6-18-2006 Chief Muckamucka & the Colonists from the Incest Peninsula or:
RiverFest 2006

RiverFest 2006 was held right here in the good ole Wyoming Valley yesterday. From what they tell me, this yearís event attracted 230 paddlers, which is a new record for attendance. This event usually attracts a mix of participants ranging from first time paddlers, moderately experienced folks such as myself and hard-core paddlers fond of being called River Rats.

The disparity in experience in our kayak alone speaks volumes about what you could expect at your typical RiverFest event. Kayak Dude has paddled over 1,000 on the Susquehanna River, while I top out at 95 miles. As river guides go, he can guide you through the menacing eddys, boils and rebar obstacles without incident while also filling you in on the riverís rich history. He knows who first discovered the river, who first explored the entirety of itís 444 miles, where the famous battles and massacres took place and how Chief Muckamucka made peace with the invaders from the Incest Peninsula by smoking something or other that got the settlers to hallucinating like never before. Somethiní like that. I dunno. Ask him.

As for myself, depending on river conditions, I could probably get you from Point A to Point B, but youíd likely get soaked, swallow some of that chocolate water and be regaled with stories about how I saw a real arrowhead at a festival once upon a time. It was sharp.

Anyway, as a novice paddler, by attending one of these trips you learn much more than how not to drown. You learn some basic paddling skills, safety dos and donítís, you learn of the riverís rich history and you learn that the river provides for some great recreational opportunities as it is, but could provide for much, much more if we summoned up the will to do the right thing and work to restore it to itís original pristine state.

Writing about my experiences on the river is always a double-edged sword of sorts. I could tell you about how it provides for the aforementioned recreational opportunities. I could tell you how itís changes your prospective to be staring back at the valley rather than staring at the passing river from the edges of the valley. I could tell you that it still supports a wide range of wildlife. And I could also tell you about the brownish foam floating along, the fecal matter deltas that appear at various points along the shoreline, the acid mine drainage staining, the combined sewer outflows pouring who knows what into the river, or the pungent smell that immediately tells you that this river has been done wrong by previous generations.

Basically, along our stretch of the river, the river is equal parts, good, bad and ugly. And the environmental data clearly suggests that it could be a lot less bad, and over time, no longer ugly. We need not dredge it, dam it, or clear-cut the trees on itĎs numerous islands. To allow it to slowly regenerate itself, we need to eliminate itís sources of contamination. We need to clean it. And any local politician that tells you otherwise is either purposely prevaricating, or speaking at you from a position of ignorance.

As a matter of fact, only one local politician bothered to don a personal floatation device and get on out there on the river yesterday. All paddlers are split into groups with assigned safety captains, and in our group was one Phyllis Mundy. Kudos to her. Oh, and this paddling adventure would not have come about without the financial assistance of our county commissioners, so they deserve a shout out as well. In my mind, they funded an educational opportunity.

So, anyway, the river has plenty of watery warts, but by experiencing it, you can easily envision the boundless potential it has for all sorts of quality of life enhancements for the entire valley. We wonít stand for pollution or illegal dumping in our own neighborhoods, but we will stand idly by while such a beautiful natural resource that belongs to each of us is despoiled further each and every day. What are we thinking?

We put in, as usual, in West Pittston, but much later than in previous years. After being lectured for a half hour about all of the safety rules, being introduced to our groups and accompanying safety captains, the U.S.S. Dude (Kayak Dudeís monstrous sea kayak) did not displace any water until near about 10:45 am. As we put in one-by-one, the river was very calm, almost serene, but still somewhat stinky. As soon as Group 3 was afloat and headed due south, Kayak Dude made with the Professor Susquehanna routine. The explorers, the Indians, the dates, the massacres, the names of the passing islands and exactly where the Knox Mine disaster happened were covered at breakneck speeds, while our group, including some first time paddlers, got itís feet under it so to speak.

Train car from the 1959 Knox Mine disaster

To be perfectly honest, Iíd much prefer to make our way very quickly past where the mine opened and swallowed the river some decades ago. The way itís been told to me, they used practically everything they could find while trying to plug that swirling vortex leading directly into the bowels of the valley. Could it reopen at some point? Could it swallow millions of gallons of water all over again? Probably not. Do I want to hover over that exact spot while Kayak Dude educates the novices? Not!

Check this picture I took of the shoreline staining that is caused by the unchecked acid mine drainage.

Orange shorelines

If the AMD regularly discolors the shoreline along the banks of a free-flowing river, what might we imagine happening if some local congressman on the wrong side of the river issues gets his way and dams it? Economic development in Wilkes-Barre? Hundreds of thousand of tourists flocking to Wilkes-Barre? To partake of our beautiful orange shoreline? You tell me, Iím currently suffering from sun stroke.

And then weíve got the Combined Sewage Outflows.

