Monday, May 31, 2010

I Saved the Best for Last (not really, they're all good)

North Platte is also home to a world-class attraction, the Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center overlooking Union Pacific's Bailey Yard, the worlds largest railroad yard.

You can tell it is a world class attraction by the map located just inside the front door. It has only been up a short time, but already there are stickers from visitors from around the world.
The view from the top of the tower is spectacular. After today's foggy beginning (see about four posts ago!), a haze still remains in the air, but on a clear day, you can easily see Sutherland to the west, a distance of about 25 miles. And did I mention the trains?
Trains, trains and more trains! No matter where you look, there is constant movement.
Coal trains, "manifest" trains, trains being sorted into other trains, locomotives being hooked up to trains or moving to the repair shop, always more trains.
What appears to be just a maze of railroad cars is actually a highly efficient, extremely busy classification yard. This picture was taken just minutes after the first one in the series, and there is already more and different locomotives and rail cars in the picture.
Even though it is our last stop of the day, our group is still avidly drinking in all of the unique attractions North Platte has to offer.
The Golden Spike Tower doesn't just leave you up here all alone to make sense of what you're looking at. They have a full time staff of volunteers who are retired railroaders to share their love of the railroad and the intricacies of the operation with you.
When you visit, don't overlook the open-air viewing deck on the seventh floor. Even though it is only one floor below the enclosed deck on the eighth floor, the feeling is totally different. The breeze (ok, usually the wind, although today we got lucky), the deep rumble of the locomotive power, the screech of the retarders on the steel wheels, the clang as the cars join together in the bowls - you have to be on the seventh floor to truly experience all of this.
And that concludes your whirlwind tour of North Platte attractions. You really should do it yourself sometime!

Thanks for stopping by. The coffee is always on.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Tour Continues

Sorry for the brief detour to discuss the Watchable Wildlife workshop, now on with our tour.

The next stop is the Lincoln County Historical Museum. I know county historical museums are fairly commonplace, but ours truly is something special. I am showing you the entrance doors because these doors once graced the entrance to the historic Union Pacific Depot in North Platte. Through these doors passed more than six and a half million service men and women to enjoy the hospitality of the North Platte Canteen during World War II. Now that IS something special!
The Museum curator Jim Griffin briefs our group on what we can expect at the Museum. One of the greatest quilters ever to live, Grace Snyder called this area home. The Museum has some of her extraordinary quilts on display. Also in the main building is the largest collection of Native American artifacts to be found outside of Lincoln, as well as the kind of things you would imagine to find in a county museum - exhibits that tell the story of our history and heritage.
A large portion of the Museum is dedicated to telling the story of the North Platte Canteen in photographs, interpretive exhibits and the books and films that have been produced to keep the memory alive. Here a visiting group enjoys "The Canteen Spirit" film that Nebraska Educational Television produced.
Outside, some of the buildings are undergoing repairs, but our group still enjoyed our visit. This is the porch of the first two-story log cabin to be built in the area. It was first constructed south of Maxwell near the area of Fort McPherson.
Also on the Museum grounds is the oldest known structure constructed in Lincoln County. It has a long history, being moved several times during the time it was occupied and after it turned into an historical display. It is known as the D.A.R. Cabin after the energetic group of women who saved it and relocated it originally in Memorial Park before it found its way to the Museum. Inside its walls, the first Anglo-American baby to be born in what is now Lincoln County made her entrance into this world.
Did you know that at one time you could order a house through the Sears and Roebuck catalog? Well, yes you could, and the Lincoln County Historical Museum has an excellent example on display. Known as the Frederickson house, it came complete with nearly all of the possessions of the family who originally had it built.
The highlight of my day was getting to play with the telegraph. The contraption that you see here was incredibly important to the development of the United States, and truly the world. There are very few telegraphers left alive today, but when they were active, nearly all communication passed through their fingers in a series of dots and dashes. I understand that a competition was held recently that pitted modern-day "texters" with telegraphers, and the telegraphers won, hands down.

