That about covers that.
Yesterday was day two of RiverFest 2009, the first day that included paddling. Kayak Dude, my grandson Zach and myself did our part by paddling 14 miles from the Apple Tree boat launch in Harding all the way to Nesbitt Park in Wilkes-Barre.
Unfortunately, my grandson Jeremy came down quite ill, so Zach was his more than eager emergency replacement. And with that trip, Zach has become the hardened river rat from among my grandsons and one nephew. Zach (‘08, ‘09( has 28 miles under his belt. My nephew Mason (‘07) has 14. And Gage Andrew, the first one out back in 2004, has 12 miles to his credit.
This being the 10th annual event, a bit of personal paddling history.
2002: KD & MC…18 miles, West Pittston to West Nanticoke.
2003: Cancelled due to extremely high water. KD & MC trek 30 miles from Tunkhannock to Wilkes-Barre anyway. One wild and floating debris-laden ride.
2004: KD, MC & Gage Andrew. Held in very early June, the temperature was not what it should have been, and a monsoon made sophistry of the area. By the time we arrived at the halfway point, Nesbitt Park (12 miles), a then 3-year-old Gage Andrew was shivering uncontrollably, so KD paddled the final leg all alone.
2005: KD could not make it. And as KD goes, so goes the U.S.S. Dude.
2006: KD & MC…18 miles from West Pittston to West Nanticoke.
2007: KD, MC & Mason…14 miles Harding to Wilkes-Barre.
2008: KD, MC & Zach…14 miles, Harding to Wilkes-Barre.
2009: KD, MC & Zach…14 miles, Harding to Wilkes-Barre.
Even though yesterday’s event was conducted under another on-again off-again quasi monsoon, the temperature was agreeable, and we had this here throwaway poncho with which to protect Zach from the driving rain. I read that all three outfitters were sold out of boats, so needless to say, we had a lot of first-timers hitting the water earlier yesterday morning. And for the first time, 4 school buses were required to shuttle the participants up to the launch point in Harding.
As for that bus ride, even though we made the trip in separate buses, both KD and myself noticed how many paddling neophytes there were on board based entirely on their chosen attire. Or should I say, their poorly chosen attire. Think about it. At the bottom and at the edge of every river is what? You got it, mud. And plenty of it. So, just in case you’re considering joining us one day, do not wear your brand new Pumas. And to you girls, there’s no need to make any fashion statements while out on the river.
As to the newcomers to paddling, I remember approximately 5 boats flipping in the turbulence created by the remains of the old Carey Avenue bridge back in 2002. And we even had a river paddling veteran go inverted in a turbulent section just off of the dike at Forty Fort back in 2006. I just knew something was afoot when the kayak carrying a college kid directly in front of me upped and spun around within the blink of an eye.
Right around it came, and that kid will probably never look as shocked as he did on that day. They provide all paddlers with a safety sermon each and every year. But never once did they tell us what to do when your boat chooses to go backwards. Took me a second or two to process what I was seeing before I reached for my safety whistle and gave it three short blasts. Man down! Man overboard! Something or other. Anyway, that was my first ever river rescue.
Those newcomers did not disappoint yesterday. We were in the water for about 5 minutes when a canoe carrying three people got no further than 20 feet from the end of the launch and decided it would rather be upside-down. And since they were dumped into water no deeper than 4 feet, no rescue or assistance was necessary. Only giggles and snickers were provided them.
It was overcast, kind of dark and the rain was very heavy at times. So this was not a day for taking pictures in hopes of capturing keepers. But after the briefest of pit stops at the halfway point on the shoreline at West Pittston, KD noticed that the sewage overflow on the Pittston side was spewing a couple of thousand of gallons of water per minute. So, we paddled right into the mouth of the thing for a couple of pictures.
And it was then and there that we both realized we were paddling atop Pittston’s most recently deposited (flushed) raw sewage. It was then and there that KD resisted the reflexive urge to deposit his breakfast onto the back of my personal floatation device. It was right there and right then when first I heard him curse.
And isn’t that, in and of itself, not the worst of all possible situations. Just a few short years ago, Pittston went and built itself a nifty waterfront amenity. It’s not near what Wilkes-Barre’s is, but it’s a nice waterfront park unto itself. And sitting right at it’s southernmost edge? Why, there’s this metal hatch that let’s loose with raw sewage whenever the rain persists for more than an hour or so. And at it’s northernmost edge, the infamous Butler Mine Tunnel, which emits a cocktail of industrial pollutants so foul and dangerous, it necessitated the building of an emergency inflatable coffer dam just downstream.
And it’s obvious we have to do better. The new amenities are all wonderful. The enhanced levees protect our lives and livelihoods. The inflatable dams and the riverfront parks are amazing assets when plopped into urban settings. But while we’ve been busily spending hundreds of millions of local, state and federal dollars on the river’s meandering shoreline, we have yet to seriously address the quality of the water. There ain’t no ifs, ands or buts about it: we have to do better.
