On the banks of the Middle Loup River, participants in the 14th Annual Polar Bear Tank Race load up.
Carson Vaughan
On the banks of the Middle Loup River, participants in the 14th Annual Polar Bear Tank Race load up.
On the banks of the Middle Loup River, participants of the 14th annual Polar Bear Tank Race load up. (Photo: Carson Vaughan)

Cattle-Tank Paddling: the Raucous Nebraska River Race Where Everybody Wins

In the heart of Cornhusker country, they know how to make their own fun. Native son Carson Vaughan drafted four friends, loaded up on beer, and did what may be the strangest float trip in the world.

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“It’s just one of them things,” Mitch Glidden tells me. He’s smiling wide behind a thick horseshoe mustache. “You gotta get heads in beds.” When Glidden speaks, you listen; not only because he’s an inveterate storyteller, or because his eyes crackle like fireworks, or because he’s arguably the jolliest man in Hooker County, Nebraska, but also because he kneads together every syllable like a firm sourdough. You lean forward a little. You bend your ear. Come again?

It’s the night before the 14th annual Polar Bear Tank Race in the village of Mullen—a hiccup on Highway 2 in western Nebraska—and the community center is abuzz with volunteers. They’re stocking the bar. They’re shuffling papers. They’re stirring homemade soups in hand-me-down roasters. Behind us, a woman named Linda is wearing a dirndl and pigtails and carefully unpacking her landscape paintings: a rusty windmill, a snowy yucca, a preening egret. “Don’t forget me in your story,” she’ll later say, slipping me a brochure for CaLinda’s Pot Shop and Art Gallery as if it were a crisp Benjamin. (You’re welcome, Linda.)

For years now, I’ve maintained a cool distance from what Nebraskans call “tanking.” Not that I’m an especially seasoned paddler, but the notion of floating downriver in a circular livestock tank struck me as a little too on the nose. I’ve spent most of my career in journalism trying to complicate the popular perception of the Great Plains, especially my home state of Nebraska, and tanking seemed to reinforce just about every hayseed stereotype we’re associated with. Fill said cattle tank with six fat white dudes listening to Cornhusker football on a portable stereo while crushing a 30-pack of Busch Light and, bingo, we have ourselves a winner.

Regardless, no one has done more to popularize tanking than Glidden, and for good reason. He and his wife, Patty, now hunched beside him in a black jacket and blue jeans, bought the Sandhills Motel in 1993. Described by Google Maps as an “unassuming motel with a picnic area,” the Sandhills is the only lodge in Mullen, which is the only town in Hooker County, which boasts more than 23,000 cows but fewer than 750 people. Given the demographics, and the fact that Mullen—a dusty cow town settled in 1888—is at least four hours from the closest major airport, getting “heads in beds” requires more than clean sheets and satellite TV.

What it does have, however, is water. “The best water,” Patty interjects: the Middle Loup River, just two miles north, and its trickster tributary, the Dismal, 13 miles south. Both slither through the heart of the Nebraska Sandhills—recently confirmed as the largest intact temperate grassland on earth—and because they’re fed almost exclusively by springs discharged from the Ogallala Aquifer beneath it, rather than from surface runoff, they’re two of the cleanest and most uniformly flowing streams in the world.

“You can plan a trip here three years from now,” Glidden says. “The water’s gonna be there.”

The fleet at rest
The fleet at rest (Carson Vaughan)
The Middle Loup winding through Nebraska Sandhills
The Middle Loup winding through the Nebraska Sandhills (Carson Vaughan)

Mitch and Patty spent a decade outfitting tourists with canoes and kayaks, advertising to adventure seekers in larger markets, but the real bonanza happened in 2004, following a night at Red’s Bar, a roadhouse near the motel. After a few drinks, Glidden’s brother John claimed that the rivers in Kansas were so shallow that at least a few madcap paddlers had started floating them in stock tanks. A local rancher named Sam Simonson hopped in a tank the next morning and pushed off the banks of the Middle Loup, anxious to establish proof of concept. I wasn’t there, of course, but I like to picture the old cowboy riding high, one boot resting on the metal rim, his trailblazing spirit as buoyant as the makeshift watercraft beneath him. I like to think a bald eagle rose from a gnarled cottonwood and escorted that aquatic pioneer downstream.

“Now, Sam’s had a lot of fun,” Glidden tells me, shuffling in his seat. “Always last at the bar. Always packed a cooler for rodeos and auctions and shit like that. If Sam says it’s the most fun he’s ever had, you know….” He nods, grins, lets the kicker swell. “That’s a pretty good time.”