The museum has a working telegraph that can send messages from one room of their restored depot to the other - probably the worlds shortest telegraph system, but enough to get a feel for the skill needed to operate the system.
Right around the corner from the Lincoln County Historical Museum is the Buffalo Bill State Historical Park, or "The Ranch" as it is known locally. The grounds are beautifully maintained, and I think Cody would be pleased to know that he is still entertaining visitors nearly 100 years after his death.
The house and barn are the centerpiece of the park, but the grounds are delightful. If you have a Nebraska State Park Permit sticker on your car, you can come out here any time and enjoy the scenery. During the busy summer months I can't promise you solitude, but I can promise you beauty.
One of the smaller outbuildings is this log cabin that once served as a line shack on Codys ranch.
Inside the furnishings are very similar to what would have been found in a quite prosperous cabin of the 1870s and 1880s.
Because we are a thrifty folk, this cabin too has had a mobile history.
From the doorway of the cabin you can see the beautiful Victorian mansion Cody constructed to raise his family and entertain his guests.
I'm sorry, do you remember me telling you that the grounds are beautiful?
The summer residents of the ranch, a tiny herd of buffalo, have already settled in. They are an added treat to any visit to the Ranch.
One more post and I think I'll finish up on our day of touring North Platte. There is lots more that we weren't able to take in this day, and if you visit us, you'll find that even several days isn't enough to do all there is to do.

Thanks for stopping by. The coffee is always on.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Maranatha Camp

The next attraction we visited has so much to offer that I decided it needed its very own blog post. Maranatha Camp is one of North Platte's hidden treasures. It hosts visitors from all over the United States and even from around the world, but very few in North Platte know it exists - or what it offers, although most recognize the sign.
Since our tour arrived at lunch time, we all gathered in the dining room for a short presentation before being served a delicious lunch. Seated at the tables were many of the volunteers and staff from Maranatha. It seems there are no short-timers at Maranatha. When you join the staff either as a paid employee or a volunteer, you love it so much you never leave! Both of the volunteers seated at our table had been coming back well over 20 years.
The spread they put on was fantastic. Although the camp isn't hosting campers for the summer yet, the meal they prepared was delicious. I asked one of the volunteers if this is what they get fed all of the time, and she admitted it was a little more than usual, but that the food there is always good, and I have to agree.
The Executive Director Daniel Harding has only been there since 2007, but some of my fellow travelers on the bus told the story that he had attended the camp as a youngster, and vowed to return, which he has!

The facilities are wonderful. This cozy room can be opened up from the main dining room and is large enough to accommodate a meeting with several hundred people.
From the Maranatha web page, we find their mission
Maranatha exists to glorify God by introducing people to Jesus as Savior, training them in Christian living and sending them out to represent Christ to the World. As a non-denominational, Christian camp, Maranatha is dedicated to giving people a chance to get away from their daily routines to quiet down, hear God speak and make life-changing decisions.

This is accomplished primarily through camps, such as youth weeks, adult retreats and sports camps, as well as discipleship training programs, such as the L3 program which consists of Learn, Live, and Lead. Notably, several former campers and staff have represented Christ in more than 50 nations.

With nearly 10,000 guests a year through camp programming and rental groups, Maranatha remains open year-round to accommodate all guests and to prepare for the summer peak season.

One of the ways they reach out to the local community is by opening up their facilities for special events. On many weekends throughout the fall, winter and spring, this gymnasium hosts open-skate and rock climbing on their 30-foot wall. There's equipment rentals and a snack bar.
This auditorium is the newest facility at Maranatha, and as you can see there's a few finishing touches being put on to it. It is gearing up to host their first event, a concert by the Christian a capella group Go Fish on Saturday night. This area will hold 700+ guests.
Adjacent to the auditorium is the Cedar Room, which overlooks the lake. The ceiling is made up of planking from the cedar trees that had to be removed to add the new auditorium. Pretty cool, huh?
Outside, the 30-acre lake is quiet now on this May afternoon, but soon it will be buzzing with the activity of some of the 10,000 campers Maranatha hosts each year.
Our group boarded the hayracks for a tour around the grounds.
Our first stop was the site of the Open Waterfront. Not only do the campers get to enjoy this wonderful facility, but it is open periodically during the summer to the entire community. It doesn't look like much now, but when everything is in place, there is a Blob at the bottom of the tower to jump off into, in the middle of the lake is The Rock, and the water slide is in full use. There's tubing and jet skiing a barbecue meal and the sweet shop - a 50's style soda fountain.

