Long holiday weekend beckons campers, boaters

Sunny skies, temperatures in the mid-80s. Just enough wind to keep mosquitoes away and the sailboat folks happy.

That would be the perfect recipe for this Fourth of July weekend at Kansas' state parks.

All that probably won't happen. But with the Fourth on a Monday and no storms in the forecast thus far, large crowds are expected to turn out for camping, boating, fishing, hiking and other outdoor fun.

Folks are being reminded to be kind and stay safe as they scramble for camping sites and space on the water.

"Everyone wants to have fun," said Alan Stark, supervisor for the seven parks in the state's central region, including El Dorado and Cheney. "But don't have so much fun you're spoiling it for everyone else."

Campers were setting up early this week, and many of the prime spots have already been taken, park officials said.

El Dorado almost always draws the most visitors among the state's parks on Fourth of July.

"If the weather cooperates, we could get 70,000 to 80,000," said Seth Turner, El Dorado's park manager. About 65,000 showed up for Memorial Day weekend.

While lake levels and camping conditions at the state's parks vary, Stark said El Dorado and Cheney are in good shape.

All parks will be open for business this weekend. That's important for the parks' financial well-being.

About 85 percent of the state parks' revenue comes from visitors' fees, such as camping permits and daily vehicle passes, Stark said.

So parks rely heavily on the Fourth of July turnout, especially when the holiday links to a weekend, as it does this year.

"The fiscal year starts July 1," Turner said, "so having a big first weekend helps the cash flow to keep things going."

Showcase weekend for state's parks

Parks also want their Fourth of July visitors to return. So this is a showcase weekend, particularly since more first-time users are showing up.

"With the economy the way it is," Turner said, "we are seeing more people staying closer to home....

"We're seeing a lot more younger families, in their 30s with younger children."

El Dorado has nearly 1,100 campsites. Only about 40 can be reserved, and most of those were taken for this weekend by early January, Turner said.

At Cheney, park manager Jody Schwartz is also expecting a large crowd, somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000. That should put Cheney in the running for one of the state parks' top four turnout spots this weekend.

"We may be down just a little bit (from past years)," he said.

Again, it's all about the weather. High winds and rain held Cheney's Memorial Day weekend crowds to 35,000, as much as 25,000 less than normal.

Cheney has 600 designated campsites, including 275 with utilities. Schwartz isn't overly concerned about grass fires.

"We've been dry," he said, "but we're still pretty green."

That's not the case at Lake Mead in southwest Kansas, where there is a countywide burn ban because of the drought.

Lake Mead's park is open for camping, but no one is allowed to go swimming or wading in the lake because of a recent blue-green algae bloom, park officials said. The condition could pose a health risk to people and animals if they are exposed to large quantities.

Too much water is a problem in some parks in the north and northeast.

Glen Elder's lake is 10 feet above normal and about half of its 315 campsites are expected to be closed, park manager Dean Deines said.

"A lot of the primitive camping is gone because of the flooding," he said.

Both of the boat ramps inside the park are closed because of high water, although several ramps outside the park are open.

At Milford, the lake is eight feet above normal, park manager Tony Reitz said. That means the beach is also eight feet underwater and all the courtesy docks aren't available.

"But we still expect to be pretty busy," Reitz said.

"Everyone's catching a lot of fish. Not a lot of stuff is floating around the lake now. If the weather cooperates, we should have a good turnout."

Crowds, waterways and safety

And then there is safety.

Turner expects to have 200 to 300 boats and personal watercraft jockeying for space on El Dorado's 8,000-acre lake.

"One of the most important things to remember about a boat is it doesn't have brakes," he said.

Not to mention that some of those driving the boats are doing it for the first time.

"If you want to drive a car, you have to take a test," Turner said. "If you want a boat, you just have to have enough money to go buy one. It's important to understand the rules of boating etiquette."

Among those rules: Don't veer too close to fishermen, stay on the lookout for tubers and skiers, and be mindful of no-wake zones.

El Dorado will have one of its boats patrolling the water. Butler County Sheriff's Office also will have a boat on the water.

None of the state parks' beaches has lifeguards.

Don't forget to watch where you're stepping in the water. Better yet, don't wade barefooted, park officials said.

In addition to other sharp debris, zebra mussels could lurk below. They're generally the size of a fingernail, but you can cut your foot on their shells.

The mussel population is down at El Dorado but up at Cheney.

"If you can't see the bottom (of the lake), you should have some kind of shoes on," Turner said. "Not just for the zebras. There could be anything down there."

Parks personnel

Budget cuts have affected the parks. Mostly that has meant shifting personnel to parks that have seen a recent boom in visitors, such as Milford and Tuttle in the Fort Riley area.

But the parks still have their full contingent of rangers. Three to five rangers will be on duty at any given time at El Dorado.

In addition, most parks also use volunteer camp hosts, often a husband-wife team, to help manage campsites. El Dorado has 22 sets of camp hosts.

Hosts will try to work out any minor conflicts at campsites, Turner said.

"If they can't handle it, they'll contact a ranger," Turner said. "They'll come in and get everyone settled down."

The best chance of making it an enjoyable weekend rests with folks being considerate of others.

"There are going to be a lot of people," Stark said. "It only takes one noisy group at 2 a.m. to spoil it for others."

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