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Alaska State Parks Blog
Alaska State Parks Celebrates 50th Anniversary - Superintendent Jack Blackwell
Originally published in issue 85 of SMOLTS, The Newsletter of the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, Spring/Summer 2020
This year the Alaska State Park system celebrates its’ 50th anniversary. Kachemak Bay State Park is honored to claim the title of the first designated state park which was established on May 9, 1970. Later that year, Chugach State Park and Denali State Park were established by the Legislature followed by Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park in 1972. Many have claimed that these first state parks would be worthy of national park status and we are fortunate to have these under state management.
Neil Johannsen served as director of the Alaska Division of Parks from 1983 – 1995 and was instrumental in development of the new state park system in the last frontier. Johannsen would often say that the State’s park system was “a system of dreams” and he is certainly right about that. Our state park system is the result of people passionate about our public lands and protecting them for future generations. In many cases, people were concerned that these important lands could be logged, mined, or developed. The state lands that have been withdrawn from the public domain and established as special purpose lands (state parks) would never have occurred without the support and desire of local residents and stakeholders concerned about these special places. In other words, people had dreams that became a reality.
The framework of the Alaska State Park system started before statehood. Baranof Castle State Historic Site in Sitka is home to the site where Alaska was purchased from Russia and transferred to the United States in 1867. The site was established as a territorial historic site and is now a state historic site.
In 1959, the Bureau of Land Management transferred 32 campgrounds and waysides to the recently created Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Many of these campgrounds are now popular state parks, such as Johnson Lake State Recreation Area near Kasilof. In 1966 the Legislature established Nancy Lake State Recreation Area and Chena River State Recreation Area the following year. While not officially designated as a State Park, the recreation areas were the first created by the Legislature. However, Kachemak Bay State Park still claims the title to Alaska’s first State Park.
The Alaska Division of Parks was established in 1970 as a special division within DNR to oversee the state park system. In 1984, the division was renamed the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation to emphasize the importance of recreation in our state. Today the division’s mission is to “provide outdoor recreation opportunities, and conserve and interpret natural, cultural, and historic resources for the use, enjoyment, and welfare of the people”.
Alaska has an extensive system of protected marine waters and lands along the north Pacific Ocean. The Statehood Act allowed the new State of Alaska to select 400,000 acres of vacant and unappropriated national forest land for the State’s development, including recreation purposes. Some of this land became the start of the State’s marine park system. Through a public process, important bays, coves, and waterways in Resurrection Bay, Prince William Sound, and Southeast Alaska were selected and the first state marine parks were created in 1983. The new state marine parks became part of an international system of protected marine waters spanning from Washington state marine parks, to provincial marine parks in British Columbia, to our state marine parks in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska. Many of the state marine parks in Southcentral Alaska were expanded when the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council purchased land through their habitat acquisition program and became managed within the Alaska State Park system. Today, Kachemak Bay State Park and State Wilderness Park, Shuyak Island State Park, Afognak Island State Park, the state marine parks in Resurrection Bay, Prince William Sound, and Southeast Alaska offer world class marine recreation opportunities.
The Alaska State Park system is important to Alaskan residents and visitors. The system offers recreation and economic opportunities for Alaskans. Our park system has weathered economic crisis, natural disasters, and human caused disasters and we are currently faced with a global pandemic. During these times of uncertainty, we find that public lands are critical for our health and well-being by offering an escape and place for people to rejuvenate. This spring, visitation at many of our state parks is higher than ever.
The Kachemak Bay State Park and State Wilderness Park management plan is currently under revision. If things go as anticipated, the new management plan will be released later this year. Once the management plan is adopted, it will provide park managers with guidance for future development and for addressing issues.
This summer take time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Alaska State Park system by visiting one of the 156 state parks in Alaska. Congratulations to Kachemak Bay State Park for being an important part of our community for 50 years. And thanks to those who have worked hard to create the park and take care of it.
Jack Blackwell started working for the Alaska Division of Parks & Outdoor Recreation in 1985. He began his career with the Alaska State Park system working on a trail crew and was a ranger that worked in Southeast Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula, and Prince William Sound. He currently serves as the superintendent of the Kenai/PWS Region in Soldotna, AK.
Rangers at work in the Northern Region - Chief Ranger Ian Thomas
During the week of 5/11/20 the Ranger staff in the Northern Region were asked to assist the Alaska Wildlife Troopers in two separate search and rescue efforts that took place within days of each other near Fairbanks. One was on the Tanana River and the other on the Chena River.