“So I went down with him the next weekend and, shit, had a ball,” he continues. He turns to Patty. “Started buying tanks, didn’t we?”

Soon enough, they were sending thousands down the Middle Loup every summer, the motel booked solid on weekends from May to September with family reunions and bachelor parties and old friends chasing new fun. Those adventurous enough to canoe and kayak in the Sandhills, especially on the Dismal, a much hairier river, usually camp out, he says. But excluding the race at hand, and the already half-drunk competitors gripping Solo cups in the parking lot, tankers aren’t generally out to prove a damn thing. In fact, Glidden says, accessibility is the whole point.

“We’ve had family reunions with 90-year-old grandmas and two-year-old kids,” he says. “Everybody can go.”

For better or worse, there is arguably no pastime more quintessentially Nebraskan—more truly our own—than tanking, which the state tourism commission earnestly champions as “an incredible floating sensation.” There are at least half a dozen other tanking outfitters in the state now, each looking for a slice of the recreational pie, but Glidden rests assured.

“Anybody can buy tanks,” he says, arms folded across his chest. “I got water.”

This promise has lured dozens of disorderly tankers to the Polar Bear Tank Race every winter for the past 15 years, and it’s why, come tomorrow morning, I’ll find myself critically hungover in a cramped cattle tank with four high school chums I haven’t seen in roughly a decade, pinballing down the Middle Loup during a snowstorm and praying the finish line is near.

But first: soup.

The Muddy Creek Boyz on water
The Muddy Creek Boyz (Carson Vaughan)
Mitch Glidden, the godfather of tanking
Mitch Glidden, the godfather of tanking (Carson Vaughan)

For every obvious reason, my wife chose a long weekend in Key West, Florida, instead, leaving me scrambling to find teammates. Given that my hometown of Broken Bow is just two hours east of Mullen—the Key West of Hooker County, mind you—I started by texting Scott, a good friend from grade school who still lives there. In a brazen act of fraternity, he quickly agreed, as did Colby, who now lives in Lincoln. Colby then called Bill and Jared, two more friends who live in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and suddenly my old gang from Broken Bow was back together and booked for a Sandhills sojourn. I hadn’t seen most of them for years, and I wondered if the tank could hold all of us. I found myself daydreaming about a terrible accident: Twisted metal. Broken paddles. Ten bloody snow boots drifting around the bend. I trembled.

We needed a team name to register, so we called ourselves, in a fit of nostalgia, Horace Easterwood and the Muddy Creek Boyz. In February 1995, when we were still in grade school, the Weekly World News published a story about a deceased hermit named Horace J. Easterwood, who supposedly lived in a cabin north of our hometown and had a 40-inch keratin horn growing from his forehead. Rather than refute this fantastical report, Broken Bow jumped on the bandwagon, placing a tombstone at the local country club that read, “Here lies Horace with a horn on his head. We never even knew him and now he is dead.” The Muddy Creek Boyz was a nod to the pissant stream coursing through downtown Broken Bow.

We debated the name via text for days, but the final version has only confused the emcee, who is now just calling us the Creek Boys. When she asks whether we’ll be participating in the race or just enjoying a float, Colby replies, with the microphone still in hand: “We’ll be winning.”

Despite our best intentions, the Creek Boys drink too much after the welcome dinner, making up for lost time. On the way to Mullen from Chicago, I’d picked up a 30-pack of Hamm’s, careful not to offend the guys with anything better—and yet I do offend them. They avoid it all weekend, turn up their nose, shield their eyes, tighten their N95’s. I must be our Horace Easterwood, I conclude, the Hamm’s my horn to bear, for the Creek Boys drink Busch Light exclusively from hello to goodbye.

We drink and listen to Marty Robbins. We drink and listen to Roger Miller. We drink and we laugh and the sun cracks the Sandhills and crawls across the living-room floor. And when did it snow, and who packed the ibuprofen, and why is this damn coffee taking so long?

Colby and Bill attempting to steer
Colby, left, and Bill attempting to steer (Carson Vaughan)
Colby’s frigid plunge
Colby’s frigid plunge (Carson Vaughan)

By nine o’clock the next morning, we’re snaking through a mixed-grass prairie in an overheated school bus, knee to knee with our competition, gulping air beneath bib overalls and too much flannel. In true Nebraska fashion, the temperature plunged roughly 30 degrees overnight, and it’s now just below freezing. The Sandhills glitter with snow, and I can picture a finished canvas hanging in the window of CaLinda’s Pot Shop and Art Gallery already: the marble sky, the frosted bunchgrass, the empty road winding through the hills. My brain is throbbing and my stomach uncertain, but for a minute I drift away, lost in a familiar reverie.

