The Dismal is a very wild and scenic river, prone to obstructions, fairly fast moving current, varying depths, and a river that is not to be taken lightly. The two stretches we did over Memorial Day (14 mile and 24 mile) contain some of the most narrow switchbacks, dangerous strainers, and many, many challenges for the intermediate to advanced paddler. Particularly during the time of year which we paddled there (early Spring). Usually, by the time summer is in full bloom, weather, water flow and Man (chainsaws, etc.) have cut some of the more dangerous obstructions.
The put-in South of Mullen requires a boat carry down a 60 foot narrow trail to the edge of a 6 foot drop... accessible by a rope tied to a tree. We passed down three laden kayaks (full of camping gear), and two canoes.
The waters were clipping along at a good pace, and the three kayaks capsized within the first 15-20 mins. on the water, victims of a loss of momentum while trying to wait for the slower canoes to maneuver around obstructions and strainers. Once our kayaks were free of the slowpokes, our fortunes improved.
During the majority of the first day, navigating the Dismal was a matter of encountering a problem obstruction/strainer every 50-100 feet, and trying to negotiate a solution. Adrenaline rushes were freely dispensed. If one could get through some of these with just a scratch or a broken branch in hand, it was an accomplishment. I likened the experience to black diamond runs on a ski slope. You either attack the situation or the situation gets the best of you.
Putting in on Saturday around lunchtime, we managed to paddle some hard miles and portage around what we couldn't tackle, arriving at the Saturday campground at Seneca. We pre-paid our night's camping with Mitch Glidden of Glidden Canoe Rental in Mullen, NE.... $10 a piece. The Seneca campground is basically a cow pasture, complete with cow piles to step around. I am told that there is fresh water available on a landowner's property, but I don't know for sure.
You can also make the Mullen to Seneca run in one day, and take out/shuttle vehicles at Seneca for a one-day trip. We chose to paddle the 24 miles to Thedford on the 2nd day on the water.
Day #2 on the water lulled the paddlers into a false sense of security. We made fairly good time, leaving at 9am, but downriver encountered 2-3 of the most dangerous obstructions of the trip. We nearly lost a canoe and its contents trying to rope-line it through the obstruction. Delays at these obstructions put us well off-course on our arrival time prediction.
At around 3PM, we huddled up and decided that we'd paddle hard until just about sunset, and try to bushwack a campsite until dawn. However, we were closer to the takeout than we had thought, and made it back in plenty of time, but we had to have an alternate option. You do NOT want to paddle that river after dark!!
The 2nd day's paddle was replete with 8-10 barbed wire fences that had to be handled gingerly....a paddler getting out and lifting up the fence and paddling under. Other barriers included fences stretching across the water... you must portage around these fences. There is a trap door in the fence to push your boat through, and stairs that climb over the fences.
Though the river chastened and punished us all, scratched us up and bruised us a bit, it was definitely well worth our troubles. Breath-taking scenery, the Sand Hills region of Nebraska, high bluffs, most of which we didn't get in photos because we were white-knuckling ourselves through the course of the river.
Wildlife: bald eagles, owls, beavers, wild horses drinking right at the water's edge, deer.
I would definitely paddle this river again. And make sure I have all necessary safety equipment, especially plenty of rope and duct tape. We had a kevlar canoe sustain a fist-sized hole in it when it struck a protruding log. Duct-tape saved the day!
Besides the obvious scenery, some other features to note: two bubbling natural water springs. One of which is a cave spring. Water bubbles up out of the ground there constantly. Since it is mostly natural spring water, water can easily be filtered for drinking.
Takeout: Old Hwy 83 bridge over Dismal River, located South of Thedford, NE. Driving North from North Platte, take immediate right before the new Dismal River bridge, follow road down to free campsite. Takeout is at old Hwy 83 bridge located nearby.