The first was search was for Alfaz Khan who had disappeared in the Tanana River on the edge of town on Sunday 5/10/20. Khan had entered the river, swift and cold with spring runoff, to pursue his dog that had entered a large eddy that is popular with fishermen. His partner witnessed Khan enter the water after the dog which was able to swim back to shore. Khan was unable to do so and disappeared beneath the surface approximately 50 yards from shore. Several agencies participated in the initial search and were unable to locate Khan. On Monday morning the northern area Rangers responded to the Chena Pump Wayside and participated in the recovery effort using jet boats and various methods for recovering submerged individuals including sonar equipment furnished by the Department of Public Safety. This effort continued through the morning of 5/13/20 when the search was called off by the Alaska State Troopers.
Just as that effort was concluded, calls were being made to AST dispatch concerning another missing person within the Chena River State Recreation Area east of Fairbanks. A pair of Fairbanks residents had driven a jet boat up the east fork of the Chena River and while heading back down stream, the boat became pinned on a log jam which ejected both of the occupants.
The driver of the boat ended up on a log jam out of the water only to witness his partner, Christopher Hight, a Fairbanks resident, being swept downstream and out of sight. After being reported as overdue by family members, the boat driver had been rescued by the Alaska State Troopers using Helo 2 approximately 24 hours after the accident and the disappearance of Hight.
Rangers from the Northern Region responded to 44 mile of Chena Hot Springs Road along with Alaska State Troopers, Alaska Wildlife Troopers and volunteer rescue personnel. Rangers searched the area near the trapped boat along with the Alaska Wildlife Troopers for several hours that afternoon and evening in dangerous conditions with high water and debris present in the river. The search continued late into the night. Northern Region Rangers again responded to assist the next morning using jet boats to travel the river corridor where foot searches of the banks could be conducted.
The search came to an unfortunate end on the afternoon of 5/14/20 when the body of the Christopher Hight was discovered by Wilderness Search and Rescue personnel over a mile below where he was last seen. Rangers responded by jet boat and assisted in recovering Hight so he could be transported by helicopter to the road system. Rangers subsequently transported the individual to a funeral home at the request of family members.
Editor’s note: Our deepest condolences to the friends and families of Alfaz Khan and Christopher Hight, and a BIG thanks to our ASP Rangers for the work they do.
Seasonal Shift: Final Winter Adventures at Fielding Lake - Megan Henry
Spring in Alaska is truly intoxicating. There is a sweet-spot of a time frame that exists, when the combination of snowy adventures mixed with a rapid increase in daylight hits just right! But often it seems like transitional seasons in Alaska are over in the blink of an eye, and before you know it, the spring groove that you had finally found yourself in is over. One spring weekend it's skiing and ice fishing, a week later it's time for hiking and kayaking!
The Fielding Lake Cabin and its nearby outhouse, situated at an elevation of 2,973 feet in the Alaska Range.
Last weekend I drove out to Fielding Lake with my boyfriend, Gus, and our little adventure dog, Penelope. We had reserved the public use cabin managed by the Alaska State Parks for Friday and Saturday night, and were looking forward to getting out of town into the Alaskan wilderness. With six feet of ice on the lake and the ground still covered in snow, it was the perfect place to celebrate one last "winter" outing.
Once we arrived at mile 200.5 of the Richardson Highway, we parked the truck and started unloading our gear. The public use cabin where we would be staying is located about a mile and a half from the parking area, and we had brought a snowmobile and sled to help transport our belongings.
As we arrived at the cabin, we were greeted by two moose who stood observing us from across a stream. Talk about an Alaskan welcoming party! They lingered for a while, watching us unpack our things and settle in a bit before they loped away, continuing to munch in the distance.
We were grateful to see that someone had left wood stacked on the cabin's porch, which we used to start a fire in the wood stove and warm up the cabin. We brought some extra wood inside to dry out overnight and continued unpacking until we turned in for the night. (With the luxury of the snowmachine and the sled, we maybe brought more stuff than we normally would!)
The next morning started slowly with breakfast, coffee, and some reading of Louis L'Amour's Sitka. Once we were done with breakfast, it was off to the lake! Gus loved the convenience of having the snowmachine to get all of the fishing gear to the lake, but Penelope and I preferred to take the slower route and she accompanied me as I cross country skied.
Although we had a slow day of fishing, we soaked up every minute of sun and enjoyed beautiful views as we ate a charcuterie picnic lunch on the lake. It was a lazy day of naps, writing, cribbage games, skiing, snowmachining, and despite social distancing we even managed to make some new friends!