They even host a 4th of July celebration complete with picnic and fireworks.
Nestled throughout the trees are the many accommodations, which range from camping hookups, to dormitory style and motel style. Maranatha is available for a family get-away, reunion, corporate retreat or just about any event you would like to host there. They are very serious about their Christian heritage and will ask that you comply with their doctrine and include devotions in your event. If you have something coming up that this facility would be suitable for, I would encourage that you contact them and discuss the possibility. You'll be glad you did.
This is the amphitheater situated on the bank of a cove of the lake. It would be suitable for any group presentation event, and is quiet and peaceful.
Not too far away are the sand volleyball courts and the baseball/softball field.
And there are tennis courts.
And a nature trail that skirts the lake. The property includes more than 300 acres and is extremely well maintained, so I imagine you will get to see lots of wildlife on your visit. Some of the things that I didn't get pictures of are the paintball range and the sporting clays range. Maranatha also hosts regular events for these activities.
If you visit their website, you'll see a lot more beautiful photography than you have here, and there are a lot more details about the community events they host and the camping events available. You should definitely go there for more information.

Thanks for stopping by. The coffee is always on (probably at Maranatha, too!).

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Watchable Wildlife

If you have read more than a few blog posts here at Nebraska Outback, you know that I am all about the wonderful stuff there is to see and do here in Nebraska, especially that which can be found in the great outdoors. Just how many pictures of the Nebraska Sandhills are on here anyway?

It seems I'm not the only one, and it also seems that we are on the right track. Nebraska is one of the top birding sites in the world, with more than 434 species having been identified. We are on one of the major flyways, plus our ecosystem is a blend of wet east and arid west, with varied topography (I'll say it again - Nebraska is NOT flat!), including bluffs, prairie, glacial canyons and river breaks. We get a wide variety of year-round residents plus more either summering or wintering here, then of course there is the migration!

The staff of the North Platte/Lincoln County Convention and Visitors Bureau along with Cody Odell of the Quality Inn and Suites/Sandhills Convention Center and Tom Breen of Platte River Adventures attended the Watchable Wildlife Workshop at the Lake McConaughy Water Interpretation Center in Ogallala on Thursday. Several partners including the Western Nebraska Tourism Coalition and the South Platte United Chambers of Commerce hosted Jim Mallman from Watchable Wildlife, Inc. for a full-day workshop that included hands-on planning exercises to capitalize on the amazing diversity of wildlife and outdoor opportunities that are available in central and western Nebraska.In 2002, wildlife viewing surpassed both hunting and fishing as the number one outdoor activity in the U.S. The most recent numbers are from 2006 and show that wildlife viewing added $45.7 billion in real dollars to the U.S. economy, followed by fishing with $42.2 billion and hunting with $22.9 billion each year. These of course, are just a niches in the greater contribution of tourism, which is estimated to be the number one world-wide industry by 2011, with spending at $9.3 trillion.

Nebraska is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the explosion in popularity of wildlife viewing. The number one species for viewing is the Bald Eagle, which winters in the Platte River Valley in significant numbers. The number one migration activity is the annual Sandhill Crane migration, again which occurs right here in the Platte River Valley. Other significant wildlife watching activities include the annual Prairie Chicken mating rites and viewing of large mammals such as Big Horn Sheep, Elk, Antelope and Deer, many of which can be found within the critical 75-mile radius of North Platte.

The shift in outdoor recreation away from hunting and toward fishing and wildlife viewing can be attributed to the trend in tourism which shows that women make 80% of all travel decisions. Statistically, women don’t hunt in large numbers, therefore activities such as fishing, camping, hiking, birdwatching, canoeing and kayaking are seeing explosive growth.

This is the view from the patio of the Water Interpretation Center - just look at all of that water in Big Mac! The North Platte area faces several challenges in making our area user-friendly for this huge market.

