HERMITAGE, Pa. – The Shenango River Watchers want everyone to know what canoers and kayakers have known for years: Their meandering waterway is a scenic gem and a mecca for outdoor fun.
The group, based in Hermitage, Pa., has been cleaning and caring for the river since it was created in 2001. In that time, it has removed 1.5 million pounds of trash and 50,000 tires from the Shenango River, and also cleared large segments of fallen trees and debris.
The group earned a boost Feb. 1 when the 82-mile river was named River of the Year by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, or DCNR, and the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers, or POWR. The recognition was based on online voting by the public.
Other waterways nominated were the Buffalo Creek, Lehigh River, Loyalhanna Creek and Tunkhannock Creek.
As part of its prize, the Shenango River Watchers received a $10,000 grant, which will be used to stage and promote several events on the waterway this year. DCNR and POWR will also work with the group to create a free, commemorative poster to celebrate the river.
“The River of the Year selection does much more than focus on attributes of the most deserving Shenango,” says Cindy Adams Dunn, DCNR secretary. “It recognizes the Shenango River Watchers and other supporters who rallied behind it.”
Monica King, executive administrator of the Shenango River Watchers, says the award will help to change the river’s image.
“Being named River of the Year will give people who don’t know about the river a much better perspective of it,” King says. “It will help them see it from a paddler’s point of view and know how much it has improved over the last 20 years.”
The Shenango rises in Crawford County, flows into Pymatuning Lake and through Jamestown and Greenville before snaking its way into Sharon and then New Castle, where it merges with the Mahoning River to form the Beaver River.
Folks in the populated areas of Sharon know the Shenango well, because it cuts through the city’s downtown. It’s the focal point of the annual WaterFire Sharon festivals, the hallmark of which are floating metal braziers that are moored to the surface of the river and then set aflame at dusk.
The downstream stretch of the Shenango, beginning at Sharon, was once heavily polluted with industrial waste
“Once you get to Sharon, you hit the industrialized section,” says River Watchers’ King. “The stretch from Sharon to New Castle has seen pollution over its history but with regulations now in place, there is no more dumping into the river. Our board members have heard stories from people who worked in the mill way back who said if there was a discrepancy [in a chemical delivery], they would dump it into the river.”
Portions of the much more pristine upper Shenango were once an extension of the Erie Canal system.
“There are still remnants of the canal there,” King says. “We’ll take a look at them during one of the historical walks we will do this year.”
While the segment north of Shenango River Lake has always been scenic and natural, it was unusable for boating for many years. The Shenango River Watchers get the credit for turning it into an outdoorsman’s paradise.
“We cleared the fallen trees and debris between Pymatuning State Park and Shenango Lake [a decade ago],” King says. “It was a pretty big project. The river was so clogged that Jamestown used to flood during heavy rainfalls.”
The cleanup has also been good for the environment and the economy.
“We’ve seen huge increases in the bald eagle population along the river, now that it’s clean enough for them to fish and hunt,” King says. “The upper river is also great for fishing and there is good biodiversity there. In 2020, we did a salamander study and found the first Jefferson salamander ever recorded in Mercer County.”
The River Watchers’ nurturing of the river has also brought recreation back, and two canoe and kayak outfitters have opened since the cleanup. Carried Away Outfitters in Greenville opened in 2012, a year after the River Watchers first cleared the Shenango. It was followed by Pymatuning Rentals in Jamestown in 2016.
Casey Shilling, owner of Carried Away, says business was slow the first summer but has increased every year.
“With COVID last summer, and everyone so sick of being inside, business exploded,” Shilling says. “The number of people coming in and renting kayaks or bringing their own was amazing. With the [River of the Year] designation, I expect another spike in rentals and shuttles. And once they realize all we have to offer, they’ll start turning that day adventure into a weekend getaway.”
Both Carried Away and Pymatuning Rentals offer a shuttle service in which they pick up kayakers at the end of their journey and drive them back to their car.
Shenango River Watchers will also play a role in luring people to the river this summer. The group will use its $10,000 prize to host two Paddle Fests, one at Greenville and the other at Pymatuning State Park. The River Watchers also present fly casting clinics and nature hikes.
Tourism officials in Mercer and Lawrence counties plan to increase their promotion of the river this year. Peggy Mazyck, executive director of Visit Mercer County, says the cover of its 2021 visitors guide will feature the Shenango River.
The 23-mile stretch between Pymatuning Lake and Shenango River Lake is already part of Visit Mercer County’s river trail, a designated tourism area.
“We’re heavily committed to promoting the Shenango and the activities you can do on the scenic river,” Mazyck says. “People love kayaking and canoeing and we’ve talked about pursuing some kind of boating event or canoe race.”
Mazyck points out that a hike-bike trail that runs alongside the river is being developed between Greenville and Jamestown. Only a mile-and-a-half stretch that begins in Greenville is complete.
The final 15 miles of the Shenango is in a rural stretch of northern Lawrence County, where kayaking has become popular.
Janet Falotico, executive director of Visit Lawrence County, says the waterway saw an increase in use last summer, drawing many people from the Pittsburgh area who wanted to have fun without fear of COVID-19.
“I’m hoping for the same thing this summer,” Falotico said. “People taking staycations can come and rent kayaks or bring their own and hit the water. It’s a COVID-safe place to be.”
Pictured: With the Shenango River named River of the Year by the commonwealth, the Shenango River Watchers received a $10,000 grant to be used to stage and promote several events on the waterway.