Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

March 26, 1905. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 40(177): 18. Picture of Griswold included with byline. Much of story originally published 25 February 1900.

The Fabled Days of Old in the Platte Valley

All Worldly Cares Went Whirling Skyward in the Vortex of Flame and Sparks From the Camp Fire.

By Sandy Griswold.

In great contrast are the bottom lands of Nebraska today with what they were a quarter of a century ago. Grand as are the advantages of the sportsman now, this region was his very elysium in the long ago, and especially in the spring time. Of course, as I intimate above, there are plenty of attractions in many localities yet, and the same wild and rugged aspect of topography exists, but it is nothing like what it used to be. Twenty years, aye, fifteen years ago, the Platte valley, while stood good, was one of the greatest game regions in the world. It fairly teemed with water fowl of all kinds, and hunters never dreamed of the necessity of journeying hundreds of miles into the solitudes for a few days' shooting. A day on the lowlands south of Waterloo was all that could be desired.

It was in the latter part of March, 1886, that I first visited this region, and, although I had spent many days in the years gone by on the canvasback grounds of Currituck and Koshkonong, and killed mallards on the Kankakee and the Illinois, it was a revelation to me. Winding along one of the beflagged sloughs leading from the river to the bottoms, my eyes were feasted in a way they had never been before. Jacksnipe were so plentiful tat at times as high as twenty could be counted in the air at once, flushed one by one from among the grassy tussocks that strewed the way. As one of these little fellows would spring up from this crypt or that, his long bill, bulbous head, large lustrous eyes and rosewood hues, made never a prettier picture than when reflected in the clear water as he zigzagged over the slough and away. Scores of yellowlegs trotted along the water's edge, or rose in graceful flight, when we approached too near, and flew a few yards up or down the slough, when they would alight again upon their spindle lemon legs and trot along as unconcerned as before. Golden plover in large flocks occasionally swept along the bars, and sandpipers, tiltups and kildeer flashed about in their gray and reddish coats in numbers almost incredible. Snowy avocets winged their beautiful shapes over the open and big bitterns and cranes added exhilaration to the mixed swarms of bird life. The frosts to the ground had succumbed early to the genial rays of the vernal sun and in the upper sky long lines of ducks were headed either for the river or the feeding fields, while squawking and fluttering from every turn in the slough rose solitary wood ducks, bunches of teal and pairing mallards, wheeling round and whizzing over us in a manner that made the easiest sort of shooting. A mile or so from the river the slough ran into an open marsh of vast extent, and from the nearby straggling ponds and ditches rose great flocks of green and blue wing teal and mallards, so close that the burnished green of their heads, the glistening bands of blue upon their wings and the delicate curls of glossy green velvet upon their rumps was as clear as the white bands on their tails.

In those days the Platte Valley was one vast hunting grounds, and naturally was a favorite camping place, in both the spring and fall, for sportsmen from Omaha. However cold the night they required but a small tent for shelter, and that only to shed the dampness, for driftwood was everywhere, and piled high in front, it filled the canvas abode with cheer and comfort, while the light glared across the dark marsh until the white cottonwoods on the others side looked like imploring ghosts reaching their scraggy arms heavenward. Often by its light could we see the white collars on the big Canadas drifting through the night above, and plainly distinguish the glossy head of the mallard as he swept the tree tops. All worldly cares went whirling skyward in the vortex of flame and sparks, and on the dark rotunda around it fancy hung many a bright picture of the kind the sportsman alone is privileged to see.

Lulled to sleep by the cackle of the flying speckled fronts, the raucous squawking of mallards and widgeon from the watery depths of the broad marsh, the distant hooting of a big owl from his perch in the sentinel cottonwood, the piping of the wondering snipe, and the far-reaching per-rut! per-rut! per-rut! of the cranes traveling in the dome of night, and the quavering yelp of the coyote on the hillsides, these hunters would be up with the dawn for the morning flight of all this wondrous assemblage of water fowl.

While my own experience in the Platte valley has been quite extensive, of course, it has been nothing like that of the old residenters here, and in wonder rapt have I listened to the reminiscences of our oldtime sportsmen, John Petty, the late General Crook, John Collins, Judge Kennedy, Dr. Peabody and others. Talking with John Petty just a day or two ago, he told me how the old school sportsmen use to go out, just twenty miles or so, in the spring time, and camp along the Platte or the Elkhorn, and how every morning and every evening, over all the whole horizon, lines of dark dots rose into the sky, and from them floated far over the greening land, softened by distance to wondrous sweetness, the ah-hunk, ah-hunk of the Canada goose. In the late spring where the deep pink of the clatonia smiled over the deepening emerald of the springing grasses and clover stood long lines of gray bodies, with black heads and white-collared throats. And on the knolls, where the mild blue bells paled the orange fire of the moccasin flowers, bunch after bunch of geese stood basking in the sun of midday. But whether standing in silent dignity or wandering about to feed on the fern-like leaves of the tender water grasses, whose little pinkish flowers lit up the green sward, the goose was watching for danger with that keen eye that makes him so respected by the votaries of the hammerless, but in those days, of the muzzle-loaders.

He told me how when well concealed at the proper time of the day, what a brief time the gunner had to wait. Heralded by a mellow honk, an outstretched string of dark dots came swiftly toward them, growing rapidly larger as the line widened out; for the goose, though seeming a slow flier, because of his bulk, is really a bird of rapid flight. On they would come, with their clarion voices sounding clearer and louder, until the hunters in their excitement could hardly resist the opportunity to raise their heads from the hurriedly scooped-out hollow, where they lay, to see if the game was near enough. When the liquid notes sounded near, they would grasp their guns tighter and shift them just a little to have them to the right position for quick and sudden work when the supreme moment should come. He also told how his task of patience, too, more than once was the cause of his undoing, for when he saw the dark lines with that heavy wiff, wiff, wiff, wiff, of wing, and startled honk, ah-unk, of outstretched throat, swing off just enough to carry the nearest bird safely beyond all reach of the threatening danger, he realized that there were some things in hunting that always repay their cost, and the foremost thereof was patience.

However, in those times they had but little opportunity for regret or disappointment, for where the green of the marsh joins the blue of the sky, another flock is rising into view from the distant fields and the resonant honk is again upon the air. ALong they come widening out, those mellow calls, sounding deeper and clearer, and the hunters crouch low in their blind, and lower still as the great birds begin to lower as they approach. And then, when the hunter fancied he heard the tips of their broad wing feathers softly fanning right over his head, leaps up and instantly the air is filled with big thumping wings shying upward and outward amidst an uproar of startled squawks, and at the report of the old muzzle loader's first barrel, a whirl of lavender strikes the flowering green, and at the second another long neck droops, another pair of wings fold, and another bird pitches violently to the earth. And so it ever was in those old days. The bright spring morning would be hardly under way when above the distant bluffs that loomed hazily gray in the warm sun, dark dotted lines arose and that silvery honk, ah-unk! rang along the blue vault.

But, alas! those were the days that are no more. Relentless time plies his whizzing wing, and the marshland west of Hanger's lake has merged into wondrous seed fields, and the wild geese are passing, while those that used to hunt there are but a memory of the past. But what a tender memory it is for the old sportsmen of Omaha, and to the youths, now men, who hunted with their fathers in the long ago, but now can only tramp the old marsh with them in memory's field, but, as John says, he finds more pleasure in the recollection of his, the old day hunter's kindly ways and wonderful craft, than is now experienced in the actual pursuit of what the world deems nobler game.