  1. Identifying the opportunities – What state recreation areas, wildlife management areas and other public/private land is available for wildlife watching? What times of year are the best for viewing? What activities and species can be expected to be seen at what times of year? When do certain flowers bloom?
  2. Education – When the phone rings at the CVB, Chamber, hotel or attraction, will the person answering the phone be able to tell the caller what we have? Will someone asking at a convenience store be directed to where the wildlife can be seen?
  3. Materials – The two rules of thumb that Jim Mallman pounded into our heads were 1) If you’re going to produce printed material, DO IT RIGHT or don’t do it. 2) Don’t produce any printed material without a corresponding marketing plan to distribute it. Yes, we do need maps, brochures, booklets, lists to help visitors experience the wildlife in our area, but it will take a cooperative effort to make sure we do it right.
  4. Getting the information in the hands of the visitor – We already know that most vacation planning is done via the internet. How is the best way to incorporate wildlife watching information into the community websites? What is the best format for this information to be user-friendly to the visitor?
  5. Development – Are there areas that need improvement? Viewing blinds? Trails? Viewing stands? Are there existing areas that need better signage?
The Water Interpretation Center has a small pond (also with a good view of Lake McConaughy), where our instructor said he spotted 18 species in just a short period of time. If they had a viewing blind, he would have seen a lot more.
When considering how to market our wildlife to visitors, communities need to learn to think like a cruise ship. When a consumer wants to book a cruise to Mexico, they simply type the name of their destination into their favorite search engine, and voila! All of the cruise lines servicing that destination pop up on their screen and all she has to do is click and book. Imagine if all of the wildlife viewing opportunities within 75 miles of North Platte were available in a single place. A potential visitor searches for Prairie Chickens, North Platte pops up on her screen, she drills down a little and there is a package that will provide lodging, meals and a contact or even a booking for the outfitter providing the Prairie Chicken viewing. Oh yes, and there are “add-ons” available for other wildlife viewing opportunities and tourist activities while she’s here.

Many of the most active seasons for wildlife viewing are on the shoulders of the peak summer tourist season. Bald Eagles are in the area December through February; Prairie Chickens dance in early May; Sandhill Crane migration is in February and March; Other waterfowl and shore birds also migrate during the spring. According to Mallman, to help marginal main street businesses thrive, all the tourism industry has to do is provide an additional fifteen days of profit on the shoulder season. This is where aggressively and correctly developing and marketing wildlife viewing tourism can have a real impact on our communities.

The Interpretation Center isn't just about the view either. There is indeed a huge circular aquarium in the center. Unfortunately, I am not a skilled enough photographer to get a good picture without the reflections on the glass ruining everything. I guess you'll just have to visit it yourself to see what lurks below the surface.
The good news is that visitors involved in wildlife watching are the most affluent, most environmentally conscious demographic of tourists. They are always more concerned with not disturbing the resource and leaving the area better than they found it than the average tourist. They will spend more money and stay longer, and they COMMUNICATE! If you have something amazing, they will tell others in their network about it.

So where do we go from here? We go forward! We begin to seek out partners who can help us identify the resources and opportunities that we have. We organize to develop a plan. So are you or do you know a birder, hunter, angler, photographer, kayaker, canoer, boater, hiker or anyone else who avidly enjoys the outdoors? Do you have (or are you) a contact for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, city, county or state government, parks and recreation department, law enforcement? Are you a business owner, member of the media, member of the hospitality industry, a concerned citizen interested in becoming involved?

There is also a whole wing dedicated to the Kingsley Dam and the importance of water to our ecosystems and of course, the Ogallala Aquifer. Here is a shot of a photograph showing the building of the dam. What an amazing undertaking. I highly recommend a visit.
This won’t be an overnight process. Watchable Wildlife, Inc. has wonderful resources available to help us get started, so we’re not in this alone, nor do we have to recreate the wheel in our planning process. While daunting, the prospect of moving in this direction isn’t impossible. If you’re interested in becoming involved, not only do we need to hear from you, you should also make plans to attend the National Watchable Wildlife Conference scheduled for October 5-7 in Kearney. This is a great opportunity, very close to home, to learn more about the possibilities for our area in enhancing and promoting our watchable wildlife.

While this article was written specifically with Nebraska and our own little corner of it in mind, the same is true everywhere. For example, did you know that New Jersey is a wildlife watching hot spot? If they can do it there, it can be done anywhere (wait, isn't that a song about New York?). Right now I am looking at everything around me with an eye toward what species could be viewed, and how the area could be correctly developed to make it more appealing.
I'm not the only one either. This was the third of three workships Mr. Mallman conducted in Nebraska, and all were attended by 30-40 people. I hope everyone is able to come together and create some wonderful viewing opportunities. We need to find a way to share with others the beauty that surrounds us.
Thanks for stopping by. The coffee is always on.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

North Platte Area Attraction Tour

One of the most disheartening things to have happen when you're in the tourism industry is to overhear a conversation between a visitor and a local - the visitor asks, "What is there to do around here?" To which the local replies with a shrug of the shoulder and a roll of the eyes "nuthin."

