Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A first boat ride through the Blackbird Hills
July 17, 2006
River Mile 691 - Decatur, NE

It was only our second night on the river, but we were already becoming sandbar snobs. It had been a beautiful day on the river, boating through the Winnebago and Omaha Reservations, and the thought of camping next to the Decatur toll bridge was not extremely appealing. But exhaustion won out, and before we knew it, we were taking a dip in the river while Char and Amy whipped up burritos to feed an army.

As the sun moved lower in the sky, a family walked down the boat ramp to hang out by the river. We hailed them over to visit, and pretty soon, the Hallowell family had made themselves at home in our camp. We suited the kids, Janet, Aileta “Sissy” and Whitehawk, up in lifejackets, showed them how they could safely swim in the eddies, and they disappeared, laughing, into the gentle current.

The elder Hallowells, Cornelius (“Corny”) and Benal, had both grown up on the Omaha Reservation, spitting distance from the Big Muddy. As with so many river valley locals, who have seen all of the faces of this schizophrenic river, they had a deep fear of its currents. Benal has had several close relatives drown in the river.

We all chipped in with our collective knowledge of how the river works: how at lower levels the currents are manageable and often tame; how the trickiest currents are at the ends of wing dikes and around structures; how the river demands respect and attention at all times, but that when it rises is when it is most unpredictable.

At first it seemed impossible, but in a matter of minutes, we convinced the whole family to hop on our boat for a ride through their homeland. Whitehawk decided to keep swimming, but Sissy and Janet took up spots on the bow and Corny and Benal took deep breaths and hopped in amidships. None had been on the river before in a boat.

As Anthony guided the “Char” (our name for our 60 hp jon boat – named for our beloved burrito chef) upstream, the Hallowells got to see their homeland from a completely new perspective. Corny pointed out the Blackbird Hill, a loess bluff that rose above us as we rounded the bend above Decatur. Stories of who lived where and old stories of grandmothers and fishing spilled out. Benal had been worried about getting on the river, but as the hills rolled by, she became truly strong, and everyone glowed with smiles.

We all filled up on burritos, and relaxed around the campfire. The Hallowells brought down some fine hardwood logs for the fire, to add to our smoky driftwood pile. Pretty soon, the three children were gathered around the glow of Dan’s laptop (which he finally named – “Betty”) while he showed them what he could do with our mapping software….including zooming in on their house up in the hills above.

Everyone flew foshees that night, and several new foshee addicts were born. The Hallowells left with hugs, and we knew we had made new friends that night.


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