As the Platte River current flows rapidly, Timothy Bryson points out places of his property washed away by flooding.
There was the area where people in wheelchairs could be loaded onto to an airboat for a ride and a patio where tents once stood.
Those places — plus areas for sand volleyball and a horseshoe pit — are all gone. Bryson believes the loss wouldn’t have been so dire had he not been told years ago by a governmental agency to pull out more than 870 tons of concrete designed to protect the riverfront property.
Now, the local man hopes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will work with him to take the necessary steps to protect the land.
Bryson owns Bryson’s Airboat Tours in Fremont, a business that started because he wanted to provide free rides to kids with cancer.
About 15 years ago, Bryson was at a booth at the Omaha Home Show when a young girl noticed airboats on his computer’s screen saver.
“Hey mom, there’s one of those boats I want to go on before I go,” the child told her mother.
Bryson asked where the girl was going.
“She said God was taking her in a few months,” he recalled.
Bryson offered to take the girl for a ride. A few weeks later, he took the mom, her daughter and a friend from Children’s Hospital for a free airboat ride on the river.
“It was like the river was just alive that day,” he said. “I still remember it. We saw bald eagles. There were deer crossing the river and there were even turkeys out there. If nature could provide it, it provided everything.”
About a week later, Bryson got another call from someone at Children’s. Other parents were asking if their terminally ill children could get a ride. He took them for rides without charging. He kept getting more calls.
About three months later, the first girl’s mom called and said her daughter had died and she wanted Bryson to see something at a church. He went to a large Omaha church.
“There was a big screen on the wall and the little girl was in the front of my airboat and she was talking about the things in life she’d done so far,” he said. “What really inspired me to start up an airboat tour business was when she said, ‘Before God takes you, you should take a ride on Bryson’s airboat.’”
Bryson said he mainly started the business so he could help pay to provide free airboat rides to kids with cancer.
“To this day, I’ve never charged any of those kids for rides on the airboat,” he said. “Everything I did, it was from donations or my tips. I never wanted to be in the spotlight.”
Bryson became a Fremont Area Chamber of Commerce member and started hosting more corporate activities. Businesses large and small could bring out employees for a relaxing ride.
“When we stopped, they could talk about business or socialize and it was a great experience for everybody,” he said.
That led to working with tourism partners. He began working with bus companies. Buses brought passengers to his business property 10 minutes outside of Fremont.
Throughout the years, Bryson added sunset rides with champagne and strawberries — things folks would get at a restaurant, but with an experience they’d never forget. People would come out to celebrate a 50th anniversary and bring their children and grandchildren.
He got bigger airboats from a Florida-based manufacturing company that builds professional grade tour boats. And at times, he’d even need to hire an extra airboat from other companies to accommodate big groups.
In mid-March, Bryson, who also has an infrared sauna company, was at a home show in Green Bay, Wis., when flooding began in the Fremont area.
He called someone to get his boats, trucks, cars and other items out of a large, metal building about a mile from the Elkhorn River, but that person, caught up in his own packing due to the flooding, wasn’t able to do that.
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Bryson called another guy, but by then there already was 4 feet of water in the building. One boat was bouncing around in the water. One boat still works but the other has been decommissioned due to damage.
He’s not sure if it can be salvaged. Other vehicles and boats were flooded.
“I lost all those items in the flood, plus my chain saws and all the little stuff that you don’t really have insurance on something like that. It was thousands of dollars of loss, just in that building,” he said.
Unable to get back to Fremont due to road closures here and later in Iowa, Bryson didn’t have airboats for water rescues but worked with other people to get boats to places where they were needed.
Because County Road 19 was flooded after a levee by Lake Ventura broke, Bryson, his fiancée and friends weren’t able to reach his riverfront property until almost April 1.
“We didn’t know the severity of the loss until we walked down the river and noticed that almost all of my riverfront has completely been washed away,” he said.
Probably one of the saddest parts about the loss, he said, is that seven years ago, the Corps of Engineers made him remove more than 870 tons of concrete that he’d worked with the Lower Platte North Natural Resources District to place along his entire riverfront area to protect it from a big flood.
Bryson said the Corps told him the work didn’t meet their specifications and he didn’t go through the proper permitting process.
Rather than allowing him to keep the concrete in place and file for the permits, Bryson said the Corps told him it had to be removed and replaced to meet that entity’s specifications — or else he could be fined and lose the ground.
He spent time and money to meet those specifications.
“While this was going on, I kept on telling them, ‘This is not going to hold,’” he said.
Bryson said he told Corps representatives, who recently came to his property, that the concrete he’d originally placed would have held better than what he had to replace with their specifications.
They didn’t agree, he said.
In a prepared statement, emailed on Monday to the Fremont Tribune, Matt Wray, environmental resources specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District, stated that:
“The Corps was notified that Mr. Bryson had built an unauthorized structure in the summer of 2012. Some of the structure was agreed upon to be removed and resorted to pre-construction conditions as required by the Clean Water Act. The Corps worked with Mr. Bryson to permit the remaining work under an “After-The-Fact” permit in September of 2015.
“We have no way of knowing if the original structure would have withstood the unprecedented weather in the spring of 2019.
“A site visit was held at the Bryson Airboats on May 21, 2019, to discuss flood recovery repairs to the structure and potential future permit options for additional bank stabilization upstream of his location.
“We will continue to work with Mr. Bryson and appreciate his effort to coordinate with us.”
In the meantime, Bryson noted that he’s lost a lot of ground to the flooding.
“It’s a huge amount of land,” he said. “We designed it so we could actually drive an airboat on dry ground and have wheelchair patients backed right up to our airboats.”
He plans to provide a few other rides this year to meet expenses so he won’t have to charge families with children who have cancer or disabilities.
He noted something else: “Everybody wants to blame the Corp of Engineers. I can’t blame them for this as hard as that may sound, however, what I can say is that they didn’t help the situation.”
On a positive note, he said: “I hope the Corps of Engineers is very willing to work with landowners who’ve been on this water for over 20 years and understand water flow as well as the engineers do, and allow us to keep our land, protect our land, which ultimately protects the environment.”