An early start to prime camping season on Camano beaches

CAMANO ISLAND — The formula is simple: more sunshine means more people at the beach.

For the two state parks here, the unusually bright, warm winter and early spring has drawn more visitors than any off-season in recent memory.

The evidence is in the sand-filled buckets and piles of seashells on the front porches of cabins at Cama Beach State Park. There are towels draped over picnic tables, folded camp chairs leaning against a wall and a kite caught high in a tree.

Rain clouds returned this week, but overall, the last few months have been unseasonably warm. The sun has been shining more than usual. Across the state there are reports of low snowpack and early crops.

Managing sunny-day crowds with winter staffing levels has been a bit of a chore, state park workers say. However, they’re already planning a variety of activities in the coming months to make the most of those crowds.

Cama Beach and Camano Island state parks fill their parking lots and picnic tables during the peak season, which runs from May 16 to Sept. 15. This year, though, the season seemed to start a few months early.

“We’ve had a major increase both in day visitors and campers,” Camano Island park ranger William Hoppe said. “This has been a very busy late winter and early spring.”

The parks don’t have headcounts yet for the last few months, but staff are confident they’ll see higher numbers than usual when they look at attendance information later this spring.

“As soon as the sun comes out, people start thinking about parks,” said Virginia Painter, communications director for Washington State Parks.

A Discover Pass is required at the parks, and statewide sales were up this winter compared to last. Visitors bought 86,684 passes in the last three months of 2013 and 93,919 passes in the last three months of 2014, a 7,235 increase. Totals for the first few months of 2015 are not yet available but, like the attendance numbers, parks staff expect to see a continued increase.

Linda Burnett has worked at the Washington State Parks information center for about 20 years, and she’s been busier than usual this year.

“Nice weather or bad weather, it always affects park attendance,” she said.

With minimal snow, some record high temperatures and weeks at a time of mostly sunny days, winter felt more like spring, she said.

State parks have not yet hired extra employees to keep up with the increased number of visitors, and it’s a strain on park managers, Painter said. However, staffing is set to nearly double in May and stay that way until late September. The state parks department goes from 500 full-time employees in the off-season to 900 full-time summer positions, many of which are broken down into multiple part-time jobs to help with maintenance, office and cleaning crews.

“The more people you get, the more work there is to do and the harder it is to keep up with it,” Hoppe said.

He’s looking forward to getting some extra hands around the park next month. Hoppe has been the ranger at Camano Island State Park for about four years and this is the busiest he’s seen it this early in the year.

Tina Dinzl-Pederson, the interpretive specialist for Cama Beach and Camano Island state parks, is coordinating a variety of events that start in May and continue through the summer.

In past years, the parks had one activity five days a week. This summer, the plan is to have multiple activities every day. Options include nature walks, crafts, live music and outdoor science lessons. Kids can weave jewelry out of ivy and adults can learn some new steps at the Kick Up Your Heels and Dance series in July. Annual staples like Quilts on the Beach and the Beach Art Festival also are on the schedule.

“A lot of people like coming out during the day, especially,” Dinzl-Pederson said. “It’s been so lovely that everyone’s outdoors.”

Andrea and Robert Doll of Anacortes were packing up Monday morning after an overnight stay with their grandchildren at Cama Beach. They rented one of the waterfront cabins, steps away from the pebbly shoreline.

“It’s wonderful looking out on the sea,” Andrea Doll said. “It’s a great place for older people like us and for kids. It’s just ideal.”

Their grandchildren collected shells on the beach, then returned them before packing up. It was the couple’s first time at the park. They plan to return, Robert Doll said.

“We’re absolutely coming back,” Andrea Doll agreed. “It’s a wonderful place to spend time with family.”

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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