Governor and his fleet of kayakers on a Pa. river paddle

Gov. Corbett preparing to kayak along the Juniata River, north of Harrisburg on Thursday, the second day of his annual summer kayak voyage in Pennsylvania.
Gov. Corbett preparing to kayak along the Juniata River, north of Harrisburg on Thursday, the second day of his annual summer kayak voyage in Pennsylvania. (LUKE RAFFERTY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 10, 2013

NEWPORT - The Howe boat launch on the Juniata River is only about 25 miles north of Harrisburg, but it seems a continent away from the maelstrom of Pennsylvania politics.

A year out from his formal reelection campaign, Gov. Corbett is the subject of frequent pummeling by the press, the polls, and the pundits. But the cacophony dissipates as the regular nature-loving guy in hiking shorts and T-shirt climbs into his blue kayak and slips into the river.

The idea of a kayak trek on Pennsylvania waterways, begun on a whim three years ago after Corbett signed his first state budget, has now become an administration summer tradition.

This year, it was a quiet, three-day float down the Juniata, a broad, shallow river that courses 100 miles over shale and sandstone formations from Raystown Lake in the center of the state to the point where it meets the Susquehanna River, just north of Harrisburg.

On day two of his journey, Corbett was joined by about 15 staff members of state agencies charged with protecting wilderness and waterways - the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and the Fish and Boat Commission.

There were no cabinet members or political operatives on the river this day. And no talk of politics - those are Corbett's ground rules when he's out on the river.

Nor were there protesters like those who confronted him last year on the Delaware.

Why does he do it?

"Number one, exercise," the governor said. "But also to promote the rivers and tourism."

Or savor a little peace.

Corbett paddled a few strokes and then let the river carry him so he could take in his surroundings.

"Oh, look at that white bird!" he said, as a great white egret soared low from one bank to the next. He pointed out a bald eagle, too, perched atop a dead tree.

The stiff Corbett exterior that has generated endless comment and criticism melted away as he shared family stories.

A mention of his father, a former deputy state attorney general and government lawyer, had Corbett - himself a former state attorney general - reminiscing about how his dad had negotiated land acquisitions that allowed the state to build parks and institutions such as the Pittsburgh Civic Arena and Three Rivers Stadium. From there, Corbett detoured into a book review of novelist James Michener's weighty tome Chesapeake ("Too much detail").

A story about his adopted grandson, Liam ("already 35 pounds and not yet 2!"), led to a mention of Liam's ne'er-do-well father, a felon with 12 other children by several women.

"He was lucky 13," Corbett said of his grandson.

Back troubles, which nagged him so badly through the 2010 campaign that he went into surgery almost immediately after taking office, have curtailed the 64-year-old governor's physical activity somewhat.

Corbett said he wanted to resurrect the governor's annual tour - a tradition begun by a previous Republican governor, Tom Ridge, an avid bicyclist who launched a bike tour to highlight different regions of the state.

But Corbett has opted for kayaking, something he and first lady Susan Corbett have enjoyed for years - because, he said, the seat was more comfortable, and the river brings none of the traffic hassles that bikers endure.

This year's kayak trip was a far cry from the tumult last summer, when a flotilla of gas-drilling protesters on the Delaware River maneuvered into his path. Riverkeeper Maya K. van Rossum - whose group, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, has been fighting to preserve a moratorium on natural-gas drilling in the Delaware basin - confronted Corbett in her kayak.

His aides pulled alongside and quickly offered her a meeting with him if she would stand down.

On Thursday, Corbett recalled those protests as he floated past state game lands, the Juniata's banks populated only by turtles and ducklings - and the occasional security officer keeping an eye peeled for the governor's safety.

"You know, I met with the woman leading that, don't you?" he asked a reporter.

(Indeed, he met with van Rossum and her deputy Tracy Carluccio in January. Carluccio confirmed this Thursday - she said Corbett watched the group's 45-minute compilation of videos made by Pennsylvanians affected by drilling. "He was willing to listen," she said.)

Corbett zig-zagged down the river, chatting with agency staff members, remarking at the simple campsites with heaps of firewood that line the river, raising his paddle to give a "high-paddle" shake when a fellow kayaker made it through a stretch of rapids without tipping over.

The gubernatorial fleet meandered along for two hours or so. Then one blue boat suddenly broke free, its occupant paddling vigorously and leading the others toward the shoreline as a handful of TV cameras recorded a picture-perfect moment, suitable for a campaign.

The paddler? Tom Corbett.


Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inkyamy.

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