Heroes & High Notes

Country music star Jo Dee Messina was the headline performer for Riverboat Days 2021, and her Friday night concert packed Riverside Park. To see more photos from the weekend, visit the Press & Dakotan’s online photo gallery at www.yankton.net

For Riverboat Days visitors, it felt good to be back.

Packed with three days of activities, last weekend’s Riverboat Days (RBD) celebration in Yankton may be remembered mainly because — well, it was held.

Last year’s festival fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic. The third weekend of August 2020 came and went without the influx of an estimated 100,000 visitors. No parade, fireworks, favorite foods or entertainment.

All those sights, sounds and smells returned this year — as did throngs of people, beautiful weather and a lot of smiles. Not missing a beat, this year’s RBD once again provided one last bash of summer.

I joke each year that my birthday falls during Riverboat Days, and it’s just great the Yankton community throws this party for me and invites 100,000 guests. OK, I don’t really believe it, but it’s a great way to celebrate another rotation around the sun.

How does one describe nearly 72 hours of Riverboat Days activity in and around Yankton?  You can’t do it in so many words, but this reporter took in a variety of activities. Here’s my small snapshot of what makes Riverboat Days so special.

FRIDAY NIGHT

Friday night provided the major kickoff to the festivities. After finishing up at the Press & Dakotan, I took in the fantastic fireworks show in Riverside Park.

Yankton has become accustomed to fantastic pyrotechnics during different times of the year. However, even longtime RBD visitors said there was something special about this show. A beautiful summer sky, nearly full moon and calm Missouri River provided a great complement to it. There wasn’t a bad seat in the house, whether you watched on Meridian Bridge, the riverbank or any other location.

After the fireworks show, several hundred music fans headed to the Riverside Park main stage where country artist JoDee Messina performed. The large crowd wasn’t disappointed, as Messina presented a high-energy show and great interaction with her audience. And she literally offered something for everyone — moving from country, including her trademark hits, to Christian songs as she shared her faith and acceptance of Jesus.

Rock fans weren’t overlooked, as she left it all on stage with her version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” And the crowd didn’t stop believing in her, chanting “one more, one more!” for an encore.

One audience member thought it may have been the largest Friday night concert crowd in RBD history.

For Messina, the night wasn’t just fun — she said it was also emotional for her. She appeared a bit overwhelmed as she delivered her music and message, taking in the audience connection. At one point, she quipped that her tears were causing her eyelashes to come off.

SATURDAY MORNING

Saturday marks perhaps the biggest activity, kicked off by the parade. Not only has the parade become a major RBD tradition, but many people claim their own special viewing location on the route each year.

The entries ranged from beautiful to a bit off-beat. One that seemed to capture everyone’s attention was the Ponca (Nebraska) Fire Department’s creative “hook and ladder” routine. The entries reflected not only the best of Yankton but also surrounding communities that joined in the fun.

The RBD entries played out the parade theme “Hometown Heroes” in a wide number of ways. However, it reflected the same thought — we have many heroes among us. And those heroes are found everywhere each day, whether serving in the military, working as first responders and medical personnel, teaching school or just showing kindness toward friends and neighbors.

Speaking of first responders, their work doesn’t take a break because of Riverboat Days. In fact, the influx of 100,000 people places them on 24/7 duty during the three-day event. They perform their duties in order to protect the public.

After the parade, I went down the street to catch the vendor fair at the Yankton County 4-H Building. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was impressed by the room filled with all items from crafts and food items to clothes and beauty products.

While many vendors sold ready-made items, one vendor caught my eye with her work in progress.

Lene Ferreira of Yankton made intricate designs, not distracted by the hubbub and activity all around her. The artist, originally from South America, displayed a wide range of “canvases,” from wood to metal and even a portrait of reggae artist Bob Marley on a rock. For the animal lovers, one creation featured a cat so lifelike I wanted to pet it.

Ferreira described her passion for her art and is always looking for new ideas. Based on the work on display, I would say she has a successful future ahead of her.

SATURDAY AFTERNOON

After making the rounds at the vendor fair, I headed to Riverside Park.

As I entered the park, I was intrigued to find a family resting under a tree and taking in the Saturday afternoon activities. After taking a photo of the relaxed group, I introduced myself to Marlin and Kelly Piotter of Windom, Minnesota, and their 20-year-old son, Dalton, a student at the University of Minnesota.

The Piotters were in Yankton to visit relatives, including Kelly’s father, Jim Hummel, who had celebrated his 73rd birthday. The Minnesota family didn’t realize Riverboat Days was underway during the weekend, and they took advice to stop by the festival and also to check out Missouri River activities.

Marlin was snacking on blooming onions and, while he enjoyed the treat, the heaping plate was too much for him to polish off in one sitting. He likened it to plates of taters he had seen at other events.

For the family, Riverboat Days reminded them in many ways of fairs back home. In particular, they enjoyed seeing the RBD throng of people strolling, taking in the sights, the food and entertainment, and just getting out and enjoying a good time with friends. Also, the Minnesotans noted the beautiful weather and the scenery of the river as a backdrop.

As I checked out the booths, one family remained clearly on target.

Kyle and Kenzi Smith of Yankton were spending time with their son, Hudson, and daughter, Aspen. The two youngsters were trying their hand (and eye) at the archery stand using kid-safe bows and arrows.

Barely getting warmed up, each sibling nailed a bull’s-eye. The vendors were impressed with the performance, and the brother-sister team repeated their success.

