The Friends of Kachemak Bay State Park couldn’t give the beloved wilds across the bay the big hoopla they wanted to this year for the park’s 50th anniversary, due to safety precautions during the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, but they found a way to celebrate nonetheless.
The actual 50th anniversary of the park was in May, but celebration plans had to be put on hold while the coronavirus situation in Alaska made large gatherings of people unsafe. Instead, a small gathering was held outside the Homer Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center on Saturday — an intimate gathering of park caretakers, volunteers and fans, complete with special anniversary editions of local beer, wine and coffee. And, of course, cake.
Kachemak Bay State Park was the very first state park established in Alaska, in 1970. It encompasses more than 380,000 acres of land and water. The Friends of Kachemak Bay State Park became a nonprofit organization in 1999 and exist to support, advocate for and fundraise for the park.
Attendance was sparse and masks were worn by all except for when talking at the microphone. Giving the event an air of prestige were Ricky Geese, director of the Division of Park and Outdoor Recreation under the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, and Jack Blackwell, superintendent of the Kenai/Prince William Sound Area for State Parks.
Between bites of cake and a short bidding war over the last two bottles of specially brewed commemorative beer from Grace Ridge Brewing, Jeff Johnson talked about his love for the park. He’s well acquainted with it, having served as Kachemak Bay State Park’s first official ranger in 1984.
Johnson described it as a dream job. He went to Michigan State University to become a park ranger and had gone after a few different positions — it was a popular profession in those days, he said, so park openings were competitive.
Johnson started out in Alaska working the beach parks in Ninilchik and Anchor Point before getting the job across the bay.
“I told them in the interview that I would have crawled on broken glass to get that job,” Johnson said. “I did everything I possibly could.”
Johnson said he and a few volunteers had the pleasure of starting everything the park does and stands for today from scratch — everything from trails to campsites to search and rescue plans.
“All of it was challenging and it was so much fun,” Johnson said.
Having put in all that work, seeing the park continue to thrive today means a lot to Johnson. His wife’s family has a home on East Hill Road with a clear view of the park across the bay.
“I look at that bay and I look at those mountains, and I think to myself, that place is a place of love,” Johnson said. “And that’s how it was established. It was the people’s park, it was the locals that established that park. A lot of players, you know. And still today, it’s still a place of love.”
Mako Haggerty is president of Friends of Kachemak Bay State Park, the group he said “basically launders money around here for the park.” He spoke at the event about all the work volunteers, board members and trail workers have put into it over the years.
“We call ourselves the halibut capital of the world, but I think things are going to shift, and I think basically that the park is going to play a key role in our local economy,” Haggerty said. “It actually has played a key role in our economy around here for a long time, but I think it’s going to play a bigger role as time progresses on. And a lot of that has to do with the people that are here that have helped make it the park that it is.”
Geese and Blackwell spoke about the park from the larger perspective of supporting recreation in Alaska, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when many indoor activities and recreation options aren’t advisable.
Geese called the state parks in Alaska a world class resource. Alaska has the most land of any state park system in the country, and the largest marine state park system in the country, he said.
“I think in the last two months here in Alaska and elsewhere, people have come to realize the importance of being outdoors,” Geese said. “… In a weird way, we will have probably more people hiking on Alaska trails in state parks this year, by Alaska residents, than in any other year of the history of the state parks in Alaska.”
Visitation at trailheads and state park parking lots is trending higher than its ever been since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in Alaska, Geese said.
“We have lots and lots of people kind of discovering not just the main trails, but all the other trails in the system that they may or may not have heard about,” Geese said.
He recognized that State Parks relies on community support and volunteers, and thanked the group assembled Saturday for all their work.
As part of the celebration, Captain’s Coffee made three different park-themed blends to celebrate the anniversary, and will be donating the sales from those blends to the Friends of Kachemak Bay State Park for the first year that they’re sold. Bear Creek Winery made a special commemorative blueberry wine, and Grace Ridge Brewery made a limited edition honey pale ale, and donated all of the tips made in the month of May to the park nonprofit.
Chamber Executive Director Brad Anderson also announced the unveiling of a wall-sized map of the park, designed by Brentwood “Hig” Higman, PhD, who is executive director of Ground Truth Trekking. It covers an entire wall of the visitor center and showcases the park in great detail.
Also to help celebrate the park, Patrice Krant and Carrie Youngblood of the Kachemak Bay Quilters completed a special anniversary quilt which is also hung in the visitor center.
Robert Archibald is chair of the Kachemak Bay State Park Citizen Advisory Board. He said a “big to-do” had been planned at the South Peninsula Activity and Recreation Center (SPARC) but that it had to be pared down because “this is a spooky time for everyone.”
For those who have never experienced the park or have only viewed it from the Homer side, Archibald said the only way to really understand its value is to just go.
“You know, you don’t really realize how great that is over there, until you go over there,” he said. “It’s like night at day. Here you have the rolling hills — over there you have the massive mountains, and it’s rock and it’s rugged and it’s beautiful.”