6-24-2007 RiverFest 2007

As Kayak Dude pointed out after we arrived at Nesbitt Park early yesterday afternoon, as a Susquehanna River paddler, I have passed the century mark--100 miles. I figure the Wyoming Valley Watershed Coalition will sponsor a dinner/dance to mark the occasion. Maybe David Buck will send me a complimentary 7-man, 2-story kayak via common carrier. Perhaps Iíll get a nifty hat pin in the mail. Or something.

All kidding aside, how many residents of Northeastern Pennsylvania can say as much? Certainty not any of our elected officials. Although, a recently retired Luzerne County commissioner claims to have partaken of a yearly kayak trip on the river. But, in support of the rapidly-deflating inflatable dam project, he also claimed that when the river level is as low as it was yesterday, the river is not navigable, nor is it conducive to recreational opportunities. The fact that I paddled another 20 miles yesterday clearly refutes his most dubious of claims.

No matter what any local politician kowtowing to the will of Congressman Paul Kanjorski tells you, the Susquehanna River is awash in recreational opportunities no matter what the height of the water is. And if significant steps were taken to improve the water quality, itís obvious that many more people would find their way not only to itís shores, but out in the middle of it. The proposed dam is the wrong answer to the question of how to make our river more attractive to the populace. The correct answer is to remove as many pollutants as possible, and then watch as the free-flowing waters cleanse themselves over time. And if that sounds far-fetched, you need only take a ride north of here, walk but a few feet out into the river and take notice of how much cleaner it is.

The Susquehanna River at the Wyoming Valley is the Susquehanna at itís absolute worst. The Lackawanna River spews contaminants into it. The infamous Butler Mine Tunnel does much the same. Overflowing retention pools spill coal era iron ore into the river. The too-numerous-to-count sewage outflows contribute raw sewage to the mix. And, with the river so low, yesterday I saw iron ore-colored waters seeping right out of the ground and into the river. But after seeing all of that up close and personal, that aforementioned trip just north of here puts the ending on what amounts to a tale of two rivers.

While I look forward to many more days spent paddling the length of the river, I donít want to have to commute to just north of here to recreate in clean water. No, Iíd much rather put in somewhere like Pittston and revel in the fast-improving water quality. And while that would require millions and millions of dollars to make a reality, it can and should be our top priority. With the coal mining legacy and the resulting environmental damage done, ours may never be a picturesquely perfect river. But with those sources of contaminants removed one-by-one, the quality of the river will improve in kind.

So, what will be our legacy? Will we leave our grandkids a spoiled, smelly river dammed at Wilkes-Barre? Or will we leave them a considerably cleaner free-flowing river alive with wildlife? Itís really our call to make, and not Paul Kanjorskiís.

Enough with the politics.

I was up bright and early awaiting Masonís early arrival. I promised myself Iíd get more involved with his life since my brotherís passing, and I am. Although, as I said to him yesterday morning, ďIf you want to hang out with me, youíll have to keep up with meĒ as we humped it over to Nesbitt Park on foot. The shuttle bus to the boat launch across from the Apple Tree Restaurant on Route 92 was scheduled to roll from Nesbitt at 7:45, and I meant to be on it.

During our bus ride, some river enthusiast unknown to me was telling the busload of people the history of the river from where we were putting in to where we were getting out, back at Nesbitt Park. I swear, youíd need like two, or three thick history books to know all of this rich history. Itís been told to me a few times now, and all that I can retain with an certainty is that Chief Muckamucka once led his Muckhegans into the valley and massacred the colonists led by General Jeremiah Planter on Something-or-Other Island. Turns out, the roasting of fresh peanuts was highly offensive to most native Americans, and that was the catalyst for the Wyoming Valleyís bloody early history. Itís long been told that General George Custer was roasting fresh cashews just as the Battle of the Little Big Horn got underway, but many pointy-headed academics refuted that after extensive archaeology at the scene of the massacre. Either way, when surrounded by easily-offended braves, go easy with your nuts.

