Corbett takes to the water under stormy political skies

Gov. Corbett on the Schuylkill. He uses the annual trip to promote Pennsylvania tourism and the outdoors.
Gov. Corbett on the Schuylkill. He uses the annual trip to promote Pennsylvania tourism and the outdoors. (Commonwealth Media Services)
Posted: August 19, 2014

DOUGLASSVILLE, Pa. - Gov. Corbett pushed off into the Schuylkill from a boat ramp in southern Berks County early Sunday morning on Day Two of his annual kayaking tour of Pennsylvania waterways.

The events are publicly billed as a way to promote tourism and the outdoors, but they also provide a quiet respite and few hours of haven for the usually media-shy chief executive.

This year was no different, except that - given his standing in the polls - it might be the last kayak trip Corbett leads as governor.

Under threatening skies, Corbett and roughly 20 others set off for a 10-mile excursion down the once heavily industrialized Schuylkill - the state's official River of the Year - near the border with Chester County.

Corbett figures he has logged about 100 water miles since taking office in 2011. He has taken grief in the media and from critics for setting aside a few days to tour waterways each year, but he shakes it off.

He says he is just doing his part to cast a spotlight on the state's 2.2 million acres of parks and forests and the jobs created through recreational tourism.

Last week was particularly rough for Corbett, who started the summer engaged in political combat with GOP legislative leaders over his decision to veto $72 million in legislative funding.

For the last few weeks, he has been dogged by controversy surrounding the employment and sudden resignation of Ron Tomalis, the former education secretary who spent the last year in an advisory job in which he did little work, according to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"It wasn't a tough week; it was a normal week," Corbett said, after hopping out of his kayak at Pottstown to tour the River of Revolution Interpretive Center with Montgomery and Chester County tourism officials.

Looking fit after losing 35 pounds and no longer plagued by back problems, the governor was in good spirits, delivering one-liners to a small crowd of tourism officials.

"I think you can move faster on the Schuylkill River than the Schuylkill Expressway," he said to knowing chuckles. "I guess you figured that joke was coming."

Corbett said he hoped to steal away for a few days to Hilton Head with his wife, Susan, in the next few weeks, but it will be a working vacation to prepare for his first debate with challenger Tom Wolf, on Sept. 22 in Hershey.

The Democrat has commanded leads as wide as 20 points in some polls, although the most recent poll showed that lead shrinking to 12 points amid a fierce television advertising battle in some parts of the state.

But for three hours Sunday morning, there was no Capitol or campaign talk, just idle chatter with state agency staff members and tourism officials, paddling through the star grass beds that dot the shallow river – the only thing these days obscuring the clear river bottom, once ravaged by upriver coal mining waste.

"It's the birds," said Corbett, as he watched a great blue heron alight from a low branch off the bow of his kayak. He said he saw several bald eagles while kayaking Saturday in Bradford County. "We didn't have any when I was growing up."

He saw the polluted Allegheny River close up as a boy when he spent six days kayaking its murky length.

"Black was the color of money," he said, describing the smog-covered buildings in his native Pittsburgh. "That's changed now."

He presented Kurt Zwiki, executive director of the Schuylkill River Heritage Area, with four seedlings from acorns from oaks at the Governor's Mansion.

"I need to get rid of some acorns," he said. "We have too many squirrels and they drive my dogs crazy."

Corbett had traded his floppy National Guard kayaking hat for a black baseball cap bearing a large T - for Philadelphia's Little League standouts, the Taney Dragons. "I don't know about you all, but I'm going to be watching and rooting for them tonight."

Corbett was relishing the moment: a winning Pennsylvania sports team with a star girl pitcher uniting the state.

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