It just makes us want to scream. We try to counteract it by offering a tour each year of the local attractions. We specifically gear it to the people on the front lines of the tourism industry, the desk clerks at the local hotels and the clerks at the gas stations (Do you know that gas station attendants are the number one source of local information once visitors arrive at a destination? And who is most likely to claim that there is nothing to do than a bored high schooler working as a clerk for his summer job? Scary.), but it is open to the public.

So at eight in the morning, we all boarded a bus at the 20th Century Veterans Memorial to head out on our tour. We would have liked to have filled the bus, but had to be satisfied with the 25 we had.
As you can see, the morning of the tour dawned foggy, damp and cold! Fortunately we Nebraskans take all kinds of weather in stride, so weren't too bothered by it. We appreciated the coverage of the tour provided by our local television station, KNOP-TV Channel 2.
Our first stop was the Railroad Museum in Cody Park. This modest little museum boasts world-class exhibits. You can climb aboard #6922, one of the centennial 6900 series locomotives made in 1969, the largest locomotives ever made. Also in the museum is the Challenger steam locomotive, the only one in the world on static public display (and one of only two left in the world!).

Inside the cars hooked to the Challenger are exhibits dealing with railroad history when the railroads were not only the predominant form of transportation and freight, but were also heavily relied upon for communication. The telegraph followed the railroads, but the railroads were the source of mail transportation.
This intricate replica of a steam locomotive was painstakingly built by hand by the father of the Director of the North Platte park system and is on permanent display here at the Cody Park Museum.
I have to make a confession at this point. When we arrived at the Museum, the gates were locked. It seems that the tour planners had rearranged the itinerary and our stop at the Museum had been changed to 8:30 in the morning, instead of after 10:00 am when they actually open. A quick call the the above-mentioned Director resulted in one of his volunteers making a mad dash to the Museum to unlock the gates and open up all of the exhibits!

Whenever you travel, please be kind to the people at the attractions you visit. Many are volunteers and most will be happy to bend over backwards to make your trip more enjoyable! Our thanks to this dedicated volunteer.
The next stop on our tour was the North Platte Area Childrens Museum housed in North Platte's historic Carnegie Library, right on the main thoroughfare, across from the courthouse and around the corner from the library.
The admission to the Museum is extremely affordable. While this (or any) Childrens Museum may not be a destination attraction, they are vital to offer visitors a "fill in" activity that appeals to another family age group, increasing the length of their stay and their enjoyment.
Our Childrens Museum offers a reciprocal agreement with more than 1,000 other museums nationwide. Membership to ours gets you in theirs and vice versa. If you are a member of a local museum, before you travel be sure to ask if it has this type of relationship with other museums. You might be able to visit other great museums for free!
As we find with a lot of people associated with museums and local attractions, the Childrens Museum director sees her position as her calling and her passion, not just her job. She is helping to strengthen families and right some of the wrongs in America today by providing a place where families can play together and renew their bonds. North Platte is a better place because of her dedication.
There were way too many attractions and activities within the Museum to show you every one, but here is the store and fast-food exhibit. Everything here is hands-on and interactive. The kids are encouraged to play and touch. You can imagine that the wear-and-tear is intense, and the Museum has a dedicated and hard-working Board of Directors who constantly seek additional funds and donations of material to keep it fresh and new.

I didn't show it, but the Museum has a peg-board that you press into and the pegs make an outline of the shape. Can you picture what I'm talking about? Anyway, this system alone cost $17,000! A few years ago my office funded a grant application for a life-size Operation Game. It was well over $8,000.00! So it's not cheap to operate a Childrens Museum.
Next we headed out toward the Interstate to visit North Platte's landmark Fort Cody Trading Post. If you have driven past North Platte on Interstate 80, you have seen this frontier fort. You should make plans to stop sometime.
The cornerstone attraction is the 20,000 piece hand-carved miniature replica of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show that is animated every half hour. As true to life as it is possible to make it, this display shows just what amazing logistics were involved in transporting, setting up and putting on the Wild West Show - and all this before gas-powered engines!
The Old West Museum has just about everything, right down to the two-headed calf! Now that's something you just don't see every day.
Fort Cody is also a Trading Post, as the name explicitly implies. There is everything you could want from trinkets and souvenirs to scholarly books and a wide variety of local products. Mmmm, the chocolate-covered sunflower seeds are a treat.
That brings you up to about lunch time on tour day, so I'll break here and continue in the next post.

Thanks for stopping by. The coffee is always on.