Williamsport, Pa. — Called the “Queen of the Susquehanna,” the Hiawatha Paddlewheel is getting her final makeover before launching into a summer season of cruises, events, and parties.
On a sunny Friday afternoon, Captains Darryl Stroble of Montoursville and Drew Gretzula of Bastress had paintbrushes out and were touching up the railings.
“We start getting the boat ready in April,” said Stroble. They give themselves about a month to paint, clean the exterior, scrape and clean the hull and fix up any rusty spots underneath. They also inspect the entire hull from the inside.
“It gets pretty dirty,” Gratzula added. Birds like to nest in places, and we do a spider check about twice a week,” he said. The paddlewheeler sits atop its custom trailer beside farm fields all winter off of Antlers Road, collecting the dust from the fields, especially once the farmer gets out on his tractor.
Over the winter, the two 240 horsepower, 4-cylinder, turbo-charged outboard diesel motors are rebuilt. “We put about 13,000 hours a summer on them,” said Captain Mike Strunk of Hepburnville.
“Those motors are only supposed to run 800 hours before they’re rebuilt,” Strunk said, but they aren’t powering the vessel for speed, pulling skiers or wakeboarders, so they’re able to use them for an entire season at cruising speed.
Onboard is also a diesel generator capable of powering an entire house, used to power the sound system for bands, the air conditioner or heat. “Its basically a house on the water,” Strunk said. Overall, the paddlewheeler uses about 130 gallons of diesel fuel a week.
At the beginning of the season, the boat is inspected by the Coast Guard, “from stern to bow,” said Gratzula. They also run safety drills for situations like a person overboard (which has happened!), fire drills, and what to do in the event they lose an engine.
The three captains rotate cruise duty. “We used to have five captains but one moved to Florida and another retired,” Stroble said. He enjoys the job because he meets new people. He especially enjoys letting kids drive.
Driving the massive Hiawatha isn’t too difficult, according to Stroble. The 60-ton vessel has only a 2-foot deep hull. The water has to be at least 4.5 feet deep to navigate. “The biggest challenges,” he said, “are changes in weather, wind conditions, and the current, if the water is high.”
Over 20 feet high, and they have to take the boat off the water to ensure it won’t break loose from the docks and make its way over the damn.
Events on the Hiawatha
The summer season will include regular events, including ‘Family Nites,’ Craft Beer Cruises, SuperHero Cruises, Bingo, 80’s Dance Party, and others.
The boat also becomes a floating classroom with educational programs hosted by the Middle Susquehanna River Association. This summer’s lineup will teach participants about aquatic animals, the history of mining and impacts of runoff from abandoned mines, microplastics in the water, the impacts of flooding, and mussels.
Stroble recalled taking one floating classroom on a cruise where the instructors brought two tanks of river water. In one tank, they dumped mussels, and the other tank was left empty. “By the time the cruise was over,” said Stroble, “the water in the tank with the mussels was clear. It was a great demonstration of how they filter and clean the water.”
Related reading: Learn as you float: Environmental education on the Susquehanna
The Hiawatha crew is still looking for people to join their crew.
Applications and open interviews will be held at the pavilion at Susquehanna State Park on Thursday, May 5 and Friday, May 6 from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.
The boat will be launched on Monday and kick off cruises in time for Mother’s Day tours.