Now here's an idea for the city that sits at the confluence of three rivers: How about creating a festival that actually gets people on the river, or at least on the riverbanks?
That's the idea behind IPFW RiverFest 2010, an inaugural event Saturday beginning at 9 a.m. and ending at midnight on the banks of the St. Joe River by IPFW.
River activities include pontoon rides, canoe and kayak races, a sea plane and ski show, fire cauldrons on the river and fireworks. More than 40 kids activities and games will be on the west side of the river. On the east side is an arts and crafts festival, musical entertainment starting at 4 p.m. and food. And except for the food, all activities are free.
The rivers are the focal point, said Irene Walters, executive director of university relations and communications at IPFW. While IPFW is the host, Steel Dynamics is the event's title sponsor. RiverFest complements a new local initiative, Friends of the Rivers.
Recently the Allen County Commissioners voted to grant local civic group Invent Tomorrow $75,000 over three years to fund Friends of the Rivers, which has established a worklist of projects that will remove navigation hazards on the river and open vistas.
Walters said the hope is that RiverFest will be a catalyst to “get some momentum going” in generating interest in and activity on the rivers.
Navigating the rivers
Dan Wire, an industrial arts teacher at North Side High School, will oversee the Friends of the Rivers projects. Wire has lived on the St. Joe River much of his life and hopes to see more people use the rivers for recreation, particularly boating, kayaking and canoeing. He runs a pontoon boat on the river and is restoring a 1954 wooden speedboat. Wire says those who want to boat to RiverFest — or those who want to boat on the river — shouldn't have problems.
“For the most part, the rivers are fine for any kind of boat you want to put in there,” he said. “There are a couple of tricky spots.”
Of course, Fort Wayne does have two dams that limit boat navigation. One is just south of RiverFest at Johnny Appleseed Park on the St. Joe River. The other is on the Maumee River by the Anthony Boulevard bridge. Wire suggested those who want to boat to RiverFest put their boats in at the ramp up river at Shoaff Park.
“For RiverFest, we will have a sign there identifying you're welcome to leave your trailer there,” he said. The river is generally 5-6 feet deep, and even deeper in front of IPFW. “Just stay in the middle and you'll be fine,” he said.
Be aware, however, that traffic on the river near IPFW will be restricted 10 a.m.-2 p.m. for canoe and kayak races, the ski show and the sea plane landing. Boat ramps across from IPFW on California Road are not suitable for launching powerboats because of sediment buildup, Wire said, but they'd be ideal for launching canoes or kayaks.
As for docking private boats, Wire suggested bringing the bow of the boat “right up to the riverbank” and anchoring there. On Tuesday, the river's west side looked like a better choice due to debris on the east side.
Should any boat break loose and drift toward the dam, Wire said there will be several boats policing the area that could retrieve it. A temporary dock will be installed for loading passengers, but private boats will not be able to tie up to it.
Nonmotorized vessels, such as canoes and kayaks, are welcome, too. Those who don't have their own will be able to try one out, courtesy of Fort Wayne Outfitters.
Although water-skiers will get in the river, neither Wire nor city officials recommend swimming in it due to water quality issues.
“Chemically, the rivers are much cleaner than they were 20 years ago,” Wire said. Yet runoff from farms and combined sewer overflows in the city, particularly after heavy rains, still pollute the water.
While the city has implemented a 20-year plan to eliminate most of the sewer overflows, “There's still a long way to go, another 18 years of projects,” said Fort Wayne City Utilities spokesman Frank Suarez. He stressed the rivers are “safe for motor boating and canoeing,” but recommended public pools for swimming.
One of the big issues with swimming in the rivers is the high fecal coliform bacteria levels, which be a sign of pathogens that can make people ill. Past studies suggest significant amounts of E. coli bacteria in the rivers likely come from farm livestock and Canada geese.
Wire believes all the emphasis on cleaning the rivers has made people more fearful of them than they need to be. He urges common sense.
It doesn't help, either that the river water often looks brown. That's not due to pollution, however, but to the rivers' natural silt bottoms.