Introducing the Watauga Riverkeeper Festival

Article Published: Jul. 22, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Introducing the Watauga Riverkeeper Festival

The Watauga Riverkeeper Festival and Hellbender Appreciation Day will take place rain or shine on Saturday, July 24, at Valle Crucis Park, located off Broadstone Road in Valle Crucis.

Photo by Megan Naylor

Appalachian Voices is hellbent on saving rivers, and this Saturday, the area environmental advocacy group is banking on a good time.

It's the inaugural Watauga Riverkeeper Festival and Hellbender Appreciation Day in Valle Crucis Park, a celebration of the Watauga River, environmental stewardship and summer fun.

Featuring live music, local food, raffles, games and river activities, the festival serves to help people "recognize the important link between outdoor recreation and environmental stewardship," according to an Appalachian Voices statement.

"And it's a fun way to get people outside, especially kids and families," Appalachian Voices development associate Parker Stevens said. "Our hope is the more people that get outside and enjoy the outdoors will become better environmental stewards."

The festival also highlights the ongoing efforts of the Riverkeeper program, part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a national, nonprofit organization headed by Robert Kennedy Jr. that offers communities a voice for waterways through citizen participation.

Riverkeepers maintain a constant presence on the water through various means - patrolling by boat, assessing from the sky, and meeting with community members on foot, serving as an advocate for waterways and environmental stewardship.

As a branch of Appalachian Voices, the Upper Watauga Riverkeeper program started in June 2008, with Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby taking the helm.

"I'm really excited about (the festival), a celebration of the rivers in our region and what they mean to us locally," Lisenby said. "It's a festival that celebrates our connection with the local waterways."

Activities include river exploration, hosted by Lisenby.

"River exploration is learning about critters in the creek and how to recognize aspects of a healthy or unhealthy river," Stevens said.

One such indicator is one of the Watauga Riverkeeper's aquatic denizens, the hellbender salamander, hence Hellbender Appreciation Day.

"It's one of those really unique creatures found in mountain waterways and almost nowhere else," Lisenby said. "They're on the decline, because they're an indicator of water quality. We call them the Appalachian alligator, and it's important to recognize how important these species are."
Hellbenders reside in more pristine streams, and the fact their numbers have diminished is indicative of declining water quality, Lisenby said.

"We had a moment where we wanted to call it the Hellbender Fest, but that got shut down pretty quickly," Stevens said.

Lisenby's program is fit for participants of all ages, as are other informative activities, courtesy of likeminded businesses and organizations, such as Mast General Store, Boone Barr and Music on the Mountaintop, the upcoming music festival with a concentration on environmental stewardship.

"We think (the Riverkeeper Festival) is a great overlap to what we're doing," Music on the Mountaintop founder Jimmy Hunt said. "Anything that can help preserve not just the land, but the rivers and the mountains up here, all ties together, and we're just really humbled to go out there and help."

Helping involves learning, and kids can embark on a "passport walk," where Appalachian Voices provides an informational booklet that'll be stamped when visiting each booth. Should the young travelers acquire all the stamps, they can fish from a trove of prizes.

In lieu of passport stamps, adults can participate in a similar "poker walk" for prizes.
Youngsters can also take part in the "recycling relay," where participants assault piles of throwaways, some recyclable and some simply trash.

"It'll be two or three kids at a time, running back and forth, picking up a piece and putting it in the recycle bin, and back and forth," Stevens said. "It'll be fun and active, while also getting kids not only to think about recycling, but also why it's important, like being aware of separating plastic, aluminum and cardboard."

Kids can also leap into an inflatable playground, try their hand at arts and crafts, enjoy face-painting, and take part in field games, like Frisbee, horse shoes and jump rope. Area environmental advocates Dick and Joan Hearn will reprise their environmentally conscious caricatures, Mandy the Mayfly and the Stream Doctor, to teach about water quality and healthy aquatic life.

For the adults, Foscoe Fishing Company will host fly casting and tying workshops, and, if the water level's high enough, folks can float on the Watauga River with canoes and tubes from River and Earth Adventures - but only 30 minutes or so after eating.

Food comes courtesy of the Boone Meat Center, with hot dogs, hamburgers and vegetarian options available for purchase. Appalachian Voices director and gardener extraordinaire Willa Mays also brings her homegrown tomatoes to the table.

And for those considering taking one of the festival's nature walks, Earth Fare's booth will feature a make-your-own trail mix activity. Following a no-hands watermelon eating contest, raffle winners will be announced, with such prizes as gift certificates and free caving and rafting trips, courtesy of River and Earth Adventures. Raffle tickets cost $5.

Rounding out the evening is a live performance by area rocker Melissa Reaves. It's music to Stevens' ears, and she's hoping the festival becomes an annual event.

"The goal is twofold, to engage people in the outdoors and in the resources we have in our community, and hopefully that will encourage them to become better stewards of the environment - a goal of ours," Stevens said. "Also, we want to involve people in the Appalachian Voices community, to get them aware of what we're doing and involved in whatever capacity they'd like to be."

Make that threefold, Stevens said, adding, "And have fun."

The Watauga Riverkeeper Festival and Hellbender Appreciation Day will take place rain or shine on Saturday, July 24, at Valle Crucis Park, located off Broadstone Road in Valle Crucis.

About Appalachian Voices

Appalachian Voices' mission is "(bringing) people together to solve the environmental problems having the greatest impact on the central and southern Appalachian Mountains ... to defend our region's rich natural and cultural heritage by providing them with tools and strategies for successful grassroots campaigns."

Air pollution and mountaintop removal coalmining are the organization's primary targets, though the Riverkeeper program brings another important issue to the table.

"It fits in with our mission well, because Appalachian Voices works to protect land, air and water of the southern Appalachian Mountains," Stevens said, "so Donna and her team do a really great job, monitoring the water quality in the region and really going after people who are threatening the health of the rivers."

For more information, visit

Schedule of Events

11:30 a.m.: Nature Walk
11:30 a.m.- 1 p.m.: Music by the Alberta Boys
Noon-2 p.m.: Be a Riverkeeper!
1 p.m.: Casting clinic with Foscoe Fishing Company
2-5 p.m.: Music by Melissa Reaves
3 p.m.: Casting clinic by Foscoe Fishing
3 p.m.: No-hands watermelon eating contest
3:45 p.m.: Raffle drawing
TBA: Shows by Mandy the Mayfly and the Stream Doctor

All-Day Activities

? Passport Walk and Poker Walk
? River exploration
? Make-your-own trail mix
? Fly-tying demonstrations by Foscoe Fishing Company
? Recycling Relay
? Field games
? Arts and crafts
? Featured local foods

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