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Footsteps Through McKelvie

A lot of people can tell you about the beauty of the Sandhills from the road, the forever green dunes rolling by at sixty five miles an hour. Or they can wax poetic from the seat of a canoe or tube—the slow meander of sandy bluffs and horizontal cedar trees. To many Nebraskans, the Sandhills are its scenic secret, an entire ecology different from anything else in the world.  But the very thing that makes them so beautiful also makes them untouchable.

I’ve spent most of my life in the state of Nebraska. Growing up in Winside, we took summer road trips west across the Sandhills, out of the humidity and into the hot dry nothing. Later, like most Nebraskans, I canoed the scenic beauty of the Niobrara east of Valentine. I’ve even canoed the Dismal once, which is in a word—challenging.  But I’ve never simply walked across one of those huge expanses. I’ve never seen this great beauty without some piece of concrete, some internal combustion engine, some beast of burden nearby.

But the limit to where a human being’s legs can take lay far beyond the breadth of this vast green desert.

The Sunset

My friends dropped me forty miles southwest of Valentine at the northern entrance to McKelvie National Forest. Unbeknownst to me, they took one last photo as I walked into the green nothing and labeled it “last known photo of Revelation James.” Down out of the breaks of the Niobrara, there was only grass.  My stride was long as the afternoon light gave way to evening, the shade of green growing darker with the failing light.

I almost ran into the first two windmills, their steel frames popping up in the middle of my path.

My thirteen year old forest service map had marked only a tiny fraction of the 116,000 plus acres as actually tree covered. And again, right on schedule, the “forest” appeared in front of me.  The ecotone between forest and Sandhills was brief. Unlike her sister forest Halsey, McKelvie remains almost entirely grass covered sand dunes.

The only question was how far I could get before sundown. I had even contemplated walking through the night, even if the moon wouldn’t rise until 12:30. But for now, I busied myself with walking east away from the sunset. It was very much a static tapestry. My view finally dimmed as I lost the light. In those last minutes, I found the next windmill—209. All was quiet and beautiful.

There was just one problem—I wasn’t tired.

McKelvie National Forest at Sunset. Photo by Zeke Brummels

The Darkness

I knew it wasn’t the soundest of choices, but it was something I’d never tried. And for me, backpacking is about being completely self-reliant on your own body and your own wits to survive in the wilderness—wherever you can find it.  It’s about searching for the untouched places on this earth, places you can’t see from through the windshield of a car.  It’s about pushing yourself to do something that another part of you doubts is possible.

There were other reasons I had considered walking at night. First and foremost, there were no towns, not to mention any ranches or artificial light of any kind in a national forest. The Sandhills has a reputation for an awe-inspiring lack of light pollution. I desperately wanted to experience this. And not through the window of a motel or RV, not even through the netting of a heavy tent—I wanted nothing between me and the sky.

Secondly, I thought trying this on rolling Sandhills was much safer and saner than say a 12,000 foot mountain pass.

But the stars took their time and with the moon at least three hours away, I was left with keeping my headlamp on the vague track below.  Define irony, I thought to myself.

But after a bit, the stars became discernable and ever so slightly the sand track beneath my feet. Switching my head lamp off, I wished for a camera to capture the depth of field but then reminded myself that it was treat enough to have the memory.

It wasn’t long before I neatly walked into earshot of a slowly soft screech of wind meeting steel. As I made the last hundred yard walk by sound, twin feelings of relief and fatigue suddenly came over me. Windmill 39 seemed the perfect spot. Within minutes I had filled my water straight from the windmill, pulled out my ground cloth and was suddenly very sleepy.

But before I could spend much time contemplating the beauty of the stars, I suddenly felt the bugs.  Staying calm, I found my raincoat, pulled the hood down until only my face was exposed. But the more I tried to cover up, the more they seemed determine to bite me. After a while, it occurred to me that I was the only restaurant in town.

People had told me, “Bring bug spray.” But for some reason I had deemed this too heavy.  I was wrong.

This went on for an hour then two. The urge to leave came suddenly. I pivoted around to gather my gear, and way out there in the western horizon, lightning danced in the distance. The moon and stars now shared the sky and I could see almost twenty yards in front of me.

The Storm

The entire four am horizon of the Sandhills lit up above me, lightning illuminating green dunes and a 100 or so strong, black cattle surrounding a squat windmill.  The wind picked up as I counted the seconds. One, two, three, four—then crack, thunder echoed across empty landscape.  There were no trees, and nothing, resembling shelter.

