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A little rain couldn't stop Riverfest

Over the past 36 years, attitudes about the Lackawanna River have changed big time, said Bernie McGurl.

McGurl, the executive director of the Lackawanna River Conservation Association (LRCA), was standing under a tent and out of the rain Saturday. It was early in the organization's celebration for the waterway, called Riverfest.

Riverfest kicked off Saturday with an antique steam locomotive dropping off a small group. LRCA volunteers, musicians and vendors set up at Sweeny Beach along the Lackawanna River in Scranton. Johnny Bibalo, a preservation specialist from the Steamtown National Historic Site, used a propane tank to engulf a metal locomotive wheel in flames. He was demonstrating how to change a tire for a train.

The LRCA’s event started as a Canoe-A-Thon by the Luzerne Lackawanna Environmental Council in 1972. People would paddle a stretch of the river, have a few beers and then go home, said McGurl. When LRCA took over, they added a rubber duck race down the river, live music and other activities. Riverfest has grown into a yearly celebration of the community’s connection to the waterway.

The Lackawanna River used to be the back door of the community, McGurl said.

"We dumped everything in it for 100 years," he said. “That was the situation when we started. And our idea was it really needs to get turned around, it needs to be the front door of the community.”

LRCA looked at what was being done on rivers by communities across the country.

“And we pulled a whole bunch of ideas together and said 'Let's do that here'," McGurl said.

Since then, the association has cleaned up the river for people to fish and paddle. The Heritage and D&H Trails now run alongside the water for people to run, bike and walk.

Communities around the region now have a tremendous amount of ownership over the Lackawanna, said McGurl.

Riverfest honors the importance of the river to the surrounding community.

"This one time of year, we all come together and say 'let's celebrate the river and let's spread the word and let's invite other folks to join us'," said McGurl. "So that's what Riverfest is all about."

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.