If you’ve planned a family vacation to Pennsylvania anytime since 1906, a trip perhaps intended to combine indoor fun and outdoor fun, which are the two kinds of fun, then I’m certain you’ve come across the words “just minutes from Hershey Park.”
Though if you made your plans from 1971 on, you’d have instead read “just minutes from Hersheypark,” as ‘71 marks the peculiar aesthetic decision to smack the words of the park together as tightly as peanut butter meets chocolate in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.
Where to Find the Outdoor Fun
But here’s the thing, or at least I’m betting it is: It likely wouldn’t have occurred to you to venture just minutes from Hersheypark — say, three minutes north by car — to Boat House Road to pilot a kayak on Swatara Creek. Or drive just 24 minutes west by car to City Island, off the western shore of Harrisburg, to fish from small boats in the Susquehanna River.
Furthermore, if you chose to stop using Hersheypark as your point of reference — which I choose to do now as it has little to do with this article — and used Pennsylvania’s capital city of Harrisburg as your base of operations for outdoor recreation — which is what seven other Traveling Dads and I did in July — you could motor a half hour northwest of Harrisburg to Duncannon to hike the Appalachian Trail.
Or, you could travel two minutes southwest by mountain bike from the crispy clean confines of the Crowne Plaza Harrisburg (where the dads and I soundly slept and hot breakfasted during our four days in the city) to ride all or part of the Capital Area Greenbelt that winds around and through Harrisburg.
That breathtaking geographical primer aside, I now give you the outdoor fun part of this travel guide.
Disclosure: The author was hosted by Visit Hershey & Harrisburg in return for this content.
All opinions are his own.
I’m not adept at too many outdoor activities — canoeing, whitewater rafting, and all winter sports spring to mind –but in late 2017 while on Florida’s Walker’s Creek I climbed into a kayak for the first time and discovered I was a natural. And by that, I mean I didn’t capsize, slam into rocks or trees or collide (too hard) with my fellow kayakers. During that excursion our guide noted that some kayakers like to level up and venture from Walker’s Creek to the choppier Florida Intercoastal. And from there, if they’re really feeling frisky, to the Atlantic Ocean.
So naturally one of my first questions for Ben Miller, now in his seventh season of running Cocoa Kayak Rentals, was, would our group of kayaking dads at any point be moving from Swatara Creek into more challenging waters? Not that I was at all ready for that, I just needed to know, was it possible?
And indeed, kayakers do have the option of graduating from the 60 gentle miles of Swatara Creek to the zestier Susquehanna River, where many of us dads would fish the next day. But Ben suggested that “this is plenty of creek for us,” and indeed, during our two-hour excursion it was. Ben runs nine kayaking trips exclusively on Swatara Creek, and we were embarking on the popular Boathouse Run.
Outdoor Fun on the Swatara
With life jackets and thoughtfully-provided clear phone cases around our necks, we shoved off. Most of the other dads had kayaked before, too. But what Ben says to all newbies is that “about 15 minutes in you’ll be kicking your butt you didn’t do it sooner.” And indeed, I was sorry it had been more than 18 months since the last time I’d indulged in this kind of outdoor fun.
And here’s why: Kayaking is both a social and solitary endeavor, and you can have it both ways. At times several of us, showing off our motor skills, would kayak side by side and chat. And at other times we’d paddle ahead. Or, we’d drift behind to look dreamily at the shoreline or snap photos of ourselves or each other.
As placid a pursuit as it is, though, Ben gave us some good advice at the start. “Relax, but don’t meditate,” he said. It doesn’t take too much oomph to ply a straight course or avoid colliding. But at times you do have to look out for low-hanging branches — the Swatara is lined on both sides with trees. And rather than limbo under the branches, Ben advised, it’s best to paddle wide entirely around the branch. Or, you might misjudge your movements and flip your kayak. That didn’t happen, though at one point a passerby waded into the creek with her dogs, an event that distracted one of our guys into capsizing. I’d rather not say who it was, so I’ll just use his initials — Brian Armstead, car reviewer extraordinaire. It only took Brian a few minutes to regain his dignity, and he was fine. We were all fine.
Fishing: Outdoor Fun in Little River Boats
When we got to the boat ramp at the south end of City Island the only crafts I saw in the water were small river boats, and that’s when I had my moment of realization.
Me: I thought we’d be in one big boat.
Joe: Then you didn’t read your own email.
Joe — aka Traveling Dad operations director Joe Cheung — is, as you can probably tell, a master of the droll burn. He was referring to the fact that as our trip’s group leader I had sent out many of the emails briefing the guys about what kinds of outdoor fun we’d be having. And evidently I failed to read through the part that clearly didn’t say we’d all be in one big boat.
