WILKES-BARRE — John Maday likened the evolution of RiverFest to a marathon.
Maday, the executive director of the Riverfront Parks Committee and an avid runner, said every novice runner has one goal in the back of his mind – to run a big race.
It was the same spirit that guided several inaugural members of the parks committee in 1995 when they held the first-ever RiverFest at a few tables set up in Nesbitt Park, hoping to educate and inform the public about the river and its environment.
“I remember handing out pamphlets at Kirby Park to let people know that RiverFest was happening,” he said. “And by 1999, we put boats in the river.”
And although RiverFest activities are geared toward water sports enthusiasts and landlubbers alike, paddling events have remained a favorite of festival-goers, with four paddling events taking place this year over the three days of the festival.
Cultivating a relationship between area residents and the river is a major goal of the committee, according to Maday.
“People remember the floods of 1972, 1996, 2011 and they get mad at the river,” he said. “We don’t own the river. It goes up and it goes down. But it’s here to be enjoyed.”
‘Bugs tell you a lot’
Sisters Marcia Kneeland, of Harding, and Jessica Vaccaro, of Old Forge, were certainly enjoying the river as they paddled their way from Harding to the park area on Saturday morning.
Both said they appreciated event guides who provided information about history and nature.
“We saw a loon, a blue heron and an eagle,” said Kneeland. “We also saw a long abandoned train car used to plug a hole in the Knox Mine.”
An educational area at the festival provided an opportunity to learn about the river environment, with hands-on presentations that encouraged children to do everything from holding a bug to making a necklace with an environmental theme.
Michele Nesbitt, of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, demonstrated how oil spills could be cleaned up in water.
Nesbitt placed small pieces of oil-absorbent material in water and nothing happened. When she placed the same material in vegetable oil, it began absorbing the oil immediately.
“If children can understand these types of concepts, we can get them interested in water quality,” she said.
Colleen Connolly, also of the DEP, was carefully placing a hellagramite on the hands and arms of children who were willing to try something new.
Connolly said the bugs, which live in running fresh water, had been gleaned from near the river early in the day and were in great condition.
“Bugs tell you a lot about the river,” she said. “If the bugs are healthy, the river is healthy.”
The day also included some activities that had nothing to do with water.
The Wilkes-Barre Fire Department brought a “smoke house” that provided information about everything from how to cook safely to what to do in the event of a fire.
Firefighter David Gutowski said he enjoyed educating families.
“If we can teach the parents and the children, they can learn and then remind each other of what they learned,” he said.
As for Maday, he looks forward to RiverFest continuing to grow.
“June is Rivers Month in Pennsylvania, and a great opportunity for us to enjoy, appreciate and respect the Susquehanna,” he said.