Riverpalooza, Potomac Riverkeeper Network

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Every year, the Potomac Riverkeeper Network hosts Riverpalooza, with events along the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers designed to grow a cohesive and diverse community of Riverkeepers. Photo Credit: Andrew Lawrence.

Lydia Lawrence thinks one of the best things about teaching beginners stand-up paddleboarding is the “beginners” part. “One young lady told me that she would never have tried [a lesson] if it hadn’t been free,” she recalls. “By the end of the lesson, she said to me, ‘I always watched people do this and wondered why they looked so peaceful standing on a board in the water, but now I understand. It’s so calming out here.’”

Lydia Lawrence teaches beginners paddleboarding on the Potomac, supported by a VOF Get Outdoors grant. Photo Credit: Andrew Lawrence.

Lawrence coordinates the lessons through the Fairfax NAACP and Potomac Riverkeeper Network (PRKN). (She serves on the boards of both organizations.) Her work for PRKN includes reaching out to communities of color, who traditionally have had less access to recreational activities on the water. “Most of all I am targeting people who would not get on the river because of barriers, either interior (they have a fear of water or getting on a paddleboard) or exterior (taking a class is too expensive).”

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation is helping to sponsor PRKN’s outreach all summer long with a $25,000 grant from its Get Outdoors Program. “That VOF grant money could subsidize these lessons is what made them so much more accessible to the community,” Lawrence says.

2021 events have included a paddle along the Trough on the South Branch of the Potomac. Photo courtesy of PRKN.

The money is also helping to make PRKN’s summer series of events, Riverpalooza, more accessible to more communities of color. Now in its seventh year, the festival is expanding its reach to those who may live close to the river but don’t have recreational access, according to Mark Frondorf, Shenandoah Riverkeeper, one of three PRKN Riverkeepers.

 “Riverkeepers have been around for 20-plus years,” he states. “Our work has always had an environmental justice component in the sense of protecting vulnerable communities from polluted waters. But we’ve realized that making the river accessible to these communities is essential, too. From legacy pollution to coal ash to the price of access, we try to look at all of it.”

The aquarium “petting zoo,” set up by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, is a popular stop at Riopalooza, with bilingual Spanish/English activities set up for the whole family. Photo courtesy of PRKN.

PRKN has the language barrier covered, too, by transforming one day of the Riverpalooza series into Riopalooza, when people from Virginia’s Spanish-speaking communities can enjoy PRKN-organized events. “It’s a sort of one-stop shop of fun things to do on the river,” Frondorf explains. “Everyone is invited, but we have bilingual materials and speakers available, so everyone feels welcome.” The day includes tubing, fishing, nature walks, music and food. There’s even an aquarium “petting zoo” set up by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

Frondorf says getting everyone out to the water is his favorite part of being a Riverkeeper. “It’s hard to protect something you don’t know and love,” he states. “But if you get people out on the river and they have a great time, then they take ownership of it. The best stewards of the river are users of the river.”

Lawrence agrees. “You want to care for what you love,” she says. “But if you’re never around something, how do you know?”

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