New state park opens at Camano Island’s Cama Beach

CAMANO ISLAND — A scenic beach with a controversial past on Thursday became the first new state park in Washington in more than a decade.

Cama Beach State Park encompasses 434 acres and spans more than a mile of shoreline on the southwest side of Camano Island. Visitors started staying overnight Thursday at 34 cabins and two bungalows at the park.

Although many people are buzzing over the new park, the event is a disappointment for area American Indian tribes.

Until the signing of the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, Indians had used the beach as a fishing and camping spot for at least 1,600 years, park ranger Jeff Wheeler said. A logging camp was built on the beach after the treaty was signed.

After the state started making the park, the Tulalip Tribes asked that work be stopped when remains believed to be Indian were found there. The request sparked a string of court actions, but the state was eventually allowed to move forward with its plans.

Tulalip tribal officials declined to comment for this story.

“We’ve continually invited the tribes to be part of this with us, so there will be some tribal presence at the opening,” Washington State Parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter said. “Long-term, the commission has always wanted to use this park to tell all the stories that took place here, including the tribes’ stories.”

The grand opening celebration of Cama Beach State Park is Saturday.

The rocky beach is full of history, said Sandra Worthington, whose grandfather opened the Cama Beach fishing resort in 1934.

Most of the cabins and bungalows, which were built prior to World War II, are already booked through October, Wheeler said.

A trail up the wooded hillside was once used for hauling timber, back when the site was a turn-of-the-century logging camp.

Beneath the soil are layers of debris from Native American gatherings over the generations.

“My biggest feeling at this time is the place has been sort of reborn,” said Worthington of Olympia. “It’s going to have a long, useful life.”

Opening the park took years. Worthington and her sister, Karen Hamalainen of Bellingham, were raised at the fishing resort by their parents, Lee and Muriel Risk. The Risks took ownership of the resort in 1938 after Muriel Risk’s father, who founded the resort, died unexpectedly from appendicitis.

By the 1980s, the resort was no longer profitable. Several other fishing resorts on Camano Island had shut down years earlier. The Risks could no longer maintain their land as they once did.

But they didn’t want to sell the beach to a developer, Worthington and Hamalainen said.

The resort was closed in 1989. Muriel Risk died about a year later and Lee Risk died in 1995, leaving the family’s land to Worthington and Hamalainen.

Before their father died, the sisters began transferring the land to the state to be preserved as a park. They donated 60 percent of the property and sold the rest for $6.7 million, well below market value, Painter said.

“There was just kind of this family legacy that got built up,” Hamalainen said. “We’re ­really into this, this is the family’s project, and we’re going to see it through.”

Many of Washington’s state parks opened in the 1960s and 1970s, during times of economic growth, Painter said. The last time a state park was added was in 1997, when Rasar State Park in Skagit County was opened.

With Cama Beach State Park, there was enough interest to justify spending the money, Painter said. Also, money wasn’t as big of an issue because of the family’s donation of the land.

Still, park supporters say the project might have fallen through without help from state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen.

“It’s long overdue and people have been waiting for such a long time to have access to the property,” said Haugen, a lifelong Camano Island resident. “It’s such an exciting moment for me.”

Worthington and Hamalainen say they can’t wait to see what the future holds for what used to be their resort.

The fishing resort boathouse — where broken pieces of rail once used for sliding boats into the water still sit on the shoreline — now houses a branch of the Seattle-based Center for Wooden Boats. Park visitors will be able to learn boat-building techniques and borrow handmade boats to take out into the salt water.

The gas pump outside the fishing resort’s old general store has been restored. A local grocer has set up shop in the store, and volunteers are staffing an information center there. Several remnants of the old fishing resort remain, including a board on the wall listing equipment checked out to resort guests; on the list is a meat grinder, which guests frequently used to make fresh clam patties.

A building that used to house ping-pong tables now holds restrooms and showers. The home where Worthington and Hamalainen and their parents lived is now the ranger station.

“It’s a beautiful spot,” Worthington said. “I had a sense of that when I was a really small kid, maybe 5 or 6. I used to love to go out on the beach when it was windy and watch the water.”

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