Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

by Bob Hoelscher 4. December 2012 00:45

Unfortunately, some extraordinary sites administered by our National Park Service are not very accessible. Among these is surely Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in northwestern Nebraska, even though it is not all that distant from South Dakota’s popular Black Hills resort region. 

The Monument was once part of the Agate Springs Ranch, purchased by James and Kate Cook from her parents in 1887. Strange “Devil’s Corkscrew” formations were first studied here by scientists soon thereafter, which were eventually identified as fossilized burrows of a prehistoric beaver-like creature that lived more like a prairie dog.

Here, around ancient waterholes, animals had apparently congregated and eventually died when supplies of the nearby grasses that they foraged, already drastically reduced by drought, were exhausted. The bones of hundreds and even thousands of several species were eventually covered under several feet of sediment. Mostly between 1904 and 1923, paleontologists from several renowned Eastern institutions worked these fossil beds, uncovering bones that are now found in outstanding museum collections around the globe. 

Today, in addition to displays explaining and exhibiting some of the fossilized bones, as well as complete replica skeletons, the Monument’s excellent visitor center also contains a video theatre and the Cook Collection of Indian Artifacts. Even by itself, the Cook family’s magnificent collection of Plains Indian cultural artifacts makes a trip to the Monument worthwhile. However two interpretive trails, the 2.7-mile round-trip Fossil Hill Trail to the University and Carnegie Hill dig sites, and the one-mile Daemonelix Trail, all contribute to a memorable visitor experience.

Red Cloud's ceremonial shirt in the Cook Collection of Indian Artifacts

Daemonelix in the "phone booth"

Mule deer viewed from the Daemonelix Trail

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Three lesser-known Midwest parks

Missouri National Recreational River

by Bob Hoelscher 4. December 2012 00:43

The Missouri, North America’s longest river, meanders from its headwaters in Montana and through the Dakotas, borders Nebraska and Kansas to the east, and Iowa and Missouri to the west, before crossing the “Show Me” State and joining the Mississippi just north of St. Louis.  Although it became an important commercial waterway as the U.S. expanded westward during the second half of the 19th century, the river remained treacherous going for steamboats of the era.

However, after a series of particularly devastating floods in the early 1940s, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1944, a provision of which eventually resulted in six dams being built, massive reservoirs being filled and the end of regular seasonal flood destruction. But there are still two historic, free-flowing stretches of the Missouri along the Nebraska/South Dakota border that were preserved by Congress in 1978 and 1991 as the Missouri National Recreational River. The 39-Mile-District, downstream from Fort Randall Dam as far as Running Water (SD), offers visitor centers at both the dam itself and Niobrara State Park (NE), while the 59-Mile District, downstream from the Gavins Point Dam to Ponca State Park (NE), has a visitor center in the state park, as well as the major Lewis and Clark Visitor Center at the dam. 

In addition to splendid views of the river and Gavins Point Dam, the latter facility has numerous exhibits, a video theatre and a bookstore. Both districts offer a wealth of opportunities for water sports, fishing, hiking and picnicking.

Park facilities along the Missouri River

Lewis and Clark Visitor Center

Missouri River model in the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center

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Three lesser-known Midwest parks

DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge

by Bob Hoelscher 4. December 2012 00:38

A unit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge makes a wonderful tour stop for groups traveling in Nebraska. Only about five miles off of I-29, DeSoto is one of over 500 refuges protected and managed nationally. However, DeSoto is much more than just a place to view spectacular flights of ducks, geese and bald eagles along a traditional flyway route. The refuge also offers beautiful indoor galleries overlooking DeSoto Lake during the spring and fall months.

The visitor center not only houses the galleries, but it is also the home of one of the most unusual historic collections in the country, the Steamboat Bertrand Collection.  Due to the numerous perils of traveling the Missouri, the river’s hazards exacted a heavy toll on early ships, with over 400 steamboats sunk or stranded between St. Louis and Fort Benton, Montana.  Among these was the Bertrand, which sank here in April, 1865 and was quickly covered completely by thick river mud. 

This time capsule of Civil War-era goods destined for the Montana Territory rested undiscovered for over a century, finally being unearthed in 1969. Unfortunately, during the summer of 2011, the rising waters of a major Missouri River flood threatened both the fabulous Steamboat Bertrand Collection as well as the DeSoto Visitor Center itself. As a result, the entire collection of artifacts was quickly shipped to a warehouse in Omaha as a precautionary measure.  A complete cataloging and re-cleaning of all items is now being completed in the Omaha facility. 

Happily, the collection will gradually be returned to and reinstalled at DeSoto beginning in early 2013, and the entire move is expected to be completed by next fall.  If you plan a visit, which I highly recommend, make sure to say ‘hello’ to Ken Block, the amiable, highly experienced and knowledgeable USFWS (and former NPS) ranger who helped make my visit in early November (I had last been here in 1984) a particular pleasure.

Wildlife exhibit

Historic artifacts from the Steamboat Bertrand Collection

Ranger Ken Block assists visitors

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Three lesser-known Midwest parks

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