Wednesday, February 8th, 2023
Wednesday, February 8th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Sandhill crane viewing gives Nebraska ecotourism a boost

(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

WOOD RIVER, Neb. — It started with a piece of a cardboard box nailed to a wood railing on the waterfowl viewing deck at the Platte River near Alda.

Hand-printed in block letters across the sign: “Crane viewing on private property. Large roost site. Up close. $50.00 per person.” There was a telephone number and a first name at the bottom.

About 30 people responded to Chad Gideon’s primitive advertisement two years ago this spring. Last year, he relied on word of mouth and Facebook to spread the word.

Gideon’s second try landed nearly twice as many people eager to pay for the privilege of sitting in camping chairs on the south bank of the Platte on chilly March evenings for open-air, panoramic views of thousands of migrating sandhill cranes flying to nearby river roosts at sunset.

Now this sod farmer who dreamed as a teenager of owning land along the Platte for hunting and fishing is among a growing number of Nebraska landowners to take a shot at ecotourism by sharing his little slice of river, woods and wildlife with paying visitors. Ecotourism promotes travel to natural areas and greater understanding and appreciation for nature, local society and culture.

Alex Duryea, ecotourism consultant for the Nebraska Tourism Commission, said more and more farmers and ranchers are warming to the idea of integrating tourism into their operations. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of these destinations of all sizes across the state, he said.

Brad Mellema, executive director of the Grand Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, helped Gideon develop an ecotourism plan.

“I called Brad, and I felt foolish,” Gideon said. “But Brad’s enthusiasm was incredible. He was more excited about it than I was.”

Mellema said that some of the best of what Nebraska offers travelers is its landscape. Access to that land is limited because about 97 percent of the state is privately owned. Ecotourism can provide landowners who share their vistas, wildlife or something unique a secondary source of income, Mellema told the Omaha World-Herald.

Gideon, 46, said he enjoys sharing his passion for the outdoors with birders from across the country.

“When we start talking, it’s like we’ve known each other for a long time,” he said.

Gideon’s run of the river is in the historic heart of some of the largest congregations of cranes during their annual stopover in central Nebraska. Tens of thousands of the big birds may crowd into the shallow river or onto sandbars here during the peak migration weeks.

The site south of Wood River is tucked amid three widely known crane-watching locations. It’s a few miles upstream from the Crane Trust near Alda and not many more miles downstream from Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Fort Kearny State Recreation Area near Kearney.

When British primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall makes pilgrimages to Nebraska to witness the spring spectacle, she often soaks in the experience from a viewing blind across the river from Gideon’s property.

In addition to leading evening crane-viewing tours to a riverbank perch near where big numbers of cranes typically rest each night, Gideon rents a nearby family cabin to birders. He calls it Crane Cabin Retreat.

Gideon and other family members built the log cabin as a weekend and holiday retreat in 2005. It’s on land near the river homesteaded by an ancestor in the 1800s.

The cabin sleeps four to six people and is decorated with taxidermy, knotty pine, antlers and camouflage bedding. The staircase to the loft spirals around the towering trunk of an eastern red cedar tree. Spindles in the railing are red cedar branches trimmed with a chain saw. The stair treads were crafted from fallen ash trees.

“It’s a cozy little cabin,” Gideon said.

Four years ago, Gideon and brother Matt realized their boyhood dream by teaming up with their father, Bill Gideon, and purchasing 245 acres of land between the historic family farm and the river. The property has about 1-1/2 miles of riverfront.

“Who wouldn’t want to have a piece of river ground for generations of family and friends to hunt, fish and enjoy the outdoors?” Chad Gideon said. “There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t feel blessed.”

But buying land along a river for recreation is expensive. The latest annual property tax bill from Hall County for the river property was nearly $3,800.

“It’ll be a lifetime to pay off the ground, but we sit on a very big crane roost,” Gideon said. “One way we can try to offset some of the cost or pay (property) taxes is to do crane tours and rent the cabin. We’re not getting rich on it. It’s a family adventure.”

Popular viewing tours at the Crane Trust or Rowe Sanctuary put visitors in riverbank blinds to view birds from openings in the wood structures. Gideon’s guests sit in the open behind camouflage netting to scan the sky up and down the river.

Gideon once sat there with a friend in howling wind and spitting snow.

“It was miserable, but sometimes the worst weather is the best opportunity,” he said.

During that outing, squads of low-flying cranes – attempting to avoid the worst of the wind – passed over almost within arm’s reach of the pair.

“You could see their eyes,” Gideon said.

In addition to hosting crane tours, Gideon built a wooden overnight blind on the bank for photographers to rent. He is finishing construction of another on a nearby island.

Thousands of cranes typically roost nearby at night, Gideon said.

“But birds are birds. Wherever the first sandhill crane lands, they all come,” he said.

Ice continues to choke the Platte’s channels now, but the river will be awash with migrating sandhill cranes in a few weeks.

Duryea, the ecotourism consultant, said the Tourism Commission offers assistance in marketing, grant funding, site evaluation and website development for landowners interested in opening their property to ecotourism. The Agritourism Promotion Act passed by the Legislature three years ago provides some protections for landowners against lawsuits for accidents that may happen on their land.

Ecotourism isn’t for everyone. Duryea said it requires the ability to work with people and deal with reservations, housekeeping, marketing and weather.

Gideon said hosting visitors is a joy.

“Even if I was a multimillionaire, I’d probably do this just to meet neat people,” he said. “That’s the special part of the deal. I’ve had people lay down on the ground when there’s thousands of cranes overhead and take it all in with tears running down their faces – and they say they didn’t know anything like this existed.”

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