The consensus is that a bored Nebraska rancher started the whole thing by tossing a couple of lawn chairs into a big steel stock tank designed for holding grain and hopping aboard for an impromptu float trip. The idea caught on, got a name - "Tanking" - and is now becoming an almost mandatory activity for travelers in the Cornhusker State.
"They've got canoe outfitters, I figured why not a tank outfitter," says Michael Suelter, who runs Ericson's Get Tanked, which purports to be the first business of its kind. "Besides, no one else was doing it."
While Suelter may have been first to the tanking party, he's got some company. Thanks to its many shallow, slow-moving rivers and wealth of farm equipment, Nebraska is perfect for the slothful, beer-centric activity. A growing number of outfitters now offer trips in tanks retrofitted with chairs and tables. Folks pile in - Suelter now has nearly 50 tanks that regularly ply a 4-mile stretch of the horseshoe-shaped Cedar River - and meander down the river, which flows past grass-covered sand dunes and open woodlands full of fox, coyotes, and eagles.
About 25 miles west of Ericson, in Burwell, Calamus Outfitters offers two- and five-hour tanking trips down the 56-mile Calamus River, which gently flows past rolling sandhills where drifters are likely to spot otters, beavers, muskrats, herons, and deer. Bruce and Sue Ann Switzer started the operation in 2001 as a way to earn supplemental income at their ranch, which offers accommodations for up to 65 people along with horseback riding, canoeing, and Jeep tours.
"We looked at what we had, what our natural resources were, and one of them was the river, so it was a pretty easy decision," says Sue Ann, adding that tanking is by far her ranch's most popular offering. "You can’t make it go faster, you can't make it go slower. You just relax and go with the flow."
In Mullen, Nebraska, at the 19-room Sandhills Motel, Mitch and Patty Glidden offer tanking trips down the Middle Loup River, which winds through a valley past lush green meadows and scenic highlands. Mitch says that, "on a good Saturday," he puts 200 people on the river.
Fairly recently, a Sandhills Motel flyer promoting tanking trips caught the eye of North Carolinian serial entrepeneur John Johnson, who was inspired to open the first operation east of the Mississippi, Foothills Outdoor Adventures in Wilkesboro, N.C. Located about three hours west of Raleigh, Johnson business is offering tanking trips down the Yadkin River, which rises in the Blue Ridge Mountains and flows through the 1,475-acre W. Kerr Scott Reservoir in Wilkesboro.
"We're definitely the new kids on the block, but I think we've hit on a really good niche market," Johnson says.
More information: Most visitors to Nebraska fly into Omaha, some three hours away from Ericson. The easiest way to simulate the Tanking experience without jumping on a plane: Dump a kiddie pool full of inflatable chairs in a lake. It's not quite as fun, but will save you money on airfare.