Rafters to Document Unique Perspective of River Towns
An annual rafting trip down the Susquehanna River that was borne several years ago out of a desire to see new places and meet new people has garnered more purpose for UCLA students like Meryl O’Connor, Dagmar Weaver-Madsen, and Cecily Anderson. For their third trip down the north branch of the river from Endicott, NY, Dagmar is charged with documenting much of the journey with video footage and digital photos, while Cecily and Meryl collect stories from the people they meet and educate themselves about the impact of gas drilling along the watershed.
Though the finished documentary is actually part of Meryl’s thesis toward her Master of Fine Arts degree in film production from UCLA, “It’s everybody’s project,” she asserted, adding, “it will have a life outside the school.”
“We fell in love with the river first,” said Cecily, whom Meryl credits with choosing the destination initially, then championing a return to the Susquehanna when Meryl suggested the group try something else. Cecily related that it was the people in the municipalities along the banks of the river that drew her back to Pennsylvania. “The little towns seem to have an amazing spirit,” she stated. “Everybody seems to know everybody.” Each year, she noted, more people at every town, including business owners and local dignitaries, find their way to the river to greet the rafters and bring them supplies.
The group found many friends in Towanda, where they camped below the Merrill Parkway for several days. In addition to meeting new people at the Red Rose Diner, the owners of the establishment invited the young adults to return to fill their water jugs as often as they needed. Bradford County Prothonotary Sally Vaughn met the group at the diner and invited them into her home on June 13 to take showers and enjoy a meal.
The next morning, Vaughn got in her kayak and floated with the rafters from Towanda to Wysox. At first, Vaughn suggested that she wanted to make sure that the group made it through the swift waters that flow under the Route 6 bridge at Towanda, but she later conceded that she seizes any chance that she can to get onto the river. “They didn’t need my help,” Vaughn said with a laugh.
By June 18, the documenters had reached French Azilum, where they were hoping for a glimpse of Elizabeth, the historic site’s best known bald eagle. Although they did not see her, Meryl related that they have seen more bald eagles and frogs on this trip, which they perceive as signs of a healthy ecosystem.
It is their concerns about the long-term effects of natural gas drilling that proved the impetus for their third trip down the river. Things changed dramatically from the first to the second year of the excursion, Cecily noted. Long quiet stretches along the river are now punctuated by the roar of water tankers and heavy equipment haulers.
“We’re like, what’s up with all of these trucks?” Meryl recalled. Local residents informed the rafters that the area was experiencing a surge in natural gas exploration and extraction, and the students began to research the industry and wanted to document the changes they were witnessing from their unique perspective.
“Even when you can’t see the trucks, you can hear them,” said Cecily. At night, when one would expect a peaceful silence to blanket the landscape, “You can hear the generators click on,” Cecily related. “Dagmar thought that it was thunder, until we realized that it was drilling. It’s very eerie to be out here in such a serene place with that heavy industry so close by. And then there’s the glowing drill towers.”
“We’ve really come to love the area and the Susquehanna River,” Meryl remarked, as she questioned the sustainability of such a beautiful natural resource in the face of an industrial boom.
Cecily encourages more involvement by residents in organizations that can work to ensure the safety of the river, which she fears will become contaminated. From her conversations with residents along the shoreline, she concluded, “They are not as proactive as they could be, and the river is such a gem for these towns.”
The group began their journey a month earlier than in previous years and gave themselves enough time to reach Wilkes-Barre for its famed Fourth of July celebration. On June 19, several friends of the students from the Philadelphia area caught up with them where they camped at the mouth of Wyalusing Creek. From there, they looked forward to reconnecting with people they have met in previous years at Laceyville, which was the furthest they had ever floated before.
“As we come here now, we have our own history, and people recognize us,” said Meryl. With more advance notice each year, she added, people along the river have been more supportive in terms of showing the rafters where to shop for supplies and allowing them to recharge their cellphone batteries. When their makeshift rafts, which double as sleeping quarters at night, float by, Dagmar noted, people often refer to the students as modern Huck Finns.
As the group moves past Laceyville and heads to Meshoppen and Tunkhannock, the adventurers hope to meet new people who can help them find suitable camping spots, eateries, and grocery stores in what will be to them “uncharted” territory. Meryl related that several supporters they have met along the way have already committed to meeting the rafters in Wilkes-Barre. She also suggested that the documentary might be completed by early next spring.
“We will have (countless) hours of footage to go through,” said Dagmar, who admitted that it is sometimes challenging not to keep the camera rolling continuously and not allow herself to sometimes simply enjoy the ride. “Everything is so amazing to look at from this angle,” she stated.
Rather than merely repeat the rafting trip next year, Cecily hopes that members of the group can return to the area to screen their final project for local viewers. In the meantime, some footage from previous trips can be viewed at www.therivertwice.com. Footage of the students shot in Towanda by local resident Joe DuPont last week can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QR0QsAoQO_8.