2022 Middle Loup River Challenge: Four Years Before the Mast

2022 Middle Loup River Challenge: Four Years Before the Mast
Over 60 racers will rush 28 miles down the Middle Loup River this weekend in Thedford. Photo credit: Sandhill River Trips

THEDFORD – There are 45 major flowing bodies of water in the state of Nebraska; of those, 30 are rivers, 15 carry the name “Creek,” and one, according to Sandhill River Trips’ Cay Ewoldt of Thedford, is in a class all its own.

“I think that the Middle Loup River is one of the best streams in the state that you can go out and kayak. It’s gorgeous, it’s always got flow in it, and the scenery is unbelievable. It’s right there at the top of streams you can jump in and float down.”

On Saturday, September 10, the river’s hidden beauty will rise to the surface; kayakers, canoers, and paddle boarders will converge on its banks near Halsey National Forest for the annual Middle Loup River Challenge, a boat race that has pinned the tail on every summer season since 2018.

The challenge follows the river’s course over 28 miles from the first Highway 2 bridge on the west side of Thedford to the Middle Loup River Guest Ranch southwest of town.

Ewoldt, the founder of the race, shares just how many people have been let in on the secret. “This year, we have people from Colorado, Kansas, South Dakota, Iowa, and obviously Nebraska that will be out for it. We had a goal of hitting 50 paddlers on the river, but it’s looking like we’re going to hit 60 with it this time around.”

Competitors will tote and tout their own floats; Ewoldt says part of the Middle Loup River Challenge’s fun is seeing what each oarsman brings to the table.

“You’re going to see everything from a typical kayak that everybody can go into Wal-Mart and buy, like a Sun Dolphin-type of plastic kayak, but you’ll see everything up to people who have $2500 to $4000 that will be out there on the river. You’ll see some really fancy kayaks that you just don’t see anywhere else.”

While the boats themselves may make waves, Ewoldt says the captains make the real splash. “We have a guy that comes up; I believe as of 2010, he had 51 national championships in solo canoe racing. He’s right here out of Nebraska, but he’s traveled all over the country.”

Canoer Calvin Hassell of Grand Island will return to the race in 2022. Photo credit: Sandhill River Trips.

That guy is Grand Islander Calvin Hassell, who not only will be present at this year’s race but will be looking to best his blistering three-and-a-half-hour solo canoe record set only last year, all in a handmade canoe.

The race has been a huge boon for Ewoldt and the town of Thedford; with its continuing annual growth, the lifelong kayaker says he’s moving one step closer to a major goal each year. “I wanted to be able to take the Middle Loup segment we have through Thomas County here and get it turned into one of the state’s river trails through the Game and Parks Commission.”

Ewoldt says as of 2022, the process to turn his segment into a State River Trail is underway. The first heat of the 2022 Middle Loup River Challenge shoves off at 8:30 a.m. Saturday; spectators are welcome, and several strategic viewing areas have been set up around the course.