GARRISON - The season got off to a slow start, but it has certainly made every effort to make up for it. Following a cool, wet spring the amount of visitations to state parks, particularly those on the east end of Lake Sakakawea, has been extremely high.
"We've just had a tremendous summer," said Gordon Weixel, N.D. State Parks public information officer. "We were down revenue-wise and camper-wise in June but made it almost all up through August. It's been busy. Some parks have been full every weekend."
Lately both Lake Sakakawea State Park at Pick City and Fort Stevenson State Park at Garrison have been filling up well before the weekend. Labor Day weekend camping spots were almost all gone by last Tuesday, indicative of campers making up for lost time due to inclement weather early in the camping season.
A row of campers along a loop at Lake Sakakawea State Park has been a common sight this summer. The number of visits to the park has been on the increase.
"This summer, since the Fourth of July, we've been filled up every weekend," said Chad Trautman, Fort Stevenson State Park manager. "The numbers are showing better than last year. Our visitation is up 27 percent over last year and last year was a record. It seems like we just keep increasing our numbers."
Across Lake Sakakawea to the south, a similar situation exists at Lake Sakakawea State Park.
"Busy! It has been one of our busiest years," said John Tunge, Lake Sakakawea State Park manager. "Our modern campgrounds have been full almost every weekend. We're seeing a lot more tenters than in the past, too. A number of people pull a fishing boat and tent rather than bring a fifth wheel."
Fishing, spending time on the water and having an opportunity to be near a lake on a hot day are some of the reasons people trek to state parks at Lake Sakakawea. This year though, park managers have noticed a difference from previous seasons.
"There's just a lot of people coming out to western North Dakota and looking for recreation," said Trautman. "Our Garrison Bay marina is full and people are asking for more slips."
"We are seeing a lot of new people," added Tunge. "They're from the Dickinson and Killdeer area looking for a little peace and quiet. There's more out-of-state people too, I would say. There's just more people looking for places to hit the lake. I see it."
While Labor Day weekend is sometimes thought of as the last big camping weekend of the season, state parks will remain open with full services through September. Cooler daytime temperatures and the off-peak season is very appealing for many late season campers.
"We are hoping the weather stays good and extends our season a little bit," said Weixel.
Other parks that experienced a surge in usage following a slow start to the season include Lewis and Clark near Williston, Fort Abraham Lincoln at Bismarck, Icelandic near Walhalla and Graham's Island at Devils Lake.
Special events are often held at state parks. Fort Stevenson recently held a sailboat regatta. Unfortunately, an early wind died during the race and took the wind out of the sails. Nevertheless, the event attracted about 20 sailboats from outside the region.
Construction was to have begun on a new visitor center and entrance station at Fort Stevenson earlier this summer. However, with construction crews busy elsewhere and the park overflowing with visitors, the project was delayed.
"We still anticipate groundbreaking yet this fall," said Trautman. "Hopefully we'll have that up sometime next year. We're hoping."
Based on current trends, it seems that expansion projects to add additional camping areas to both Fort Stevenson and Lake Sakakawea State Parks are likely to be considered in the near future. A request for funds for those projects would have to be made during the next session of the state legislature in 2015 or be delayed until the following biennium. Both parks have ample room to accommodate additional camping areas.