Long before inflatable inner tubes and kayaks filled the Niobrara River, Roy Breuklander used to float down the river on two tractor tires, a piece of plywood and a lawn chair. He would take his family along on the makeshift raft, using a 10-foot pole to steer.
“It was kind of like Huck Finn,” said his son, Steve Breuklander of Sparks, Nebraska.
Breuklander’s love of nature and the river gave him the idea of renting canoes to tourists. He became one of the first outfitters on the Niobrara.
Breuklander, 88, died Thursday at the Ainsworth (Nebraska) Care Center.
He was born in Valentine in 1926 and spent almost his entire life within a few miles of the Niobrara.
Breuklander’s family moved to several different locations around Sparks. He attended Rockford School and graduated from the eighth grade in Sparks.
Breuklander spent about two years in the Army, stationed in Germany and Austria. When he returned from the service in 1955 he married Florence Spear, a schoolteacher. They had three daughters and a son.
Roy Breuklander was a rancher, but he also owned and operated the Sunny Brook Camp and Canoe Rentals on the Niobrara. Breuklander had the idea that canoe rentals would be a successful business. When a banker wouldn’t give him a loan to purchase canoes, he set fur traps to raise the money, his son said.
Roy Breuklander started the business with three used canoes and a trailer. As camping and recreation on the Niobrara became more popular, his business grew. He eventually had 100 canoes, as well as kayaks and tubes.
Breuklander lobbied to protect the Niobrara, his son said.
In 2011 the Friends of the Niobrara awarded the group’s River Keeper award to Roy and Florence Breuklander. The year before, the couple sold a conservation easement on their 1,125-acre ranch to the Nebraska Land Trust, forever protecting the land from commercial development.
Breuklander loved fishing and hunting, especially deer.
His son said his father was a tough, “salt-of-the-earth” man who was respected by many. “He was one of the old breed,” Steve Breuklander said.
In addition to Steve, Roy Breuklander’s survivors include his wife and daughters Shirley of Hastings, Twyla of Valentine and Rhonda of Newcastle.
Funeral services are scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday at the Presbyterian Church in Valentine.