri watershed. My ancestors were so inspired by the river they named my great, great aunt after it.

Now a new generation of Park Managers is using the Missouri River to plug people into nature. Mark Rettig, superintendent for Nebraska’s Niobrara State Park, says people arrive with a backseat full of videos and kids clambering to watch them. When they discover the park’s nineteen cabins lack televisions or consistent cell phone service, they wonder how they will fill their time. “We tell them to go turn over a rock and see what insects live underneath,” Rettig says, “And you wouldn’t believe how many kids have never made s’mores.” So there are s’more making lessons and afternoons at the pool. I enjoyed the trails near the river, looking for birds fleeing Canada’s cold weather. Supper was a buffalo cookout and a living history presentation that made me appreciate modern conveniences even while taking a break from them.

Further down the river, Ponca State Park has an education program that will engage even the most reluctant outdoorswoman. I signed up for archery lessons and felt like Robin Hood after shooting tips from Tyler Wulf, Assistant Superintendent. I passed up the chance to shoot a rifle or toss a tomahawk, opting instead to kayak the Missouri. The 95 kilometers near the park border is free flowing, not channelized, and looks much like when Lewis and Clark paddled it. I knew however I was only a couple of hours from a very comfortable lodge and training on how to start a fire with flint (although I could cheat with matches if needed).

Jeff Fields, Park Superintendent, encourages creativity from his staff and all ideas for new programs are considered. The biggest success has been the annual Missouri River Outdoor Expo a two-day bonanza of outdoor fun for 52,000 people from 27 states. “The first year we had eight inches of rain (20 centimeters) and still 4,500 people showed up,” Wulf commented on the event’s success, “We knew we had something.” Ten years later, registration for the pre-expo School day sold out in thirty minutes!

The Missouri Outdoor Expo includes a Grunt, Gobble & Growl contest where people imitate the animal of their choice. Dog lovers can watch the aquatic competition where dogs – some in life jackets – throw themselves off the dock in an attempt to jump the longest. Kids can compete in the gourmet s’more contest, while their parents sample wine. Yes, wine is grown in Nebraska and provides a soothing end to a busy day.

I missed the Expo but was kept hopping at Ponca, trying to decide between hiking and learning to fish. Time on the trails won out – I figured I could always get take-out – but checking my email seemed less attractive.

As Rettig summed up, “when people leave the park, they admit they enjoyed being away from their screens.” Like me, they have forgotten what it is like to be unplugged. Thanks to a new generation of parks personnel, it is easier to connect to nature. I understood better why my great, great aunt was called Missouri and vowed to spend more time in mega-nature.

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