Raising awareness about the impact of the Illinois River on the local community, and educating the public on how to care for the environment, were the driving forces behind Sunday’s Illinois River Heritage Festival.
The Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission and Save the Illinois River Inc. sponsored the event at Norris Park, and a couple of hundred people dropped by throughout the day to hear the five musical acts that performed at the park gazebo.
Drawings were held for float trips, a motel stay, and a kayak. Cherokee County painters, jewelry makers, photographers, writers, fly fishers, and more were set up in booths. Various organizations hosted demonstrations, crafts, and educational opportunities, and local food trucks were parked near by.
This was the first year a festival focused on the river was held in downtown Tahlequah.
“We decided to hold the festival in town to attract more people and those who don’t normally go to events at the river,” said Denise Deason-Toyne, STIR board president. “So many enjoy the river year-round, and we encourage everyone to make an effort to keep it clean and to support community groups, such as STIR.”
STIR is a not-for-profit, all-volunteer citizens’ organization chartered in 1984 with the state of Oklahoma. Its mission is to protect and preserve the Illinois River, its tributaries, and Lake Tenkiller.
The OSRC is a state agency celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Its primary emphasis is to preserve and protect the aesthetic, scenic, historic, archaeological and scientific features of the Illinois River and its tributaries, according to its website.
Ed Fite, OSRC administrator, said the event was a rejuvenation of festivals held in the 1990s, and was the first of many to come.
“The fall festivals were geared toward children, but this was an opportunity for everyone in the community and region to celebrate clean water and the significance of water in our area,” said Fite. “We hope to continue to have the festival in town. The Illinois River is synonymous with Tahlequah, and vice versa.”
Two Tahlequah men, John Morgan and Ben Chasenah, happened upon the festival by chance. They were interested in learning more about volunteer opportunities and regulations for safely enjoying the river.
“I used to live by and float on a river in Missouri,” said Morgan. “I’m unsure of the rules for floating the Illinois.”
He has participated in river cleanups in the past.
Chasenah had not floated the river, but does spend time in the water in Welling. He understands the importance of clean water and hopes to volunteer to help with clean-up efforts.
Other organizations and government agencies that focus on education, training, awareness, and regulation enforcement were on hand. Most representatives were glad the festival was being held in town.
Michele Loudenback and Steve Gunnels work for the Water Quality Division of the Department of Environmental Quality in stormwater enforcement and industrial wastewater enforcement respectively. They had brought an EnviroScape model, showing that water pollutants come from many sources. The department helps OSRC enforce regulations.
“Having the festival in town makes it easier to access the people,” said Loudenback. “Valuable events like this educate the community. It takes everyone to protect the resource.”
Both Loudenback and Gunnels had their sons assisting with the interactive display. The boys said they enjoyed helping and were earning volunteer hours for Boy Scouts. Gunnels said he also uses the model with the Scouts.
On a break, the boys visited the Blue Thumbs OK table to stamp with a fish.
Cheryl Cheadle, Blue Thumb state coordinator from Tulsa, had brought an EnviroScape model too, but opted to do a craft when she saw the DEQ had one. Festival-goers could daub a rubber fish with paint and then press it to a paper. Water quality information was on the back of the paper.
Blue Thumb is a program of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission that trains volunteers to monitor streams in their communities and share their knowledge of water quality with others. A training was held in Tahlequah last year, but one has not yet been scheduled for this year. Blue Thumb OK helped with the recent restoration of Tahlequah creekbeds.
Cheadle said she can see the benefit of having the festival in town, but hopes there will still be one at the river, to bring people to the water.
“Getting people out to enjoy the environment helps them learn appreciation, and those are steps to protection,” said Cheadle. “There are lots of things ever day citizens can do to protect streams and rivers.”
These sites have more information on organizations aimed at protecting the river.
• Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission: www.oklahomascenicrivers.net; www.facebook.com/OKSRC.
• Save the Illinois River Inc.: www.illinoisriver.org; www.facebook.com/pages/Save-the-Illinois-River-STIR.
• Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality: www.deq.state.ok.us; @OklahomaDEQ on Twitter.
• Blue Thumb OK: www.bluethumbok.com; www.facebook.com/BlueThumbOK.