For a moment, I thought about the need to keep moving. Somehow, I had trekked in the dark for the past two hours and stumbled into my second post-dusk windmill.  But I wasn’t sure which one it was. The forest service map had been incredibly helpful. Each mill had a numbered sign corresponding to the map. It had turned a game of vague directions into an easily beatable pinball machine.

But it also meant I had to get close enough to each windmill to read the two inch print. In this case, it was not only guarded by 200 or so eyeballs staring at me in the blackness, but it also appeared to be a very likely candidate for a lightning strike.

So I circled the mill by 90 degrees where I found a ten foot tall dune with almost two sides blown out. I sat down atop the dune, my legs dangling off the drop.  I pulled on my rain coat and cinched the pack cover tight. For some reason, I decided against my packed rain pants. The breeze became a wind, and the wind a howl, and the drizzle a sheet of water.

It wasn’t the lightning or the possibility of hail I that worried me. It was the wind. I couldn’t remember feeling more exposed to weather. I waited for the next strike, staring into the storm. I had to lower my eye-line under my hood to keep my glasses at least marginally clear. A piece of rolling wall lightning gave me the half second to look up and see if I could see something. But it was only water, as I turned away in time to see the herd of cattle had vanished. One, two, three—this crack was a mile or two closer.    In the next flash, I saw the herd had split in two, moving in opposite directions away from the mill.

I hunched down assuming they knew something I didn’t. A minute passed as my thoughts centered on keeping my pack and all its valuable contents dry. The time between the next lightning strikes was five seconds, then seven. The rain slackened and the cows mooed.

I stumbled down the dune, soaked to the bone. Two digits shone against my headlamp. I pulled my map out in the drizzle, found my last position, then drug my finger east.  Number twenty-three—I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

I gave my compass a quick shake, freeing the needle into a slowing pendulum, slowly centering on east and the inevitable grey breaking of day.

The Snake

My pace quickened as I realized I was going to have covered my two day trip in less than 18 hours. I thought about what I was going to do with my day before trying to get a ride into Valentine.

My walk across McKelvie National Forest had been so brief.  Thanks to the bugs and the rain the night before, it was simply easier to keep walking. But because of the lack of sleep, I was now tired and looking forward to a warm meal and felt that surge of adrenaline when a great task is nearly finished.

The Snake River of Nebraska gets its name by its serpentine shape, as opposed to its inhabitants. I knew that. What I didn’t know as I edged my way towards the sound of water falling was that the west bank of the Snake River below Merit Damn is an un-scalable 80 foot bluff. I expected a certain amount of sliding down on my posterior to the next tree, but this was ridiculous.

I started south towards the dam with the theory that the closer to the reservoir, the closer to some way down towards the dam itself.  It wasn’t long before I reached a place with a bit of slope, a little shelf, and then another slope.  At the bottom of that slope, there wasn’t more than fifteen feet to the water below.  Surely there would be way down from there.

Ninety seconds and some controlled falling later, I looked over the lip of that last slope. It was only water. I could do it I thought. Just hang off the last branch and slide in.

I sighed and bowed my head.

Twenty minutes of grunting and crawling upwards later, I reached the lip of the Snake River Bluffs and headed back north.  I would take my chances downstream.  Certainly there couldn’t be bluffs like this for miles.

The day suddenly grew hot, and for the Sandhills, humid. The combination of sleep deprivation and fatigue began to take over.  Even in my exhaustion, I didn’t believe there was a piece of Nebraska topography that could stop me in my tracks.

I paused to study the map. I knew the confluence with Steer Creek was closing. It was easier walking if I stayed a few hundred yards away from the snaking Sandhills stream, but it also kept me away from any vantage point on a way down. After an hour of reversing my course, I knew I had to get down towards the water.

I kicked my way through years of dead fall and vines, which broke unevenly from the loose sand. This was no game trail, no natural way down, but I decided that it might as well be here as anywhere. The fall wasn’t bad. The amount of half alive trees arrested my decent but weren’t thick enough to stop me from crawling through. At the base of the ravine, the Sandhills were at its most jungle-esque. I hacked and climbed and crawled my way before a slope and a final sand slide deposited me next to the Snake River.

After backpacking extensively in South America, including a six month stint in Ecuador, seeking out the wild untouched places in the world, Brummels now looks to hike the remote corners of his home state of Nebraska. Brummels currently lives in Wayne, Nebraska.

About Zeke Brummels

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