Corbett goes where he feels at home — on the river

Pennsylvania Govenor Tom Corbett paddles along the Delaware River in his kayak along with a group of state environmental and conservation employees. Paddling along w/Gov Corbett on his latest kayak trek -- 10 miles circa Delaware Water Gap, starting Fri 730am. ( MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Pennsylvania Govenor Tom Corbett paddles along the Delaware River in his kayak along with a group of state environmental and conservation employees. Paddling along w/Gov Corbett on his latest kayak trek -- 10 miles circa Delaware Water Gap, starting Fri 730am. ( MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Posted: August 25, 2012

SHAWNEE-ON-DELAWARE - With the fog still thick over the Delaware River, Gov. Corbett, joined by about a dozen state officials, all in kayaks, pushed off from the Pennsylvania side Friday morning for a 10-mile float downriver.

It was Day Two of Corbett's 23-mile paddle along the Delaware, meant to promote tourism and highlight Pennsylvania's natural resources.

"Hey, look at that," said Corbett, briefly breaking the silence on this undisturbed stretch of the middle Delaware in the 70,000-acre Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.

A bald eagle perched on a tree limb along the banks. It was one of 14 Corbett said he spotted over his two days on the river.

Friday's picture-perfect morning for paddling stood in contrast to Corbett's first day out, which was more like George Washington's hazard-filled Delaware crossing.

On Thursday the governor had to fend off a peaceful but vocal water assault by sign-waving, anti-gas-drilling activists and got soaked when his kayak tipped over as he tried to reenter the water after portaging a shallow section of the river.

On Friday, as the fog lifted, Corbett navigated easily through some choppy water, made a few wisecracks about New Jersey - ("Nothing interesting over there?" he said to one Environmental Protection official, paddling near the New Jersey shore. "What do you expect; it's the New Jersey side.") - and had a chance encounter with incoming freshmen and staff from Fairleigh Dickinson University, some of whom who grabbed him mid-float for a quick chat and a few photos.

The kayak trips highlight a key difference between Corbett and his predecessor, Ed Rendell (beyond politics): Corbett really likes the outdoors.

When Rendell took office in 2003, he didn't know maple syrup was made in Pennsylvania, and his best-known outdoor activity had come years earlier as when, as Philadelphia mayor, he took a cannonball leap off a diving board to open a city swimming pool.

During Rendell's summers, he traversed the state by bus, staying at country inns to promote his latest initiative.

Corbett, a veteran canoeist and kayaker who once spent summers as a lifeguard at a Pittsburgh public pool, is at home on the water. He, too, stays at inns but would prefer camping out - much to the chagrin of his staff and security detail.

At 6, he vacationed with his family at Promised Land State Park in Pike County when his father, Thomas Corbett, was a lawyer for the predecessor agency to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Later his father would help secure the land that is now Point State Park, where the Three Rivers converge in downtown Pittsburgh.

At 12, Corbett took a six-day canoe trip along the Allegheny River during summer camp. He traveled the sections of that river again earlier this summer to highlight recreational tourism in the western part of the state.

Even today, Corbett's eyes light up as he recalls his childhood excursions and his visits to state parks as governor. Pulling out the new Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation guidebook Passport to the State Parks, he points to parks he has visited and says he would like to visit all 100-plus parks one day.

Corbett and his wife, Susan, have been kayaking for about 15 years, starting out by exploring swamps around Hilton Head, S.C. Now they have his and hers kayaks stored in the garage at the governor's mansion in Harrisburg.

"Kayaking is a great way to see the resources of Pennsylvania," Corbett said at a news conference after completing his paddle Friday afternoon.

The first lady joined the governor for the trip along the Conemaugh River in Western Pennsylvania earlier in the summer but skipped this outing, Corbett said, because she was tending to her 93-year-old mother following the death of her father two weeks ago.

It was Corbett's fourth river trip this year and follows two excursions last summer. He says he hopes to make kayaking Pennsylvania waterways an annual event.

Sidelined briefly a year ago during back surgery for spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column that caused him debilitating nerve pain, Corbett said kayaking had been good therapy for his back.

"I really focus on stretching," Corbett said. His back was starting to ache again this summer, he said, but the pain disappeared when he started paddling again. "There's no machine that can replicate that motion."

Even on the river, he couldn't escape the political battles back in Harrisburg. As he was enjoying a respite on the water, Pennsylvania Democrats were assailing him for cutting tourism funding (Corbett said that if the state regained its fiscal footing, he hoped to put money back into tourism), while environmentalists seized on what they called his exploitation of natural resources.

"The bald eagles that he saw were endangered but have come back because their habitat is preserved," said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware River Keeper, who paddled onto the river Thursday to confront the governor over his support of natural gas drilling in the Delaware River basin region. "Drilling rigs will destroy it."

After pulling out of the water, Corbett lamented that the Pennsylvania Democratic Party had used the kayak trip as political fodder.

"This is not a partisan issue," he said, gesturing to the tree-lined banks.

Later, after trying some fly-casting, Corbett said he seeks a balance between growing the economy through tourism and natural gas development, and preserving the environment.

"A century ago we were not kind to our rivers . . . we have to be better stewards of the environment," said Corbett, recalling the waste-choked rivers around Pittsburgh during his youth where fishing tournaments now take place. "The fish and eagles and the falcon we saw today were once commonplace and hopefully they will be commonplace again."

Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or or follow @inkyamy on twitter.

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