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Discover Mid-America — September 2004

A little Paradise on the prairie

Little is more spectacular for the prairie dweller than to peer from a sleeping bag at the chiffon of stars in a sky unfettered of city light. Add to this coyote yelp echoing across the hiss, a gentle wind fragrant with grass and cedar, tinged with the dampness of a nearby stream, and the call of a whippoorwill and the place becomes paradise.

Such is the feeling of a clear night at Cedar Bluff State Park, located 13 miles south of Ogallah and I-70. There, the cottonwoods grow strong along the sandy fringes of the Cedar Bluff Reservoir, a lake of some 10 square miles situated in middle of the vast, rolling plains in western Kansas on the Smoky Hill River.

The lake lies in some of the most powerful landscape of the prairie. Hundred-foot tall bluffs of buff limestone rise from the lake and form canyons that spider into the drainages from the surrounding hills. Uncut prairie forms much of the land around the park and the lake, rising to mile-round circles of irrigated row crops that dominate western Kansas.

Calm is really the best word to describe Cedar Bluff. Early morning and late evening, bass and sunfish jump in the bony trees left behind when the Smoky Hill flooded the valley behind the dam. Green and blue herons fly up over the bluffs and cut banks with their Cenozoic squawks. White egrets settle snow-like into the trees above the water. In the wetlands and low-lying areas at the flanks of the lakes, sharp-shinned Cooper’s, and red-tailed hawks send up competing screeches that flatten, for a moment, the wondrous array of songbirds that flit among the sapling cottonwoods, tangles of grape and bramble, and sprays of wildflowers.

All of this may seem oddly idyllic, particularly in a region devastated by irrigated, high-chemical farming. But Cedar Bluff has 9,000 acres of public wildlife area, 7,300 of which are completely closed to the public from Sept. 10-March 1 to allow unheeded bird migration and habitat recovery. In addition, much of the wildlife area is accessible only by a determined drive or by a lengthy hike. None of this, however, is a detriment to the casual park visitor, who reaps the benefit of so much refuge so close to an easily accessible state park.

Cedar Bluff was impounded in the 1950s and fell to a mere 950 surface acres by the end of the 1980s. Then came renewed interest in the restorative effects that such a lake could have on prairies increasingly bereft of stream and spring water for irrigation. This wasa result of depletion of the Oglallah Aquifer, an underground lake beneath much of western Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and eastern Colorado enthusiastically pumped out for row-crop farming in this semi-arid region. Wildlife was one thing, but the state also saw that a renewed lake might make for a new revenue stream for its coffers.

The result is a park with new and serviceable boat ramps, 121 utility camping sites for campers and RVs with options for one, two, and three utilities (water, electricity, and/or sewer), and fantastic shower facilities. Organized, developed camping sites are the focus of two sections of the state park, the Bluffton Area on the north shore of the lake, and the Page Creek area on the south.

The best, however, for those who want a clear view of sky and lots of that fresh prairie breeze are primitive camping areas. A camper can pull up anywhere, throw out a tarp, mattress and bag, fire up a candle or a lantern and the universe seems to be theirs.

Those with more indoor tastes can rent one of two simple cabins equipped five beds each outdoor grills, indoor wood stoves, tables and chairs, and outdoor fire rings. This kind of cabin has no running water or electricity. Solar energy provides lights. A battery lantern, water jug, and some firewood are included with the rental fee of $35 for two adults. Two more modern (and very atmospheric) two-room log cabins with sleeping balconies under pitched roofs include six beds, bathrooms and showers, kitchens, small refrigerators, heat and air-conditioning, fire rings and picnic tables and fine rockers on large porches. One of the two-room cabins is ADA accessible, and both can be had for $80 a night. Three one-room cabins include all that the larger cabins have, but each sleeps four and rents for $60 a night.

Anyone, open-air campers to cabin renters, can get remote quickly with a hike into the wildlife refuge or along the lakeshore. Good shoes, long socks, and a sharp eye for thistles are enough to get through the prairie grass. Threshing Machine Canyon makes one interesting afternoon, in particular. A short drive west of the park leads to a horseshoe-shaped bluff and valley where Indians attacked and killed a group of settlers moving a threshing machine to Brigham Young’s Mormans. The canyon walls are rife with signatures of members of the party and pictures carved in the walls by the Natives before and after the attack. While some original carving is sullied by subsequent graffito, it is still good to run fingers over the names, dates and pictures, gaze out over the land and valley and contemplate the complex meeting of cultures that occurred — and continues to occur — here.

Cedar Bluff is out of the way, as it should be. It’s worth a drive, visit and stay. Hiking and fishing are spectacular at any time of the day, but particularly at morning and evening, when the true personality of the prairie and lake emerge. Cedar Bluff is one of those places that will creep into memory because it is such a memorable place. But it will also be a place of dreams because its beauty is so haunting.

Find Cedar Bluff State Park south of I-70 exit 135 at Ogallah, between WaKeeney and Hays. The park entrance and office is 13 miles south of Ogallah on the north shore of Cedar Bluff Reservoir. A park day-use fee of $6.50 is required per vehicle to enter the park, available at the office or self-pay station at the office door. Camping begins at $8 per night, and one must have a park day-use pass in addition to a camping permit. For further information and reservations, call the park office at 785-726-3212 or visit the Web site at http://www.kdwp.state.ks.us/pmforum/cedarbluff.html.


Patrick Dobson is a journalist, poet, and freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City, MO. He publishes and edits the online literary magazine, the poetrysheet. His award-winning columns, editorials, and articles have appeared in PitchWeekly, eKC, and Discover Mid-America. His poetry and short stories have been published in the pages of The Kansas City Star, Review, Friction Magazine, Mid-America Poetry Review, The Same, and Thorny Locust. He is now pursuing a doctorate in history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at poetrysheet@earthlink.net or publisher@discoverypub.com.


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