The Swatara Creek, winding from Schuylkill County through northwestern Lebanon County and out to the Susquehanna River in Middletown, is experiencing an unusually active season as locals seek ways to get out of the house and experience the nature around them.
Many parks, pools, camps, and other outdoor organizations in the area made the decision to shut down or reduce operations this summer as a preemptive safety measure against the spread of COVID-19. These shutdowns, combined with a long stretch of hot, sunny weather, have turned much public attention to the creek and the surrounding region, which boasts kayak runs, hiking routes, bike trails, Memorial Lake, and more.
Kyle Stokes, who owns and operates Swatara Creek Outfitters north of Annville and less than two miles away from the creek, told LebTown in an interview that this summer has seen a huge demand in outdoors interest “across the board.”
“People are working from home, kids aren’t playing travel sports, vacations are being cancelled, so they’re looking to do things in the immediate area,” Stokes explained.
Swatara Creek Outfitters specializes in archery, but the shop at 535 PA Route 94 also sells Stokes’ own line of mountain e-bikes and creek kayaks. “For years, everyone thought I sold kayaks,” Stokes said of the 18-year-old business. “So three years ago we started selling kayaks.”
It’s an investment that’s paid off well this year. “We were selling them like loaves of bread in May and June,” said Stokes. “I could have sold three times as many kayaks if I had them here.” He added that local interest in hunting and fishing has also been driven up, and speculated that 2020’s number of new PA hunting licenses would spike after the steady decline of the last several years.
Stokes’ kayaks, named for local rivers and creeks, are specially designed for relatively calm waters like those found on the Swatara, though they’re functional in a variety of contexts. “Mostly around here, you see people out on Memorial Lake and the Swatara since it’s so close,” Stokes said. “Some people are using them to bass fish, so they’re going to ponds, quarries, and the Susquehanna.”
Ben Miller of Cocoa Kayak Rentals, which operates out of Palmyra, has also seen a stark rise in interest this summer. “People are biking, hiking, and boating a lot more, and we see a huge increase due to that,” Miller told LebTown in a phone interview.
The service offers kayak rental trips along the 60-mile Swatara Creek Water Trail (PDF). Customers park at a public access point, where a shuttle vehicle carries them upstream to begin their trip. Kayak owners can also use the shuttle service with their own boats.
“In June, the number of customers we had this year doubled from our previous record,” said Miller. When LebTown spoke with Miller in mid-July, he said that the month had “already reached numbers to put it at the fourth highest month of [the] business.”
Besides the proximity, Miller believes that the Swatara is a popular choice thanks to its natural beauty and Class 1 waters, the lowest rating in river difficulty. “It’s a perfect match for beginner kayakers and anyone who loves nature,” he said. “The entire creek is a tree-lined stream with a rich, healthy habitat with a variety of species that would astound people.”
“We have first-timers go out everyday without a guide who do extremely well,” Miller continued. It’s an activity just about anyone can get into: Miller has seen kayakers ranging in age from nine to ninety-two have a blast on their trips. One popular trip variation is the monthly Full Moon Float, which is a nighttime hour out on the creek complete with a guide and headlamps.
Read More: Where to spot bald eagles in Lebanon County
How to get out and enjoy the “Swattie”
Kayaking, canoeing, and fishing offer the most direct contact with the creek itself. If you decide to head out on the water, Northern Lebanon Fire and Emergency Services recommends wearing personal flotation devices when kayaking or tubing on the creek, even on placid days. It’s also a good idea to be mindful of points along the creek itself, including bridge posts and the two dams.
For those who prefer to stay on land, the 3,520-acre Swatara State Park offers miles of trail on both sides of the creek, plus several points of interest along the way, including a hill of eroded rock where fossils have been found, an intersection with the Appalachian Trail across the Waterville Bridge, and the ruins of old canal constructions.
There’s also the Swatara Watershed Park, a 34-acre “essential hub” of activity for the Water Trail at 1929 Blacks Bridge Road north of Annville. The park includes campgrounds, a pavilion, canoes, lock remnants, and a boat access point.
The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission lists access points and the full list of regulations and safety requirements for the Water Trail at this link.
It’s one of the few silver linings to a shutdown that nobody would have wished for at the start of the year: a chance to appreciate the great outdoors and explore natural treasures like the Swatara Creek on one’s own time.
“Even before the warm weather hit, people were exercising more just to get out of their homes, and I think it reminded them of how they feel better when they’re outdoors,” Miller said. “It’s a twist of fate for our business and even for our society. Maybe we’re going to embrace that as one of the many changes to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Do you have a favorite spot in Lebanon County? Let us know and we might feature it in a future LebTown story.
This article has been updated to link to up-to-date information on the Swatara Creek Water Trail.
We cover all of Lebanon County.
From Myerstown and Schaefferstown, to Fredericksburg and Jonestown, to Campbelltown and Colebrook—we celebrate all the communities that make up this place we call home.
Do you believe these stories matter? Consider joining LebTown as a member. Your support will help us do more great work for Lebanon County, and you’ll also receive some special perks like our planning calendar emails and invitations to exclusive members-only events.
Learn more and join now here.