Berlin flickers and crackles with autumn’s RiverFire celebration

Union Leader Correspondent
October 10. 2018 1:15PM
As part of Berlin’s annual RiverFire celebration, wooden pallets are set ablaze atop old boom piers from logging days. (JOHN KOZIOL/Union Leader Correspondent)

BERLIN — Offering a perfect tonic to the end of summer and the onset of winter, the city’s RiverFire will have the Androscoggin glowing from the light of hundreds of jack-o’-lanterns and 25 boom-pier fires Saturday.

“It’s fires floating on water, and on a cold night you can hear the cracking of the wood,” said Androscoggin Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Paula Kinney said of the atmospheric celebration. “It’s a great event and such a good fall feeling.”

It was inspired by WaterFire, a work of art created in 1994 by Barnaby Evans to mark the 10th anniversary of the First Night observance in Providence, R.I. Patrick MacQueen, then serving as the interim city manager for Berlin, took in the sights during a trip to the Ocean State and brought home the idea of doing something similar here.

Although it started small, RiverFire, now put on by the Androscoggin Valley Chamber of Commerce, has become one of the city’s two signature events; the other is the Mount Jericho ATV Festival in August, Kinney said.

“The hotels are booked, and there’ll be plenty of parking, as well as a free shuttle, to get folks to RiverFire 2018, which begins at 4 p.m. at the Service Credit Union Heritage Park on Main Street and ends five hours later,” Kinney said.

In between, at exactly dusk, the gloom of a mid-October evening will be pierced by the simultaneous lighting of the boom piers in the river and of Jack-o’-lanterns on a pedestrian bridge above it.

The effect, said Kinney, “is spectacular” — and something that in 2017 attracted upwards of 3,000 people eager to see the flicker of lights in and over the Androscoggin.

Rising in Errol and flowing into Maine and eventually the Atlantic Ocean, the Androscoggin was the water highway on which logs, some harvested as much as 100 miles north of Berlin, flowed via several waterways into the city’s mills. Closer to Berlin, log drivers stood on the boom piers to guide the timber to the appropriate mill.

The last log drive on the Androscoggin in Berlin took place in 1964, and since 2004 the boom piers have been used once a year as the platforms for the RiverFire blazes.

A week before RiverFire, on what Kinney said is known as Pumpkin and Palette Day, scores of volunteers gather at Service Credit Union Heritage Park to load wooden pallets onto boats that will transport them upriver for placement onto the piers. The pallets are stacked up to five high on large, shallow metal pans that are then packed with more wood. The platforms catch the wood ash as well as the nails and other materials that don’t burn, Kinney explained, and they are later picked up and emptied onshore.

Meanwhile, others are choosing gourds to take home, carve, and return a week later as jack-o’-lanterns.

Before and after the illumination of the pumpkins and piers, RiverFire will offer lots of family fun. New to RiverFire in 2018 is a cornhole tournament with cash prizes and a “if you dare to enter” zombie maze.

There also will be chainsaw carving, hay wagon and helicopter rides, a petting zoo, a Kid Zone with bouncy houses and mining sluice where youngsters can pan for valuables. Children also can participate in RiverFire’s costume parade and then attend the “Not So Scary” Halloween Party.

In addition, RiverFire will feature music by the country-rock band Duke, numerous food vendors, the Zombie ATV Poker Run and the RiverFire 5K, the latter two of which will raise funds for local charities.

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