BEAR GAP - More than 400 vehicles drove through the Roaring Creek Tract of the Weiser State Forest on Sunday, taking advantage of an invitation extended to the public three years running.

The eight-mile gravel access road through the watershed is most always restricted to vehicle traffic, save for Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Aqua PA.

That it was opened for 5 1/2 hours Sunday to the public, one-way from Route 54 to Route 42, allowed frequent visitors a new perspective to that acquired through hiking or biking.

And for those unable or uninterested in making a physical trek, it offered a rare opportunity for a convenient trip through one of the natural jewels of the greater Shamokin area.

Jim Kellum and his wife, DeeDee, of Sunbury, have been to the state forest several times to hike or bike. They have many friends who drive up from the Reading area to do the same.

The couple was running errands Sunday and decided to take a break by driving through the Roaring Creek tract and do "a little leaf peeping."

"We can come and enjoy the view without the effort," Jim said with a laugh.

The Kellums, like all visitors Sunday, were greeted by Wes Harner and Joe Fishburn, DCNR employees. The welcoming committee provided maps and a rule sheet spelling out the dos and don'ts of the drive-through event.

That so many people turned out to take their vehicles into the watershed Sunday is evidence enough of why it's restricted, Harner said.

"People wonder why we don't always have it open," he said. "It's a safety thing."

Having vehicles on the access road daily would be a hazard to the hikers and bikers, fishermen and hunters who take to the land by foot and by pedal. It would also clog up the road and perhaps stymie rescue vehicles in the event of an emergency.

There were no emergencies Sunday and it appeared no one was in any great hurry to drive quickly through the watershed to begin with, as visitors pulled off the road to explore the woods and reservoirs.

Conservation displays and presentations were set up at the complex near the McWilliams Reservoir at the access road's halfway point, and visitors were encouraged to stop and picnic at tables along the hiking trails.

The watershed area is about 9,000 acres - about 6,600 between the state highways and another 2,300 acres on the east side of Route 42.

George Donkochick came to the event with his wife, Rieta. The Donkochick's live about 16 miles away in West Cameron, but when George was a child growing up in Natalie, the watershed was practically his backyard. Access was restricted back then to even pedestrians - it was incorporated into the state forest system in 2003 - but he admitted breaking the rules once or twice.

"This is really the first time I've been in it since they opened," he said, as his wife said she'd never been in the watershed. "When we were kids we used to sneak down through.

"Legally, I'm going through now," he joked.

Dave Dyer, of Elysburg, has been through the Roaring Tract a great many times. He estimated he'd given tours to more than 18,000 visitors since 1986 when he began working security for the former Consumers Water Co., which purchased the 101-year-old Roaring Creek Water Co. the year before he started.

Two name changes and a merger later, the water company became Aqua PA, a division of Aqua America. The Roaring Creek system will be in operation 130 years come 2014.

On Sunday, Dave and his wife, Alice, drove through, with Dave recounting at the ride's end a great deal of the land's history and that of its original owners, the McWilliams family.

"The water was so good that the men would drink from it," he said of when water was pumped from Kline's Reservoir, near Route 42, up Big Mountain from a steam plant to a mining operation to wash coal. "Then they started to put it in their houses."

Of the McWilliams Reservoir, Dave says, "190 acres," "52 feet deep," "1,333,000,000 gallons when it's full." He easily rattled off the same stats for the Bear Gap Reservoir near Route 54.

Lorne and Nancy Fritz, of Danville, drove through the Roaring Creek on Sunday in their classic 1971 MG.

"The first time we walked about halfway," Nancy said, noting that's about four miles in and four miles out.

"Then we decided we better bring the bikes over," Lorne cracked.

They enjoyed the drive, but both said, for their tastes anyhow, the forest is best enjoyed on bike.