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Front Royal festival hosts floating residents, tourists

By Garren Shipley - gshipley@nvdaily.com

FRONT ROYAL -- For some in Front Royal, the twin forks of the Shenandoah River are just water under the bridge.

But on Saturday afternoon, all the action was "On the River."

Paddlers by the hundreds turned out for On the River '09, a festival created to reacquaint the community with one of its largest and most important geographic features.

Front Royal has been known as the canoe capital of Virginia for a decade now and has catered to floating tourists for far longer.

Festival organizers set out to bring local residents back to the river, offering free float trips from Front Royal Landing Park to the Veterans of Foreign Wars grounds about three miles downstream.

And by all accounts, they succeeded.

Response to the festival was overwhelming, said Justin Sperry, who was working with Front Royal Canoe Co., helping to bring canoes and canoeists out of the river.

"We thought it would be busy, and we put 20 boats out," he said.

Fellow outfitters Downriver Canoe Co. brought another 20 boats.

By noon, they were wishing for more.

"We thought [it]would be plenty, but there's a lot more people here than we thought," he said.

Canoes hit the water at 9 a.m. and people were still waiting to take their float down the river at noon.

"I'm waiting on a trailer to take more boats" upstream to the launch site, Sperry said. About 200 people had come down the river in the canoes donated for the day since the event started.

And those 200 were just in the loaner canoes. "A lot of people are bringing their own boats," Sperry said.

Those coming out of the river at the VFW grounds almost all had broad smiles.

Katie McGaughey, from Maryland, and a group of her friends took the free ride to see the river from a new perspective.

"We've done tubing," she said. "We just kind of heard about it, and were looking for something fun to do."

"It was chill. It was fun, I'd do it again," she said.

While this is the first festival celebrating the river in a decade, it's hard to overstate the importance of the river to life in the valley, said Chuck Way, of the local Isaac Walton League.

"My hometown has a river that flows through it, the Susquehanna," he said. "It's nowhere near what the Shenandoah means to this area."

A slow, meandering course over a mostly solid rock bottom makes the river a near perfect blend for almost all uses.

"It's a well enjoyed and used area. Hundreds of canoeists, fishermen, people that swim, camping. It means a lot to this area," Way said.

The Shenandoah also can be a gateway to nature for people who come to the valley from Northern Virginia.

Events like On the River are all the more important given the growth and development surrounding the river and the pressure that places on the stream.

"When I first came here, people would talk about the fishing, 50-100 fish days," Way said. "But then we had the fish kills of a couple of years ago."

Fish kills up and down the Shenandoah-Potomac river system have had scientists looking for answers for years.

But the situation is improving, according to Way, and the river remains a great place for recreation.

"My son-in-law, he fishes here every weekend," said Jim Hart, of Trout Unlimited, another group represented at the festival.

"I met a guy down in Linden he fishes almost every day," he said.




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