A fly fisherman tries his luck in Bellefonte. Photo by Bona fide Photography of Central PA.

What if the workday could include a kayak break? What if you could be in a national forest after work for a bike ride instead of stuck in traffic on the Parkway East? 

Since the pandemic started, Americans have increasingly dropped the bumper-to-bumper commute. Some studies estimate that more than one in 10 American workers now work from home full-time, with a significantly larger number opting for a hybrid work schedule that includes a blend of in-office and at-home work. 

The idea is going from cubicle fantasy to more and more U.S. workers clocking in from where they choose. Places like Tulsa, Oklahoma and our own neighboring state of West Virginia are even offering $10,000 or more in incentives to relocate.  

But packing up your life to move to a place you’ve never been or only visited can be a daunting proposition. That’s why the Pennsylvania Wilds — the region along the Interstate 80 corridor in north central Pennsylvania, including the Allegheny National Forest and the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon — are approaching remote work incentives with a different spin. 

Starting last year, the PA Wilds tourism and marketing agency, which is tied to the state’s Department of Tourism, launched a program offering free lodging and other amenities to live in one of the towns in their region for a month. It’s a sort of lifestyle “test drive” through their Wilds Are Working program.

“We wanted to keep it more bite-sized than we’d seen in other places,” says Britt Madera, communications manager for PA Wilds. “A month is a little more approachable than saying, ‘I’m going to drop everything for an entire year.’ It’s more than a vacation. You get to integrate into the community. You get to know people and make friends, get the lay of the land and really dig in a little bit.”

Located downriver from Kinzua Dam and the Allegheny Reservoir along a National Wild and Scenic stretch of the Allegheny River, Warren is embracing outdoor recreation with comprehensive redevelopment plans. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

Funded in part by the communities hosting the remote workers and grants from the Ben Franklin Technology Partners and the Appalachian Regional Commission, PA Wilds ran a Wilds Are Working pilot program last year with five or six candidates staying in both Kane, near the Allegheny National Forest, and in Bellefonte, near State College.

This summer the program will host remote workers in Warren, along the Allegheny River near the Allegheny National Forest, and in Emporium near Pennsylvania’s elk reserves. The program is funded through 2024 and Madera says they hope to continue it beyond that date. 

For 33-year-old Madison Hanna, the PA Wilds region really wasn’t on her radar. The former Denver resident who currently lives in Portland, Maine, wasn’t thinking about towns like Kane or Bellefonte until her cousin mentioned the remote work program.

“I went in with low expectations and was blown out of the water,” Hanna says of her experience in Kane last summer. 

A pair of elk spar on an elk reserve near Emporium. Photo courtesy of PA Wilds.

With family in Clarion, the brand strategist with her own marketing company was no stranger to Western Pennsylvania, but it wasn’t a full-time living consideration.

“I underestimated PA in a lot of ways,” she says. “You get to do more ‘life’ in these smaller places. You’re not battling the roads to get the best parking spot at the trailhead (like Denver). You’re not waiting in endless lines to get a spontaneous dinner on Main Street.”

After a month in Kane, she says she would now seriously consider small-town living full-time. 

Having worked remotely pre-pandemic, Hanna jokes, “When the pandemic happened, I was thrilled that everyone joined me.” 

And now the experience in Kane has given her the chance to work remotely with like-minded people who are passionate about the outdoors.  

“I was outside almost every day,” she says, adding that she was equally impressed by the town’s trails and “budding food scene.”

Longtime Philadelphia resident and documentary filmmaker John Kohl, 33, says the same about Bellefonte, where he stayed with his wife and two dogs last year.

“The one thing that wowed us was the culture and the food,” he says.

Already familiar with remote work, Kohl elected to try Bellfonte because of the proximity to recreation.

“I was forced into remote work through the pandemic,” he says. “We quickly realized we could make these films remotely.” 

With some familiarity with the PA Wilds through past visits, Kohl and his wife jumped at the opportunity to try it full-time. He feels that a lot of Philadelphia residents’ outdoor pursuits don’t make it beyond the Poconos. 

“I thought this would be the coolest way to really immerse,” he says. “It was perfect. It was unforgettable. I’d never done anything like this. The reality was above and beyond my expectation.”

During the month, Kohl says he drove 3,400 miles exploring the area in his downtime. 

First opened in 2017, Jakes Rocks now features 35 miles of mountain biking trails. A joint effort between Warren County, the National Forest Service and the International Mountain Biking Association, the trail network attracts riders from across the region. Photo courtesy of the Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry.

The PA Wilds region claims roughly 2 million acres of public lands according to state tourism statistics, including 50 state game lands, 29 state parks, eight state forests, the national wild and scenic rated Allegheny and Clarion rivers, and the 500,000-acre Allegheny National Forest. While it is 25% of the state’s land acreage, it accounts for only 4% of the population of Pennsylvania. 

Proximity to recreation in the PA Wilds was also a factor for Pittsburgh resident Mandy Kendall, 44, of Brookline. She says she was additionally drawn to the idea of experiencing the realities of small-town living.

“In Pittsburgh, we have (outdoor activities) in the area, but they’re like an hour outside of the city. On the weekdays I can’t get there. When I was in Bellefonte it was 15 minutes up the road,” she says. “I think it kind of sealed the deal in my head that it is a thing that would be possible. I wasn’t sure before if the idea of living in an area like that would be romanticizing it. Living someplace is not the same as visiting. Actually having that month to be there, I felt totally at home within a week. By the end of the month, I felt like I’d been there forever. It was really easy to look at that place as a potential home.” 

That’s exactly the kind of reaction host towns are hoping will come out of the program, says Jim Decker, president & CEO of the Warren County Chamber of Business & Industry.

“I think it’s awesome. The whole concept plays nicely into what we do,” he says, excited for Warren to serve as one of the host cities this August. “We’ve had a lot of conversations about how to recruit remote workers.”

Emporium will host remote workers in July. Each of the host towns is required to have certain offerings like high-speed internet and co-op workspaces. For the towns selected, it’s also an opportunity to get feedback on how they can improve.

Workers use a coworking space at SpringBoard in Bellefonte. The owners decided to expand their business following input from the Wilds Are Working remote worker program participants. Photo by Bona fide Photography of Central PA.

“We think we know what people are looking for,” Decker says, “but it’s really nice to get people in here and pick their brains.”

Feedback from last year prompted Bellefonte’s coworking space SpringBoard to expand its offerings and move to a larger location. 

Remote workers in the program complete an evaluation of their experiences with notes on what they liked or could be improved.

Current funding includes plans for two yet-to-be-announced host cities in 2024. Prospective towns will submit applications to host remote workers later this year.  Destinations will be announced in early 2024, with applications opening to remote workers in early spring. Potential destinations must apply to be selected and show that they have the necessary amenities to support remote workers.

Find more information at wildsareworking.com.

The Outdoor Guide Series is underwritten by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council as part of its effort to promote the outdoor recreation economy in Pennsylvania and neighboring areas.

Sebastian Foltz is a Pittsburgh-based freelance photographer and writer with contributions to newspapers and magazines in Pittsburgh, Oregon and Colorado. An avid whitewater kayaker, mountain biker and skier, Sebastian has a background in news, sports and outdoor journalism.