A stream of people, quite a lot for a normal show Tuesday, steadily filed into the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, Pa., eager to see everything that the Great American Outdoor Show has to offer. There was a palpable sense of excitement, easily discerned through broad smiles, that made this show feel different than the half-dozen other "Harrisburg shows" I have experienced in years past.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, as the saying goes, and the loss of last year's show undoubtedly provided perspective and a deeper appreciation for the show and what it stands for. The issue of a new show name and owner also likely contributed to the excitement, as people wanted to see for themselves if the show was the same one they had come to know and love.
"We come every year-except last year, of course-and we were anxious to see what has changed," said Susan Langston of York, Pa., who attended the show Tuesday with her husband, Mark. "We've been pleasantly surprised. It doesn't feel like anything has changed at all, except with NRA's involvement we know the people running the show share the same values that we do."
Indeed, with the demise of the old Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show, which was cancelled in 2013 amid a boycott of former show owner Reed Exhibitions' anti-gun policies, NRA's goal in assuming ownership was not to change what made the show great but to carry on its rich history and bring it back better than ever.
From this writer's perspective, the Great American Outdoor Show has blossomed into a true celebration of the outdoor lifestyle and a showcase of the values Americans hold dear: family, freedom and our country's hunting, fishing and shooting traditions.
NRA's mark on the show is subtle, but indelible. There's a renewed focus on kids and families, as evidenced by a whole section of the show called the Family Fun Zone, located in the lower concourse of the Large Arena. Manned by many NRA staffers, this area is filled with activities like fishing, archery, LaserShot, 3-Gun AirSoft, wildlife identification, camo facepainting and an Eddie Eagle coloring table, just to name a few, geared specifically for children.
You can also take part in a host of NRA seminars, such as a Refuse To Be A Victim course, an NRA wild turkey hunting clinic, or an NRA-ILA Grassroots workshop, attend an NRA Foundation banquet on Friday evening, or buy raffle tickets to win firearms through the Wall of Guns, the proceeds of which benefit The NRA Foundation. On Saturday night there's even going to be an NRA Country concert headlined by country music star Brantley Gilbert, whose chart-topping hits include "Country Must Be Country Wide" and "You Don't Know Her Like I Do."
All of the other draws that have made the show a Central Pennsylvania staple are still there, too. There are acres of booths filled with hunting outfitters and fishing charters from literally around the world, and many outfitters can still be found in the same places they've set up shop for years.
Attendees can still purchase the latest hunting and fishing equipment, peruse the newest trucks, boats and ATVs on the market, appreciate the talents of countless wildlife artists and craftsmen, attend seminars and demonstrations from outdoor experts and celebrities, eat good food and have just an all-around great time. It's a spectacle that no hunter should miss-not to mention a great way to fill those winter doldrums after hunting season has ended.
If you haven't attended the Great American Outdoor Show yet, there's still time, as the show runs through 5 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 9. There's no better way to spend the day, especially with your kids or grandkids in tow.
I'm going back on Saturday, and this time I'll be bringing my wife and daughter with me.