Celebrating its opening here the first day of summer is a new state park with a patchwork of histories as varied and colorful as the fabric...

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CAMANO ISLAND — Celebrating its opening here the first day of summer is a new state park with a patchwork of histories as varied and colorful as the fabric swatches in the 100 quilts stitched by local volunteers for the park’s cabins.

In a unique partnership, Washington State Parks has teamed with Seattle’s Center for Wooden Boats to manage the park, with a grand opening June 21 on the site of the Cama Beach family fishing resort, which dates to the 1930s.

In this new incarnation, what is now known as Cama Beach State Park will offer visitors some of that old resort atmosphere. Original cedar cabins and bungalows have been refurbished for year-round rental, and the Center for Wooden Boats will complement that heritage with rentals and instruction in building and using traditional wooden watercraft.

A lot of history

These 432 acres bordering Saratoga Passage on the southwest side of Camano have at least four histories, with thousands of personal stories threading them together.

The oldest story, an ongoing one, is that of a Native American summer encampment. Local tribes spent long days gathering shellfish and fishing these fertile waters, processing food for the winter ahead. At least one tribe still gathers food here today.

The next history belongs to loggers who felled the original forest from the 1880s to 1908.

And just as young firs were beginning to inch skyward, Seattle businessman L.R. Stradley purchased the land in 1933. He developed an affordable family fishing resort called Cama Beach, where folks could rent cabins and boats.

Stradley died suddenly in 1938, and his daughter Muriel Stradley Risk, with her husband, Lee, took over management of the resort and ran it until it closed in 1989. They raised two daughters there, and in 1990 their families approached State Parks with the idea of donating the majority of the land for a new state park.

“Our priorities were to keep it open to the public at low cost, to have it be an environmental learning center, and a place for quiet retreats,” said Gary Worthington, the Risks’ son-in-law and the author of a Cama Beach history. State Parks and the Center for Wooden Boats seemed a perfect match to carry out the family’s mission.

Place of beauty

Driving into the small parking lot tucked into the soothing green of a 100-year-old forest, you begin to feel the magnetic pull of the place. Big-leaf maples drape protectively over sturdy fern clumps, and Pacific slope flycatchers whistle for attention from the canopy. Approaching the beach on the former logging skid road, you emerge from the woods to find a long ribbon of southwest-facing shore washed by the salty tides of Saratoga Passage. To the west is Whidbey Island and a view of the Olympics. It’s postcard-perfect Northwest: beach, water, mountain, sky.

Along the shore, in two tidy rows, waterfront cabins await their newest visitors. Restored from shingles to foundation, they are the same buildings that housed thousands of families here between 1934 and 1989.

“This is an archetype of the typical 1930s resort; this is what people did,” said Karen Hamalainen, who grew up here while her parents ran the resort. She is impressed with how true the renovation efforts are to the original.

To fill the need for cheap family vacations in the shadow of the Depression, “auto court resorts” such as Cama Beach sprang up all over the country — 22 of them on Camano Island alone. Families would stay for a couple of weeks to relax, catch up with friends, and often preserve enough seafood and berries to stock their pantry shelves.

“Even with the car and gas, with all the food they brought home it was cheaper than going to the grocery store,” said Ranger Jeff Wheeler. “We’re trying to bring back the flavor of that era with the setting and laid-back activities.”

Quoting an original Cama Beach brochure, he added, “Sixty-seven miles north of Seattle and you step into a different world.”

Old-fashioned getaway

Leaving their cars behind in upper parking lots and riding a shuttle to the cabins, visitors will be free to become immersed in meandering beach walks, a game of horseshoes, free nature programs, wooded trails, chatting up their neighbors, or renting replica rowboats modeled after the resort’s original fleet.

“What we offer fits right in with the history of Cama Beach as a resort,” said Dick Wagner, founding director of the Center for Wooden Boats, which showcases vintage boats at its South Lake Union dock and offers instruction in sailing, boatbuilding and nautical crafts. “People have a chance to step back in time here, to what was a prime source of recreation in the 1930s. We’ll be able to get people out on the water and teach them about this maritime heritage through direct experience.”

The Center’s programming at the Cama campus will be similar to that offered at Lake Union, the main difference being that people eventually will be able to check into a cabin and commit a week or two to sailing lessons, for example, rather than attending several weekend sessions. As in Seattle, visitors will be able to rent boats by the hour. (This summer’s boathouse offerings are fairly limited — see “If You Go”; more services will be added as the new center is completed.)

Master canoe builder Eric Harman, of Arlington, will be an artist-in-residence this summer, offering daily demonstrations. The public may also sign up for half- or full-day apprenticeships. Planned classes include knot-tying, bronze casting, navigation, carving half-models (an early form of boat design) and toy-boat building.

Still in the permitting process, a pier and boat floats will broaden the scope of boat rentals, providing access to heavier craft that can’t be easily moved. Some of Cama’s original boats, no longer seaworthy due to rusted iron fittings, will be on display around the refurbished boathouse. Restoration is also under way on a marine railway — propelled by a cable connected to an electric motor, boats were conveyed on carriages from the boathouse into the water via metal tracks.

“I think boating is in our cultural memories, even if you were born in the middle of a desert,” Wagner said. “People are really aware of the romance and joy of being in a boat. The way a boat rocks and moves in the water gives you a sense of adventure and comfort at the same time.”

“Living museum”

A combination of adventure and comfort is also an apt description of staying in a Cama cabin. Their utilitarian simplicity is trumped by a “living museum” quality born of painstaking restoration. A throng of tireless park volunteers has made them homey with handcrafted Adirondack chairs, antique-styled tables, and one-of-a-kind curtains, pillows and quilts — all donated by local talent, from the Camano Island quilter’s association to caring neighbors. To nurture a sense of community, cabin occupants will be able to pull together their picnic tables (no chained-down plastic tables to contend with), and at night, circle ’round to listen to radio shows from the 1930s and ’40s — “The Shadow,” “Burns and Allen,” “Laurel and Hardy.”

People who stayed at Cama Beach in the past may notice one major difference: The resort buildings sit up to 2 feet higher than they did before restoration. Buried beneath this buffer of soil is one of the largest shell middens around Puget Sound, believed by archaeologists to be the remnants of a seasonal shellfish gathering camp used from 300 to 1,600 years ago. Tribes such as the Upper Skagit still return to collect butter clams here, exercising their treaty rights and continuing tribal tradition.

State Parks officials say they changed their plans to address tribal concerns and keep the integrity of the midden intact. In addition to the soil buffer, precautions included hand-digging utility trenches and moving the location of a planned dining hall and lodge — scheduled for completion in fall 2009.

In these new buildings and those being renovated, one guiding principle has to do with the future, not the past. A sense of caring for this land has translated into green building practices, evident everywhere. Choices included compact fluorescent lights, on-demand hot-water heaters, motion-sensor heating monitors, environmentally friendly soap, and an electric lawn mower. If the staff has its way, this is about as high-tech as Cama Beach will ever get.

“I joke that we’ll have a barrel for all cellphones, MP3 players and laptops,” Wheeler said. “They go in there when you get here, and you dig them out when you leave … if you really want them back.”

Freelance writer Kathryn True of Vashon Island is a regular contributor to NWWeekend.