State parks celebrate 100th anniversary while rebuilding from historic July floods

By TIFFANY TAN

VtDigger

Published: 05-11-2024 5:58 PM

JAMAICA — Vermont state parks are marking their centennial this year, a season-long celebration that park officials are hoping will bring a record number of visitors after the disruptions from last summer’s statewide flooding.

Officials are hoping to receive 1.2 million campers and day visitors at Vermont’s 55 state parks, which are largely open from May to October. If that target is reached, it would surpass the state parks’ record of just under 1.2 million visitors in 1969 and 1.1 million in 2022.

“With the extra efforts we’re putting in with the 100th anniversary celebrations and events,” said Vermont State Parks Director Nate McKeen, “state parks will have a higher profile, be more on people’s radar.”

The park system’s special plans for the season, he said, include hosting more performances and concerts on site, as well as inviting past and present visitors to share their Vermont state park stories.  

McKeen said he hopes the centennial celebration, coupled with what forecasters say will be a hotter summer than average, will help the state parks make up for last year’s low attendance of 900,000. Vermont saw a rainy spring and summer in 2023, including the historic flooding last July that led to multiple park closures.

In southern Vermont, the flooding caused a landslide in Jamaica State Park, damaging a portion of the park’s West River Trail. The trail, which meanders alongside the West River, is an old railroad track that has been converted into a hiking, jogging and biking path.

The trail draws thousands of users a year to an access point in Jamaica State Park, said assistant park manager Seb Ramey. Now, nearly a year later, he said 1.75 miles of the 3.1-mile trail within the park remain closed.

As of Monday, the fourth day that the park was open this year, debris from the landslide still blocked the unusable section of the trail, including fallen trees, broken branches, soil from the hillside and rocks big and small. Ramey said that during his weekly inspections of the damaged slope, he has seen signs that the soil has not completely settled.

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“Soils move around, rocks are falling,” he said, pointing to several spots on the slope, including semi-uprooted trees that have slid down. 

The soil continues to shift because of water saturation not only from last summer’s floods but also from this winter’s snowmelt, said State Geologist Ben DeJong. He said a geotechnical engineering firm contracted by the state to make repairs along the trail would have to wait until the soil dried up to begin repair work. 

“Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to predict what kind of summer we will have. If it is another wet one like last year,” DeJong said, “then it may prove difficult to implement a remedy.”

Meanwhile, Ramey has seen several potential day users of the park turn around after being informed that much of the park’s West River Trail was not accessible. And during the park’s opening weekend this year, he said, their campgrounds were only about half full.

“That’s unheard of,” he said, “usually it’s fully booked months in advance.”

The state parks director, McKeen, said he is hopeful the trail repairs can be completed within the season. The next step, he said, is for their contracted engineering firm to finish making the repair designs.

Nearly 50 miles north, at Camp Plymouth, workers continued cleaning up and repairing areas damaged by last summer’s floods. The park, where a dozen staffers and visitors got stranded during the natural disaster, suffered the worst damage among Vermont’s state parks.

On Monday, contractors could be seen putting the finishing touches on the concession stand’s new railing. A bridge leading to the park, which had been partly washed out in the flood, had been fixed. Some of the eroded soil had been filled in.

Electrical wiring and plumbing in the cottages and other park facilities have also been repaired, said park managers Tiffany Soukup and Chris Brader.

But with less than three weeks left before the park was scheduled to reopen on May 24, some parts of the park still needed attention. They include park roads, pathways and grounds that got washed out from the rushing floodwaters, and a playground whose protective surface got ruined. 

McKeen said the remaining repairs should be completed by the time Camp Plymouth reopens on Memorial Day weekend. He said bidding out the work and finding appropriate contractors took time, especially with the scope of the flood damage.

Soukup and her husband, Brader, have returned to manage the park for their fifth year. She said many of last year’s park staffers are also coming back, undeterred by the historic natural disaster they witnessed in July.

“Despite everything, everyone is so excited to come back and just continue being a part of rebuilding the park,” Soukup said. “They all still felt so much pride for it.”