The Sandhills were calling. Not the Cranes – the prairies and the Sandhills of Nebraska. The plan this morning was to sleep in, have a leisurely breakfast, pack up and drive back to Grand Island, then take the Sandhills Scenic Byway (Route 2) due west over to Route 183 and then head north to Burwell. That was the plan but the plan didn’t take into consideration that we had become smitten with the Sandhills – the Cranes – and we needed just one more opportunity to see these wonderful birds before we headed on to the next birds in our Trifecta. So, while we were being called by the Sandhills (the hills) to leave, we were also being lured by the Sandhills (the birds) to stay.
So, sleeping in and the leisurely breakfast were plans were canned and we jumped up at dawn and headed up to Gibbon for one last look at the Cranes. We knew that going to the Sanctuary was out – we hadn’t made reservations for a morning visit to the blinds and the visitor center would not yet be open at that time of morning. But we also knew there was an observation deck at the bridge right up the road and we hoped we’d get good views of the Cranes heading out from the river for a day of feasting in the cornfields.
There were a few people at the deck on the river but not many Cranes. And we discovered that sitting in the chilly morning air watching a group of about 100 birds sitting in the river and waiting for them to depart the river in small groups of three or four at a time wasn’t as thrilling as we’d supposed. Seeing a Wild Turkey sitting high up in a tree across the river was pretty cool….and watching the Swallows swooping up and down over the river was also very cool…..but the Cranes were a bit boring just sitting there in the river. Wow, did I just say that? Well…they were…actually. We were not to be dismayed though because we knew that there would be plenty of action along the road behind the Sanctuary that we had found on the previous day…so we headed there.
We were not disappointed. The farmer’s pond was hopping with Teals and Shovelers. The Meadowlark was singing again up by the road sign at the corner and we saw several Ring-Necked Pheasants – the males – strutting around the fields looking for love this fine spring morning. This time though, we got a special treat when a female Pheasant flew out of her hiding place and swooped right across the road in front of us. And at the blind, there were plenty of Cranes and Snow Geese and Killdeer. As we left the blind and headed back to the hotel, we spotted several Northern Bobwhite Quail moseying around grazing along the side of the creek right across the road from the blind. Nice!
The birding was great but we knew we couldn’t linger any longer. Burwell and the Prairie Chickens were waiting for us up north and we needed to check in at Calamus Outfitters in the afternoon. So, it was back to the hotel, grab a quick bite to eat, and toss everything into our bags and head for the Sandhills.
Our original plans to travel back to Grand Island to connect with the Sandhills Scenic Byway (Route 2) were altered. We opted to travel north straight through Kearney on Route 10, intersect with the Scenic Byway at Hazard, then travel northwest on Route 2 over to Ainsley where we’d pick up 183 and head north past Taylor and on up to Route 96 taking us right to the Switzer Ranch/Calamus Outfitters just north of Burwell, NE. Not too big a change – we just cut off part of the Sandhills Scenic Byway. I had only one real stop planned along the way – the Dowse Sod House which was off Route 183 somewhere between the highway and Comstock.
But first, let me say a little about the Sandhills. I suppose I was thinking of great dunes of sand like you’d see near the coast. But all I saw was low grass-covered hills stretching into the horizon on either sides of the road. Although the guidebooks mentioned lots of wildlife like Bison which I thought would be totally awesome to see, we didn’t see any Bison…or much else…just grass and a few small towns. The towns were small and the hills were endless…and, oh yeah, the wind never stopped blowing. Can you imagine being a pioneer and traveling across this endless country with no roads and no clear landmarks, just more hills and the wind constantly blowing lots of, you guessed it, sand into everything? We were in this lovely climate-controlled car so didn’t get the full impact of the wind but still I could sense the utter loneliness and despair that a small family traveling in a covered wagon might have felt traveling across this land.
As we drove, we started to notice areas where the hillsides were cut away to accommodate the road and the ever-present railroad tracks and the truth was revealed. These hills were, in fact, made of sand with maybe five or six inches of thatch growing on top. Sod….like one big sod farm. I’ve read that there are several different kinds of grass growing there but it all looked the same to me.
There weren’t any trees to speak of – not wonder the houses were made of sod. I wondered how anyone could possibly have farmed this land. Seriously? Once you plowed off the thin layer of grass, there would be nothing left to plow – no nice loamy topsoil left in which to plant crops. You might get one crop the first year but, after that, the wind would just blow the land away. There just wasn’t anything to compost once that layer of thatch was gone. Yep, I could certainly understand dust storms. I was later to learn that the successful farmers raised cattle, not corn or grain. The cattle grazed on the thatch but didn’t destroy it so could be moved from pasture to pasture year after year without totally decimating the land. But still, it would have been a hard and very lonely life. On the other hand, now I know where those delicious Omaha Steaks come from.
