ON THE SUSQUEHANNA — You won’t see it from anywhere but here, and yes, it’s a bit scary. Chunks of stone ripped from the piers as if by a giant claw, debris — including ironically, a boat trailer — piled high on the upriver side, and the bridge overhead thick with rust.
“I always paddle under that bridge pretty quickly,” Vinnie Cotrone said with a smile, adding that the only real threat to kayakers and canoers is inattentiveness when they pass under the bridge just north of Scovell Island. “Stay clear of the debris,” he shouted to his son Michael. “I know you know that, but I’ve got to say it anyway.”
Michael, 10, may be the poster child for how accessible the river really can be. He joined his dad and six others — mostly media types — on a two-hour float down the river Thursday as a precursor and promo for Riverfest 2013, set for June 21-23 (his dad is president of the Riverfront Parks Committee of Wilkes-Barre, which organizes the event).
A true newbie to river travel, Michael got a quick lesson in everything from entering the kayak to holding the twin-blade paddle, then proceeded to master the craft so quickly that within 20 minutes he paddled rings around his pop, literally.
It’s an opportunity available to anyone interested and willing to pay a relatively modest rental fee ($45 for a single-person kayak) to either of the outfitters helping run three separate trips of varying lengths during Riverfest weekend.
Dave Buck, of Endless Mountain Outfitters, provided the gear and training Thursday, tossing out tidbits of river facts and lore as the group meandered from Apple Tree launch near Harding to West Pittston.
This year offers an opportunity for an up-close look at the power of the 2011 flood and the river’s remarkable ability to recover. Along with the striking damage of the bridge in Exeter, large debris piles can still be spotted on some islands. Yet most of the scenery is quiet and green, branches draping over cool shady coves, an occasional blue heron stretching its long wings for a flight along the shoreline, and ducks quacking noisily as they float by.
“In this valley people look at the river most closely when it is about to flood,” Cotrone said. “Yet 99 percent of the time it is a joy to be on it. “
The paddling trips have grown in popularity, drawing several hundred people in recent years, Cotrone said.
This year there are three choices: a leisurely saunter from West Pittston to Wilkes-Barre’s Nesbitt Park on Friday evening, June 21, that should last two to three hours; a Saturday run from Apple Tree to Nesbitt Park that should run up to five hours and will include an optional island stop set up by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and a Sunday paddle from Nesbitt Park to Hunlock Creek, expected to take about four hours.
The trips aren’t the only option during the three-day festival. Rods, line and bait are available for fishing, food and other vendors will set up shop in Nesbitt Park, live bands — including Stanky and the Coalminers— will provide entertainment on the River Common (“This year we’ll have polka on the Commons,” Cotrone grinned) and the event will again host the Dragon Boat Races.
The long, thin boats are propelled by 20 paddlers and boast a dragon’s head and tail. Area businesses pay a fee and provide a team, and they face off in repeated heats until the fastest is crowned winner.
“They were warrior canoes in China,” Cotrone said. “We’ve put Wilkes-Barre on the map. We are one of only three cities in Pennsylvania with dragon boat races.”
There is no way to ignore the river’s rage when it threatens levees and breaches banks. September 2011 proved that. Riverfest, he noted, is an opportunity to enjoy its often-unrecognized beauty when calm.