Fenton, MI — June 28, 2019
Riverfest 2019, held in Fenton last Sunday, was a huge success according to event participants and members of the Keepers of the Shiawassee! The outdoor fundraiser featured live music, food, water activities, free photos, tournaments, raffles and more.
“It was a good success this year. The reason I’m saying that is because of the weather. The sunshine was a big factor in people showing up. Our location was great on the river there. We had easy access to the river. When we had our races, nothing was blocked. People could watch their ducks or cardboard canoes go down the river without trees or bushes in the way. It was a good area to fit in the kayak demos. We had lots of room for our vendors, and we had lots of room for the kids to play,” said Michelle Czerniak, a volunteer with the Keepers of the Shiawassee and last year’s chairman, who helped coordinate the event this year.
A Great Turn Out
“We are pleased with the reception the event has received from the public and local business community,” said Brad Jacob, a current chairman of the Keepers of the Shiawassee, who booked the bands for the festival.
Czerniak considers the river the area’s free entertainment, which anyone can enjoy any time they want. “The river is great fishing. To catch fish you need to be here early in the morning or late in the evening. There’s carp, bass, walleye, pike and bluegill. I love it! I’m new to the area since last December. I’ve been coming for the last three weeks just to fish here,” said Michael Dobk during the festival. Dobk moved to Fenton from Highland, Michigan.
Protecting the River
The Keepers of the Shiawassee were looking for a way to support their work efforts in keeping the river clean of garbage, waste, and debris and in educating people about the river. The group also has a mission to develop the river as a paddling trail by organizing cleanups, installation of signage and the creation of kayak/canoe launches, with the goal to develop a 100-mile paddling trail from Holly to the Shiawassee Flats
“I believe that we have a real treasure in the Shiawassee River. It has a character of its own, and I think we owe it to the next generation to leave them a healthy river. It’s also a part of our mission to demonstrate the economic connection between the use of the river and the communities that it runs through,” Jacob said.
The river was declared a state water trail in December 2018. The Keepers of the Shiawassee are pushing to have the river declared a national water trail, which would take care of the river being recognized as going from Holly all the way to the Saginaw Bay; 88 miles of water.
Riverfest Returning to Fenton Next Year
The Riverfest started five years ago. The Keepers of the Shiawassee held their first Riverfest at Bush Park in Fenton, where the second fest was held as well. It was then moved to Linden for two years. This year and next it will be back in Fenton.
“We want to get enough people’s support from both towns. We’re trying to do two years there, two years there,” Czerniak said. The Keepers have tried a kayak regatta the last couple of years. “While fun, it wasn’t really effective as a fundraiser. Also, we are committed to keeping our paddle events free. We wanted to involve the community at large. A music festival with fun events made more sense,” Jacob said.
Music at Riverfest
A different band played live music every hour. “Music is a great way to bring people of all ages and walks of life together”, according to Bethany Jacob, who is also a volunteer for the Keepers of the Shiawassee and helped communicate with and organize the vendors.
Bethany Jacob said a music festival on the river provided a great platform. “The bands that participate each year dedicate their time and talents to the festival for free. We really appreciate their support for our cause,” she said.
“I love the Shiawassee River. It runs right behind my house. I fish on it. I kayak on it. It’s just a fantastic river. I think it’s a jewel in Genesee County that’s underappreciated. People were having fun. We had a blast,” said George Slackta, who plays flute, guitar, and keyboard and sings for the group Blindsight, which played at the event.
Those who wanted to try paddling a kayak received personal floatation devices (life jackets), got a paddle, were shown what to do. Participants could kayak down the river to see if they could balance and handle the watercraft. Every year, there are different styles of kayaks available to try out. These are donated by local liveries and outfitters. This year, several boats were provided by Red Fox Outfitters.
“A lot of people are skeptical about getting in a kayak. They are afraid they will tip over and drown. Actually, it’s not like that at all. The demos helped people see how fun and easy kayaking really is. You don’t have to pay $60 to go to an amusement park and entertain yourself. You can play on the water and enjoy it at your own leisure,” Czerniak said.
Canoe Racing and River Games
The cardboard canoe race was another way to utilize the river during the festival and the event is growing. There was a record of 11 boats this year. Winners received a variety of gift certificates or gift cards valued between $10 and $25.
“The regatta is a unique part of the festival that is centered on getting kids involved in a creative and fun project. They have a great time and take a lot of pride in the boats that they make, decorate and race, and the crowd enjoys cheering on the kids as they try to beat the best time. As far as I know, we have the only cardboard regatta in the local area. So, that’s another thing that makes this activity so unique,” Bethany Jacob said.
