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  • Dr. H. W. Wright

Lost in Ponca State Park NE

Ponca State Park

Nebraska, home of the corn huskers . Great. Beware of any state that declares the removal of leaves off a cob of corn as its its greatest achievement.

The people were great, the government services not so much.

We stopped in for gas and the pump looked like it was from the 1970s. I should have known then that it was going to be tough moving ahead when the only option for gas was Ethel, whoever she is, and there was no card reader on the pump. In any case, we we’re close to empty so, despite the voice of Mike Hannon screaming “don’t use that gas” , we filled up.


That morning we rolled out of Babler State Park, Missouri, at about 10:30 am and now it was 7:30 pm and now we were in Nebraska. That is close to 9 hours of driving and we were tired and eager to park the Pup and get some grub. Unfortunately, this is where everything went downhill.

The guy at the gas station said the campground was only a mile or two away and like idiots we believed him.

It started with Vicki’s pulling into the entrance of the State Park and then realizing after driving in fifty yards down a concrete path that it wasn’t the park entrance at all. No, she had mistaken the park office for a water park office. Furthermore, we were now driving our SUV with the attached trailer down a bike path in near total darkness.


Now keep in mind, after having cataract surgery my night vision is much improved, but it did little for my patients and absolutely nothing for my ability to deal with the unmarked Nebraska roads or their totally irrational layout of their bike paths. To be honest, it wasn’t Vicki’s fault, anyone could have mistaken a concrete bike path leading into a water park for a State Park entrance. I mean really, they both do have “PARK” in their name.”

“We need to back up!” Vicki. called out, terror filling her voice (Writer’s Note- There may be a slight amount of exaggeration here)

I calmly suggested we stop before we crash into one of the pools or slides and grabbing my phone, I jogged down the darkened bike path to see if by chance it could dump us into some kind of parking lot. I ran for at least five minutes and found that the bike path did indeed empty out onto a street that lead into Ponca State Park. Unbeknownst to us, the true entrance was five hundred yards to the north. This road was a marked entrance to the park but must have been for maintenance crews. It wasn’t meant for campers visiting the Ponca State Park. Instead it lead us into an evil lambrenth type maze from hell. It must have been created by some mentally deranged crazy person because we barely made it out with our wits intact. It was like Halloween, the day of the dead, and Shark Week all rolled up in one.

We drove in circles for what felt like half the night until we finally found ourselves back on the main highway near the water park. The GPS was as useless and as a wink to a blind horse and we had no maps, so we rolled down the road looking for somewhere to spend the night when suddenly a pickup truck waves us down.

I’m thinking it’s going to be Freddy Krueger or the Creature from the Black Lagoon or something, when the drivers shouts out, “you’all looking for Ponca State Park. We tell him yes and he calls out, “follow me.”


Sure enough, just as he swings around to point us in the right direction, another truck pulls up with a couple ladies inside. They ask the same question, “are you trying to find a campsite.” Like Groundhog Day, we again say yeah, and now we have a veritable caravan leading us to our campsite. I can only guess we were the millionth person to become lost trying to negotiate the Ponca State Campground.


Finally settled, we had leftovers for dinner along with cinnamon fireball spiked apple cider.


We woke up the next morning, and after a breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon, went for a walk. Seeing a fellow camper with kayaks on their car roof, I asked where we could find some water to paddle board. She said we should paddle the Missouri River and that we should put in at a boat ramp about 6 miles up stream and float down.

I then told her we only had one car and that would be nice but impossible.

She then offered to drive us to park our Durango at the endpoint and then drive us to the upstream put in.

Fantastic, we said.

20 minutes later, we were paddling down the Missouri River, Ohio to the East, Nebraska to our west.


The River was at least a hundred yards wide with huge logs poking all along the length and width of the waterway. Cool to our feet, the water was dark like long steeped tea, the surface roiling and churning as if it was boiling. Paddling through these upwellings was difficult and more than once I had to squat low to keep my balance. Watching as the water swirled and spun all around me, I dreaded the thought of falling into one of the dark wet tornadoes and then trying to pull myself ashore.

We paddled on past eagle’s nests and beaver dens. Watched as Asian Carp splashed in the shallows and flocks of Canadian geese huddled on sandbanks. Along the edges of the river there were bluffs fifteen feet high in some areas while in others there was nothing but muddy flats covered in deep hoof prints. Half way through the trip we rested on a sandy island and ate nuts and drank fizzy water.


On and off as we paddled, we saw riprap stacked high on the banks. Riprap is the chipped rock that you see next to the highway, and it seemed that they used it piled high to keep the banks from eroding.

We made it back after two hours of paddling, or trusty Durango exactly where we left it.

I went back at sundown to the boat ramp where we finished the morning paddle, this time alone with my paddle board and fishing pole in hopes of exploring a few spots that looked promising and maybe land a fish. I did catch two river trout, each about a foot long but the flys, gnats and mosquitos were so bad I had to give up on the fishing.

That night we had mushroom burgers and went to bed early.

Tomorrow we head for Valentine Nebraska and a campground we have yet to decide on.

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