Dinner by headlamp, how romantic! If you are interested in staying at Fielding Lake Cabin yourself, be prepared to bring your own water and be aware that there is no electricity, although the cabin appears to have the option of hooking up a generator. Reservations can be made on reserveamerica.com/.
Once we got back to the cabin that night, we got a little fire going in the wood stove and enjoyed an amazing dinner of moose burgers, thanks to Gus. Not only does he love to hunt, but he loves to cook as well! What a match made in heaven, and thankfully I get to think of myself as the official taste-tester!
The next morning started out similarly to the first, with sleeping in and a backpacker's mocha (Swiss Miss and Starbucks instant coffee for the win!). Thankfully it was a better day of fishing and we got to enjoy another day of beautiful Alaskan weather, surrounded by snowy mountains, before packing up and heading home. We loved our quiet, peaceful respite from everyday life that time at a public use cabin provides, and the drive was spectacular. We even saw some caribou on our way home!
It's hard to believe that this same time last week I was packing up my cross country skis for the last time. After a sunny, beautiful weekend it feels like summer has officially started. Don't get me wrong, I love Alaskan summer! But while I'm looking forward to the hiking and kayaking, I am also super grateful to have squeezed in one last weekend of winter adventures!
Megan Henry is an art teacher living in Anchorage, Alaska, who loves to travel and get outside. She writes a personal blog: https://elsewhereboundtravel.com/ about her experiences in her spare time.
SNOWBOUND - Gail Davidson
As I left Fairbanks in mid-March for my Alaska State parks Artist-in-Residence at North Fork Cabin, Chena State Recreation Area (CRSRA), COVID-19 was just beginning to rear its ugly head. My Subaru was filled to the brim with wool for my rug hooking project, skis and my fat bike for playing on CRSRA trails, extra utensils for the friends who promised to visit, and my two canine companions.
Uncharacteristically, I put a bar of soap into my supplies for two weeks in the woods, along with extra food, since I never really know what I want, and a shovel for dog poop. With both excitement and a sigh of relief for my escape to self-quarantine, off I went to a favorite place at a favorite time of year. It was a good snow year in the Interior, promising great times on the trails in March.
For a couple of days, I gathered firewood and explored my nearby surroundings. At the Angel Creek trailhead, preparing to skijor at least as far as the lower cabin, I met a friend at a social distance who said that things were already heating up in town from the virus. Once again, I was grateful for the timing of my Residency. That night it started to snow.
It snowed. And snowed some more. Every day it snowed, often warm, wet snow, atypical for the Interior. I was grateful for my dog poop shovel, as the Parks-provided snow pusher was useless for real shoveling. My car was no longer going anywhere. It snowed some more, a day or two of drier snow. We managed to slog on skis as far as the road, and since one large truck had driven on it, we skijored straight down Chena Hot Springs Road. It snowed, and snowed, and snowed some more, trapping us there for 8 days total. I was safe, warm enough, and well fed, but when Ranger Dane finally came in on his snowmachine to check on me, I talked his ear off. I am very grateful to the State Parks family for worrying about me. I didn’t know at the time that people were being asked not to go to the Rec Area because of all the snow and the impossibility of driving on or pulling off the road. Being out there is a wonderful thing, but being trapped required a different way of talking to myself. It also allowed a lot of rug hooking time, enough to complete my planned project plus an extra.
My daughter arranged for me to stay on an extra week, snowed in and protected from the virus. On my birthday, two friends snowshoed in, bringing cupcakes (thank you to my daughter!), which we shared on the porch, and extra dog food. Behind them, moving quite slowly, came a bobcat driven by the wonderful Alaska State Parks maintenance man!
Though it took several more days to liberate my car from its snow load, the dogs and I went out and skijored several more times on the road. There was no traffic, and there was nowhere to pull off; it took another week before trailheads were accessible. We saw a lot of 48-Mile Pond, as that is close by. One snowmachine track on the Winter Trail allowed us to ski to Angel Rocks trail and back, and during our several trips there, we saw a lot of very interesting—especially to the dogs— wolf signs which included tracks, fur, and yellow snow.
Leaving my cocoon at the cabin was bittersweet. I was ready to see people, though it has only worked virtually. A friend said that I would feel like I was emerging from a post-apocalyptic bomb shelter. How true that has been, as I’ve struggled to learn the rules of non-engagement. Living with the snow at the cabin with enough food and wool has many advantages.