We found the Dowse Sod House with very little trouble. (Now, how is it that our GPS could not find a great big ole Holiday Inn in Kearney because it was on the south side of the road rather than the north but managed to find a little house made of sod in the middle of nowhere with an address that was basically mile something or another on a dirt road with just a number and no name?) I had heard this old sod house was one of the few, if not the only, sod houses left in Nebraska so, seeing that it was somewhat near the main road, had added it to our “definitely” list.
The Dowse Sod House (or the William R. Dowse House) is a small house made of sod that was built by the Dowse family in 1900 and occupied by the family until 1959. It was restored in 1981 and opened as a museum in 1982. I don’t want you to think that this is a museum in the usual sense. The house is there but there weren’t any people there – no docents or anyone minding the store so to speak – just a house in the middle of the sandhills.
To our delight, we found that the door was unlocked – after we’d peeked in all the windows trying to see inside, Jerry decided to try the door. Apparently, the door is always unlocked so that a visitor can just walk in and explore the place from top to bottom. What an amazing concept – that a “museum” is open to anyone who just might show up and want to take a look?
So who makes a house out of sod? Well, in an area with few trees, a sod house could be built relatively easily and quickly at little cost which was important to the pioneers, many of whom had put their life savings into the wagons and oxen that brought them out to the prairie. Per Wikipedia, the sod was cut into large squares – maybe 20 inch squares – and stacked row upon row to build walls. Some had just sod on the roof also but others had a rudimentary framework of wood covered in tar paper with a layer of sod. On the inside, the walls were shaved smooth and plastered with lime or a mixture of clay and sand or ashes to keep out the bugs and make it a little more airtight.
The sod houses were relatively comfortable because of the thick walls which made the house cool in the summer and well insulated in the winter. And the thick walls were proof against the ever-present winds and storms. It is interesting that people continued to build and live in sod houses even into the middle of the twentieth century although wood was made available in the area by the advent of the railroad many years earlier. The Wikipedia site for the Dowse House gives a great deal more information about the house, how it was built, and about the family who lived there for over half a century….way more than I can provide, so I will refer you to that article for more information. (By the way, the house, although a museum now, continues to be maintained by members of the family and I must say, it was very neat and clean…considering all the sand, it was relatively dust free.)
We found the house fascinating and explored every room except we didn’t attempt the steep stairs up to the attic.
The grounds also contained old farm implements that Jerry spent a good deal of time examining…his favorite was a horse-drawn contraption that appeared to be used for running barbed wire along the fields for making fences. Thankfully, it was not motorized so he couldn’t spend time trying to get it cranked up and moving so he could better see how it worked. (We might still be there if that were the case.)
Then it was back to the highway and, after a stop for photographs of a church or two around Taylor, and a trip on down to Burwell for lunch (lovely local restaurant called the Sandstone Grill that I would highly recommend if you find yourself there with time on your hands), and then we checked in at the Switzer Ranch/Calamus Outfitters for the 2017 Prairie Chicken Festival.
The festival started that evening with supper – prepared by the Sandstone Grill – and an overview of Prairie Chickens and Sharp-Tailed Grouse – bird numbers 2 & 3 on our Nebraska Trifecta. There were several guest speakers to open the festival and we learned way more about land management and controlled burns to rid the prairie of invasive spruce trees that were destroying the prairie ecosystems than we ever thought we’d want to know.
On the way back to our cabin, we took a side trip down to the reservoir to Gracie Creek where we had spotted some big white birds that I thought might be Snow Geese so wanted to check them out. Nope. They were American White Pelicans – hundreds, maybe thousands of them, on Calamus Lake. This was totally unexpected. We had never seen so many White Pelicans before…just amazing!
We were well on our way now to having this Trifecta mission accomplished….and then some.
April 3 – Baltimore, MD to Omaha, NE (via Minneapolis, MN): 1153 Miles
April 4 – Omaha to Grand Island (via Route 30): 160 Miles
April 5 – Grand Island to Kearney (via Interstate 80): 49 Miles
April 6 – Meandering around Kearney and Gibbon (Interstate 80 and the Back Roads): ??
April 7 – Kearney to Calamus Outfitters/Burwell (RT 10/RT 2/RT 183/RT 96): 122 Miles
Sites Visited Thus Far:
ADM Grain Company Driveway (Day 2)
Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary (D3 & D4)
Crane Trust (D3)
Dowse Sod House (D5)
Eagle Scout Park (D3)
Fort Kearney Historical Park (D4)
Fort Kearney State Recreation Area (SRA) (D4)
Freemont State Recreation Area (SRA) (D2)
Grandpa’s Steak House (D4)
Great Platte River Road Archway (D4)
Higgins Memorial (D2)
Mormon Island State Recreation Area (SRA) (D3)
Townsley-Murdock Trail Site (D2)
Windmill State Recreation Area (D4)
Birds Spotted On The Trip Thus Far – Total Species Identified – 46: