It was a dark day in the recreation world four years ago when the nation's interior secretary, custodian of the great outdoors, confessed that he was miserable on a four-day rafting trip down the Colorado River.

"I don't like to paddle and I don't like to walk," James G. Watt told a startled group of national park concessionaires in 1981. By the third day, he said, he was praying for a helicopter to fetch him.

Ah, but happy days are here again -- at least as far as the purveyors of "park experiences" are concerned. The current occupant of the secretary's office, Donald Hodel, has spent a good portion of his current trip through the West in a raft, astride a horse, pedaling a bicycle, wielding a fly rod or tramping through the woods -- and having a whale of a time.

That was much to the relief of the various concessionaires, park officials and equipment suppliers who went to a great deal of trouble to arrange the diversions.

"It was just terrific," chortled Derrick Crandall, head of the American Recreation Coalition, who managed to wangle more than an hour out of the secretary's schedule in Montana's Glacier National Park for some mountain-bike riding. Hodel and his wife, Barbara, took happily to the low-geared, fat-tired bikes. Undersecretary Ann Dore McLaughlin even indulged in a little hot-dogging, and so did her deputy, Joseph Martyak.

All of which is to the presumed benefit of the bike promoters, who not coincidentally are attempting to persuade Interior to open more park trails -- including those in wilderness areas -- to off-road bicycles. Crandall said he initially had hoped to get Hodel on a mountain bike in Rocky Mountain National Park near Denver -- where it would have been less of a headache to transport the bicylces -- but the schedule in Colorado was deemed too crowded and the trails too steep.

But Crandall has pulled off bigger logistical problems. When Vice President Bush went into Glacier Park last year, Crandall said, "We had to haul in two 18-wheelers full of camping gear."

EXQUISITE TIMING . . . Even as Hodel was pedaling down forest trails in Montana last week, the White House was announcing a new 15-member commission on improving and expanding outdoor recreational areas.

The group, called the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors, will be headed by Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander. It is patterned after a 1959 panel headed by Laurance S. Rockefeller that is credited with laying the groundwork for the national wilderness system, the national wild and scenic rivers system, and increased funds for land conservation.

"This commission is long overdue," said Paul C. Pritchard, head of the National Parks and Conservation Association.

Among the issues the commission is expected to tackle are park fees, tax policies that discourage land preservation, and ways to reduce overcrowding in some popular recreational areas.

Its members include National Geographic Society President Gilbert M. Grosvenor, four members of Congress (two Democrat, two Republican), the mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., and two state parks directors. Other members include Sheldon Coleman, chairman of the Coleman camping gear firm; Stuart Northrop, chairman of the Huffy Corp. (which made the mountain bike Hodel used in Glacier) and -- who else? -- Derrick Crandall.