Harrisburg Pol Comes to Experience the Row Less Traveled

The rear of my floating banana-yellow kayak starts to swing to my right, and for a moment, I fear the current swirling me into an uncontrollable spin.

A voice beside me offers helpful advice for addressing the channel of swift water: "Dig deep, Dan! Dig! Dig! Keep paddling. Paddle through it. Go-go-go!"

I slice through the churn with the oar head, gritting my teeth to maintain control. Within the cockpit, I can feel my torso tense, and my hips and thighs counteract the fish-tail effect.

The kayak straightens itself and I glide forward. The brief swell of rapid water eases, and I'm gently floating along.

I smile at my watercraft advisor: "Thanks."

He beams back: "Nice going. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the way through situations like that is to just power ahead."

I laugh in response: "Yes."

It's one thing to get kayaking advice from a veteran.

It's another thing entirely when your personal coach is Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett.

 

The Governor and I - and an entourage of about 20 kayakers - are on a ten-mile, three-hour paddle down the Schuylkill River. These jaunts are a common excursion for him, with a three-fold purpose:

1.       Highlight the Commonwealth's natural assets

2.       Promote tourism

3.       Provide the Harrisburg Head of State with a chance to get some exercise and to unwind

The tourism angle is what got me the opportunity to float along.

My Sunday began with an early-morning departure via shuttle to the entry point in Douglassville, Berks County, Pa. The weather is sketchy - cool and damp - and a few raindrops dot the windshield on the drive.

I assure the other kayakers: "It can rain while we're in Berks County; it can rain while we're in Chester County. But by the time we get to Montgomery County, the sun will be out!"

The van pulls into the Union Township Landing. A huddle of people is milling around, underneath a pavilion. I am not sure what to expect from the our special guest (Does he arrive in a limo? Is there a big to-do when he gets here?), but I turn my head and there he is. He's not making any hoopla. He's enjoying a low-profile. And he's prepping for departure, sliding on a pair of gloves and gazing at a laminated map of our river route.

I introduce myself and tell him I'm with the Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board. He smiles and shakes my hand.

We make our way down to the landing, don our life jackets, receive a brief lesson, and launch.

The current is slow, which becomes both an asset and a liability. On the plus side, the pace virtually ensures that no one will "go over" and capsize. Even if this fate should befall a paddler, the harm would be more to his or her pride than physicality; the river is shallow enough to stand hip-deep in the flow and re-enter the boat. On the downside, the lazy flow downstream requires almost constant paddling to keep the group together.

Within minutes, however, I find a balance between active paddling and passive gliding. I sigh deeply, relaxing on the river.

The Governor makes it a priority to paddle up to each kayaker on the trip and engage in small talk. In my 1:1 with him, we discuss college education and post-graduate plans, each talking about our respective children. We also talk tourism, including the appeal of southeastern Pennsylvania in the fall.

It is at this point in the trip that the river zooms me ahead and I receive the benefit of gubernatorial experience on the water.

Once I'm back in control, he floats off elsewhere to chat.

As we wind our way along the river, I find myself alongside Department of Community and Economic Development Deputy Secretary for Tourism Carolyn Newhouse. I mention how relaxing all this is. "I realized that I don't even know what time it is," I say. "And that I really don't care."

She laughs. But with her responsibility for keeping the Governor on schedule, she's not afforded that luxury. "Unfortunately, I know exactly what time it is," she laughs.

My geography is twisted along the way, and landmarks that are easy to identify by car are less clear by kayak. We pass by a township fire and rescue crew practicing for a retrieval from the water. Later, a dragon boat team zips by, the 20-person crew digging deep into the river. Governor Corbett eases over, removes his fisherman's hat, and says hello. After a brief conversation (and a round of applause for the statehouse celebrity), the two crafts part, one continuing upstream, the other down.

To ease some of the tension in my thighs and calves, I bend my knees and put my feet up. The water gently ripples me forward, and a large blue heron takes flight from the bank ahead. A kayak slices by beside me and a twanged voice calls gently: "Chillin'?"

I look over and nod. "Yup. Just chillin', Mr. Governor."

We eventually reach the landing, just north of Pottstown. The take-out point is busy with aides and media, and numerous hands help get us out of the water.

The clouds overhead are breaking up, and the sky is on its way to turning clear and blue.

"See, Mr. Governor?" I kid him one more time. "No rain in Montgomery County!"