More than once, I’ve hiked this baffling landscape and experienced something close to religion. I’ve uncorked its intoxicating silence. I’ve sipped the melancholy. I’ve traced the wind for miles: from the cottonwoods shimmering along the river to the cedars swaying behind the farmhouse to the cattails dancing in the pond beside me. It never grows old. This land may be private, I thought during a brief moment of clarity, but the wonder is mine to keep.

Five miles later, we stagger from the bus into a valley cluttered with cedar trees. A dozen shining stock tanks crowd the banks, equipped with aluminum paddles and custom seating. We find one labeled Creek Boys, toss our coolers in the middle, and huddle around it like the simpleminded bovines for which these troughs were originally intended. As Glidden promised, there’s plenty of water in the river. It flows swift and steady behind us, the epochs laid bare in the muddy cliffs above. The Creek Boys self-medicate with a little hair of the dog, and because one of them is a pharmacist, I relent.

Our starting times are staggered by three-minute intervals, and as we watch the first few teams push off, barking commands and churning water and finally vanishing around the bend, we briefly contemplate trying to win. All of us were athletic enough in high school to feel the old spark of competition, and I can see it now in Jared’s eyes especially—he’s watching the other teams, studying their technique. He stands a little taller, grips the paddle tighter. Beside him, Scott cracks another beer. He watches it foam over the lip and drip into the grass.

“I decided I don’t want to do this,” he says.

We shove our tank into the water and scramble aboard. We sound like a garbage truck, empty cans rattling across the steel floor, boots hitting bodies, the pathetic grunts and groans of 34-year-old men whose experience with the gym is mostly historical. Squatting onshore, a teenage volunteer grips the steel rim, waiting for the signal.

“Is this thing watertight?” Bill asks.

The boy shrugs. “Maybe?”

An SUV parked on the road above honks twice, and suddenly our tank is spinning and the shore is receding and the Creek Boys are dragging their asses from one side to the other, vainly searching for equilibrium. We crash into the muddy cliffs once, twice, three times before we round the first bend and drop our paddles altogether. Grassy islands braid the river ahead. Ruddy cedars jut out from the banks. The sky is flat and gray; Bill ups the volume on Boston’s “Let Me Take You Home Tonight” without cracking a smile. For a minute, we fall silent.

“Can we do our best to not just spin this thing in circles?” Scott finally asks. He sounds like middle management, careful with his pronouns. “Because I will throw up.”

Control is largely theoretical in this sport, the hulking tanks far less cooperative than a canoe or kayak. Still, most teams intuit the process: how to coordinate their paddling to minimize the spins; how to spur the tank forward or rein it back, however briefly, to avoid collision; how to read their teammates; how to follow the deepest channels; how to anticipate the obstacles ahead. Our team, however, does not.

We spin. We glide. I throw up (just a little). Jared unzips the cooler.

“Who needs a beer?”

Party at the community center! Veteran racer Lori McMullen holds up beans used to cast votes in the soup cook-off.
Party at the community center! Veteran racer Lori McMullen holds up beans used to cast votes in the soup cook-off. (Carson Vaughan)
Souvenir beer mugs
Souvenir beer mugs (Carson Vaughan)

The entire Loup River system was named by French trappers for the Skidi, or Wolf People, a band of Pawnee who once lived along its banks. Loup is French for “wolf,” but one could be forgiven for assuming a more literal meaning. For nearly 200 miles, the river twists and turns and loops around, every corner a horseshoe bend. Combine said topography with a circular watercraft prone to spinning and you may regret drinking too heavily before floating the Middle Loup. Rather than win, we soon conclude, we’ll lose instead. We’ll lose so thoroughly, with so much aplomb and so little grace, that we’ll double back to our dignity, the way very hot water feels strangely cold, a movie so bad that it’s great. We lower our paddles. We lift our shades. We soak it in.

The Middle Loup valley is wide and flat and shielded by what W. Somerset Maugham once referred to in a short story as “the mountains of Nebraska.” His narrator describes them as “huge mole-hills, rounded and smooth,” comparing them with little imagination to “a woman’s breasts.” I ponder it some. Squint a little. Skeins of geese and other migratory birds occasionally fly above these carnal temptations, these hardcore hummocks, and now and again I’ll spot a Creek Boy miming the hunt, raising his invisible shotgun and pulling the trigger. I silently root for the geese, having lost my taste for hunting years ago.

