More than 52,000 visitors in two days. Nearly 1,000 volunteers. Over 100 hands-on exhibits. Sixteen trolleys. Three locations in one park. Two world-record holders. One decade.
As the Missouri River Outdoor Expo reaches a number of milestones, perhaps the most notable is the countless memories created each year at Ponca State Park.
Located along the Missouri River near Ponca, the park transforms into a busy city – Nebraska’s fourth largest during the event – accommodating thousands of outdoor enthusiasts of all ages, interests and skill levels.Friends of Fort Atkinson volunteer Dean Slader at the Missouri River Outdoor Expo at Ponca State Park.
Amy Kucera/NEBRASKAland Magazine
The prairie becomes a parking lot as guided shuttles run continuously throughout the weekend, transporting visitors to three locations within the park: the Missouri National Recreational River Resource and Education Center, Eric Wiebe Memorial Shooting Complex and the Missouri River.
“We have received comments in our visitor surveys comparing the Expo atmosphere to a state fair – a state fair for the great outdoors,” said Park Superintendent Jeff Fields. “The event has grown large enough that you can’t see and do everything in a single day.”
In 2004, a grassroots effort to create the Missouri River Outdoor Expo was underway, establishing an advisory board comprised of Nebraska Game and Parks Commission staff, community members and volunteers dedicated to organizing the event.
The Better Ponca Foundation and the Commission have since partnered with hundreds of sponsors, exhibitors and volunteers to grow the annual event, which aims to introduce or rekindle interest in natural resources and outdoor recreation through hands-on experience.
“Since the onset of the event, all the activities have been free to the public, thanks to the generous financial and in-kind support of our partners and sponsors,” Fields said. “They are a vital part of our success.”
RESOURCE AND EDUCATION CENTER
A hub of activity, the Resource and Education Center is surrounded by a variety of exhibitors, from a live raptor display to a rock climbing wall. Dog competitions coincide with that of lumberjacks, as attractions simultaneously awe the crowds. Tours of a park mini-lodge pair with wine and cheese tasting. A kid’s cook-off invites youth to try new recipes. At the nearby pond, fly-fishing, bowfishing and kayaking share the water with regular anglers – some are seasoned veterans while others are experiencing each activity for the first time.
Inside the center, a large insect and snake display, a gift shop and exhibit wing featuring the Missouri National Recreational River are popular stops before journeying to the next location.
A gravel road becomes the main walkway for guests visiting the vendors along a portion of the unchannelized river bordering the 2,400 acre park. As it goes, the namesake of the Expo can be as unpredictable as the weekend’s weather. In 2011, the Missouri River flood temporarily moved exhibitors, including the 1800s heritage encampment, from their home on the riverfront. They have since returned, however, the same cannot be said for the campground’s cottonwood trees, which were removed for safety reasons after a windstorm proved their demise last fall. Though a line denoting the flood’s high water mark on a single stump is all that remains of the former treeline, the location’s lively atmosphere is not at all affected by a change in scenery.
Scheduled attractions at the riverfront include “Armless Archer” Matt Stutzman, who made the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest accurate shot – 230 yards – at the Expo in 2011. Additional interactive exhibits at this location include a fossil dig, field dressing clinics and Missouri River boat rides.
THE ERIC WIEBE SHOOTING COMPLEX
As one of the original founders of the Missouri River Outdoor Expo, Conservation Officer Eric Weibe was instrumental in the early development and success of the event as an active member of the Expo advisory board.
Wiebe was well-known in the area for his dedication to hunter education, mentored youth hunts and shooting sports. After he lost a hard-fought battle with cancer, his family made a generous contribution for improvements and additions to Ponca State Park’s shooting range, also known as the “Shooter’s Village” during the Expo weekend.
From the family’s initial donation, a fundraising campaign generated more than $50,000 regionally. Dedicated in the spring of 2012, the Eric Wiebe Shooting Complex enhances the Expo experience. The Complex features all-weather ranges for pellet gun, archery, muzzleloader, .22-caliber rifle, shotgun, slingshot, tomahawk and atlatl, and continues the heritage of hunting and shooting sports through guided first-hand participation.
Additional attractions at this location include world-record archer Randy Oitker, cowboy fast draw shooting and aerial archery.
In a prelude to Expo weekend, area fifth graders are invited to the School Day Invitational held the Friday before the event, when park staff and volunteers provide a variety of interactive outdoor activities for youth. Last year, the event drew in more than 1,000 youth from 22 schools to experience 45 exhibits.
The Expo has come a long way since its inaugural weekend when cold and rainy weather put a damper on attendance. Mother Nature notwithstanding, many participants saw the potential of the event and have returned every year since. The crowd size has steadily increased, proving the popularity of the Expo experience. In both 2012 and 2013, weekend visitors numbered more than 52,000.
“We designed a logo for the event that includes the statement ‘An Outdoor Family Tradition’ because that is the atmosphere we want to create,” said Jim Swenson, interim parks division administrator for the Commission. “It is evident when you observe three or four generations of families, and even the family dog, participating in the various events. Seeing parents and grandparents passing along their outdoor traditions is extremely rewarding.”
Last year, more than 900 volunteers, many from the city of Ponca (population 1,081), ensured the event went off without a hitch. They receive an official Expo hat and t-shirt for their efforts, highly coveted items that are often seen and worn with pride.
“Without their overwhelming dedication and support, this event would not be possible,” Fields said.
In 2012, the Missouri River Outdoor Expo was the recipient of the “Excellence in Conservation” award from the Midwest Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
Always the third weekend of September, this year the Expo is scheduled for September 20-21, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days. The event is a unique opportunity to join thousands of people who come together to celebrate, and perpetuate, one common legacy: Nebraska’s outdoor heritage. For more information, visit: Missouririverexpo.com or view the Missouri River Outdoor Expo photo gallery.
This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of NEBRASKAland Magazine.