“This is our Park. This is our home where we grew up.”
Point Lowell juts out at the northern tip of Elger Bay marking the 240 acre Camano Island State Park with 6,700 feet of beachfront which is a hub for outdoor recreational activities including fishing, crabbing, boating, hiking and camping.
Dad took me salmon fishing at Camano Island State Park. I remember driving down the hill that leads to the boat ramp, seeing the moon’s path on the glassy waters, launching our 16 foot Glasply boat, running west to Fox’s Spit on Whidbey Island or north to Rocky Point or just staying close and trolling up and down Cama Beach — all a sacred memories to me. Dad came in second place in one Twin City Salmon Derby. I write about that in my book I Remember Fishing with Dad.
The original State Park was much smaller than it is now. At one time the road to the State Park did not exist. The original Park was created in one day in an event sponsored by the South Camano Grange. On July 27th, 1949, over five hundred community volunteers converted ninety-two acres of publicly-owned land into a public recreation area that has enriched many generations since. I did not know the story of how the State Park grew from its ninety-two to its current size. Kathy Emerson Shoop, who grew up in the Park, told me that story.
Kathy’s dad is Al Emerson; the “Al Emerson Trail” at the State Park is named after him. Her “Daddy” as she lovingly calls him, was a Ranger first on Bainbridge Island; then at the Yakima Sportsman State Park; finally coming to Camano Island State Park where he was the first Ranger. That was in May, 1952. Al served as Ranger at the Camano Island State Park until he retired in 1973.
When they moved her mother was very pregnant with her. Kathy, the youngest of three children, was born in July of that year. Her brother was 12 years older than her, her sister ten. Al worked in the Park, but since the Park Ranger residence was not built yet they made their first home in Stanwood in an apartment behind Ovenell’s Drive in. On the first floor there was the Twin City Auto Rebuild shop where they worked on cars. In the second floor apartment was the Emerson family who worked on parks. They lived in that apartment until they found a place on the Island between Indian Beach and Camano City.
In 1954 the little two-bedroom brown house just inside the entrance to the State Park was completed and the Emersons moved into it. Kathy and her sister shared a bedroom, sleeping in a big double bed. Their older brother needed his own bedroom and so they walled in part of the house carport, brought in a heater, and that was his room. The little house became their home as did the Park.
As I mentioned earlier, in those days the State Park was much smaller than it is today. It did not include Point Lowell. There was no road like there is today that Y’s to the left and ends at the boat launch. The big work day in 1949 spearheaded by the Grange had punched a road down to the bluff, created a big grassy area with picnic tables on the bluff with a parking lot, and a boat launch. The big grassy area served as the camping area. Kathy remembers one night on the grassy area watching with other campers Sputnik travel overhead and everyone being scared. There was a huge popularity boom of camping in the 50’s and Al helped the Park folks understand they needed to build a larger camping area in the woods above the house. There they added over 40 campsites , an area where boy scouts camped each year, and an arboretum. Eventually the grassy area was turned into solely a picnic area.
Al not only was instrumental in developing more campsites, he played a role in the Park’s acquisition of the large piece of land that grew the State Park from 92 its present size. At one time Point Lowell, the land where the new campground is, and where the nature trail is was owned by a guy named C. Marc Miller and his company. Marc was a Seattlelite who worked for the company that built I-5 through Seattle. Mark’s job was to decide which houses came down, and to acquire the property from the owner. Kathy remembers that he was a nice guy with four boys. The Millers had a vacation home on the beach between Breezy Point and Cama Beach and property above it (including the big barn to the right just before you enter the park)
Al and Kathy’s mom Winnie were very gregarious, and her dad got to be friends with Marc. Kathy remembers Marc coming for coffee or a drink; she remembers going down to have dinner with the Millers. “Their boys were a lot of fun.” There weren’t a lot of kids living near the State Park in those days. So when the Miller boys came up for the weekend her dad would tell her “the Miller boys are up”. They swam together and played on rope swings in the woods. Marc and Al talked a lot. Marc was interested in selling the property to the State Park Department to keep it in its natural condition. In his natural manner of friendliness and neighborliness Al connected Marc Miller to the Olympia State Park Office and played a big role in the State Park being what it is today.
In the fall of 1964, Kathy’s brother and wife Janet had a baby. The Emersons traveled to Ithaca, New York to see their first grandchild and, on the way, the east coast. They towed a 16” Cardinal trailer behind their car, camping for six weeks. Over those six weeks they visited a lot of campgrounds, and Al saw a wide variety of trailer accommodations. He learned about the growing culture of trailer ‘pull-through’ campsites, where the campsite is designed to host a trailer. So when he came back from his trip he lobbied that the new camping area that was being designed and built needed to have campsites for trailers.
Over the years Al oversaw a lot of change. And what is remarkable is that he did all of this as a disabled WWII vet. Kathy’s mom and dad worked hard. Kathy, her brother and sister did too. For example, those were the days before paper towels; the park restrooms were outfitted with cloth roller towels. But—those towels needed to be washed frequently, so her mom, who worked at the Bank of Stanwood, had to wash the cloth towels when she came home from work.
The Park was Kathy’s playground. She was a kind of park-rat, like an urban kid who plays basketball in the gym all day is called a gym-rat. She would eat breakfast at home and then be gone all day. Families camped for a week or two weeks and returned summer after summer, so she got to know the kids. “Dad would come back after registering campers and say, ‘the Adam kids are here’ and I knew I’d have playmates for a couple of weeks.”
“I would just leave in the morning, go swimming, eat raw clams, play in the woods, have a good time.” She was well known at the camp because she had red hair and was a tomboy. Campers would ask if she wanted lunch and she’d stay for lunch. She’d go home in time for dinner. “It was a great childhood.”
I asked her what her perspective was on the Park providing public access to the beach for so many people over so many years. She said, “I don’t want to sound too political. But the Park is a place for anybody to come. Anyone can have waterfront property when they come to the State Park. It’s their waterfront property.” She appreciates that living in the Park she saw all the different people who came there. “No one talked about how much you made, or what you did,” she said. Kathy remembers that when important people came to dinner at their home and sat at our table in the kitchen she’d be scared because they were important. Her mom would tell her, “Everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time.” The only thing that mattered was that the Park guests treated the park the right way, with respect. Kathy remembers one time arguing with some teenage boys who wanted to give pop rocks to seagulls. In that way she was something of a Park Protector.
I asked Kathy what she felt about the Park now.
“As an adult it’s timeless to me. For the most part it’s the same park it was when I left it. It still makes me feel very safe and very small in the larger scheme of things. There’s a tree in the Nature Trail that was a seedling in the 1,300’s. When I was a moody teenager I would come to that Old Growth tree and sit and realize that my problems were pretty small, pretty meaningless. The Park means that to me, and to my brother and sister. I’m so grateful to the folks that created it back in 1949 and have preserved a part of the Island for time immemorial.”
One of the last big family events before Al retired and left the park at the end of September, 1973 was Kathy’s wedding that took place in the middle of September. “I didn’t want to get married in a church, but in the Park that I loved so much,” she said. The last big family event was in November 1987 when the family gathered in the Park for Al’s memorial service. The little brown house and the Park will always be their home.