CONCORD, N.H. — Anyone can see Harold Harasko loves his lady.
You can hear it in the way he talks about her sturdy strength, her quiet dignity, her cheerful whistle. You can see it in the way he handles her — making sure she has enough room to turn around, or how bright and clean her visage always is.
But you won’t find Harasko’s lady on his arm in downtown Concord. You will have to travel along the Contoocook River, where the River Lady, a sternwheel paddleboat Harasko built by hand, sits docked across from his home.
At 36 feet long, she’s not as big as the Delta Queen, or as old as the Belle of Louisville, but there is no doubt the Lady has made her own reputation along the river since her debut in 2010.
“We’re pretty much celebrities,” Harasko said, standing at the Lady’s top deck steering wheel. “Lots of times when we’re going down the lower part of the river, people stop by and honk, and try to take pictures. We’ve gotten a lot of attention out of it.”
The Lady is certainly unique for New Hampshire, and she’s a rarity in the United States. Harasko said fewer than 100 sternwheel paddleboats exist in the country, and most of those, like the Minne Ha Ha on New York’s Lake George, are for commercial use.
Even the Lady’s workings are unlike her continental counterparts. Most sternwheelers are steam boats, but the Lady runs off the salvaged engine from a 1989 Subaru Legacy. Outboard motors circulate the water they’re traveling through to keep cool, but thanks to the car engine’s radiator, Harasko said the Lady is more ecologically friendly than most boats.
The Lady, just like other boats, can go in reverse, but it’s a maneuver Harasko said he tries not to use unless he’s at risk of crashing into the dock. It’s difficult to imagine the Lady being in such an undignified position – though pretty, the Lady is not particularly agile.
“It’s like driving a school bus,” Harasko said, especially when it comes to turning around.
It’s even harder to imagine because the Lady is also not very fast. Harasko keeps her to a top speed of 10 mph; otherwise, he fears the car motor would shake her apart. It’s fast enough, he notes, to outpace the canoers and kayakers he often meets on the river.
But the Lady is no dinghy. Last year, Harasko and his former girlfriend, Wendy Richards, sailed the length of the Erie Canal in the Lady, a 30-day trip that took them 831 miles through 49 locks – gates that allows boats to travel the river as it changes elevation — both ways.
The Lady was more than equipped for the journey. She’s outfitted with a bathroom, a sink and a full stove – “So I can make my favorite meal, meatloaf,” Harasko said — as well as a 50-gallon water tank and a 50-gallon waste water tank.
When Harasko says he built the Lady by hand, he means it: The kitchen sink and stove might have been pulled from a camper, but everything else, from the hull to the boat’s 350-pound paddle wheel, was crafted with the sweat and tears of Harasko’s family and friends. He estimated he spent about $16,000 to put her together.
“But, if you think about all the money I spent on beer over the years, that probably adds another $10,000,” Harasko said.
If it weren’t for love, the Lady may have never come along.
Harasko is quick to thank his family, friends and neighbors for helping him build the boat, which took seven years of weekends and summer vacations to complete. But there are two loves in particular that factor into the Lady’s birth.
There is the love of Richards, whom Harasko talks about with a quiet fondness. She lived down the street from Harasko for several years, and he credits her with being the engine — more vital than the Subaru’s – that powered the River Lady’s construction.
“We both had young children at the time, and we were at Canobie Lake watching the paddlewheeler. She says to me, ‘Why don’t you build one on those?’ ” Harasko remembers. “And I said, ‘Why don’t we?’ “
Richards did as much work as Harasko did on the boat, except for welding work, Harasko noted.
“She didn’t want any part of that,” he said.
Even when health problems forced Richards to move south, the two have remained close, he said.
But there is also the love of the Contoocook. Harasko grew up summering on the weekends at his grandfather’s camp, which has been in the family since 1949. Harasko moved to the area for work in 1976. He took a job with Sanel Auto Parts in Concord, and he’s lived on the river ever since.
“It’s a nice, quiet little place,” Harasko said. “It doesn’t attract too much attention, and I’ve met some really good people here.”
And even though Harasko has fielded requests that he open the Lady up for tours, he prefers to keep her for his friends, family and neighbors.
“I’ve gotten people saying I should take little old ladies out for cruises,” he said. “But that’s not what I want. I don’t want to be obligated do to anything with her, or to be on any schedule.”
Information from: Concord Monitor, http://www.concordmonitor.com