According to U.S. Army veteran Jeff Swire, the 18-acre, outdoor refuge known as Patriots Cove has already saved one life—his own.
Swire has over two decades of military experience, serving in the Iraq War as an infantryman and combat engineer. By the time he retired, Swire was left with a variety of physical and emotional issues, including a feeling of purposelessness that is all too common among veterans.
“For those of us that accept our service as part of who we are, and you lose that, it’s damn hard to figure out how you fit into the world out here,” said Swire.
In 2015, he and his wife Melissa purchased a property along Beaver Run, a small tributary in northeastern Pennsylvania, about 15 miles from the Susquehanna River. The property started out as a place for him and wife to get away, but soon after, Swire got the idea of turning the location into a site that other veterans, first responders and caregivers could visit.
His vision was simple: create a place that could help people with physical and emotional scars transition to life after military service or similar high-intensity, traumatic occupations. The work that it would take to get there was myriad, but for a natural leader and tenacious problem solver like Swire, building Patriots Cove was just another mission.
The healing power of Beaver Run
In its third year, Patriots Cove is a nonprofit organization with dozens of members. Jeff and his team of volunteers have implemented award-winning restoration projects on a mile of Beaver Run, expanding habitat for native brook trout and increasing opportunities for fly fishing.
On a sunny, 70-degree day in early November, the organization held its last weekend getaway of the year. Nearly twenty veterans, first responders and caregivers showed up, all of them in good spirits, despite hardships they continue to face.
“Coming here was the best decision I’ve ever made,” said Ardill Keeler, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan War who struggles with anxiety and depression. “There are some days where I don’t want to do nothing and don’t want to be around anyone. But then I come down here and I’m a totally different person.”
This was Keeler’s second year coming to Patriots Cove. This time, he chose to do a little less fishing himself, and instead spent the day soaking up sun and helping Sergeant Jason Wenton, a Desert Storm Army veteran, maneuver along the stream on an all-terrain wheelchair donated to the organization by a nearby VFW.
“It was at least thirteen years since I picked up a fly rod,” said Wenton, who in 2019 had to have both of his legs amputated due to complications of Gulf War Syndrome.
Invitations to veteran caregivers is a unique aspect of Patriots Cove. At that November event, seven mask-wearing students from the psychology club at nearby Misericordia University came to learn more about the personal challenges that veterans face. Another unique aspect is that Patriots Cove welcomes first responders: the paramedics, ambulance drivers and medical professionals who, like veterans, experience consistently traumatic and violent episodes.
“To come to a place where there’s people who’ve gone through what I’ve gone through is huge for me,” said Megan Stafford, a former paramedic and the only woman fishing that day. She lives just outside Philadelphia, where the noise of the city can be triggering, especially sirens, making Patriots Cove a much-needed getaway. “Mental health-wise, these places have saved my life.”
Bringing back the brook trout
Since the beginning, Swire’s mission to build Patriots Cove was contingent on restoring Beaver Run and welcoming back brook trout, which had been relegated to just a portion of the waterway. Improving water conditions have also benefited the wild brown trout, stocked rainbow trout and other fish living in the stream.
“There’s no sense in bringing in people to fish if there’s no fish,” Swire recalled thinking when he first bought the property.
Back then, Beaver Run was full of trash and debris, eroding stream banks and nearly stagnant water. The twists, turns and depth of a typical, healthy stream, which is necessary to stir up the water and add the oxygen you see in bubbles and hear in ripples, had been reduced from years of erosion.
But after an inspection form the Wyoming County Conservation District, it was determined that the tributary was salvageable. This inspired Jeff and his team to not only clean out “mountains of trash” but to implement structures that could get the water moving again.
Swire, the engineer, said he taught himself everything he needed to know in 30 days, and had a vision of the finished result even before construction began in 2017. Using all-natural materials, his team added erosion support to the banks, and then cut and positioned logs at a diagonal angle, creating vanes that condense the stream, force the water into motion and create miniature waterfalls that increase dissolved oxygen. They also placed stones to create small riffles—another way to get more oxygen into the water. In total, they restored not just the mile of Beaver Run that’s on Patriots Cove, but another mile's worth before and after.
With these features in place, Beaver Run’s dissolved oxygen levels are way up, the current is stronger, the stream bed is deeper, and the trout are back. Always protective of the fish, Swire and his team strategically placed stones in the stream to give the trout a place to hide from predators like herring, and even reserved a part of the stream as a no-fishing sanctuary. As for other wildlife, Jeff’s team also planted an orchard on a hill above the stream to not only help with runoff but produce fruit and nuts for rabbits, squirrels, deer and whatever creatures want to stop by.
“Our plan is to improve the land as much as we improve the water,” said Swire.
A long-term mission
Born and raised in Wyoming County, Pa., Swire is uniquely positioned to be an ambassador for local environmental projects, and he is keen to play the role.
One of Jeff’s ultimate goals for Patriots Cove is to inspire other landowners to tend to their local streams the way he and his team look after Beaver Run. Already, he’s received permission from 36 out of 38 people who own property along Beaver Run to make the same improvements he’s made at Patriots Cove.
Swire understands that small tributaries are important to the bigger picture of environmental health. The water in Beaver Run flows to Bowman Creek, which feeds into the Susquehanna River and ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay. If more landowners adopted Swire’s approach, it would add up to a greater positive impact across the watershed.
To continue his mission, Swire is committed to constantly improving Patriots Cove—whether that’s reducing pollution, connecting with the community or simply giving someone like himself a good day of fishing.
In the end, the mission’s much bigger than himself. “Every day is an opportunity to make this place better. Not just for me, not just for this place, but for the people around here.”