Dragons rule the river

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First Posted: 6/24/2013

Two 40-foot long serpent-looking boats filled with 22 people, all grunting and paddling in unison, glided over the surface of the Susquehanna River in Wilkes-Barre last Sunday morning as part of this year’s RiverFest “Dragon Boat Races.”

Manned by nine different local businesses and community organizations, the dragons raced in several heats to earn medals and bragging rights.

At the head of each boat were “drummers” dressed elaborately as waterfowl, pirates, tropical islanders, and other characters. They kept the beat as the paddlers all worked to win each elimination race.

The nine teams contributed $1,500 per team to help the all-volunteer Riverfront Park Committee in its local environmental preservation efforts, John Maday, the committee’s executive director, said.

The teams included representatives from Blue Cross of Northeast Pennsylvania, Services Association, Leverage Fitness, Parker Hill Church, Pennsylvania American Water, PNC Bank, Sallie Mae, Wilkes University, and WNEP-TV.

When it was all over, the team from Pennsylvania American Water took first place overall. This is the team’s second win in the dragon boat races, said team captain Susan Turcmanovich. They won the inaugural race but suffered a disappointing defeat last year, making them hungry for another win.

“Hey, we’re all about water,” she joked.

The races become very competitive, and each team practiced for one hour Saturday in preparation for Sunday’s races, Turcmanovich said.

“Even though we are having fun, when the race starts, you can feel the excitement,” she enthused.

Turcmanovich said local residents view the river differently now. It has become a source for recreation.

Debbie Skiro, the water company’s drummer, was forced to move out of her house 41 years ago because of the Agnes Flood in 1972, but she is now enjoying the river instead of running from it.

The first-time competitors from Leverage Fitness came in second as they tried to dethrone the water company. Parker Hill Church took third place.

Sallie Mae’s “Mae-TEYs” won the team spirit award, and the Wilkes drummer was deemed best dressed.

Maday said that in addition to highlighting the quality-of-life benefits the river offers local communities, RiverFest is also a fundraiser. He hoped the group could gain about $3,000 for its coffers this weekend.

“People come from all over to visit during RiverFest. This type of attention helps promote Northeast Pennsylvania and make our area more attractive to businesses that may be considering locating here,” he said.

Increased public participation and awareness, the help of the volunteers, and the donations from more than 25 sponsors are the reasons RiverFest is thriving, he continued. In addition, Maday said it would not be possible without the support of the city of Wilkes-Barre and Luzerne County for providing support services and helping get the word out.

“June is National River Month,” he noted. “RiverFest is a great way to kick off the summer river activities.”

The dragon boat races offer a special way for people to become engaged, and Riverfront Park Committee’s RiverFest has grown significantly, Maday said, estimating that several thousand people stopped by for the three-day festival, which included kayaking and several other activities.

“Everyone (who) participates will remember their day here,” he said.