Games, such as rubber duck racing, were an enjoyable and important part of the event, according to Brad Jacob. Winners of the duck race received a variety of gift certificates and gift cards valued between $10-$100, with the first place winner receiving a $150 cash prize and sunglasses valued at $300 from Iris Eye Care. “We want the event to be fun for the whole family,” he said.
Payton Vanport, 16, won first place in the fishing tournament and received sunglasses from Linden Family Eye Care valued at $200. “I’m glad I won because this was my first fishing tournament. I caught five carp in the Flint River. The festival was fun because there was a lot of music. It was a good event for a good cause,” Vanport said.
Tom Wielichowski, co-owner of the Tom Tom Photo Booth, tries to attend most events held in Fenton. “I try to come down and do as much as I can throughout the community. I come downtown and give away free photos. People get photos each year to add to their collection. We love the river. My wife and I have two kids. We’re right on the river. We spend a lot of time on it. About three days a week we go out. For us, supporting Friends of the Shiawassee is awesome because we are totally into kayaking on the river. I live in Fenton,” Wielichowski said.
“Seeing all the people here and being out with my family makes the Riverfest exciting. The photo booth is really fun,” Janelle Lemon, 11, of Fenton, said. Natalie Lemon, 8, of Fenton, had been to the Riverfest once before this year. “I liked doing all the fun activities. I got to write my name and the year on a shirt,” she said.
There were between 20-25 art/craft/business vendors this year. The vendors make up a large part of the fundraising for the event while providing a unique shopping experience for the patrons at the festival. “With everything from handmade and dyed clothes, artwork and bath and body goodies, to face painters, jewelry, home-made crafts, leather works and more, our ‘Vendor Village’ has something for everyone,” Bethany Jacob said.
“Some of the vendors sell commercial lines of products. Some offer their homemade crafts. It depends on the vendor. Variety is the key,” Brad Jacob said.
“I was here trying to promote people signing up to classes, plus trying to sell off my excess paintings. When I paint a picture and then we do the class, I paint it again, and I just love to do this. This was the third time I worked with the Riverfest. I think Fenton is a much better place for it,” said Joanne Harrington, certified Bob Ross and Dorothy Dent style teacher, who had a vendor booth.
Patrick Scanlon, GILLS (Genesee, Lapeer, Livingston Shiawassee) area CISMA (Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area) coordinator talked to attendees about invasive species in another tent. “Everyone is affected by invasive species,” he said. An expert came to offer water testing, educating kids on what to look for to determine how healthy the river is at another booth.
Raffles and Fundraising
The raffles offered at the event proved to be an effective fundraiser. They provided an opportunity for the local businesses to be involved, through the prize donations. Raffle prizes included a kayak worth $500, a trip with two rental from EZ Kayak, sunglasses valued at $500 from Iris Eye Care, gift certificates for several eateries and other items.
“We promote the businesses throughout the event with signage and announcements between the bands,” Brad Jacob said. Food trucks add another facet to the event for fundraising, through participation fees. Brad Jacob said they were glad to provide them.
“I feel the food gives you even more reason to come out. You can come to eat and hang out,” said Jessi Alterman of Fenton. “This was our second year with the Riverfest, and we like to give back to the community. We try to work with all the local environments and charities to give back. We like to bring the food truck out to give people a different spin on eating out. We team up with the barbecue truck and the pizza booth to make a little food court. The Friends of Shiawassee are awesome! They do a lot for the community. They try to concentrate on what we can do to build it and make it better. They focus on different trails for the kayaks and stuff. People seemed to love the food truck. We don’t make ourselves very available. So, when we are around we like to try something different. We have Latin American barbecue smoked gourmet street tacos.
Bringing the event to Fenton has been awesome as well. D&W is Fenton’s own food truck,” said Dana Ahrenberg, owner of the D&W Street Eatery. Ahrenberg is a lifetime Fenton resident, who has worked and lived in Fenton her entire life.
To make the event, even more, kid-friendly, two bounce houses were available.
“The kids loved the bounce houses, and since they were free, the parents loved them too,” Bethany Jacob said. “I did not know about the Keepers of the Shiawassee’s mission before coming to the Riverfest. I think it’s important to get everyone involved and let them know about our rivers and keeping them clean,” said Danielle Charter of Fenton, who attended the festival with her family.
As far as activities, there may be a few changes as The Keepers of the Shiawassee adjust to the new location. “We will be looking at ways we can improve when we reconvene in September. We do not meet in July or August unless it’s on the river. We look forward to working with the city of Fenton to make next year’s event even better,” Bethany Jacob said.