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Evelyn gives tubing down the Niobrara a thumbs up.
A long time ago, when I was still young (and actually had blond hair…yes, my blond kids got it from me), my family went tubing down the Niobrara with some friends. Up in western Nebraska, most people have never heard of the river–much less been there–but it was memorable enough for me that I’ve always wanted to go back.
From late May to the end of June, we had a fairly constant stream of family visitors. It was wonderful to see so many of our extended family after having a longer-than-normal hiatus. We showed them around rock shelterswam in the pondclimbed on the hay bales, rode the horsesrehomed some free bees…in general, had a fantastic time. As enjoyable as it was living like we were on a perpetual vacation, it’s a lot of hard work having a good time.
The irony of wanting to drive a play car after having driven in the car for hours to get there.
We had made plans earlier in the year to travel west to visit family but it was derailed by my car accident and recovery, coupled with Covid-19. When we found a window of opportunity to make our escape before the Fourth of July, we took it.
On Father’s day, we traveled in a beeline to Nebraska, taking only one stop to fill up the gas tank and go potty (my kids are serious roadtripping champs) and arrived just after dinner. We ate, played for a bit, slept, woke up, played a little more with the cousins we’d just seen, then by lunch, we hit the road again.
We made it to Broken Bow, Nebraska by dinnertime and stopped at Runza, a Nebraska staple. There already aren’t that many people in western Nebraska so we had the whole restaurant to ourselves.
Since we were on vacation, we splurged on kid’s meals for everyone and followed it up with a hearty ice cream cone. It was almost too much ice cream for some of the kids. They struggled to keep the soft serve from dripping down their hands and occasionally needed help from Jack and me. Not that I’m opposed to helping out with Runza ice cream cones. 😉
Kate almost licked her ice cream right off the cone.
It wasn’t much further until we got to the Sandhills. People pretty much disappeared altogether and were replaced by impressive herds of cows all dotting the wide-open spaces. I know Nebraska gets a bad wrap for being boring–even ugly to some people–but I loved driving through it. There’s beauty in all of God’s creations and I for one appreciated the change in scenery, always enjoy seeing cows, and loved the endless blue sky.
For our trip, we wanted to stay off the beaten path just to be safe…and also, we like being secluded. We booked an AirBnB at a working ranch near Valentine for the night. And boy, was it secluded. We had downloaded the map before we totally lost internet service, which was fortunate since the last hour or so was spotty at best. On the way, we passed their one-room schoolhouse, the cluster of mailboxes where everybody’s mail was delivered, but otherwise, it was more cows, millions of acres of wildlife reserve…and that’s about it.
Kate was in puppy dog heaven.
The farmhouse we stayed in was near the main house and when we pulled up, we were greeted by the owner, her son, and their incredibly friendly blue heelers. She filled us in on Covid–one case in the entirety of the largest county in Nebraska–the history of the house, some fun facts about the area, like that they only needed three kids in attendance to have the schoolhouse up and running. It was fascinating hearing what life was for her and her family out in the very far corners of Nebraska.
We got everyone situated inside the old house. There was a bit of bedsharing and getting settled but everyone went to sleep at a reasonable hour. That also meant like usual, they were up with the sun. Jack sat on the porch to get some fresh air after he’d toasted bagels for everyone.
We wore our swimming suits under our clothes and got packed up, said goodbye to the dogs, and made our way into Valentine to start our tubing adventure.
In the middle of millions of acres of pasture, cows are STILL sure the grass is greener on the other side.

The weather was absolutely perfect for taking a gentle tubing trip down the Niobrara river. The river itself is at most thirty to forty feet wide and averages eighteen inches deep, which was ideal for our family with varying levels of swimming ability.
In a word, the trip was peaceful. There was the occasional other group floating down the river on rafts, tubes, or canoes, but no one was in a hurry to get anywhere.
We alternated between swimming, sunning ourselves, eating snacks, and dipping toes in the water. The landscape was gorgeous and constantly changing. When there were rocky cliffs, there were frequently trickling waterfalls and where most people imagine a dry, desert-y state, Nebraska is lush and wild.

Peter tried to fight his morning nap but it wasn’t long into our trip that he crashed. The warmth of the sun, the gentle sway of the water…there was no way he could fight it. For an hour I held him and though my tube was comfortable enough, that boy is HEAVY. Thank goodness he woke up before my arms came entirely unhinged.

Jack is a surfer at heart and though there weren’t any waves, Jack challenged the kids to tube surfing. It took a few tries but they got the hang of floating down the river upright.
Smith Falls was toward the end of our journey. It’s the tallest waterfall in Nebraska, so we stopped to regroup, toss out our trash, and have a sandwich. On the way up to the falls, they had an awesome social distancing sign, giving tips on how far to social distance with people, bears, moose, and bison. Long story short, don’t wave at bison, even if you’re far away. 😂
When it was our turn to explore the falls, the kids were a little tentative. I don’t know if the water is that much colder or if it seems colder because we had tried off and warmed up in the sun, but everyone who risked going near the falls quickly changed their mind.
Evelyn also gives the falls a thumbs up.
Of course, once Jack dared them to go under, they couldn’t say no. You can’t say no to a dare: it’s basically taboo among the kids. So, they screamed and shrieked at how cold it was but stayed there long enough for me to get a photo.
We had a schedule to keep though, so we couldn’t stay long. Back to the tubes we went. We warmed up in the river and watched for the last bridge, signaling the end of our trip down the Niobrara.
Some of our adventures together are more thrilling–the kids are getting to the age where they love a good roller coaster or want to surf out in the ocean waves–but that morning felt good for the soul. Unhurried, quiet, disconnected, plenty of time to talk or just be. It was memorable for me as a girl to go but there was something special about experiencing it again it with my own family.
Tubing down the Niobrara was just the thing we needed.

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True stories of raising children, remodeling, braving the elements and plotting out life, all while living on a humble acreage in central Indiana.

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