Mason & I

The smallish boat launch area at the Apple Tree in Harding was almost overwhelmed. We arrived to find a fire engine parked on the busy road with itís emergency lights activated. A kayak fire, I surmised. More like traffic control. After dismount, I was surprised to see one of the old crew from Percy Brownís on hand. Turns out, he was there to photograph his wifeís cousinís participation in RiverFest 2007, and actually took pictures from four different vantage points along the riverís winding path to Nesbitt Park, near as I can tell. He has this super duper camera that looks like it was once used by NASA to track shuttle launches or something, and you can see his latest work here. After an hour of registering, standing in line to pee and the always lengthy safety seminar, we were off and paddling at 9:30.

Up north there a ways, the water is cleaner, and gives off a bluish hue as the sun beats down on it. And with the river being so shallow, you can easily see the bottom, which is not always the case in many areas throughout the Wyoming Valley. The wildlife also seems more abundant up there. Up front, where we were at that point, one of our guides could tell one species of bird from another at very great distances. He pointed our blue herons, both large and small. He called to our attention turkey vultures, geese, ducks, ducklings and some sort of falcon that was terrorizing the blue jays nesting nearby. He also spotted and tracked a few bald eagles, but he called them immature bald eagles. Iím certainly no expert on all things winged, but I didnít thing they were acting immaturely. Too many body piercings and tattoos, I suppose.

After a brief respite on Covelle Island (I think), we headed for the link-up between the Susquehanna and the Lackawanna River always marked by plenty of orange shoreline staining, brownish foam floating atop the river, and usually accompanied by a very funky smell. One of the supports under the old rail bridge to Coxton Yards is disintegrating noticeably and quickly. And unless somebody does something to reverse it, weíre going to be treated to a bridge collapse during one of the many high-water events sure to come in the near future.

Photo by Mark Space

As we neared downtown Pittston, I took a picture of what was spewing out of the Butler Mine Tunnel, as well as the emergency coffer dam components meant to contain it floating strategically nearby. I know weíre talking about millions of dollars here, but we have to do better than erecting emergency coffer dams. We just do.

The group took another break on the shore of West Pittston, right where our river adventures began in latter years. There was a Job Johnny positioned there, which was a nice addition for the ladies. Us guys need no more than an island with some sprouting greenery to relieve ourselves if need be. We stayed in our boat, and sat chatting with another kayak dude. And almost the entire time, I wondered why the riverfront park at Pittston seems to be such an under-used amenity. Do Italians do boats, or not? No matter.

Photo by Mark Space

We headed south and arrived at the scene of the Knox Mine disaster. And as we sat on the very spot where the river once drained into the mines, Kayak Dude explained the disaster to Mason, explained what would happen if the breach were to reopen and then rocked the boat as violently as he could. I think he got a bigger rise out of me than he did Mason. Nah, I really donít want to sit atop train cars that have been rusted away to the tune of fifty-plus years. Nope. As ad-hoc drain-stoppers go, those ones instill not one shred of confidence in me. Maybe a coffer dam needs to be erected at that site so some engineers can have a look. Got me.

As we arrived at Forty Fort, there was this pool on the side of the river that was bright orange, and being fed by a tributary of still more orange. Kayak Dude said something about retaining pools that are meant to contain iron ore run-off from the mines, and that this one must be overflowing for some reason. As for myself, Iíve never heard of any such thing. But what I learned is that there seems to be no shortage of ways to pollute the river as it makes itís way past the Wyoming Valley. If the Coal Barons were still alive, they should be rounded up and led down there by the nose to see first-hand their horrible legacy left to all of us. It is criminal what they were once allowed to walk away from.

A swim, anyone?

The pictures in the slideshow tell it best. Orange, still orange and a few more feet away, sort of bluish waters. Itís criminal.

The wind got weird at Forty Fort. Until arriving there, we had the best of conditions. A beautifully sunny day. Very mild temperatures. And a helpful tailwind. As if someone had flipped a switch, that tailwind became an inconsistent but blustery headwind. Rats!

