Family histories take root at state parks

Group makes 60th annual fishing trip to Alta Lake, others enjoy similar traditions

Many of the Alta Anglers, who recently celebrated their 60th spring opening fishing season at Alta Lake State Park, tie their boats together at Alta for a social angling experience. Here they enjoy a day on the water in 1982. (Courtesy of the Alta Anglers)

Once the Andersons discovered Alta Lake State Park in the 1950s, the family was hooked.

On Saturday, Tom Anderson made his 60th pilgrimage to Alta Lake State Park in north central Washington, where his family and friends have 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 annual attendance of more than 100 people.

The Anglers are but one group of multi-generational family and friends that make annual treks to Washington state parks. Most arrive in caravans of cars, campers and recreational vehicles. In the case of the Alta Anglers, members come from all over Washington, as well as from Phoenix, Dallas, San Diego and New Zealand, to attend the event.

Justin and Nat Hargett, here at ages seven and five in 1986, now attend the Alta Anglers’ reunions at Alta Lake State Park with their dad and their own children. (Courtesy of the Alta Anglers)

The tradition started as a father-son fishing outing, but Anderson’s mother and others eventually joined the Anglers. Anderson, now 67, looks back on those first trips fondly.

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

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 said he could point to the time markers of his life — high school, college, marriage and 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,” he said of the original Alta Angler, Rod Anderson, who died in 1997. “That was a bittersweet trip.”

A ‘wholesome vibe’

Like Alta Lake, Chelan State Park is 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, Lois, who sits on the shore in a beach chair. Native Washingtonians Jamie and Kelly still recall childhood summers with their parents.

“We’ve been coming to Lake Chelan every summer since the 1960s,” Kelly said. “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.”

Daughters Jamie and Kelly and their mother, Lois, have been vacationing at Lake Chelan since the 1960s. Lois hopes her college-age grandchildren will continue the tradition with their own children someday. (Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission photo)

Their 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. That summer, they decided to try a new place.

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

Lake Chelan 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,” Soelter said. “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.”

Washington’s governor also has childhood memories of family time at state parks, which he shared during his 2016 State of the State address.

“One day last year I stopped at Twanoh State Park on Hood Canal, and there was a family there with a young kid just playing in this little swim area,” Gov. Jay Inslee said. “It took me back to my own childhood, when my dad and mom would throw us in the back of the station wagon and take us to Twanoh for the day. Just knowing this tradition will continue is extremely gratifying.”

Kitsap Memorial State Park, among other state parks on Hood Canal, is a popular wedding venue for Puget Sound couples who later return with their children, to celebrate anniversaries or renew vows. (Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission photo)

Other Washington state parks may not attract longstanding groups, but they 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,” Milner said.

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 also look forward to a time when they’ll leave a priceless inheritance to family and friends — not a possession, but an invaluable experience.

Hoping to start a tradition of your own with friends or family? Reserve a campsite, yurt, cabin, vacation house, group camp, or group day-use facility in more than 70 Washington state parks. Drop-in visitors are always welcome as long as space is available, and some campgrounds are first come, first served, but reservations can offer peace of mind when traveling to distant or popular parks.