And I have to say, I was quietly disappointed about that for a few minutes. During previous “mancation” fishing trips all of us guys had bonded in one big boat, and I was looking forward to that. But it became clear a few minutes later, when the dads paired off into boats (each accompanied by their own captain-guide) that bonding is possible in smaller groups, too. So I was very happy to spend the next four hours with Joe and our captain, John, one of the guides with Koinonia Guide Service.
We Set Off
As we disembarked I peppered John with questions over the loud hum of the motor. As we were not in a placid lake, but in the Susquehanna River, we did have to worry about navigating the ridges and valleys under the surface. “It takes years to read the water,” noted John, who’s been a fishing guide for 10 years but has been angling in these waters for 30. And along the way I learned John has a full-time job for the country of Lancaster that sounds pretty damn stressful.
Which underscores that you learn a lot about guys when you fish with them. And that as water sports go, fishing, by and large, is not stressful.
We were embarking today on catch and release fishing. You seldom eat what you catch from the Susquehanna, John explains, as the river water is not the cleanest. But he points out with a mix of local pride and truth that the Susquehanna is no more polluted than any other river in the country.
Our prey today was bass– although is it prey if you’re going to let it go? — though during other times of year it’s also possible to hook walleye, catfish, or muskie. Fishing season in this part of the Susquehanna lasts from “ice on to ice off,” John says, with the optimal months for catching being early spring to late fall.
Ain’t We Got Outdoor Fun
Joe and I had both fished before, but every fishing trip presents new challenges, and John was very ready with the help and fishing tips. Keep your elbow close to your body, he advised, and use your wrist to cast. Then reel back in and repeat.
John give us the option of fishing two different ways. We could cast into the shallow top of the water, hoping fish would bite the slow-floating lure. I discover quickly this is a type of fishing I have no feel for. The alternative was bottom fishing, which I do. For neither type of fishing do you use live bait. For top fishing we tried “Whopper Poppers,” which mimic minnows and shad. And for bottom fishing we tried tubes, which emulate crayfish. If any bass reading this were under our boats that day, I imagine you have your fish lips smugly pursed together about how many of you weren’t fooled.
And yet some of you were.
What Not Outdoor Fun Things to Do While Fishing
As with any type of fishing, you don’t want to hook anything that’s not a fish. You also won’t attract fish if you have droopy blades of grass on your hook, so swipe those off as soon as you see them.
Don’t bury your hook in your friend’s ear, either, which happened in another boat, but once again out of propriety for the individuals involved I will only use their initials: Kevin Gillooly, podcaster and Disney expert extraordinaire, hooked the ear of longtime friend Traveling Dad editor John Vanda.
Also, try not to hook the bottom, which Joe and I end up doing a few times. So John taught us the “pop trick.” This means you make your line taught, hold up your bale, and release it, popping the hook off the bottom. And I can tell you when you do it right, the trick works.
When the pop trick didn’t work, John would immediately take our hung-up rods from us and hand us different ones so we could keep fishing. He was on the spot during the entire four hours (It’s $300 for a four-hour half day of fishing, $400 for a full 8-hour day). And you do have to procure a one-day tourist fishing license). John won’t often fish with his clients, but will dip in with a rod, as he did several times with us, just to see if fish are biting.
What TO Do While Fishing
One of the things I’ve found with certain sports — golfing and stand-up paddleboarding spring to mind — is when you stop trying too hard and let your body relax, good things happen, like you improve your swing or start to achieve a better sense of balance on your paddle board.
Or, you catch a fish, as I did when I simply relaxed.
Meanwhile on the bonding front, I learned that Joe used to fish when he lived in Hong Kong.
Me: When did you fish back then?
Joe: Middle school.
Me: What did you fish for?”
Good talk, Joe.
When we were kayaking, Joe at times was literally reclining, relaxed, quietly maintaining control of his vessel with what seemed like a minimum of movement.
I point out to Joe that his kayaking style in some ways mimics his tense-as-a-live-wire fishing posture.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Joe says, adding, “I just like the water.”
Fish Like Structure
And really, on the Susquehanna that day it was hard not to like the water. Especially when John took the boat for a run. The loud hum of the motor coupled with the assertive breeze created an almost 007-ish moment, as if John, Joe, and I were speeding to a waterfront casino to knock a sniper out of the rafters. Instead, we came across a high-density foam replica of the Statue of Liberty, about as random as it gets. We passed the Rockville Bridge, the longest-known continuous stone arch bridge in the world. And then for a while we fished again, trying to benefit from remnants of past bridges and other debris below the surface. The debris, John says, “we call structure. Fish are attracted to structure.”