The river from the Cross Valley to Nesbitt Park is unremarkable, but does sport itís unfair share of sewage outflows. Outflows that pretty much go unseen, except from the middle of the river itself. Although, with the river so low, we ran across a number of sewer pipes that had gone previously unseen to many of us. Some still sported rotten wooden construction components, which suggests they are very, very dated. Seems weíve been dumping in and on this river for many a generation now.

But weíre much smarter now, right?

We finally arrived just off shore from Nesbitt Park, which sits almost directly opposite two sewage outflows. The crowd waiting for us on shore was sizable as always, and included members of the local media. As for me, thereís always something exhilarating about arriving at the end of the kayak trip. Itís the knowledge that I can do this, do this without even thinking of breaking a sweat and doing it without even a hint of suntan lotion. I mean, Iíll never be confused with any real-life heroes or tough guys, but Iíll never shy away from a physical challenge. As far as Iím concerned, there is no better satisfaction than knowing you pushed both your body and your mind to at least close to their limits every once in a while. I guess itís a guy thing. Albeit, an old-time guys thing, since most of the guys today seem to wear earrings and makeup and think a work-out is something to be done in a controlled, air-conditioned setting.

We rammed the shoreline, effectively, ending our river adventure. And before we could get our legs under ourselves again, some kid offering assistance just about rolled the boat out from under us. There I was, sitting at the shoreís supposedly safe edge, and yet, this was the closest I had ever come to rolling a kayak onto itĎs roof. Go figure.

I carried that monstrous boat halfway to KDís car, but couldnít make it the entire way without a stoppage. Itís big, itís heavy and it probably outweighs a Kiev-class Soviet era aircraft carrier. Um, displaces 46,000 tons, I think. China owns the two of them now.

Photo by Mark Space

At that point, all that was left to do was to take in the many sights and sounds that were the festival going on around us. The bands, the foods, the environmentally themed exhibits neatly displayed under the biggest tent. Kayak Dude was selling ďNo DamĒ t-shirts faster than the food tent could serve hoddogs and hamburgers. The Wilkes-Barre police officer on patrol stopped and thanked me for some words of support I had penned in his defense some time ago. I scared the bejesus out of the daughter of a city employee with my ďriver horn,Ē a retrofitted parade horn, or, stadium horn.

The two boat outfitters involved were consumed with returning the 100 or so boats they had provided for this event to their home ports. Mason was being taught how to fly-fish, or some such thing. Little kids wearing their city-provided free bike helmets cavorted back and forth. Then Mason decided to pet a domesticated skunk under the tent, while I kept my distance. I read a booklet about the Olmstead Trails that run along the river, soon to be reclaimed to some degree. I spied some Indian-era artifacts and such. I did not win the big drawing, the one in which the winner would take home a free kayak. Itís probably just as well, since wifey wouldnít like that.

You see, sheís afraid of the water. She sees the water as a lurking danger, as do many others in this flood-prone area. As for myself, thanks completely to a gracious invite coming from a complete stranger so long ago, I see the water as an underutilized natural resource. A resource that needs some help. A resource that needs our help. And since it was our ancestors that did her wrong in the first place, I figure we owe her mightily. I figure we owe her a chance to regenerate herself by having the contaminants removed from her many tributaries, and by having her free-flowing days continue until the Sun finally drops dead from heat stroke. The long and short of it is, our river is polluted. But in the long run, it doesnít necessarily have to be that way in perpetuity.

We can muster the will to fix it, our previous wrongdoings. But we canít fix it by putting a dam in itís way. No matter what, the Susquehanna must continue to be the free-flowing river that it always has been. And to do anything less than to ensure at least that would be to continue the wrongdoing.

Do you really want to recreate upon the water? Well, then letís clean the water. The free-flowing water, that is. Itís really that simple.

ĎTil next year, my fellow River Rats.