Behind Closed Gates— Living in a Closed State Park During The Pandemic and What We Can All Learn
Updated: Jul 26, 2021
The more I think about it the more I realize we live a fairly unique life. We actually live inside the State Park boundaries, which few people get to experience in their lives. Yes, we have a house. We don’t live in a tent or a trailer, we are not considered homeless. The house is an optional “perk” of the job. We get low rent in exchange for the Park Ranger being available to staff, visitors and dispatch at all hours.
Is it worth it? Sometimes…..but I will discuss the pros and cons another time. The park we live in never completely closes. There are campsites available year-round, a boat launch, a large day-use area and hiking trails. The gate is always open, day or night.
Spring of 2019 Was Not Your Typical Spring Tourism Season
Spring in the State Park generally includes a slow crescendo of activity and noise. Winter is very quiet with only a few hearty campers and a slow trickle of fishermen coming in and out throughout the day. As the weather warms up the activity increases and the park generally comes alive.
Hikers, runners, campers, bikers, boaters, beach visitors, soccer players and school groups come to the park. Everyone wants to enjoy the warmer weather and signs of spring emerging in nature. Once school lets out for the summer the campground has no empty sites and the day-use area is packed with people.
January to March 2019 followed this predictable pattern, with only a few people in the park. Some seasonal staff arrived and a few visitors came to enjoy the open space, trails and nature.
However, as the spread of COVID-19 continued, we were unsure what to expect. Near the end of February and early March the state was recommending people stay home, but the park had more and more people arriving.
Once schools were closed to in-person learning a HUGE influx of people arrived at the State Park.
Many people figured if their kids didn’t have to go to school and they didn’t have to drive to their offices they should hit the road and explore. The campground was suddenly bumper to bumper with campers, many with out of state license plates, and all without reservations.
Why Did Everyone Go Camping Instead of Staying Local, and Why Was Travel During the Pandemic a Problem?
Who can blame people for thinking camping would be a great way to make “Two weeks to flatten the curve” more tolerable?
Being in your own camper and having space to play outside seems to make so much sense compared to staying home and being bored.
They didn’t think about how many people they came into contact with as they traveled across states. Gas stations, grocery stores, water filling stations, dump stations, public restrooms, etc were being used by people from many different areas.
The other problem with this influx of people was enforcement. People who use their local parks often know what the fees are and the rules of the park. This new wave of non-locals had a different vibe, they didn’t know (or didn’t care) what the rules were.
Information was posted for no-contact cash or online payment options. Websites were listed for information as well as Ranger phone numbers so people could be self-sufficient.
Self-sufficiency did not happen. No contact payment did not happen.
The general responses were:
"I didn’t know."
"I didn’t see the sign."
"I didn’t think I'd have to pay- there’s a pandemic."
"I didn’t think anyone would be working since we’re supposed to stay home."
"I'm not from here so I don't want to buy a pass."
Nearly every visitor required face to face contact with staff. The very few staff members who were working the early season were stretched thin. They explained rules, directed people, took payments and registered campers face to face. This increased exposure risks for everyone, including the greater public in these small tourism-driven communities.
What Happened In The State Park When Schools Closed and The Parks Became Overcrowded?
The sad result was State Parks closed for a short time. The Parks had no extra staff and no funding to remain open while keeping staff and visitors safe. The Parks closed to encourage people to stay home instead of traveling across the country.
Rangers and staff had no say in the decision to close the park and camping. This decision was made much higher in the agency.
Many people could not understand why camping would be closed, but someone has to clean the bathrooms, someone has to register campers and take payments. Someone has to enforce the laws and settle disputes when they arise between groups.
The influx of visitors and the risk they brought with them caused the park closures. Unfortunately the last group of campers who were in the park before the closure left behind tons of trash. They also defaced park property and ignored many park rules, using the excuses stated above.
So Here We Were, Living in the State Park When Everyone Was Told They Could Not Visit
So what is it like to live behind the closed gates in the State Park? It was a very strange and surreal experience. This particular park we live in never fully closes, so at any time there could be someone in “our backyard” aka the park.
The sound of lawnmowers, tractors, sprinklers, trucks, kids and dogs is a constant hum of life in the park. The smell of campfire is the smell of summer here. The sounds of people and play are the heartbeat of the State Park.
The noises all very suddenly came to a halt. There was the occasional gas truck or UPS truck coming in for essential tasks.
Sometimes a few people walked through, but overall the park was EMPTY. Rangers worked but only for “essential tasks”. Park Aides were all sent home with pay to abide by the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” orders.
Staff was not allowed to do most of the work they typically do in the spring.
This meant sprinklers didn’t run, grass didn’t get cut, down tree-limbs didn’t get cleaned up, spring raking and leaf pick up stopped, and the roads were covered with pine-needles and leaves. It was almost like being in an old cemetery rather than a recreational park.
