A small crowd quickly gathered around 10-year-old Ellie Gasperine, of Waterville, as she reeled in a largemouth bass during a Friday, June 25, HERYN (Helping Engage our River’s Youth with Nature) program day at the Central Pennsylvania Wesleyan Campground near New Columbia.
“Whoa, whoa! That is a giant bass!” yelled fishing instructor Casey Magargle as he jumped to his feet alongside Ellie while she guided the bass to shore. “Holy cow! … That’s a big one!”
More than 725 fish were caught over the course of the six program days, each successfully released outside of a tiny handful of bluegills kept for a cleaning and cooking demonstration.
Via surveys at the end of each program day, the HERYN program received a high A grade, as most of our participants rated the experience a 9 or 10 out of 10.
Do you measure the success of a program by the growth of the participants?
Many of them had limited – at best – experience in kayaking. Some had never fished before. It was apparent that several of the kids wanted nothing to do with the program when their parents dropped them off. Every one of them showed tremendous improvement throughout their day-long training.
Young people who were visibly terrified of setting foot in a kayak sitting atop a crystal-clear swimming pool in the morning evolved to fierce paddling competitors on a much murkier lake by afternoon. Kids learned to rig their own rods, bait their own hooks, catch and release their own fish. They each went home with the skills necessary to keep enjoying these outdoor experiences and connecting with nature.
Each program day ended with a short presentation using an Enviroscape model to illustrate the concept of a watershed and how pollution can infiltrate it – many times due to daily activities around the house in which we don’t realize the potential bigger ripple effect. Kids talked about ways they could realistically change their habits to improve their family’s aquatic footprint.
However, as Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper, I found myself best measuring the success of our first slew of HERYN program days via the individuals and businesses that made it a reality.
This would not have happened without the R3 Grant Program offered by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. The agency’s support was invaluable each step of the way. We are also extremely appreciative of the assistance by the Central Pennsylvania Wesleyan Campground. NuCanoe, an American-made kayaking company out of Washington state, played a huge role in helping us land NuCanoe Flint kayaks necessary for this program – valuable connections made in that regard by Fishyaker.com’s John Oast and Brian Swingle of Five Mountain Outfitters (out of Shickshinny). Halls Marine, out of Muncy, donated all of the life jackets and paddles needed for the program, along with additional support. Mike Pierce and his Blue Heron Sports shop out of Milton played a big part, as did Clark’s Wiggly Worm (in rural Middleburg), Bass Pro Shops, M&T Bank, Coles Hardware and five pizza shops that provided lunch for very active young people (Larry’s Pizza and Subs, Dominos, Pizza Town, Weaver’s Pizza and Buzz’s Pizza and Subs).
It also would have been impossible to pull off our HERYN experience without those that sacrificed valuable time out of their summers to be present with these kids as they matured through each program day’s adventures.
Casey Magargle’s shared moment with Ellie’s big bass experience was just one of many examples of how he, Walt Bingaman (fresh off a newly installed pacemaker), Mike Arnold, Gary Smith, Kevin Zimmerman, Ty Margargle and Terry Leininger brought an impressive level of enthusiasm, patience and encouragement through a gauntlet of tangled lines, snagged tree limbs and other hurdles on the fishing side of our program.
Jolene Connelly and her team inspired confidence in a kayak by humbly showing the participants how to handle unexpected flips, skills to maneuver successfully in all directions and built each individual up to a point where they enjoyed some very competitive kayak-based games on the lake. Older teen volunteers Kyleigh Price, Faith Knopp, Allie Zaktansky and Paige Zaktansky sacrificed a week of summer employment and recreation to endure equal parts sunburn and seaweed to help Jolene make a lasting impact on each participant.
Susquehanna University interns Morgan Thomas and Danielle Tryon patiently guided kids throughout each day’s schedule as team leaders and wrapped up the experience by overseeing our Enviroscape presentation. Michael Kinney and John Oast helped capture the overall experience via videos and photos you can check out in our growing library. John provided support and guidance for me personally in all areas throughout the week and his daughter, Lila Oast, and therapy dog, Coco, played important roles in connecting with a few kids who struggled with confidence.
Last, but certainly not least, the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association Board of Directors were incredibly important in the process of developing this program, offering support and guidance from the idea's inception to its completion. President Kathy Snavely was able to participate in one of the program days and baked fresh double chocolate banana bread and wrote thank you notes for all those who helped. Dr. Joseph Simons and Ann Fisher assisted Kathy and the team in a variety of ways, including proofing the grant application and offering resources.
Our HERYN program was definitely a success, and I measure it in the incredible team that came together for this adventure. The goal is to expand this program throughout our watershed, and to do so, we will need to add more people with the experience, patience and enthusiasm to inspire the next generation of river-based stewards.
The most important lesson I learned during our first six HERYN days is that not all heroes wear capes. Some wear PFDs, others hook-removing forceps clamped to belt loops. Instead of excessive strength and invisibility, their super powers include patience and encouragement. They support via their time and donations of everything from paddles to pizza.
For six unforgettable days last week, I had the privilege of working alongside them and seeing an environmental engagement and empowerment in 73 young people.
If you’d like to be involved in future HERYN programs, via donations, volunteering or other ways, please contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Consider donating toward HERYN:
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.