David Buck of Endless Mountain Outfitters gets the nod for best ever RiverFest safety tip. What to do if you’re on the river and lightning gets to flashing across the sky? Well, since they’ve got the aluminum paddles, stay away from the Boy Scouts. Did I say safety tip? Oops. I meant, best ever joke.
I’m not certain which state or federal agency it is that inspects railroad bridges that haven’t been used in a few generations, but the aged bridge just past Exeter going north is of the “structurally unsound” variety as spied by our eyes. One of the stone pillars has been crumbling for years. And it’s now lost so many of it’s hulking stones, the crumbling pillar is now U-shaped. Not a place you want to linger for too long while navigating the river. Or as we put it while fast approaching it, ramming speed, captain!
And, as per usual, KD made it a point to slow the boat while we were almost directly over the spot where the coal mines collapsed and the river flooded millions of gallons of water into them back in 1959. A spot, they tell me, that still draws water from the river during the driest of the dry summers. A spot that KD knows I would rather not spend too much time near. A spot I don’t want to be anywhere near if it ever decides to take a big ole drink again.
And, as per usual, but always a complete surprise for a nanosecond or two, KD tells the dramatic story of just how complete a catastrophe that event really was. How wide the chasm in the river bottom actually was. How many coal cars were dumped into it in an attempt to choke off the flow of water draining into the dark abyss. The coffer dams, the cranes, the gondolas, the huddled masses of shrieking relatives on the shore just to our left, how many lives lost…and then he rocks the boat as violently and noisily as he can.
Son of a Beechnut Gum!!! Gets me every time.
I suggest that he never pull this stunt on any paddling neophyte from the front seat of his kayak. He’s far from our reach and safe in the rear, but if sitting up front…we could react by popping him one in the ribs. Gets me every time.
We were told that a local mayor, a state representative and a congressman were supposed to be making the trip, but as always, the elected folk that pay so much banal lip service to all things cloudy river and it’s murky future, they did not attend. More often than not, this is what happens when it’s time to get out there on the river.
And this has always bothered me, not because I want to post pictures of politicians and myself hanging out together. Not being your average blogger, I seek no hollow celebrity.
With so many important decisions that have been and still need to be made regarding the chummed-up river’s future, what I know is that there’s no knowledge quite like firsthand knowledge. Nothing tops experience. And until these politicos get out there and experience the river, until they make it a point to paddle for hours on end with the passionate river historians and the like, until they take in the sights, the sounds and the rebounding wildlife for themselves, in my mind, they don’t know what they are talking about when they speak to the river’s needs. That’s how I feel.
We completed the four-hour sojourn in three hours. We weren’t assigned to any particular group of paddlers, and we were not saddled with any safety responsibilities. And as such, we went “river right” while the others went “river left.” Exploring, if you will. And we just paddled until we ran up on the rear of some sojourners who had departed long before we had pushed off at the Apple Tree.
By the time we arrived at the festival at Nesbitt Park, the rain had subsided. And after getting Zach into a dry shirt, an official RiverFest shirt, we set off in search of amusements and some foodstuffs. We had a band rocking out on our side of the river, and yet another band rocking the post-rain crowd slowly filtering onto the river common on the other side of the river.
And get this: On that opposite shore, down at the water's edge, there was a bridal party having plenty of pictures taken. A new tradition is born.
There were plenty of paddlers arriving at the new launch after we had, plenty of land-lovers arriving, kayaks and canoes beached as far as one could see, bicyclists, police patrols, three horses, and what seemed like a hundred tents. It’s obvious that this event has grown over the years and still is growing. And with both sides of the river at Wilkes-Barre now transformed from being lifeless earthen barriers into lively attractions, expect RiverFest to get bigger and better as time marches on.
And when that sky even hinted at letting loose again, it was time to pack up the grandson and head for home. Personally, I had myself a full day. Bicycling in the morning. Paddling 14 miles. Bicycling back home again with a 35-pound rodent in tow, and then a robust walkabout with said rodent once back at home.
With all of that said, I wouldn’t dare miss RiverFest, or change any aspect of it if I could. It’s fun, it’s exercise, it’s informative, it’s provides an opportunity to see some little-seen creatures in their natural habitat, it’s eye-opening in that it demonstrates the costly environmental damage that man can do in his own backyard, and it’s shows you the limitless potential of the river.
And if you’re really lucky, you won’t have me snapping your picture after you invert your boat. Conversely, if you’re really, really unlucky, you might get puked on by your paddling partner. You just never know.
So if you're thinking of tagging along, dress appropriately, pack some bottled water and a light snack, bring a poncho and perhaps a vomit bag.
And that concludes my thoughts on all of that aquatic stuff. And as always, Thanks Don. I’ll see you at the block party.