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Dennis Arrowsmith, the "Spiderman," chats with airboat captains on the river earlier this month. He drives a specially designed craft and refuses to give up air boating. (Teresa Prince) Teresa Prince

For longtime river rats like Dennis Arrowsmith, flying down the Platte on an airboat is the favored mode of transportation. "It's not heaven but it's awfully close," he says.

BY ALGIS J. LAUKAITIS | Lincoln Journal Star

ON THE PLATTE RIVER — They call him Spiderman because a brown recluse bit him.

But unlike the famous webslinger, Dennis Arrowsmith didn’t end up with super powers.

The spider’s venom destroyed the nerves in his left leg, and, over the course of several years, the poison left him partially paralyzed.

Friends and family told him he would never drive an airboat again.

 “They should have never said never,” said Arrowsmith, 58, of Fremont.

Chuck Johnson, a friend in Winslow, helped customize Arrowsmith’s airboat so he can throttle and steer with his good right leg and right arm. Now, Arrowsmith zips up and down the Platte River with the best of ’em — flying over flat water and skimming over weedy sandbars in his airboat dubbed “Spiderman and his widow.”

“It’s not heaven but it’s awfully close,” he says of airboating on the Platte.

His friend Bob Burt of Herman says it in a word: “Freedom.”

Imagine sitting in a seat above the water with a big, beastly Cadillac engine behind you, churning a propeller at more than 3,000 rpm. The only thing protecting you is a metal cage.

It’s loud but you’re wearing a headset. When you hit the throttle, the airboat surges forward and in seconds you’re shooting over water and sand at 60 mph or more.

 “It’s like having your own private water ski while you’re sitting down,” said Arrowsmith. “… It’s a giant surfboard with a whole bunch of horsepower.”

If you run out of water, no problem. Airboats appear to float over land like magic carpets. The big propeller sucks in the air with so much force it lifts the hull just enough to get it off the ground. Airboats can go anywhere on the river — and most airboaters do.

They roam the lower reaches of the Platte, sometimes like lone wolves, sometimes in packs. They park on sandbars and talk about the river, airboating and life. Some take their families with them for a swim up river or use their cell phones to call others in for a gathering.

“There’s a special friendship — a bond between airboaters that you can’t find anywhere else,” said Torrey Bannister of Valley. “You can put up on a sandbar and you don’t know anybody and they’ll talk to you like you’ve known them forever.”

Nebraska has about 900 registered airboaters, according to Herb Angell, boating law administrator for the state Game and Parks Commission. By comparison, Florida with its world-famous Everglades, has about 5,400. Airboats can cost as little as $6,000 or as much as $75,000. Arrowsmith spent about $22,000 on his. Owners come in all ages and from all walks of life.

The Platte River between Columbus and Valley is airboat central for Nebraska, although airboaters hang out on the Elkhorn River, too. While it doesn’t have the miles and miles of open grass and water of the Everglades, the Platte offers a meandering ribbon of water, islands, sandbars and bridges.

“If you live on the river, it’s like a road. It doesn’t take you long to realize that an airboat would be a lot of fun,” said Randy Brezina, who got into airboating back in 1990.

A union carpenter, Brezina spends most of his weekends on the river. His favorite place is where the Elkhorn and Platte meet. The water is deep and cool there, and he can park his airboat, talk with friends or just lay in the water and relax.

“It’s like therapy without a therapist,” said Brezina, 52, who lives near Linoma Beach.

But not everyone is a fan of airboats or airboaters — and some get defensive about their image.

“They (the public) think of us as a rowdy bunch on the river, making a lot of noise …,” said Jake Kroeger of Schuyler, president of the 328-member Nebraska Airboat Association.

Kroeger said it is an undeserved image. Airboating is very family-oriented, he said, adding that the group gives out scholarships and sponsors an annual family day, with food and prizes for its members.

“The Platte River is a great place to take your family,” he said. “You can go as far as you want. You can go to the mouth of the Missouri River or go out a hundred yards and sit on a sandbar … there are no crowds and it’s safer.”

The noise is what some people, including those who live and play on the river, dislike the most. Airboat engines are big and powerful, some up to 700 horsepower. Most of the engines come from boat-sized cars and the rest from aircraft. And while some airboats have mufflers and special gears and props that help cut down the noise, they can still make a bullfrog jump like an Olympian.

Nebraska has a law that prevents boats — including airboats — from exceeding 96 decibels at a distance of 100 feet when the vessel is running. By comparison, the noise from a jackhammer is 130 decibels and a snowmobile, 100 decibels.

The Game and Parks Commission has cited some airboats for excessive noise, but Angell said the 2003 law is difficult to enforce because the boats move fast and it can be tough to get a good decibel reading.

Brezina admits airboats can be loud, but he said, “Sometimes if you and your wife can’t talk it may be a good thing.”

Airboaters say they do more than joy ride. Some fish or hunt from their boats and take people to watch bald eagles and other wildlife. Arrowsmith said he once used one to help herd cattle on the Niobrara River. And sometimes airboaters are called on by authorities to help find a missing person or recover a drowning victim.

“A lot of kids get caught up in storms (while on the river) and airboaters find them,” he said.

Airboaters often pick up trash along banks and sandbars and many appear to respect wildlife and the fragile ecosystem of the Platte River.

But are the boats environmentally friendly?

Yes, said Tim Bryson of Fremont, who gives tours with his 12-seat deluxe blue and yellow airboat.

“Airboats are one of the cleanest watercraft that can run up and down the river,” he said. Because there’s no propeller in the water, he said, there’s nothing to harm fish or other wildlife.

Jackie Canterbury, an ornithologist who lives in Lincoln, disagrees.

She said airboats create more stress for birds, which are already stressed because of loss of habitat along the Platte River and heat. She said the stress is especially felt by migratory birds that stop along the river between spring and mid-July.

“When you have a boat which is loud, and is moving, it has a direct impact on most things in its path,” she said. “It adds another dimension of being chased down the river. It’s impossible to say there is no effect.”

Not so, says Kroeger.

“I will dispute that 110 percent. We were out this weekend and saw three eagle nests between North Bend and Schuyler. You can drive by those eagles and they are not disturbed in the least,” he said.

On a recent tour of the Platte sponsored by the Lower Platte River Corridor Alliance, the birds didn’t seem to mind as airboats made their way up and down the river.

Blue herons took off and flew much like they were being startled by an approaching canoe. The birds appeared to be used to the loud noise — like it was part of their surroundings.

And like most things on the river, the noise eventually floated away.

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

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