A RIVER CELEBRATION JUST AROUND THE BEND
SCRANTON — A knotweed jungle and dumping ground only a few years ago, a rejuvenated Sweeney’s Beach will host RiverFest 2019 on May 11. A public river access site owned by the city, Sweeney’s Beach has been reclaimed in recent years. Cleared out and cleaned up by the Lackawanna River Conservation Association and other groups, the beach area actually is a remote grove off Poplar Street that slopes down to a small bed of gravel along an elbow of the narrow river. Here, a bed of river rock at water level on the eastern side of the river allows paddlers to easily disembark from canoes and kayaks in festival races that start 10 miles upstream. The upland grassy grounds of the beach area, formerly covered with a dense mass of 10-foot-tall invasive Japanese knotweed resembling bamboo, offers ample space for RiverFest activities and vendors. Sweeney’s Beach in recent years has become the perfect spot for the annual RiverFest, not only for hosting the event, but also as a focal point for education about the river and its watershed, said LRCA Executive Director Bernie McGurl. “It was basically a hobo camp, a knotweed jungle and not accessible because of the (nearby) rail line,” McGurl said of Sweeney’s Beach. The transformation took many years. After working out access to the site, the LRCA set about cleaning it up and developing a plan for the future, McGurl said. “We got the legal stuff all taken care of, and then we got some grants and hired a contractor to implement a master plan,” McGurl said. “We removed 30 dumpster loads of trash and debris.” Removing knotweed was more difficult. “We just chopped and cut and chopped and cut and dug out the roots of the knotweed,” McGurl said. “We removed as much knotweed as we possibly could and planted grass.” Knotweed comes back with a vengeance, so battling it is a continual fight. “Every year we get more volunteers. We couldn’t do it without the cooperation of the people in neighborhood,” McGurl said, as well as volunteers from the LRCA, Lackawanna County, Trout Unlimited and local scouting organizations, to name a few. The LRCA also now is working to add electricity to the site, though installation of an underground electrical line may not get done in time for RiverFest 2019. The river also has had a remarkable rebound in recent decades from polluted waterway to prized fishery. Previously badly impaired by effects of antiquated wastewater systems, the anthracite coal industry and other pollutants, the river owes much of its turnaround to modernized wastewater systems and remediation efforts by the LRCA and other environmental advocates and stewards. The much-improved Lackawanna now draws paddlers and fishermen from across the state and country. It also competed in Pennsylvania’s River of the Year contests in 2018 and 2019, but came up short in public voting. RiverFest’s roots date to a canoe-a-thon in 1973. After the Scranton Sewer Authority came online during 1968-72 and removed most raw sewage from flowing into the river, 1973 marked the first year that the river was safe enough to enter, McGurl said. “It was the beginning of the river’s recovery,” he said. The event evolved and grew over the decades into an annual “rite of spring” celebration of the Lackawanna River and its watershed. The RiverFest name goes back about 32 years. The festival also bopped around various spots until finding the perfect home at Sweeney’s Beach a few years ago. “It’s like a park. It’s my favorite place to fish.” said Charlie Charlesworth, immediate past president of the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited. The fishing at Sweeney’s Beach suits both experts like Charlesworth and newcomers to the sport, he said. At 20 to 30 feet wide in the elbow, the river has a deep channel along the levee bank on the western side where sizable fish like to lurk. Anglers on the flat gravel bed on the eastern side can cast into the channel fairly easily, he said. “Whenever I’m teaching a new person how to fish, I’ll take them to Sweeney’s Beach. It’s easy to cast there and a little easier to catch fish there,” Charlesworth said.www.lrca.org Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5185; @jlockwoodTT on Twitter Lackawanna RiverFest 2019 site map at Sweeney’s Beach in Scranton Sweeney’s Beach sign on environmental impacts Sweeney’s Beach history and restoration information Lackawanna River watershed health information RiverFest 2019 When/where: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 11 at Sweeney’s Beach in Scranton. The rain date is May 18. Activities: Includes music, food and drink, educational and environmental displays and arts and crafts vendors. This year’s festival will focus more on youth and family friendly recreation, science and wellness activities. A Canoe-A-Thon will launch at 10 a.m. from river points in Archbald and Blakely and end at Sweeney’s Beach. Details: For information, visit or call the LRCA office at 570-347-6311.