Families create histories at Washington state parks

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On April 28, 2018, Tom Anderson made his 60th pilgrimage to Alta Lake State Park, where his family and friend group has celebrated the first weekend of fishing season since 1959. Known to the park and surrounding towns as the Alta Anglers, the original two-family group from Kirkland now counts an average attendance of more than 100 people.

The Anglers are but one set of multi-generational family and friend groups making annual treks to Washington state parks.

Most groups arrive in caravans of cars, campers and RVs. In the case of the Alta Anglers, members come from all over Washington, but also from Phoenix, Dallas, San Diego and New Zealand to attend the event. They may fly into Seattle, but ultimately, the group heads for north central Washington to open the fishing season.

A wholesome vibe

Like Alta, Lake Chelan State Park is located in north central Washington, where it sits between the North Cascades, Okanagan Highlands and Waterville Plateau. And, like Alta, the park attracts loyal campers to its natural beauty and clear lake.

Cooling off in the park’s swim area, two women stand knee deep in Lake Chelan, keeping an eye on their 80-something mother, who sits on the shore in a beach chair. Native Washingtonians Jamie and Kelly still recall childhood summers with their mom Lois and their dad, now deceased.

“We’ve been coming to Lake Chelan every summer since the 1960s,” said Kelly. “We reserve the same camp spot each year, nine months in advance.”

“We sit on the website the day advanced booking starts,” Jamie added. “We make reservations the minute the campsites come online.”

Their family group has expanded to include kids, grandkids, husbands and in-laws, about 20 people in all. Jamie and Kelly invite their adult children, but Lois laments that the grandkids don’t always show up.

“They’re in college now,” she said. “But someday I hope they’ll bring their own kids.”

In more than half a century, the family has only skipped one year at Lake Chelan - the summer they decided to try a new place.

“It wasn’t the same,” said Lois. “We came back the following year.”

Lake Chelan’s ranger Dwight Keegan retired in April, after 34 years at the park. He said returning families made a point of finding him once they got into their campsites.

“For them, the park and the ranger are part of the family,” he said.

The Anglers make sure to check in with Sharon Soelter, Alta Lake’s ranger of 10 years, who gives them a hearty welcome. She says such traditions tend to blossom in state parks.

“Most state parks pride themselves on their wholesome vibe,” said Soelter. “Kids can run around and be themselves, groups cook and picnic together, and campgrounds are neighborly. It’s a great tradition to start, continue, and hand down to the next generation.”

A deep connection, a priceless inheritance

The topic of multi-decade, multi-generational families in parks is dear to Steve Milner, who serves on the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission and lives near Lake Chelan. He visits the park on most summer days.

When he introduces himself as a Parks commissioner, he finds most campers are happy to chat.

It is not uncommon for him to find himself sitting around the campfire with these new friends, reminiscing well into the evening.

“That’s when they open up about their parents and grandparents who brought them to the park as children,” he said. “Their passion for the park is in these memories.”

Other Washington state parks may not attract longstanding groups, but many, such as Kitsap Memorial, Scenic Beach and Manchester are well-known first date spots and coveted wedding venues to which couples return for anniversaries or vow renewals.

“Deep personal connections are formed in parks, to the land and to each other,” said Milner.

State parks hold more than good memories for families; their settings often hold the best parts of those families’ histories. A long-ago nuptial site or decades of vacations in a park can be a constant for people in times of great change. And, while seasoned park goers look back with nostalgia, they are also looking forward to a time when they’ll leave a priceless inheritance to family and friends - not a possession, but an experience.

Time markers of life

Tom Anderson’s father, Rod Anderson, picked apples near Brewster in the 1940s and developed an affinity for the area. Once the Andersons discovered Alta Lake in the 1950s, they were hooked.

Though Anderson’s mother eventually joined the Anglers, those early father-son years remain precious to Tom, now 67 years old.

“Time with each individual parent is important,” he said. “It was formative for me to have those weekends with my dad.”

Tom Anderson used his 60th weekend at Alta to catch up with his kids and old school chums. As he looked back over six decades, he grew contemplative. He said he could point to the time markers of his life – high school, college, marriage, fatherhood… by what was going on at Alta that year. But a more recent memory stands out as poignant.

“There was the year I took my dad back to Alta after he’d had a stroke,” said Anderson of the original Alta Angler, who passed away in 1997. “That was a bittersweet trip.”