It’s a boat. It’s a stage. It’s … a floating candy cane?
That term of endearment has been bestowed upon the Pride of the Susquehanna Riverboat by Executive Director Jason Meckes, who is helping to steer the celebration of the red-and-white vessel’s 30th anniversary.
The path to the big 3-0 has been anything but smooth, as the boat has sputtered through funding woes, repeated flooding, structural issues, bad press and an array of other unforeseen shoals.
To celebrate a life that has seen a million passengers transported on the authentic paddlewheel-driven boat since 1988, a gala is planned for Sept. 22 at the state Capitol.
Meckes, with a youthful energy and smooth, velvety voice, said the gala will have a “Choose Your Own Adventure” format.
For a $75 ticket price, guests will enjoy great food, cocktails, historical photographs, a silent auction, contests, picture-taking and an awards presentation. Jack Brubaker, author of a well-received book about the Susquehanna River, will be the keynote speaker.
Meckes said the nonprofit Harrisburg Area Riverboat Society, which built and now manages the local treasure, only holds a gala about once every five years, so the time is now to help paddle the beloved vessel into a secure future.
Around Harrisburg, the launch of the riverboat in late April has come to represent the unofficial start of the outdoors season.
From its dock on City Island, the Pride begins its schedule of daily cruises, slotting in a variety of specialty events, including murder-mystery cruises, elegant dinner cruises, brews cruises, blues cruises, fundraisers, weddings and even pirate-and-princess cruises for the little tikes. The 60 seats fill up fast. The boat is largely funded through ticket sales, with donations and grants to buoy up the finances.
Meckes said that pirate cruises are an especially popular new offering. Kids come on board dressed as pirates, armed with squirt guns. After a fill of pizza, soda and ice cream, an announcement rings out that pirates have been spotted in the water. An oncoming boat (usually carrying riverboat board members) and plumes of smoke on the water are seen, and the little Jack Sparrows have a chance to fend off the oncoming menace with squirt guns and water balloons. Meckes said the county’s 911 center has even received calls from concerned citizens, reporting pirate activity on the Susquehanna.
Princess rides are also held, attracting a pageant of Elsas and Ariels who walk majestically down the red carpet as they hear their names announced. The princesses sing, do crafts, get temporary tattoos and are made to feel extra-special, Meckes said.
“It’s just adorable,” he said. “Though it does take us some time to get the glitter out of the boat.”
As a graduate of Millersburg University with a degree in elementary education, Meckes still loves to teach. The Pride has hosted students of the Harrisburg school district for free, as well as many Susquehanna River School outings.
The Pride is especially popular with sightseers. Meckes estimates that 60 percent of riders are local, while 40 percent hail from outside the “717.” Forty thousand riders took the Pride last year, with 16 countries represented.
Visitors, he said, are attracted not just by the scenery and the parties, but by the old-timey technology of propellers and rudders.
“The river is so placid that we can get away with historic propulsion,” Meckes said.
He has his own personal and professional pride in the one-of-a-kind mahogany and brass interior, with its antique brass rails and stained glass on the ceiling. The boat is filled with historical artifacts, such as the Queen Mary’s cabin doors.
Riders may not see Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn on the banks of the river, but you feel like you could.
“I find the entire concept (of a riverboat) to be fascinating,” Meckes said. “It is a picture into nautical history.”
The now 91-year-old Jack Dillman is among the men at the heart of the boat’s history and is its training coordinator. He once captained the Millersburg Ferry, north of Harrisburg.
“There is no one, living or dead, who knows more about this river than Jack Dillman,” Meckes said.
Another local legend is Mike Trephan, who helped get the boat built and remains a rock star in the riverboat’s colorful history.
“We wanted the boat to serve the community when we built it,” Meckes said. “It represents the creativity of Harrisburg.”
The season goes full throttle through the summer and usually ends around the second week of November. Any longer, and the river could be frozen. At that time, the National Guard moves the boat out of the river, using their tank removal crews in a training exercise that is beneficial for both parties.
But all is not smooth sailing. Through the three decades, it has cost more and more to maintain the boat, both during the on- and off-season.
Meckes noted that the Pride is 30 years old, but the average life span of a boat is 25 years, meaning that constant maintenance is required. Moreover, the heavy rains and flash floods of July and August damaged both the boat and dock.
“There is no guarantee we will come back every year,” Meckes said somberly. “We are more reliant on grants, donations and the good will of the community than ever.”
Nonetheless, he hopes for a safe, placid future for the city’s beloved “candy cane.” After 30 years, people still come, and, each season, the riverboat paddles on.
The Harrisburg Area Riverboat Society Anniversary Gala will be held Sept. 22 inside the state Capitol. For more information, visit www.riverboatgala.com or www.harrisburgriverboat.com.