And once again, for several of us, the fish were attracted to both structure and our lures.
At one point towards the end of our excursion, while John was motoring our boat back toward City Island, I realized I had inadvertently taken the seat Joe had been using the entire time. I asked, am I in your seat?
“It’s all good,” Joe said, “we’re all in the same boat.”
Outdoor Fun on Wheels: Biking the Capital Area Greenbelt
The Capital Area Greenbelt is a 20 mile multi-surface recreational trail that loops through and around Harrisburg. I didn’t personally bike this trail, as some of the guys and I were hiking at the time (see below) but Traveling Dads Jeff Brownson and Tim Jones did. Guide Dick Norford brought mountain bikes and helmets to the hotel where he met up with Jeff and Tim and escorted them to the nearby Greenbelt for their outdoor adventure.
Tim was kind enough to submit to a Q&A after his ride.
How multi-terrain a ride was this? What did you see? How would rate the ride in terms of degree of difficulty? Intermediate? Hard? How far did you actually bike?
TJ: The ride was actually multi-terrain. Some parts of the trail were gravel (unpaved due to the fact that it runs through some private property and owners don’t want it paved). Also, mountain biking trails run parallel to the multi-terrain/mostly-paved trail. Overall, it was a great ride. Some parts take you through what I felt were questionable neighborhoods. I wouldn’t put degree of difficulty above beginner, unless you were doing some of the mountain biking trails, then I might bump it up to intermediate. We biked almost 12 miles. It’s an 18.8 mile loop.
What You’ll See on the Greenbelt
How did ride compare to other bike rides you’ve taken? Can you specifically compare it to your biking experiences in other regions?
TJ: It was very similar to other “rail to trail” bike trails that I’ve done in other areas. One area that stands apart (and above) the others is with the multitude of parks and memorials along the trail. Also, there’s a lot of history along the trail. There’s a former state mental institution that served as a movie set and appeared on “Ghost Hunters.” And there’s a house that was part of the Underground Railroad, and a memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Any challenges on this ride? Any tips for bike enthusiasts who want to do the ride you did?
TJ: Due to the multi-terrain nature of the trail, I would not use a road bike for the trail. [We had mountain bikes, so a] mountain bike, beach cruiser, or hybrid bike would be best. Also, bring LOTS of water if it’s hot [as there’s] nowhere on the trail to fill up.
Outdoor Fun on the Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian National Scenic Trail extends 2,193 miles through state parks, public lands including national parks and forests, and other regions in 14 of these United States.
And the many hiking trails that comprise the Appalachian Trail are entirely maintained by volunteers like Gail, a former teacher and Girl Scout Leader who has been leading hikes for a decade, and serves as president of the Susquehanna Appalachian Trail Club. So during our two-hour hike, when Gail led a small group of us outdoor enthusiasts through the countryside outside Harrisburg on the part of the trail leading to Hawk Rock Overlook, we were in capable hands.
I run three miles nearly every day and won’t hesitate to tell you what fantastic shape I think I’m in. But a few minutes into our climbing a literal winding mile of steps I asked Gail to slow it down a drop so we could keep up with her. She did, and gave us more rest breaks than we deserved.
“I do three miles on the treadmill every day and it’s nothing like this,” I say to no one in particular.
“I chase after a 4-year-old all day long and it’s exactly like this,” says Jason Greene, who through no fault of his own is often quicker witted and better looking than any of us.
Pay Attention: More Outdoor Fun Ahead
At one point I asked Gail what the single and double white blazes on the trees meant. She pleasantly noted that “somebody wasn’t listening earlier” but told me again anyway. In fairness it was nearly 100 degrees and I was dying, so I was only comprehending 40% of what anybody was saying. And after she re-explained it I still didn’t have it straight, so I looked it up. According to howtowilderness.com:
A single blaze means straight ahead. For double blazes, the top blaze indicates the turn direction. If the top blaze is to the right of the bottom blaze turn right. If it is to the left, turn left. In some areas, one blaze directly above the other means caution or end of trail.
Not only won’t you know what the blazes mean if you’re not listening to your guide, but if you’re looking down, Gail observes, you may miss seeing the blazes altogether. The thing is, as a novice on this trail it’s hard not to look down every step of the way. Which is why it’s good to have a guide like Gail.
By the time we got to Hawk Rock Overlook my breathing was ragged and I was sweating from unspeakable places. But we were grateful to Gail for getting us up there. And were again when she let us take a slight shortcut on the way down.
The view is likely why people love this hike, but meeting people like Gail why I love to travel.