October 2, 2023

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River songs | Arts & Living

The Susquehanna River is a natural treasure worth preserving.

Called “The Long Reach River’’ by the Native Americans who used it as their highway, the waterway runs 444 miles, from upstate New York to the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

The Susquehanna, its West Branch and many tributaries drain an 11,000-square-mile watershed that includes much of Eastern Pennsylvania. The river is a historical, cultural and economic segment of the fabric that is America.

It is a river worth singing about.

To that end, the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association is developing a 20-song CD, featuring original works by songwriters from far and wide. “Songs of the Susquehanna’’ is projected to be the first of several CDs.

“We are in production,’’ said John Zaktansky, the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper and executive director of the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association. “ They will be $15 each and all proceeds go directly back to helping our association protect and promote our river-based resources,’’ the riverkeeper said.

“The diversity of the songs is incredible,” Zaktansky said, (ranging) from a 15-year-old high school student singing about important wildlife species along our waterways to some of the region’s most experienced singers with decades of performing and music writing background.”

One of the songs is by a writer who lost his father to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is much passion behind the songs, Zaktansky noted.

The Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association is a nonprofit organization (501c3) committed to protecting and promoting the water-based resources within the 25-county watershed that feeds into the North and West branches of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.

The association, which has its office in Sunbury, where the West Branch flows into the main branch of the Susquehanna, is part of a worldwide Waterkeeper Alliance. There are some 350 riverkeepers watching over rivers and bays around the globe.

Zaktansky is one of three riverkeepers on the Susquehanna, others covering the stream in New York State and in Maryland. There is strong cooperation among riverkeeper associations to “advocate for water-based resources,’’ Zaktansky said.

The Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit organization, based in Washington D.C., helps enforce environmental laws and strengthen policies to protect public health and the environment. EIP supported the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association in a recent court case that will close an ash dump and preserve a nature preserve.

Talen Energy, owner of the Montour Power Plant, signed a settlement agreement with the association to close a coal ash waste disposal site and donate a 165-acre lake, 640-acre nature preserve and $1.2 million to conservation efforts.

The 49-year-old coal-fired power plant is located an hour north of Harrisburg. Zaktansky said the agreement “will lead to improved water quality in our region and will preserve an incredibly valuable environmental, educational and recreational community asset – Lake Chillisquaque and the surrounding land, called the Montour Preserve – and protect it for future generations.”

Talen, based in Texas and Allentown, said it will switch to a cleaner-burning fuel, likely natural gas, at the 1,500-megawatt Montour plant. Talen will partner with another company to build a 1,000-acre solar farm nearby.

About 200 bird species have been observed on or near Lake Chillisquaque, which has been described as a mecca for migrating birds, including ducks, geese, swans and other species.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stocks several fish in the lake, including bullhead catfish, largemouth bass, yellow perch, northern pike and several other species. Water sampling in the lake has not detected any dangerous levels of pollutants.

Zaktansky, 43, is a former journalist and counselor to troubled teenagers. He has a life interest in the environment. He earned his Eagle Scout badge as a teen and he enjoys fishing, hunting and horseback riding. He incorporates education projects for teens in his riverkeeper work, encouraging protection of natural resources

Two of the songs on the CD are by Don Shappelle of Wilkes-Barre and Perryville, Maryland. Shappelle has lived and performed in New York City and the Hudson Valley of New York where he collaborated with folk music legend Pete Seeger and others in The Clearwater Organization, a large group of people dedicated to cleaning the Hudson River. The influences of blues, folk and rock traditions mixed with a bit of jazz and ragtime are reflected in his songs.