A week into the New Year, the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed one Missouri River festival while two others remain on the schedule.
On Wednesday, the Missouri River Watershed School Festival was officially canceled for the second consecutive year, both times for the pandemic. However, organizers emphasize the event — which has attracted more than 500 students at one time to Riverside Park in Yankton — will return in May 2022.
“I sent out a letter today (Wednesday) to the schools, making sure they knew about our decision to cancel this year. I have already heard from some of them saying, ‘We’re waiting! We’ll be there again,” said Mary Robb with the City of Yankton’s public works department.
At the same time, the Great Missouri River Clean-Up will be rescheduled from May until summer or early fall. The annual event, running from Gavins Point Dam downstream to the James River island, attracts more than 100 volunteers who have collected tons of trash and debris from the river.
“We‘re looking at something in the June or July time frame,” said Ranger Dugan Smith with the National Park Service.
And for now, the Lake Yankton Festival and Homestead Day remain set for a summer date at the usual locations — the Lake Yankton Festival at the training dike and Homestead Day at the Pierson Ranch campground.
“Families can take in two festivals at the same time and pick up a little bit from each. It has worked out really well because both locations and events lend themselves to each other, and there is plenty of room to spread out,” said Paul Lepisto, regional conservation coordinator with the Izaak Walton League of America (IWLA).
The school festival, normally held the first Thursday in May, was canceled last year because of the pandemic. Organizers refocused their energy on the following year but, as the pandemic continued for months, realized last November the 2021 event wasn’t going to happen as usual.
Schools weren’t going to allow students and teachers to take field trips, and the committee also decided it wouldn’t be right to offer the festival during a pandemic.
“Given what the districts are facing to keep their kids and staff safe and healthy, dangling that (festival) in front of them by offering it wasn’t the right thing to do,” Lepisto said.
The committee rejected virtual presentations, Robb said.
“Kids are home-schooling (during the pandemic) and already getting enough remote learning,” she said. “And this whole (festival) works because it’s hands-on. It’s not as interesting or educational if you try to do it with Zoom and no interaction.”
The presentations include the opportunities to see and touch river life, Smith said. “There’s no other place where kids could do something like kiss the fish,” he said with a chuckle, referring to a popular festival tradition.
The committee also decided against holding an event this fall, when teachers and students are getting adjusted to the new school year, Smith said. In addition, other festivals are held in the fall, which may create conflicts in trying to book presenters.
Regardless of what form it takes in 2022, plans call for keeping the festival at Riverside Park, the organizers said. The location not only provides the amenities needed by presenters but also provides a natural setting.
The line-up has grown and changed over the years, from the science and recreation presentations to the addition of historical re-enactors and Native American speakers, Lepisto said. “The festival’s success is a credit to the presenters who take the time to pass on their knowledge and passion for the river,” he said.
The students’ reaction shows their enjoyment, Lepisto said. “At that age, most kids are good at soaking up that knowledge like a sponge. You can see it in their eyes and in their faces. The kids want to learn more about the river.”
The Missouri River clean-up will return this year but may get moved to a later date, Smith said. In that way, the pandemic situation may have ended, and the event can be easily organized in a few weeks.
The clean-up has created a tremendous impact in its previous 15 years, Robb said. She noted not only the 100 tons of debris removed from the river but also the strong participation each year.
“It’s like a family that you see every year,” she said of the volunteers. “For us, the main thing is the maintenance of the river. We need to keep both the river and the shore clean. No one wants to see a lot of trash that makes things disgusting.”
Smith agreed, noting the clean-up has become personal for those who return each year.
“People are so gracious to help out with the event. They feel a sense of stewardship,” he said. “They believe ‘This is something I’m doing for my river.’ They really have a sense of pride and ownership.”
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