Not yet a half-mile downriver, we somehow pass another team. They’ve beached themselves on a grassy peninsula and abandoned their tank. All three are wearing camouflage and staring at us like mule deer. They wave slowly, beer in hand, and though it goes unspoken, the hollow look in their eyes tells us we will not come in last after all.

We started poorly and have regressed from there. We bulldoze the wild plum thickets skirting the shore. We maroon ourselves on invisible sandbars—and visible ones, too. And when we lodge ourselves in a fallen cedar, not for the first time but the fourth, we all scoot back at once and nearly flood the tank. “We’re getting a little low on this side,” Bill says. He takes another sip. He looks again. “But really…” We throw our hips side to side, the river just two fingers below the rim. We dig our paddles in the sand. We crack branches and spill our beers and heave with shaky arms and sing. We finally break through on the third verse of Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing,” after which we all collapse in a cold sweat and let the river carry us down memory lane.

“I miss basketball,” I say.

“I miss throwing shot put,” Colby says, and he means it. “I actually still throw shot put.”

“Left!” Jared yells. “Left!”

“Let the river do the river,” Colby slowly chides him. We hit a log, buckle forward. “Let the river… do the river.”

The wind picks up. We spin. We duck an iron bridge. We spin. Snow falls like television static, light and quick at first, then slow and wet and heavy. We spin. A team of four women, all dressed as Uncle Sam, briefly draft behind us before slingshotting past, perfectly navigating the turn. They aren’t spinning at all. We smile and wave through the cedar we’re stuck in. We push. We crack another branch. We spin.

We squeeze through a shadowy culvert colonized by cliff swallows, and just as I’m beginning to fear another gastric mutiny, we spot the finish line, its checkered flags dangling above the water, the spent tanks on shore. For perhaps the first time all morning, we hustle. We rise to our knees. We lift our paddles. We thrash the Middle Loup. And then, just yards from the finish line, with the heated vans idling along the banks and the volunteers waving us home, we hit another sandbar and grind to a halt. The river rushes past and another team floats by and Colby now contemplates jumping in—an act of sacrifice for my story, he tells me. Before he can strip, the sand shifts beneath us, the tank slips forward, and finally, just one skinny hour behind the winning team and two miles from the start, we spin our way ashore.

The winning team, the Muddy Water Tankers, getting underway
The winning team, the Muddy Water Tankers, getting underway (Carson Vaughan)
The American Tankers, four women dressed as Uncle Sam
The American Tankers, four women dressed as Uncle Sam (Carson Vaughan)

We lost the Polar Bear Tank Race, but in the words of Mitch Glidden: “Shit, had a ball.” Turns out old Sam Simonson was right. At our best, we drifted through the Sandhills like cumulus clouds; barring our thousand drunken blunders, it was an incredible floating sensation, indeed. And though we could do the same come spring, when the wildflowers bloom; or summer, when the temperatures soar; or fall, when the cottonwoods shed their fiery remains, there is perhaps no better way to appreciate what Nebraska author Mari Sandoz has called the “snow-whipped knobs” of winter. Hunkered deep in the Middle Loup valley, the wind calms and the world steadies and the river whispers around the tank. There’s a tranquility here, even in the slushy face of withdrawal—a hush I’ll chase again.

Later tonight we’ll eat too much prime rib at the awards banquet. We’ll glad-hand the better teams, act as though we never had aspirations at all, that we registered merely to support the Sandhills Journey National Scenic Byway, to whom the proceeds are donated. We’ll migrate to Red’s, take a shot nobody wants, entertain the regulars with news of our exploits. We’ll tell everyone we’re coming back next year, and I sincerely hope we do, because we’ve been welcomed at the tank race like grand dukes on a goodwill tour. First, however, we need to get heads in beds, preferably our own.

At the finish line, while the rest of us loosen our bibs and prepare to load up, Colby paces back and forth like a wrestler at the mat, or rather, a shot putter at the circle, pumping his arms, shaking his legs, cracking his neck side to side. He’s tossing his coat in the snow. He’s tossing his boots. He’s squirming from his jeans, peeling the shirt from his back. Three bounds through frozen mud and he’s knee-deep in the river, and without turning back, he plunges headfirst into the Middle Loup like a channel catfish, arms pinned to his sides. No one asked him to, of course, but that’s what old friends do: they pick up where they left off, they dive right back in.