Combined Sewage Outflows

The politicos have been telling us for a decade now that we should dam the river and then figure out how to improve the water quality well after the fact. Kind of like yanking the pool cover off of the pool around Memorial Day, swimming in it for months, and then turning the filter on in late August. Itís laughable at best. At itís worst, itís idiocy.

Kayak Dude made me aware of a ghastly scenario that I had never thought of all on my own. As we were passing the Ross Street pumping station in Wilkes-Barre which sits directly above one of those CSOs, he pointed out that the outflow, and at least four others on that stretch of the river, would be totally submerged if the river was to be damned. In other words, in the event of a major rainstorm event, the overwhelmed outflows would not be able to discharge the mix of rain run-off and raw sewage near fast enough. And in that event, raw sewage could, and likely would, quickly back up and follow the path of least resistance by spewing out of man hole covers, drains, sinks and toilets.

Dam it and clean it later? When? When weíve got floaters on South Main Street?

Whatever. Iím starting to sound like a tree-hugger, so letís move on, shall we?

Every year, while Iím standing there chomping on the paddle and just wanting to shove off, we are gathered together for a mandatory safety meeting. Trust me, they arenít short in duration. In 2002, when I was one of those newbies, I found it to be very instructive, if not completely necessary. But every year since, Iíve just barely paid it any attention. Yeah, you must wear the vest. Got it. Trudge on, please. Yeah, yeah, do not stand in your boat. Uh-huh, strainers will get you pinned and drowned lickety split. Can we go now? Eddys and boils could cause you to lose control, lose your balance and, or capsize. PÖlease! Címon man, letís hit it and git it! You must wear your safety whistle on the outside of your vest, and if anything remotely bad happens, start tooting on that whistle. Yawn.

Needless to say, I survived yet another mandatory safety meeting and added another 18 miles to my kayaking resume. But a funny thing happened on the way to Nesbitt Park.

In our group, Group 3, our boat was to serve as the lead boat, and Mikeís boat would serve as the trailing boat. And everyone belonging to Group 3 was instructed to remain bunched between these two boats in which sat the groupís two safety captains. As we were nearing the section of the river where Agnes smashed the dike at the Forty Fort cemetery in 1972, we were confronted by a short, but bumpy section normally referred to as rapids. It was short for sure, but sort of volatile looking to my barely trained eyes. As we made our way through it, we were surrounded by smallish whirlpools. And when you try to paddle through these watery disturbances, your paddle can easily swipe through them without actually making any serious contact with the water. In effect, itís kind of like swinging a baseball bat and coming up with nothing but air. You whiff. And when you whiff with a kayak paddle, your balance and such goes away for a few seconds. And sometimes, a few seconds is all that is required to turn a quiet paddle down the river into a river rescue.

As we were emerging from the rapids, one of the newbies was rushed past us by the current and then spun completely around in an instant. One second I was staring at the back of his vest, and the very next I was staring at the front of his vest. It was that quick. As soon as we hit calm water again, Kayak Dude dragged his paddle and we spun the boat around to see how everyone was doing in the suddenly turbulent waters. And what I saw next took a second or two to register. I said, ďIs that a guy in the water?Ē KD responded by telling me to start blowing into my whistle and blow I did. And what happened next will be told to kayakers nestled around camp fires at the riverís edge for generations to come.

Putting his personal safety aside, Kayak Dude leapt into action byÖ

UmÖhe told me to say that.

The bottom of the boat? Wrong!

Rather than displaying any heroics, or hysterics, his experience kicked in and he calmly talked the boater who had capsized his kayak from the water and back into his boat. Although, it did take a while. He was instructed to grab the handle at the end of his capsized boat and float behind it ( not in front of it) as we positioned ourselves to retrieve both him and his boat. Our trailing safety captain caught up to the scene as we latched onto our fallen group member and his boat. We steered toward the bank, the thoroughly soaked guy climbed onto it, we flipped his boat back over and started pumping the water out of it with our handy dandy pumps. And as soon as the thing was buoyant again, KD exited our boat, guided the rider-less boat to itís former occupant waiting on the bankís edge and steadied it as he climbed back onboard.

Check your fire! IĎm getting soaked here!

Why was this such a calm event? Why was it a rescue by the numbers rather than a mad dash to save someone from drowning? Because the guy that got inverted in a heartbeat was wearing his personal floatation device. If you venture onto any body of water, you need to wear one no matter what. And it needs to be noted here that the guy that got unceremoniously dumped from his kayak was not new to kayaking.

All better now

Onrushing, especially, swollen waters have this annoying habit of destroying anything that lies directly in their path. And it doesnít take much for onrushing waters to get to snuffing out human lives. Wear your freaking vest.

By the time we got our paddling sidekick back in his kayak, Group 3 was passed by Groups 4 through 8 near as I could tell. And since wifey was supposed to meet us at a pre-arranged time for a spot of lunch at the festival in Nesbitt Park, it was obvious that she was going to have to wait in that hot sun with those high temperatures to boot. Oh, well. Not all that one endeavors to do goes as planned.

