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New Riverkeeper brings experience, passion to the job

When John Zaktansky, the new Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper, came to the position after Carol Parenzan resigned last year, he brought with him a whole lot of experience and a passion for protecting and connecting with the outdoors.

“For me, it was kind of a converging point of a whole bunch of stuff,” Zaktansky said recently. “I grew up on a small farm outside of the McEwensville-Watsontown area and was active in Boy Scouts. I became and Eagle Scout and was involved with a lot of stuff. I always had a love and a passion for the outdoors.”

Zaktansky has also worked with various newspapers in the area, and was always drawn to coverage of the outdoors and promoting outdoor resources.

“The therapeutics of being outdoors are incredible. Much more than medication and counseling,” he said. “Just getting someone outdoors in a kayak or on a horse or hiking a trail can be a huge therapeutic component. I want to continue to find ways to connect with that.”

For about ten years, Zaktansky worked as a counselor and eventually as a program supervisor of a small adolescent group home in Union County. While he was there, he said that he worked with kids from all different types of backgrounds and a wide variety of issues, such as broken families and similar situations.

“Even in those situations, counseling-wise, I always fell back on taking kids outdoors, horseback riding and stuff like that. It was amazing how those outdoor opportunities led to a lot deeper conversation about the issues they were working through,” he shared. “It was really powerful to see.”

So, when the position of Riverkeeper opened up, Zaktansky felt it was the perfect opportunity to merge his life experiences into the work of a Riverkeeper.

“I was just really excited about kind of using all of my experiences in the past for media and marketing that I can use for this position. But also the connection with kids and teenagers and therapeutics with the outdoors experience. Kind of merging them into an opportunity to really protect our resources and leaving something for the next generation,” he said.

What is a Riverkeeper?

The job of the Riverkeeper, according to Zaktansky, can be boiled down to protecting and promoting the resources of “our river,” the Susquehanna.

“When we say our river, we’re looking at the middle Susquehanna watershed,” he explained.

The watershed encompasses a region of 11,000 square miles. It is basically every stream, creek and other waterway that feed back into the Susquehanna River.

The area covered begins just below Selinsgrove where Penn’s Creek flows into the river and then all the way through the north and west branches of the Susquehanna.

“(And then) up to Clearfield County in the west and north to the north branch towards the New York border. It’s a pretty wide area that we cover,” he said.

The scope of the watershed, according to Zaktansky, is one of his greatest challenges. In fact, he said that the Middle Susquehanna watershed is probably one of the biggest, by area, in the country.

“There are a lot of threats to our waterways from acid mine drainage throughout the area, with the coal mines and different scenarios there,” he said.

There is also the issue of micro-plastics in the water, which then can seriously impact fish populations. Zaktansky cited the increase of lesions on smallmouth bass and other fish that have been a recurring issue in the area.

“There’s just a large variety of things to cover in such a wide watershed. That’s a challenge,” he said.

‘We’re all connected’

Zaktansky also stressed the importance of educating people about the concept of a watershed.

“You know, if we do something in our backyard that we think is kind of isolate, it’s not going to affect anyone further away from us. It’s totally not true,” he stressed.

“We’re all connected in one way or another, either through the streams and creeks on the surface or through the groundwater underneath,” Zaktansky said. “What we do has an impact on the greater watershed.”

One program that Zaktansky has implemented since becoming the Riverkeeper is the Susquehanna survey.

“It’s something I’ve promoted throughout the watershed and we’ve gotten a good response. It allows us to connect with people that haven’t already connected with our organization. It gives them another channel to share concerns that they have seen in our waterways in our area,” he said.

“It also allows us to connect with new volunteers to get involved with our organization,” he added.

Zaktansky noted that the survey can be accessed on the group’s website.

Also on the website are details of a photo and poetry contest the organization is sponsoring. It is open to all age groups and runs until the end of April.

“It encourages them to get outdoors in a properly socially distanced way to engage with nature and the therapeutics of that to kind of burn off that cabin fever in an appropriate way,” he said.

There are also a video series on the website and on social media showing hands-on experiments that people can do at home with their children using stuff that is around the house.

“It helps them better understand what our watershed is, what are some of the threats to the watershed and what are some of the steps I could take to protect it,” he said.

Zaktansky plans to continue the floating classrooms, implemented by his predecessor, but he is also planning to “beef it up” this year with new speakers and new themes. The actual dates are tentative dependent on the coronavirus crisis.

There are also plans in the future to create a series of photos and videos, called “Susquehanna Stories Initiatives. The series will highlight people who are most connected to the river and have a passion for it.

“Looking at how they got involved and why they love the river so much. Using those stories to help the next generation have the same passion for the river and for the water resources,” he said.

Even beyond these plans, Zaktansky has a vision for a camp program for teenagers and younger people to get them outdoors and into the therapeutic opportunities that he champions.

“Learning how to kayak and getting over the fear of kayaking and getting over the fears they have been dealing with. Getting on a horse of doing those types of things where it’s outdoors. Getting away from electronics and getting them a vested interest in protecting the resources,” Zaktansky said.

A note on an upcoming event:

• The photo/poetry contests developed and run during the coronavirus situation as a way to encourage people to get outdoors). The new deadline is this coming Friday. http://www.middlesusquehannariverkeeper.org/blog/deadline-for-riverkeeper-photo-poetry-contests-extended-to-may-8

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