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Water Trails

Nebraska’s rivers flow gently, making them ideal for family outings as well as an excellent resource for those learning to handle non-motorized watercraft. On the International Scale of River Difficulty, Nebraska’s rivers generally rate Class I: Easy. This is defined as moving water with riffles and small waves; few obstacles; risk to swimmer is slight and self-rescue is easy. An exception is the Niobrara River where there are several Class II, III and IV rapids that require portage.

Remember only the water belongs to the State of Nebraska. The riverbeds and all adjacent lands are the property of the landowner through which the water flows. Appreciate the privilege of using the waterway. Respect and be mindful of landowners and their property. Nebraska state statutes give users permission to portage around fences and other obstructions; however, you are responsible for any damage to the property. You must have landowner permission to picnic or camp.

River flows vary greatly. Some rivers experience lower water levels during summer due to heat and crop irrigation. Such conditions can turn a float trip into a hike for those who have not planned ahead. In addition, river flows, along with wind speed and direction, and paddler’s effort can result in considerable variations in float time. Trip plans should account for personnel, outdoor conditions and river flow to ensure you reach camp well before sunset.

Water safety

  • Always wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved personal flotation device (PFD) – life jacket. PFDs are the most important piece of safety equipment on your float.
  • Wear proper clothing and be prepared to get wet. Layer clothing that can be added or removed during the float, including a long sleeve shirt and pants. Cotton will keep you cooler in summer, while wool will keep you warm and insulates even when wet. Weather is unpredictable, so bring clothing for cold, wet, windy, hot, sunny and humid conditions. Don’t forget rain gear. Pack extra clothing in a waterproof container.
  • Wear shoes. Tight fitting “water shoes” or old gym shoes with tops and sides work well. Pack an extra pair of shoes for the end of the day.
  • Protect yourself from the sun. Bring a wide brim hat and sunglasses and use sunscreen. A long sleeve shirt and pants provide good sun protection, as well. The sun’s reflection off the water can be intense.
  • Stay hydrated. Take more water than you think you will need. It is extremely important to avoid dehydration.
  • Use insect repellent.
  • Know what poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac look like and stay away.
  • Do not attempt to handle wild animals.
  • Pack a first aid kit.
  • Have tether ropes on your canoe in case towing becomes necessary.
  • If you capsize, always avoid the downstream side of the canoe. The current may push the canoe over you or pin you against an obstruction.
  • When entering and exiting a canoe, keep your center of gravity low and avoid standing.
  • When you encounter a fence, STOP and plan your passage. Barbed wire fences can sometimes be negotiated by holding the fence up while going under it. Electric fences create an entirely new set of challenges. Always assume that electric fences are “hot.” If you cannot safely go under the fence, get out and portage.

Dial 911 to reach emergency personnel in the area.

Water trail etiquette

  • Camp only in designated areas. Respect private property. Obtain permission from private landowners before camping or entering the water from private land.
  • Trash. Pack it in – Pack it out! Take only pictures, leave only footprints.
  • Be aware and alert in congested areas. Show caution with fast-moving watercraft and their wakes.
  • While rules give right of way to the boat on the right when two craft are on an intersecting course, it is generally safer for slower nonmotorized watercraft to concede right of way to bigger and faster craft. Keep clear of barges and large boats.
  • Be courteous to fellow boaters when launching or landing. Boat ramps can become congested. Have your equipment organized before you pull up to the ramp so you don’t block the lane with vehicles, boats or gear.
  • Steer a good distance around the lines of people fishing from the shore or other boats.
  • Only build fires in fire rings. Drown flames and coals after use. If no fire ring exists, use camp stoves. (Don’t forget waterproof matches.)

Nebraska river outfitters and rentals

While the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission does not regulate or endorse river outfitters, it does maintain a list of outfitters for the convenience of those interested in canoe, kayak and float trips. This list is available for download.