Upon our arrival at Nesbitt Park, there was a waiting line of kayaks waiting to disembark on the boat launch and the surrounding shoreline. We were impatient and proceeded to beach the kayak directly underneath the Market Street Bridge. The festival was well-attended. They had George Wesley wailing away on his guitar. The reggae thing gets old real quick, but this guy can wail with the best of them. There were food vendors, environmental groups displaying their assorted literature and displays, and even free therapeutic massages were available on scene. Iíd never admit it even if I was sore, so I just hung up with wifey, ate my Nutri-Grain bars and sipped some bottled water provided by The Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority. What I want to know is, where did the authority bottle that water at? Then again, maybe I donít want to know.

Donít much matter anyway. I diluted all of that bottled swill with plenty of fermented hops and barley just as soon as I got home.

After a lengthy break in the paddling action, we finally started putting boats back in the water around 2:30 pm. One of the coordinators, Frank Kratz, decided that we would assemble all of the boats in a line on the river so that the newspaper photographers could take some nifty pictures from the bridge above us. UmÖhow exactly should I put this? I promised Kayak Dude I would not use the oft-versatile word Ďcluster-fu>kí, (Oops!) but what word should you use when novices are asked to assemble in a straight line while the riverís omnipresent current utterly demands that they do otherwise? Letís just suffice it to say it wasÖahem, different.

The second leg of the trip is the longer of the two and it provides for very few photo-opts. From the Black Diamond Bridge to the take-out point in West Nanticoke, youíre treated to a shoreline dominated by trees and little else. Bridges pass overhead at almost regular intervals and the lengthy Richardís Island splits the river at Wilkes-Barreís southernmost border.

Putting the quality of the water aside, at times itís easy to forget through this stretch that youíre paddling in Luzerne County and not the much more pristine Bradford County. But, at least for me, the what-ifs abound. What if our local politicians abandoned their less than rational plan to dam a polluted river and recommitted their efforts to improving the overall quality of the waterway just a stoneís throw from most of our neighborhoods? Just this once, what if they put the quality of life issues before the economic development issues? Do property values appreciate faster along the shores of polluted waterways, or along the shores of clean, free-flowing waterways? Iím thinking we already know the answer to that question. An even more important question might be, do they?

The really fun part of the second leg of the trip (at least for me) is when the folks that, to their credit, toughed it out from West Pittston all the way to other end of the county start running out of gas. Around the time when we approach the Route 29 overpass, a couple of hard-core paddlers in a two-and-a-half man sea kayak could easily dust just about the entire field. We could, but we donít. On this day, we stopped and waited at the ancient railroad bridge at West Nanticokeís edge so as to do the safety captain thing all over again just short of the most ferocious rapids the paddlers would face. Stay to the right. Stay to the right. Thatís what one of the safety personnel who was not attached to any group had to say to the troopers fast approaching the journeyís end.

We chose the center, but boys will be boys, right? I got tossed about just a tad, I got soaked from the waist down and but moments later we were doing the ďramming speedĒ thing once again so as to firmly beach the longish boat up onto the sand. And with a gentle thud and an outstretched hand from someone waiting on shore, RiverFest 2006 was immediately relegated to that illusive place where memories are stored.

According to the latest figures, Iíve now paddled 92 miles on this river of ours. And I hope many more are to follow. The adventures are greatly appreciated as well as the eco-education on the fly. And it all started when I posted an e-mail from someone who, in 2002, wanted to know what I thought about the proposed dam, and my reply prompted yet another e-mail from someone who wanted to know if I was interested in getting out on the river and educating myself in the process. I accepted that gracious invitation and Iíve never regretted that decision since.

You see, before we can set about plotting a future course for this river, we need to understand itís nuances. We need to understand why it still thrives to some degree, and what could cause to it to cease providing a habitat to many species of wildlife. We need to delve deeper into the health concerns and the public safety matters before stating with any certainty that an inflatable dam would be the best thing since acid mine drainage. If economic development is more important than the oft-mentioned quality of life issues, then why is it that the river so frequently rises to the very top of our recently raised dikes whenever the sky opens up and pours? Because unchecked economic development upstream of the river gets our storm sewers to raging into the river immediately after a modest thunderstorm passes overhead. We need not more expensive flood control projects. What we need is far less paved parking lots somehow passing as progress.

I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a tree-hugger and I do not play one on the internet. But, whereas our river is concerned, we have to start thinking long-term instead of chasing a few economic development dollars in a completely short-sighted manner. It took a long time to get the river to itís current, fragile state. And thereís no way we can return it to itís original state overnight. But, with an eco-friendly approach, over time, a free-flowing river can, and will regenerate itself.

Do we really want to leave future generations with a dept to pay? Really?

Well, why not a debt of gratitude?

Wyoming Valley Watershed Coalition

Endless Mountain Outfitters

Susquehanna River Adventures

Susquehanna River Sentinel

Thanks, KD. It was a blast as per usual.

Freaking traffic no matter where you go