Hudson said he would like to be an archer, while Aspen indicated a preference for gymnastics. Given that University of South Dakota alumnus Chris Nilsen just brought home the Olympic silver medal in the pole vault, anything remains possible for the Smith kids.

Riverboat Days featured colleges and universities not only in the parade but also at Riverside Park.

At the Mount Marty University (MMU) booth, Anthony and Johanna (Scheich) Jablonoski encouraged passersby to try their luck at spinning the wheel for a prize. In the interest of investigative journalism, I tried my luck and won a Lancer koozy for my favorite beverage.

The Jablonoskis moved here from Washington. Johanna, a MMU graduate from Ethan, was working for U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) when the opportunity arose to return to Yankton. She serves as the MMU director of alumni relations, while he works in the business field.

For Johanna, the new Lancer football program represents not only an athletic milestone but also a major connection with MMU alumni. She has sensed the excitement, including plans for tailgates at games to a football-centered homecoming weekend.

Details are being finalized, but the general plan calls for holding tailgates at Memorial Park with fans then invited to “march” together to Crane-Youngworth Field for the kickoff.

Also at the MMU booth, the Rev. Grant Lacey chatted with visitors. He serves as campus chaplain, also serving Sacred Heart Monastery, and becomes the first diocesan priest in that role in a number of years.

Down the row, the University of South Dakota (USD) booth offered an opportunity to chat with staff and to check out Coyote gear for the upcoming season.

Dan Fitzsimmons of Yankton, who was manning the booth, has gained national recognition during his 14 years with the USD athletic department. A former YHS skipper, he now serves as the head coach for the USD women’s cross country team. He also serves as assistant coach for the USD track and field teams, working with distance runners.

For Fitzsimmons, the Riverboat Days booth provided more than public outreach or time at his hometown festival. He brought his women’s team along for two reasons. First, it provided a bonding experience with his athletes. Because of COVID-19, much of the recruiting was conducted on Zoom or other means. He had met much of his team only eight days earlier, and he wanted quality time with the women. And secondly, he wanted them to experience a fun and community atmosphere, getting to know their home area outside of campus.

SATURDAY NIGHT

With the afternoon winding down, I turned my attention to evening. I headed out to the “Ram Rodeo Extreme Bull Riding Tour,” hosted by the Yankton Rodeo Association. The parking lot was packed, and the arena was filled with thousands spectators looking for action, which they found all night.

The event was advertised as “A Lifetime in Eight Seconds,” and I would guess, for the riders, those eight seconds on the bull seemed like either a flash or an eternity. One bull rider stayed on but took out the center barrel in the process. Another rider stayed on his critter for a ride along much of the ring.

Bull riding wasn’t the only event, as kids tried their hand at mutton busting (the sheep often had very different ideas on which direction to go) and women showed their speed and precision with barrel racing.

The announcer kept things lively and information, the clowns kept things humorous and the cowboys showed their rope-spinning ability (including some ropes on fire). Kids hung on the ring for a closer look, making a mad dash when cowboys in pick-ups tossed out the candy scramble.

SUNDAY

Sunday was more of a low-key day for me but not without some memorable moments.

RBD visitors arrive in all modes of transportation. For Adam and Steph Severson of Yankton, the easy way to transport 6-year-old daughter Emma was in a wagon. They found it comfortable and convenient for all parties.

I checked out the kids’ play area with inflatables, a trampoline show and other attractions.  In one open area, Celebrate Church offered a train ride for the younger set. During this particular time, Alane Todd — wife of the church’s Pastor Jeff Todd — served as engineer. The kids seemed to enjoy the ride twice around the circle.

Alane told me the church took on the ride when it may have ended being part of Riverboat Days. Now, the rides have been revived as a popular feature, and she estimated about 800 kids rode the train during the weekend.

As RBD wound down, I enjoyed the sound of the Scott Olson Band at the amphitheater. I have known Scott for years, as the Mission Hill farmer is well known as trumpeter with the South Dakota Symphony in Sioux Falls, the Sioux City Symphony, Christmas at the Cathedral and other venues.

He now teaches part-time at Augustana University in Sioux Falls. He’s joined in music education by wife Kim Olson with the Yankton School District, and stepdaughter Sophie Drotzmann who is starting her teaching career with the Warner school district just south of Aberdeen. Sophie had stepped in for a Warner vacancy last semester, which gave her a huge lift in getting to know her students, school and community before this fall.

Scott approached the Riverboat Days Committee earlier this year about performing at the amphitheater. The committee gave the green light, and he assembled a group of musicians who came from places such as Yankton, Aberdeen, Sioux Falls and Lincoln, Nebraska.

Each member rehearsed on his/her own, and the band held its first and only rehearsal the previous Sunday at the Riverside Park amphitheater.

The band consisted of Kim Olson, Drotzmann, Damian Magnuson-Willman, Jim Speirs, Julie Schumacher, Scott Olson (on keyboard this go-round), Chuck Henricksen, Todd Carr and Jim McKinney. The two vocalists were Amanda Schumacher and Dave Purdham from the Lincoln, Nebraska, area. They performed separately and as a duet.

I’m biased, but Scott hit all my favorites in putting together the 26-song playlist: Chicago, Elton, Tom Jones, Toby Keith, Michael Jackson and others from rock, country and classics.

Looking at the possible rain headed for the amphitheater, the group joked whether they were tempting bad fortune by performing “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.”

As I chatted afterward with Scott, he spoke of how much he loved all of his teaching and performing experiences. However, Riverboat Days offers something special to him.

After spending three awesome days experiencing the best of Yankton, I have to agree.

Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.

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