Outdoors

The Greatest Plains

The Great Plains may be a negative space landscape, but it’s foolish to underestimate the power of absence

I drove out onto the Great Plains the other day, wandering east across Nebraska. I learned that out there, somewhere west of Lincoln, the plains really become great.

There are plains in the West, but they’re rather pedestrian by comparison. In the West it’s all basin and range. The ground may be flat in the valleys, but you can always see the end of it, the slope where the next range begins.

It’s not that way in central Nebraska. But in the western part of the state, prominent hills in the panhandle region give a hint of the mountains to come. Scott’s Bluff rises about 800 feet above the North Platte River. Standing there, on the edge of the Great Plains, surrounded by all that negative space, Scotts Bluff was a crucial landmark for settlers traveling west. Those tentative Nebraska hills foreshadowed the spine of the continent, the Rocky Mountains, still to come.

If you tucked Scotts Bluff into in the Rockies, however, you’d barely notice. The basins may be pedestrian out west. The mountains are not.

The land keeps its texture beyond Scotts Bluff, though in an oddly upside down way. East of those hills a dam on the North Platte forms Lake McConaughy, which fills a broad valley etched by erosion from the surrounding plains. It’s ruggedly dramatic, but a bit confounding for a Westerner. The drama runs downhill here.

I’ve known of Lake McConaughey for decades, though this was the first time I set eyes on it. The fish from McConaughy are famous, or rather infamous. When the reservoir was young, stocked rainbow trout thrived. A few years later, folks discovered five-pound rainbows spawning in small headwater creeks upstream.

That was a time when biologists didn’t realize hatchery-reared reservoir rainbows also had a tendency to wander. Like their ocean-going steelhead cousins, those rainbow trout swam upstream in search of places to spawn, and like steelhead, they found love in the headwaters.

For a time McConaughy-strain rainbows were all the rage. In the 1980s they were stocked, with much fanfare, in waters like Lake Crowley, a popular reservoir on the Owens River in California’s Eastern Sierra. Some thought these “river rockets” were the answer to Crowley’s fishery, then in decline.

We’ve learned much about trout since then.

We learned that McConaughy-strain rainbows weren’t a strain at all, just pedestrian rainbow trout, and that all rainbows suffer the eternal throes of wanderlust. Dump them in still water and they’ll search endlessly for cold, clean feeder streams and exposed gravel beds where they can make babies. And unfortunately, the North Platte did what muddy rivers do to downstream reservoirs, silting in McConaughy to the point it no longer supports trout.

East of McConaughy’s upside-down landscape the Great Plains resist further compromise. There is only flat. Traversing the high point in most counties — often a railroad overpass — reveals the shape of the globe, a lens-like horizon that falls away beyond the curve.

I feel rather provincial about this, but other than a few airport layovers, I’ve almost no experience with the landscape of the plains. I’m not sure why. Maybe I stayed away because I couldn’t figure how to orient in a place where you see nothing but sky above the tree tops.

Still, there are rivers. The silty Platte flows across Nebraska like self-leveling concrete, a mile wide and ankle deep. On the edge of the river, where cornfields give way to cottonwood bottoms, fireflies dance above the tall grass in the evening and you get a sense of why Clare chose such a place to reimagine her life in Jim Harrison’s magnificent novella, “The Woman Lit by Fireflies.”

The Great Plains may be a negative space landscape, but it’s foolish to underestimate the power of absence.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com, which covers outdoor news in Montana.

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