How does one define a place? Is it a location someone has visited? Does one have to stand on the shores of a lake to feel like they know the lake? Can someone who has never visited a place still have a connection to it?
I grapple with these questions as my time as a Platte Basin Timelapse intern comes to a close. Over the past two years, I have spent countless hours getting to know places all across the Platte Basin watershed despite never leaving Lincoln. Instead, I built a connection with these places through photographs taken from our time-lapse cameras. I watched a landscape change and evolve over seasons and years. I have seen high waters on the Platte, but also a severe drought. However, I never observed these changes in person.
One such location is Seminoe State Park: Sunshine Beach. Our first photos for Sunshine Beach are from May 2011. Going through five years of photos of the same landscape I began to notice there was a predictable cycle that occurred. During winter the campground stood empty. No one there to notice the changes happening to the lake or the surrounding mountains. Snow went unobserved. As the lake and the land began to thaw, people started to arrive at the campground.
The busiest weekend would always be in July near the 4th. The lake transformed into a recreational break for hundreds looking to escape the city and relax with beautiful views. As the summer progressed, fewer and fewer visitors came with the last campers staying for Labor Day in September. Once again the landscape would stand uninhabited by people, but it continued to change. The fall colors faded into the white of winter until the cycle started again in the spring.
Jack Creek is another camera location I have never visited, but feel as though I have. The location is tucked away; the only changes are coming from the natural world, with little human disturbance. Since 2011 the photos hardly ever show another person visiting the area. Many of our cameras show change over a large area, but Jack Creek shows changes on a small scale. It is an intimate view of a creek in the Rocky Mountains that fluctuates throughout the seasons.
The high snowpack in the winter months melts into rushing waters providing water to areas downstream. While it might not provide beautiful sunsets or stormy skies like some of our other camera locations, Jack Creek shows beauty in the little things. Whether it is the way the light catches the branches creating a beautiful network of shadows or the way the creek looks at dawn and dusk, the water creating a smooth single entity.
The place I feel most connected to in the watershed is the camera location of North Loup River. It was the first camera location I worked with when I began at PBT. It is a gorgeous waterfall on the North Loup of the Platte River. It defies what one expects to find in a grassland, but at the same time is reminiscent of what the Great Plains must have looked like before colonization. There is a bison herd that travels in and out of the frame. They stop to eat when the grass is lush and press on when the grass is brown, and the snow falls. Erosion takes its toll on the banks of the river with large chunks of it going missing as the years progress. Again most of these changes go unobserved by people, except for those looking at this frame on a computer. My favorite photo is of this single bison caught between the shadow of night and light of day. It reminds me that even the largest of creatures can be dwarfed on a landscape like the Great Plains.
I will most likely never visit these locations. I will never watch a sunset at Sunshine Beach. I will never turn over a stone in Jack Creek. I will never feel the grass under my feet at North Loup. However, these places will stick with me as I leave the Midwest. When I describe the Great Plains to those who have never been, I will describe these places. I will describe the vibrant rainbows at Sunshine Beach. I will describe the waist-high snowpack of Jack Creek. I will describe the powerful storms of North Loup. I am connected to these places, and if I ever get the opportunity to visit, it will be as if I was meeting with an old friend. I will know of the challenges and changes these places have faced because I witnessed them through a computer screen in Lincoln, Nebraska.