The Latest/Greatest Public Use Cabin in the Northern Region
For those wishing a quick getaway, the new Compeau Cabin in Chena River State Recreation Area might be the perfect fit. Constructed two miles up the Compeau Trail, the cabin is easy to get to yet far enough to deliver that real Alaskan experience. The cabin, located on a short spur trail, is nestled in a Birch Forest with southern exposure.
The trailhead to the cabin is located at mile-29 Chena Hot Springs Road, 35 miles northeast of Fairbanks. This multi-use, state of the art trail is six feet wide with maximum grades of 10%. The trail is closed during spring break-up from April 20th through late May to all but foot traffic.
Trail Riding Opportunities
The trail beyond the Compeau Cabin follows a sustainable 16-mile alignment to the Colorado Creek Public Use Cabin. It also connects to the Mike Kelly Trail at mile 10, providing another 13 ½ miles of summer backcountry trail adventures. During the winter, outdoor enthusiasts have access to over 100 miles of trail from the cabin.
Funding for the cabin came from the Recreational Trails Grant Program, a federally funded program administered by the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. The 14’ x 16’ cabin package was provided by Logging and Milling Associates out of Delta Junction www.loggingandmilling.com. Alaska Conservation Corps members and staff provided the muscle. The project took just under three months from log delivery, September 11th, 2019, to first cabin rental, December 6th, 2019.
The cabin sleeps a maximum of 6 people and features two bunkbeds. Furniture includes a table, several benches, and kitchen countertop. There’s also a rack above the woodstove to dry clothes. Cabin renters will need sleeping bag, pad, food, cookware, dishes, utensils, cooking stove and fuel, matches, lighters, fire starter, 9-volt battery for smoke detector, first aid items, plastic trash bags, jug of water, saw or axe just in case, firewood, flashlight, and lantern.
Are you ready for that real Alaskan experience? The cabin rents for $45 per night plus a $8 booking fee. For additional information and reservations visit www.alaskastateparks.org
Roger MacCampbell - Retired Chief Ranger at Kachemak Bay State Park
Education in Park Management (A.S.) and Environmental Education and Interpretation (B.A.)
Ranger Roger MacCampbell “retired” in April of 2015 but, the truth is, he can’t stop giving to Alaska State Parks. As a member of Friends of Kachemak Bay State Park, he is currently helping to coordinate 50th anniversary events commemorating the establishment of the park. Gregarious and humble at the same time, he always has a twinkle in his eye and a story to tell.
“Before joining Alaska State Parks in 1984, I worked as a seasonal employee with the National Park Service as an intern at Pinnacles National Monument and Yosemite for $5.00 a day. I worked weekends and summers to get through college and then winters and summers looking for a permanent Ranger job. I worked fire crew, fire lookout, Park naturalist (guided snowshoe hikes), ski patrolman and law enforcement ranger at 21. I eventually applied for a job with Alaska State Parks and started as a ranger in Ninilchik.
I worked with Chief Ranger Bill Garry, who as a park ranger in Yosemite had once surprise delivered a half case of beer via horse back to me where I was working as a back-country intern in Yosemite. I figured then and there that was a job for me, riding horseback and supplying beer! In 1985, I became chief ranger for the southern district of the Kenai Area, which included the state park units from Ninilchik to Kachemak Bay. Our district had three rangers, several Alaska Conservation Corps employees, and a handful of volunteers.
I wanted this job in part because I wanted to live in Homer. I stayed with Alaska State Parks because I soon realized that I had the opportunity to contribute in developing a fairly new Alaska State Park system. It truly felt like going to the minor leagues after playing in the major leagues for years. We drove old castoff Department of Transportation pickup trucks with orange paint interiors and “bubble gum” red lights, lousy “low band” radios and uniforms that we sewed our own patches on.
I worked and helped develop several policies—most of which have been expanded and improved upon since: uniform, law enforcement, Division boat operator credentialing and firearms. I was one of division’s first field training officers and firearm instructors.
Working with our team to develop campgrounds, trails and other facilities was rewarding. But especially rewarding was co-authoring the rewrite of the Kachemak Bay State Park management plan and managing the Division’s post-oil spill Marine Recreation Project grants that I had applied for. These grants afforded building many of the trails, a dock and cabins in KBSP and facilities in Anchor Point and Ninilchik. The major event during my tenure was the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. This was definitely one of the most drawn-out and traumatic events for State Parks and for me, personally.
Also memorable was to witness the steadily increasing professionalism and quality of field staff within the Division; the number of young people that came from the U.S. and abroad to volunteer with Alaska State Parks, some who stayed and became contributing members of our communities and finally, the camaraderie and the friendships over the years, made and kept.”