Volunteers, sponsors spark success as HERYN kayaking, fishing program inspires next generation of stewards
With each step he backpedaled from the edge of the pool at the Central PA Wesleyan Campground near New Columbia, 13-year-old Mason’s eyes swelled with a new stream of additional tears.
“I – I can’t do this,” he stuttered before breaking down into a much more noticeable series of sobs.
It was Mason’s turn to practice some new skills taught at his Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association’s HERYN (Helping Engage our River’s Youth with Nature) kayaking and fishing program day. This included properly boarding a kayak located at the edge of the crystal-clear pool, paddling around for a few minutes to get a feel for the process, purposely flipping the kayak in the shallow end of the pool, testing how a life jacket feels and then getting back into the kayak from the water.
“Why not?” I asked while other staff members and participants from Mason’s encouraged him. Mason shared some details from a traumatizing experience when, as a child, he and his family went on a vacation to the beach and he almost got pulled out into the ocean.
“I have been terrified of water ever since,” he said, starting to edge his way back to the side of the pool.
I shared a personal story of a similar experience along the coastline of Acadia National Park in Maine, how scary that can be for anyone and how we would take every precaution to make sure he had a positive experience here.
He eventually boarded the kayak, excitedly announcing to everyone around him that he did it. After paddling around the shallow end, he slid out of his seat into the pool water – another accomplishment that may seem minor to most, but a major step for Mason in combatting the anxiety that previously paralyzed him. Mason then worked his way back into the kayak with another excited proclamation of achievement.
Despite his newly developed confidence, I was skeptical when the programming transitioned to the lake. I had him use my Old Town Predator – the most stable option in the fleet of kayaks at our disposal. I paddled close to Mason at first, but it wasn’t long until he was zipping around the lake, exploring new territory and even participating in some of the late-day competitions.
As it is with many outdoor activities, a fishing or kayaking trip is much more than simply fishing or kayaking when it comes to building confidence, bonding with those around you and pushing your limits. While not everyone experienced as deep of a therapeutic catharsis as Mason during our recent slew of HERYN program days, there were countless first catches and other memorable moments.
When asked by a parent during the closing program if she caught her first fish, Emily, age 11, replied: “No. I caught my first 22 fish.”
In total, 63 participants, ranging in age between 8 and 15, caught more than 800 bluegills, sunfish and bass from the campground lake.
“Our son kept talking about ALL the fish he caught and how proud he was to have baited his own fishing pole. Our daughter was so excited she wanted us to go get her a fishing rod right away,” said Deeann Bobini, of Watsontown, in a post-event survey. “It gave our children an experience that they may not have been able to do since neither I nor my husband fish.”
Stephanie Kline, of Mifflinburg, shared that her son, Jack, also got a lot out of it.
“It inspired a new love of fishing,” she said. “He's been fishing in our pond every day since the program!”
Maureen Pugh, of Shamokin Dam, agreed that her sons, Matt and William, also loved the program.
“This was the first time in a kayak and I'm told we need to get one now because it was so much fun,” she said. “They fish sometimes and have gear for fishing, the program has fishing back on top as one of their favorite things again.”
The Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association began the HERYN program days in 2021 with a Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission grant and donations by a number of local businesses that allowed us to secure kayaks, fishing gear, life jackets and other necessary equipment and other resources. The goal from Day 1 was to engage all young people, regardless of background and financial situation, with outdoor resources to help spark a lifelong appreciation for them and a desire to better protect our waterways for generations to come.
“It is definitely the most incredible camp I've ever seen and really meant a lot as a low-income single disabled mom who struggles with pain and ability to do certain outdoor activities that my boys had in this experience,” said Chelsea Manning, of Williamsport. “I loved that it was educational, too. It really meant a lot to us all! My boys loved the program, they said it was one of the best things they've ever done and wish they could come daily.”
Each day started with instruction in kayaking and fishing fundamentals (such as knot-tying, casting, paddling techniques, etc.) as participants rotated between each program area, building on the skills learned previously and eventually putting it all into use via competitions. A voluntary cooking session introduced many of the students to their first taste of freshly caught, breaded and fried panfish.
Each day culminated in an interactive Enviroscape presentation about watersheds, pollution and realistic changes that can help better protect waterways starting in our own backyards and local communities.
“We live in Sullivan County and we have a creek that runs through our property,” said Charli Murray, of Dushore, whose son, Cameron took the HERYN program. “Once a month we pick garbage out of it and off the sides of the road on our property. It’s terrible how much junk we take out.”
Over the past two years, HERYN has engaged 133 young people with more program days in the works. The success of this program would not be possible without two very important components – a dedicated team of volunteers who sacrificed their personal time to invest in these young people and local businesses that stepped up to sponsor the program.
Those who were able to help all week at our 2022 HERYN experience included Mike Arnold and Walt Bingaman, who oversaw the fishing components of the program, along with team leaders Peyton Curley (our association’s summer intern from Susquehanna University) and Kyleigh Price, and assistant kayaking instructors Paige and Allie Zaktansky and Faith Knopp. Other key staffing contributions came from Ty Margargle, Katie Zaktansky, Molly Clune, Casey Magargle, Kelly Caudle, Marissa Crames, Doug and Trent Fessler, Jim Zaktansky and Sherry Bingaman. Michael Kinney once again donated his time and expertise in capturing the experience via hundreds of photos and videos.
“This program meant a lot to my boys. They loved all the gifts as well. They wear their hats and asked if they can use their bookbags for school next year,” said Manning. “I wanted my boys to develop a passion for the outdoors regardless of our current circumstances, that way as things improve, they enjoy and respect nature. Thanks for all the effort of the entire staff, from lunch to activities to education, everything was perfect and my boys got to partake in something we usually can not afford.”
From the Mannings to Mason to the dozens of others who experienced such a powerful experience via the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association's HERYN Program, thank you for your support as we all work together to spark real, lasting change within our greater watershed.
Check out more than 1,200 photos, videos and links to news coverage from HERYN 2022 at this link. For updates on the HERYN program, including any announcements for future sessions, go to www.middlesusquehannariverkeeper.org/heryn-program.html
If you have questions about the HERYN program, or any other initiative from the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, contact John Zaktansky at firstname.lastname@example.org
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.