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Photographing the Panhandle: A Top 10 for No. 3

Photographing the Panhandle: A Top 10 for No. 3

I live in a pretty special place.

A recent National Geographic article by Robert Reid ranks all of America’s 10 panhandles from 1 to 10 in terms of travel appeal. Nebraska came in at No. 3 on the list, topped only by Alaska and Florida. Travelers who have seen Nebraska only during a drive along Interstate 80 might be surprised our panhandle ranked so high, but it certainly comes as no revelation to those of us who spend our days and nights here.

I especially like the article’s quote by Joseph Kerski who was asked to define a panhandle: “Often there’s a strong sense of place there, maybe … a sense of frontier.” You darn right there is.

As one who gets to photograph the Nebraska Panhandle week in and week out, I’ve developed a close relationship with it. I really can’t think of a better place to do my job. Alaska and Florida might be nice to visit, but I like it here in the middle where I get a taste of many worlds.

In an effort to highlight this region’s natural beauty, I frequently share photos as “pics of the day” on social media. It’s a fun way to interact with followers and highlight a “sense of place” on our special “frontier.” Admittedly, I’m sometimes surprised more people don’t like an image I love, or that they enjoy images that are seemingly mediocre to me.

As 2016 winds down, it’s time to look back at images from the past year and review their level of “social media engagement” – a fancy term for “who and how many liked it.” It’s an inexact science, especially for me, but from my home office in Chadron here’s a countdown of my most popular images from 2016 as others saw it.

  1. “Deer Sprouts,” Sioux County in May.

A drive through the grasslands of Sioux County, the state’s northwestern-most region, in spring is worth the time and expense no matter where you live. You will almost certainly encounter more animals than people. Such was the case on this day when I encountered this group of photogenic mule deer seemingly rising from the ground with the green grass and wildflowers.

  1. “Tower of Flowers,” Fort Robinson State Park in June.

Yucca glauca, more commonly known as soapweed, often serves as a good foreground element for photographing the American West and in this case scenic Smiley Canyon at Fort Robinson State Park. They’re especially beautiful in spring when in bloom. Note that a few of the petals are missing – likely a meal for the area’s bighorn sheep.

  1. “High Tracks,” Pine Ridge Ranger District of the Nebraska National Forest in January.

This winter scene, captured just west of Chadron State Park, conveys a special sense of cold isolation to me. Can’t you just picture the hungry canid critter walking this ridgeline in search of its next meal?

  1. “Crow’s-Eye View,” Pine Ridge of Dawes County in February.

As part of my job, I often get invited by Commission staff to tag along during their fascinating conservation projects. This is a bird’s-eye photo of what may be Dawes County’s most prominent landmark, Crow Butte, during a helicopter mule deer survey. Although the time of day and time of year is less than ideal for such a photo, it does a nice job of showing our unique terrain.

  1. “The Curious One,” Ponderosa Wildlife Management Area in August.

The past year has given me a lot of camera trap work, involving a somewhat complicated system to capture images of the region’s charismatic fauna. As far as photography goes, trying to create magazine-quality photographs of animals while you’re not at the scene can certainly be challenging and I owe a lot to my coworkers in the wildlife division who have provided their expertise about the critters. When an image such as these mule deer fawns and their mother shows up on the screen, all the trouble seems worth it. I captured many photos of this little family, and the fawn in the foreground seemed to be especially interested in my set-up.

  1. “I think I can, I think I can,” Pine Ridge of Dawes County in February.

Another shot from the same flight as No. 7. This steep stretch of railroad south of Crawford demonstrates the lengths people had to go to “tame” the Pine Ridge. Known as Breezy Point Crawford Hill, this set of curves has caused difficulties for the region’s railroaders for generations. Not far from here, near the ghost town of Belmont, is Nebraska’s only railroad tunnel. While no longer in service, the tunnel (and the incredible effort put forth by 19th century railroaders to create it) also serves as prime evidence that Nebraska is far from being flat.

  1. “Bob tail,” Ponderosa Wildlife Management Area in August.

A bobcat photo from the same trail camera set-up as No. 6, and one of numerous bobcat images captured with the system this year. I like it because it provides a good view of how the species got its name. And, hey, aren’t bobcats cool?

  1. “Sweet ‘n’ Low,” Sioux County in November.

When my son and I set out for an afternoon of duck hunting on the Oglala National Grassland, I was sure to pack the camera gear with the coinciding supermoon in mind. This photo of Sugar Loaf Butte, captured from the lonely old ghost town of Orella, met our expectations. If you look closely, you can even see the big bird perched atop the unique landform. Scenes such as this surely inspire cinematography in films such as Star Wars, and I can’t think of a better place to witness such an occurrence.

  1. “Have a Ball,” Fort Robinson State Park in November.

The same supermoon occurrence as No. 3, but photographed a couple mornings later while it was setting instead of rising. Fort Robinson’s Red Cloud Buttes surely stand among the most photographed landmarks in the state.  It’s always rewarding to capture them during special moments, and a person is sure to “have a ball” at Fort Robinson regardless of the time of year.

  1. “Monumental Fog,” Scotts Bluff County in March.

I spent quite a bit of time “in a fog” on this particular morning, both literally and figuratively, trying to capture photos along the North Platte River near Scottsbluff and Gering. It finally occurred to me that I should try to get above the scene, so I headed to a place of higher elevation with an unrivaled view of the valley – Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area. I got there in time to witness this fantastic view of the Scotts Bluff National Monument and capture it with a long lens. It happens to be among the photographs featured in our 2017 NEBRASKAland Calendar available at Game and Parks locations throughout the state (psst, that’s a hint for you to buy one).

There’s my list of best photos of 2016 as chosen by my friends, family and followers. I would have probably made a few different picks, but in the end it’s the audience who decides if our photography is worth a darn, anyway.

I’m looking forward to seeing what images “good ol’ No. 3” brings to my cameras in 2017. No photos can do justice to how beautiful our highly ranked panhandle is, but I’ll keep trying.

PS — For those of you who would like to have input on next year’s list, you can follow me on Instagram (@ridgerunner308), Twitter (@NEBland_Haag) or Facebook.

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About justin haag

Justin Haag serves the Panhandle as a public information officer for the Commission, also serving as regional editor for NEBRASKAland Magazine. Haag was raised in southwestern Nebraska, where he developed a love for fishing, hunting and other outdoor pursuits. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Chadron State College in 1996, he worked four years as an editor and reporter at newspapers in Chadron and McCook. Prior to joining the Commission in 2013, he worked 12 years as a communicator at Chadron State, serving as the institution’s media and public relations coordinator the last five. He and his wife, Cricket, live in Chadron, and enjoy introducing their two children to the many outdoor recreational opportunities of the Pine Ridge region.

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