Great Wallkill River Race & Festival set for September 14

Craig Chapman and Martha Cheo. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Community athletic competitions are fun in and of themselves, but especially meaningful when their purpose is to raise funds and awareness for a good cause. A new such venture, which its organizers hope to become an annual event, will make its debut in New Paltz on Saturday, September 14: the Great Wallkill River Race and Festival. “We have all these 5K races, the Turkey Trot, bike races,” says Wallkill River Watershed Alliance (WRWA) volunteer Martha Cheo. “We felt like we needed one on the water.”

Setting off at 11 a.m. from the same launch point in Sojourner Truth Park where the New Paltz Regatta takes place, the Great Wallkill River Race invites kayakers (and canoeists and paddlers of other non-motorized watercraft) to sprint about half a mile downstream, to the River-to-Ridge trailhead on Springtown Road, where they will loop around a buoy and then head back upstream to the put-in point. Those who are in it for speed will be competing for a prize for the first male and female finisher in each age category: 12 to 17, 18 to 25, 26 to 50 and 50+. There will also be a class for two-person boats, in which one of the racers can be under age 12. Competitors will be given numbers to wear, and winners determined simply by who in each category gets back to the start/finish line first.

But Cheo expects that many participants will turn out simply for the fun of being out on the water. “Calling it a ‘race’ has turned some people off,” she admits. “A lot of paddlers aren’t into racing; they’re into it for the enjoyment.” How the group paddle will be characterized in future years depends largely on the response to this first-year beta test: “We’re open to how we can make this fit this community. It’s really about getting out and having fun and enjoying the river.”

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Although part of the “mission” for the event is to get locals more into the mindset of thinking of the Wallkill as a shared community asset, much like our trails network, there will be activities that day for non-paddlers as well, all family-friendly. “It’s not just a race,” says Cheo. “There’s going to be a little environmental resource fair. We’ll have some live stream critters.” Ecology-themed craft activities will include making “fish prints” — using a stamp, not a real fish, she notes. Betty and the Baby Boomers will supply spirited live music at the park from 12:30 to 3 p.m., and there will be a food truck on-site.

Attendees will, of course, have plenty of opportunities to learn more about the work of WRWA, and to sign up to volunteer on one of its committees. Paddlers in particular may wish to get involved in the Alliance’s “boat brigade,” which organizes public paddles to monitor the river’s health, both by visual inspection and by collecting water samples at regular intervals at specific points.

Popular alarm over pollution in the 800-square-mile Wallkill watershed has fallen off somewhere since 2016, the second of two years of peak algal blooms. Both the long-banned insecticide DDT and arsenic have also been detected in the river, but the major health hazards are fecal bacteria — traceable mostly to humans and “wild avian sources,” probably Canada geese, rather than livestock — and the algal blooms that fill the river with toxic cyanobacteria. Ninety percent of water samples collected from the Wallkill and its tributaries by the Riverkeeper organization since 2012, and more recently with the help of WRWA volunteers, failed to meet US Environmental Protection Agency criteria for safe swimming.

The main culprit behind the algal blooms is elevated levels of phosphorus in the water, which foster excessive growth of weeds, algae and slime. The phosphorus comes not only from fertilizer-laden agricultural soils, but also from runoff from paved urban areas and construction sites. Any place where the soil is disturbed and can wash into storm drains can be a source, Cheo explains. Aging sewage plants and even home septic systems are especially suspect: “There’s one tributary in Orange County that has really high spikes. It’s downstream of a wastewater treatment plant that is failing,” she reports.

Fortunately, Riverkeeper’s and WRWA’s efforts in recent years to publicize the Wallkill watershed’s problems have started to pay off in terms of increased state funding being earmarked for modernizing aging sewage treatment infrastructure. “Recently the Department of Environmental Conservation has classified the Wallkill as an ‘impaired water body.’ That requires them to create a plan to control phosphorus,” she notes. “Entities that discharge into the river are going to have to limit phosphorus in their effluents.”

There are things that individuals can do as well to aid in the battle to restore the Wallkill to health, such as using environmentally friendly household cleaning products; washing one’s automobile at a car wash, where runoff is captured, rather than in one’s driveway; or not mowing your lawn right up to the water’s edge if you own riverfront property. You can learn much more about best practices for caring for our shared river at the festival on the 14th. With increased public awareness, we move closer to the day when the Wallkill, like the Hudson, becomes swimmable again. “Our long-term goal is to make this race a triathlon,” Cheo says. “We have this great waterfront and we can’t swim in it.”

If you want to join the boat race, you should plan to drop off your boat between 9 and 10 a.m., and then move your car off-site, since parking is very limited at Sojourner Truth Park. New Paltz Climate Action Coalition volunteers will shuttle race participants back and forth to municipal parking lots in electric cars before and after the race. Plan to have your boat in the water by 10 in order to have everyone ready for an 11 a.m. race start. Competitors also need to preregister at http://www.wallkillalliance.org/race.

There’s a $25 fee per entrant, which supports WRWA’s monitoring, education and cleanup efforts. Cheo says that supporters who won’t be paddling on that day have donated some funds to sponsor up to six race participants for whom the $25 fee would constitute a hardship. And New Paltz Kayaking Tours, whose owner Craig Chapman is an active WRWA volunteer, is offering a special deeply discounted rate of $10 to rent a kayak for the day, for those who don’t have their own boats. Visit https://npkayaking.com to reserve your craft.

In addition to New Paltz Kayaking, sponsors for the first annual Great Wallkill River Race and Festival include America’s Best Value Inn, Central Hudson, the Clemson Brewing Company (Gilded Otter), Friends of Tillson Lake, Gadaleto’s Seafood, the New Paltz Health & Nutrition Center, the Hoot Owl Restaurant, DEC’s Hudson River Estuary Program, the Main Street Bistro, the Parish Restaurant, the Plaza Diner, Hudson Riverkeeper, Rock and Snow, Snug Harbor, Ulster Savings Bank and the Woodcrest Bruderhof. Donors of race prizes include Mexican Kitchen, Pegasus Shoes, Wallkill View Farm, À Tavola, Denizen Theater, P & G’s, Thruway Sporting Goods, Huckleberry’s, the Mudd Puddle, Ignite Fitness and Jack’s Meats.

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