For the first few days, I held my breath. We really weren’t sure how people would respond and what to expect. We’ve heard stories of protests and people blaming local law enforcement for things beyond their control.
Thankfully nothing happened.
No altercations, no arrests, no issues, just silence.
I can’t express how thankful I was that the local community members seemed to understand and accept this temporary shut down. I am grateful people did not express their frustrations locally if they disagreed with the shut-down.
We encouraged people to write letters or call the people making decisions if they disagreed with the shut-down. I feel it was a necessary, short-term move, but I understand not everyone feels this way. I respect their perspective as well.
The stress I held in my shoulders slowly released as we entered a period of quiet and waiting. We are not unique, and dealt with job loss, unexpected distance learning, internet issues and scared, sad kids. I spent hours on the phone with unemployment and like everyone else waited to see what would happen. This aspect of quarantine was not unique to us, we were not able to avoid these struggles, although thankfully, the Rangers were not laid off.
After the initial uneasiness of the silence and empty park, we slowly settled into a relaxing routine. We began to enjoy this once in a lifetime opportunity of living in a closed & empty state park. We took long walks at least twice a day, I ran in the early morning without worrying about disturbing campers, we spent time by the creek and tributary. We played soccer in the field, sat at the beach & the kids played music outside because there were no campers to bother.
Looking back I can say this time was an incredible blessing for us. I’m still oddly happy that the park re-opened to the public in a short time.
Rangers were only allowed to do “essential tasks” which did not include maintenance or groundskeeping. The park began to look shabby and lonely.
This place is typically well maintained and full of people enjoying the great outdoors. It had turned to a messy and desolate area. I loved having this entire park to ourselves, but I know in my heart that the State Parks are for the public.
We are only temporary guests living in this house, on this land and helping care for the land and facilitate great experiences for visitors.
The life of the State Park returned and the park is looking like a recreation area again rather than looking abandoned. The effects of COVID-19 continued to hinder the park after it re-opened however. The park opened for day-use only at first and continued to limit campers.
The park was short-staffed and had a difficult time keeping up with the cleaning and managing people. Camp hosts and volunteers were not allowed, making even more work for the few staff who were working.
Eventually camping opened up again. After a rough start, the regular campers returned and the park started to seem normal again. Only time will tell what other effects the shutdown and loss of income for parks means for all us. We hope we will still be able to live here and be part of this community, but time will tell.
Why Can’t People Monitor Themselves so The Parks Can Stay Open for People to Use Responsibly?
I got many calls, texts, and social media rants about the park closure during quarantine. Many people were extremely angry and frustrated. People did not realize the limitations that were placed on staff members during the shut-downs.
Only law enforcement was allowed to work and they were only allowed to monitor and protect people & property. This meant no cleaning, no selling parking passes, and no garbage collection. COVID-19 was still very new and scary at the time, so Rangers were instructed to avoid contact with people whenever possible. This is why people were not let into the parks.
It seems people could have continued to hike, play at the beach, or play soccer without any staff needed. Some people could handle this, but most, unfortunately, can not.
Bathrooms have to be open and cleaned if people are in the park. If bathrooms are not provided people use public spaces (yes, they did indeed poop in campsites and on trails). This causes a significant health risk for all.
People left loads of trash behind and started campfires in unsafe areas. Wildlife often got into human trash and could get sick or die.
We found bear scat in our driveway with a plastic bag stuck in it. Drugs and needles were found in a park that usually does not have drug issues. Even if people were only using the boat launch, they would most likely need the bathroom after a long day on the boat.
If the park opens without staff, criminals will take advantage of this. Car break-ins, drugs and property damage all could (and did) increase.
So go Easy on the People Who Have to Enforce Regulations
The people enforcing regulations didn’t make the decision, but they have to live with the repercussions of these decisions. They may not even agree with the regulations being put in place.
They also have to deal with people’s responses, which are often very negative and misguided. Living behind closed gates during the pandemic was certainly an interesting experience. We felt vulnerable and unable to fully relax at first since we were on public land and people were angry they couldn't use it. We were eventually able to enjoy the beauty and uniqueness of this area after we settled into a strange, new routine.
The park is open and we should have a much more typical season this year. We all had different experiences with the COVID-19 shut-downs, and I’d love to hear your stories. I hope you found some positive aspects of your time quarantining as well. Let’s all agree we don’t ever want to go through this again!
When you're visiting a park, remember they are probably still short-staffed and flooded with extra visitors. Washington State Parks had a spike in visitors unlike any other year. They are anticipating another year of extreme numbers of visitors.
So be nice, be patient, pick up your own trash, and USE THE BATHROOM. Plan ahead for your visit and have a "Plan B" in case the park you want to visit is already at capacity.