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ERICSON -- Drive through this Wheeler County village of 90 or so, past the houses and lake cabins, the two bars and one ammo shop, and a recurring feature can be found in yard after yard.

“People probably wonder when they drive through town, they see these tanks around,” said Frank Wietzki, 58.

There’s enough livestock around town to justify the significant number of stock tanks here, but there’s also a lazy river rolling just a mile south of Ericson. Whether here or elsewhere in Nebraska, a rancher or some other inventive leisure-seeker put the two components together and invented river tanking.

One part floating tailgate party, one part scenic excursion and next to no parts effort, river tanking has for decades allowed cares and Nebraskans to simultaneously drift away. The Cornhusker State and its leisurely rivers get credit for popularizing tanking, but the history of the hobby is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a poorly kept one.

The owner of Ericson’s Hungry Horse, Gary Drahota, has heard from a bar patron or two that it started in the western part of the state and worked its way to this village and now, beyond the borders of the Cornhusker State. He can’t be sure of tanking’s origin, but Drahota’s got an idea of the likely motivation.

“It was just kind of a drunken whim,” Drahota hypothesized.

One of the newest and youngest outfitters in Nebraska can’t recall for certain where he was when it was suggested to him six years ago that he turn into a side business the five tanks he bought to float with his high school buddies. Odds are it was at a cream can supper, Raymond Bernt, 22, said.

He remembers buying a $20 ad in the local paper and watching the reservations fill up soon after. Now he could run 100 tanks a weekend if he had them, he said. And he remembers who told him to get started in the tanking game -- Wietzki.

“He’s probably the tanking king,” said Bernt of Crazy Rayz Tanking, located between Spalding and Ericson, tanking’s Mesopotamia.

Outfitters now rent tanks along the Elkhorn, Middle Loup, Calamus and Niobrara rivers. You can find them in Iowa and North Carolina now, too. But the spring-fed, sandy-bottomed Cedar River has at least four tanking outfitters along it, more than any other river in the state.

Wietzki started renting tanks out to bar patrons back when he owned the Hungry Horse in the mid to late '80s.

Tanking came to Wietzki organically, he said, after taking a decidedly unleisurely canoe trip down the Cedar with an outdoorsy friend of his. Wietzki said he was looking for a laid-back time on a summer day off when he agreed to the excursion. He got sore arms instead.

“He just took off like a mad man, and I had to control the back,” Wietzki said. “I never got a chance to drink a beer or smoke a cigarette.”

He said that led him on a mission to find a better way to float the Cedar. First, he ditched the hard-paddling friend. Next, he took notice of his tin livestock tank.

“I thought, ‘Heck, why not take that down the river?’”

He took down to the riverside the tin tank, a chair and plenty of supplies the swift canoe trip prevented him from enjoying, and pushed off.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “It’s good relaxing fun, you know? There’s no paddling, no nothing.”

Next time, he threw a grill in there. Then came a picnic table, “which stabilized it a whole bunch,” Wietzki said. A supply dealer came into the bar, and they got to talking about polypropylene tanks. He ordered one of those and started inviting friends to join him on tank trips. Eventually, he owned half a dozen tanks, got the lumber yard to build him picnic tables for each and started renting the party barges out on summer weekends.

“Then I got so busy on the weekends and stuff,” he said. “I was running around out there moving tanks and cleaning them out after every use.”

In 1987, he believes, he sold the tanking business to a hunting outfitter who came into the bar. Michael Suelter still owns what they claim to be the first tanking outfitter in the state. But he didn’t know then that running the seasonal Get Tanked would become his full-time job.

“People thought we were crazy,” Suelter said. “And I thought it would be a weekend, part-time deal.”

He ran eight tanks at first, then 12. He began to fabricate his own picnic tables, complete with circular bases so they rolled down the boat ramp by the two-lane bridge that crosses the Cedar. Demand only increased. Now he owns 40 and tries to limit the number he runs on crazy summer Saturdays to 32. They run $75 per rental on Saturdays, $65 every other day and turned his part-time gig into a career.

Though the history may be as muddy as the Missouri, tanking's current popularity is clear. Men's Journal featured a bit about Nebraska's tanking offerings in a travel piece last year. Nebraskaland wrote a ton about it in June. And through Labor Day, Nebraska's slow-moving rivers will fill with people traveling along them in agricultural equipment.

And then comes fall, which used to signal the start of a new line of work for Suelter. Now, when the offseason comes, he said, "I just recuperate."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7438 or cmatteson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSMatteson.

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Features reporter

Cory Matteson is a features reporter.

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