Many tight passages are a part of the challenge to float the Dismal River near Mullen.
They Said I Shouldn't Tackle this Dismal Adventure Alone
“The Dismal is known as the divorce river,” said Patty Glidden, standing behind the motel counter with her husband, Mitch.
The Gliddens own the Sandhills Motel and operate Glidden Outfitters in Mullen, Nebraska.
I’m not married and plan to float solo.
“We don’t like to put people alone on the Dismal. It can be a dangerous river,” Patty said.
I replied: “I can appreciate that. Do you want to float it with me?”
“No,” she said with a smile. Mitch gave me the same answer.
Over the last couple of weeks, I shared with various people my plan to canoe the Dismal. Often they told stories that left me wondering what I was getting into.
Two weeks prior to the trip, Susan Cook, who grew up in western Nebraska and is a park ranger at the Homestead National Monument of America near Beatrice, Nebraska, said: “My father once told me about a wagon and a team of horses that were sucked down into the quicksand. If you get into it, don’t fight it. Just float and roll.”
Note to self, float and roll.
The night before my float, Mitch Glidden helped me shuttle my truck to the finish point at the Seneca bridge. This gave me a chance to hear more stories. “Legend has it the Dismal got its name when a school teacher tried to ride her horse across the river in the wintertime and drowned,” Glidden said. “Are you sure you don’t want to float the Middle Loup River? It’s relaxing.”
Armed with all these beautiful stories swirling around in my mind, I set off to canoe a 15-mile stretch of the Dismal River south of Mullen.
The challenge started even before I got on the river. To get to the launching point, I had to lower my canoe by rope down a 20-foot drop along the river’s edge.
Getting to the Dismal River was just the start of a canoeing adventure. The canoe was lowered by rope down the 20 foot drop.
Once it was lowered, the challenge continued.
The previous night it had rained and quicksand swallowed my feet with every step. Sweat started to roll down my cheeks and the canoe had yet to get on the water.
I have been canoeing over 30 years and was eager for the challenge. I like challenges. Years ago I had my brother, Dale, put me on the Platte River at 10 p.m. near North Bend to canoe down to Fremont.
Smart, no. Challenging, yes.
The Dismal, fed by the Ogallala Aquifer runs swiftly at 6-8 m.p.h. and is generally narrow. It is a winding river that runs through a canyon filled with evergreen trees in the Nebraska Sandhills. The river offers a surprise around every bend. I had to develop a different strategy to canoe the river.
The fast-moving water could pull me right into a fallen tree. Sometimes all I had was a 3-foot opening between a fallen tree and the bank. At first, I tried to muscle my way through the small openings. This proved to be a mistake. My canoe was responsive but not enough in the tight quarters where I often found myself.
I concluded that I shouldn’t muscle my way down the Dismal River. I had to dance with it. The river became my dance partner. Together, we gracefully danced for 10 hours through the Sandhills as the Dismal twisted back and forth.
The trick was to slow the canoe before the bend in the river and allow the current to gently carry me into the curve. Once the next obstacle was in view, I slowed a bit more and would glide over the water toward the tree. At just the right moment, I’d give a couple of quick pumps with the canoe paddle and shoot the gap for safe passage.
I felt I had mastered the river and charged ahead. This turned out to be an illusion.
Looking east down the Dismal River from the Nebraska Highway 97 bridge reveals a few obstacles.