With one hand on the wheel, Michael Forsberg uses the other to absent-mindedly thumb through four empty memory cards on the center console. We’re driving up into the Nebraska Sandhills to change out cards at four of our time-lapse camera systems there, a trip he takes every three months or so.
Though we’ve converted many of our time-lapse camera systems over to cell service (uploading photos automatically to our base in Lincoln), there are a still a handful that require manual service because there isn’t sufficient coverage. Getting out here takes a while, but the incredible Sandhills country makes it anything but a chore.
From the giant blue body of Lake McConaughy, we head north. Sinuous roads wind through the hills, which seem to rise slowly around us like ocean swells. Lakes look like mirrors set into the grass, reflecting back the sky even more brilliantly.
We see geese swimming in one small lake, then a pair of regal white trumpeter swans in another. Soon we pass a small herd of pronghorn with heads down, perusing the prairie buffet. The roadsides flush with yellow flowers as we head deeper into the hills. We pass stands of old cottonwood and oak, abandoned by their homesteading owners but still surviving on the groundwater their roots find just below the surface.
Empty coal trains rumble past black cows spotting the pastoral landscape. A herd of horses crowd together, noses touching as if in conversation. Hay piled on the land, loose like big loaves of rustic bread or baled in rows like jellyrolls for giants.
By late afternoon we reach the Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory, a nearly 13,000-acre patch of the Sandhills held by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for research. We have three cameras here, staggered among the rolling pastures.
Up on a hill, one of our cameras stands sentinel, looking out over the field below. Mike quickly changes the camera’s memory card and makes sure the settings are correct for the next few months.
Past a barbed-wire fence, our heavy vehicle lumbers down faint two-track paths through the grass. The sunlight works its alchemy, changing from harsh white to an amber-gold, casting a buttery luster across the landscape. I’m mesmerized by white moths in the field out the open window, which, disturbed as we pass, flutter up to glitter in the sun.
We arrive at our second camera, which watches a graceful bend in the creek below, near the headwaters of the Middle Loup River. A cottonwood sapling grows alone on the bank, backlit by the setting sun. Meadowlarks trill gleefully in the wild plum-covered hills to our west as Mike changes another memory card and performs another frequent task: cleaning the solar panel of whitewash left by birds.
We’re among big country now, with big sky. Cows low mournfully in the distance as we make our way to our last camera on the ranch, home to one of PBT’s most iconic images.
Here, the camera observes the influence of groundwater through an old stock tank windmill, which pulls sweet water up from the Ogallala Aquifer. Dragonflies and mayflies dodge small bright green lilies on the water’s surface. Below, mossy forests grow in the undisturbed tank.
As we finish the camera maintenance and wind our way back to the ranch’s entrance, the setting sun paints the clouds in shades of crimson, purple, orange and indigo.
We spent the night at Merritt Reservoir, tucked deep into the heart of the Sandhills. The night sky rewarded us further with a perfectly clear heaven of stars, a glassy lake to reflect them, and the most amazing cascade of heat lightening I’ve ever seen flashing on the distant horizon, as if Zeus himself were playing the drums.
The next morning we traveled a little further south and west to another Sandhills camera. Autumn is just getting underway and fall color showed in the yellow ash and the apple-red leaves of the sumac. The grasses, too, while more subdued, have begun to move into their winter palette: carpets of green, auburn, cream, rose and grey above the sandy soil.
To reach our fourth camera, we leave the car and continue through the sand on foot for another mile. Bright red rosehips stand out against the yellow brush. Fat grasshoppers the size of my thumb jump past our boots. We’re in, as Mike likes to call it, the kingdom of grass. Creatures of every order flit and fly and scurry around us.
We hear the waterfall before we see it, but barely. You come upon it unexpectedly, a big drop where the current cuts into the soft sandy hills. Now near the headwaters of the North Loup River, we stand for a moment watching the falls on a bluff across the creek where our camera is located. The wind blends with the sound of the water, pale green coursing off the falls and white where it hits the current below.
Back on the road headed toward home, we leave behind green valley floors where the water table reaches highest, and the heaving hills that stretch for miles and miles. Yucca grow rampant along the roadsides, their blackened pods silhouetted against an achingly pure blue sky.
“All of that, for this,” says Mike, holding up the stack of memory cards, these ones now full of images, holding another chapter in the continuing story of the Platte Basin. And I think to myself, all of that was well worth it.