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Midstate couple launches Hershey-area kayaking business on Swatara Creek

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Husband-and-wife team Ben and Debra Miller co-own Cocoa Kayak Rentals of Hershey Inc., a new business that operates kayak rentals and trips on the Swatara Creek in Dauphin and Lebanon counties. Photo/Amy Spangler
Husband-and-wife team Ben and Debra Miller co-own Cocoa Kayak Rentals of Hershey Inc., a new business that operates kayak rentals and trips on the Swatara Creek in Dauphin and Lebanon counties. Photo/Amy Spangler

Ben Miller spent the last 14 years working part-time jobs so he could be a stay-at-home dad.

His children are older, so now is the perfect point in his life to start a new career, said Miller, president of Cocoa Kayak Rentals of Hershey Inc.

The business is operating kayak rentals and trips on the Swatara Creek in Dauphin and Lebanon counties and looking for a more permanent home along the waterway, he said.

Cocoa Kayak will hold its grand opening event, called its Spring Opening, Saturday at Boathouse Park in Derry Township.

"I've always loved the outdoors," Miller said. "It's a natural fit for me, doing something outside and doing something active. And I've always been a people person."

Kayaking is very popular today and it's a growth industry in terms of sales and rentals, said Ed Bowman, owner of Tussey Mountain Outfitters in Centre County. The business sold Miller kayaks and Bowman has been a resource, Miller said.

Bowman has been in business since 1978 and offers kayak sales and rentals. Part of the popularity as more people discover the activity is how accessible it is, Bowman said.

"It's fun and adventuresome, but it's doable by pretty much anyone," he said.

He puts Pennsylvania top in the nation for kayak offerings, with a wide range of the types of water a person can travel that include smaller streams, lakes and larger rivers.

Bowman also said he expects more outfitters to start up across the state as more people get into kayaking.

"And that's a good thing," he said.

An outdoors enthusiast from his earliest days, Miller said he's done whitewater rafting trips and even did some kayak guiding with an outfitter on the Susquehanna River. Then he realized Swatara Creek is so close to where he lives.

"It's only about 10 minutes from my house," Miller said.

The launch of Cocoa Kayak has been more than a year in the making, with significant prep work that included getting a website built, meeting and promoting the operations with other local businesses, and getting to know the water, he said.

Miller said he's spent a lot of face time with likely more than 200 business owners and managers to get the word out. The business offers a discount for large groups as well as a pickup service for groups of six or more within 5 miles of the stream, he said.

It's ideal for area hotel guests as well as others such as scouting and church groups, Miller said. Cocoa Kayak also can do team-building trips for businesses.

The business can accommodate a wide range of clientele, with six sizes of kayaks in its fleet of 22.

Miller said he spent a great deal of time over several months last year kayaking different stretches over and over to understand how the water can change over time.

There were float trips to help work out the logistics of putting people and watercraft in and out of the water, he said.

Another appeal of starting this particular venture is that it is seasonal, so during busier summer months his children are available to help out, Miller said.

And participants on the first trips of the year saw bald eagles, he said during an interview last week.

When her husband told her the idea to start the kayak business, Debra Miller said she thought it was a fantastic idea. He's always been an outdoors guy and loves kayaking — an activity they do together, said Debra Miller, who is co-owner and secretary for the corporation.

"It just sounded like such a great idea," she said. "(The Swatara Creek) is such a hidden gem of the Hershey area."

A scientist by training, she said it's been interesting to learn the business side and marketing. Last year's learning of the ropes was great as well.

"And I had the best tan I ever had last summer," she joked.

The business had guided trips and rents kayaks for unguided floats, Miller said. The trips are numerous and stretch from the Jonestown area of Lebanon County to the creek's mouth at the Susquehanna River in Dauphin County.

In addition, the business will combine stretches for a longer trip, Miller said.

Over time, Cocoa Kayak expects to whittle down the menu of listed trips as it sees which ones are the most popular, he said. In less busy periods, Cocoa Kayak will take requests that include upstream and elsewhere.

"If we have a special request, we'll do the Yellow Breeches (Creek), the upper stretches of the Swatara, the Susquehanna (River)," he said. Miller also began volunteering with the Lebanon County-based Swatara Watershed Association Inc., which has provided valuable information about the stream and has helped him get to know the waters and the history better, he said. Miller has since become a board member.

Cocoa Kayak is a great complement to the canoes that larger groups can use from the association, said Jo Ellen Litz, the organization's president.

Miller is knowledgeable and capable, has a great personality and people respond to him, she said.

The business will help get more people onto the waterway and educate them about the resource, Litz said. Any time that happens, it's a good thing, she said.

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