A tiny overgrown country cemetery covered in thick brush caught my attention while deer hunting with my father and brother in the early 1990s.
The wrought iron fence covered in rust, railing broken in numerous spots by tree roots and deterioration. Overgrown pine trees and walls of poison ivy obscured large sections of the small lot.
Fifteen-year-old me didn’t notice the jungle-like vegetation and dilapidated fence. All I could see was my future Eagle Scout project.
I got permission from the church affiliated with the cemetery, I elicited donations of wrought iron paint and various other supplies and talked a number of friends into what would wind up being a summer’s worth of manual, itchy, uncomfortable labor.
Hundreds of combined hours later, we emerged with a finished project, covered in sweat, paint and layers of poison ivy-induced welts and blisters.
The newspaper headline: A rash of effort pays off in award. Two-plus decades later, I can chuckle at that play on words. Back then, it wasn’t so cute.
I don’t remember the exact moment in the midst of that summer when I realized the job was much more than I ever imagined up front. It just sort of caught up with me in hindsight.
Reflecting on a year as Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper, I have to admit that there were numerous moments in the past 12 months where I realized I was in over my head. I was new to the world of nonprofits, new to the concept of certain environmental issues and – like everyone else – new to the idea of a global pandemic changing most every facet of our lives. I had never dealt with intense legal negotiations, never written a grant proposal and no experience in campaigns such as #RaiseTheRegion.
What was I thinking?
The hunting season after my summer of cemetery revival and extreme itchiness, I remember checking in on the site and being thankful for the memories made and lessons learned. At my Eagle Scout ceremony, one of the guest speakers was an older gentleman who attended the church connected to that cemetery. He teared up in describing what that effort meant to him and his family.
Despite some of the long hours and sleepless nights of the past year, I have to admit that I am so incredibly grateful for the opportunity of being your riverkeeper, for the support and loyalty of a board of directors who saw potential in me that I didn’t and for God’s guidance in taking the role and steering me through a series of potential minefields.
I also appreciate the support of my family and the extra time we had over the past year to do this job together, to paddle the Penns Creek, to hike the falls trails at Ricketts Glen, to talk about real efforts to protect our natural resources.
In prepping for this year’s #RaiseTheRegion campaign, I had the chance to reflect on all I’ve personally learned over the past year and the accomplishments my board and I accomplished as a team. We’ve greatly improved awareness about numerous threats facing our river, promoted the people who are passionate about protecting her and developed programs that will allow us to ignite a similar passion in the next generation of stewards. Plus, I've met an incredible group of individuals with a similar passion for the outdoors and I am excited about the many opportunities to collaborate moving forward.
A week ago, my daughter and I drove past that old cemetery. The brush is still trimmed back, the wrought iron fence still coated in black paint and mended together where roots once ran rampant. Our efforts two decades ago provided the necessary spark for the local church and community to maintain that plot of land and the legacy of those buried there.
That’s really the goal of what we do as the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association. To raise awareness, provide a voice for the river-based resources that lack any and help foster the flames within local communities to step up and protect their natural resources.
The irony of that cemetery drive-by and mental epiphany was that it came just minutes after standing near the boat launch of Lake Chillisquaque at the Montour Preserve explaining to the media the details of our efforts behind the recent Talen agreement – with the hopes of rallying necessary individuals within the local community and select state agencies to help us figure out the next steps in preserving the preserve.
Unlike the cemetery project from the 1990s, the work in this situation is far from over – not only with the ripple effects of the Talen agreement, but also in each of the other initiatives and programs we have started in the past year.
That’s where you come in. Your donations and financial support makes this work possible. We also are looking to add to our team of dedicated volunteers – stewards, board members and others to help us keep moving forward.
Thank you for your support during Raise the Region 2021. We’ll use the funds received to fan the flames of what should be an even busier – and more rewarding – year ahead.
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.