When I look at the new Raymond R. "Andy" Guest Jr./Shenandoah River State Park here, I can't decide whether to laugh or cry.
I want to laugh because it's a wonderful new public asset in a gorgeous place, providing boating and fishing access to the winding, shallow South Fork of the Shenandoah near Front Royal, with six miles of shoreline and 1,600 acres of woods and fields to wander and camp.
I want to cry because as a former member of Three Bends Hunt Club, which had exclusive hunting and fishing rights, we used to have it all to ourselves, just us and the bears, deer, bass, sunfish, wild turkeys and eagles.
"It used to take 25 minutes by car to get down to the river from Route 340," said Jim Clay, a longtime officer of Three Bends who helped arrange my short-lived membership a few years back. "Now it takes three."
I remember bouncing along in a Jeep on that tangled, one-lane journey through the blackberry and raspberry thickets, pausing long enough to reach out the window to grab fistfuls of ripe berries in places where the black bears hadn't knocked the bushes down. Now there's an asphalt road with 100-foot cleared shoulders on both sides, courtesy of the Virginia Department of Transportation, which does nothing halfway.
There are picnic and camping areas and canoe launch ramps, shelters, toilets and rules, rules, rules. "Fishing from the shoreline will only be permitted at the man-made [hardened] access areas [not allowed in the car-top canoe launch areas]. Pets must be kept on a leash at all times. Owners responsible for removing pet `droppings.' Lanterns should be hung from poles provided, not trees." Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Still, it could be worse. Less than a decade ago, the bulk of the land was slated to become the Warren County landfill. The people spoke out against that riverside dump, loud and clear, and the state wound up buying the tract for a park and spending millions developing it.
Shenandoah River Park had a "soft" opening May 15 but celebrates its official grand opening Saturday as host of the resurrected Shenandoah Riverfest, with bluegrass music, balloon rides, food, boating events and the like. The fee for Riverfest is $10 per car and the proceeds benefit the conservation organization Friends of the Shenandoah River.
After that, the park, named for a much-loved county commissioner, settles down for its first full season in business, charging $2 per car to enter during the week, $3 on weekends.
Just a few miles south of where Interstate 66 passes through Front Royal, the facility is nicely situated for the many Washingtonians who like to float or wade the Shenandoah in the hot summer months and later, when fall colors light the woods. I drove out for a look last week on the hottest day of the year and was glad I had. As the temperature soared to 100 degrees at Dupont Circle, I was knee-deep in 72-degree river water, flycasting to smallmouth bass leaping after damsel flies.
My canoeing partner was Trace Noel, a lifelong river rat who owns Shenandoah River Trips, one of four canoe, raft and tubing liveries that service the South Fork in this area. As chairman of the volunteer Shenandoah River Recreational Planning Committee, Noel is bullish about the park.
"In 160 miles of the South Fork," he says, "there's practically no public place where people can just come out and sit and stare at the river. There's a little municipal park in Strasburg and another in Elkton near Harrisonburg. Other than that, almost all the shoreline is private."
"The state identified a need for a park on the Shenandoah way back in the 1960s," said Roger Pence, the ranger who manages the new park. "For a river as famous as this is, it's time."
Pence took Noel and me for a tour, and it was about what you'd expect -- roads and buildings, buildings and roads. The best stuff remains tucked away in the woods. Most of the hiking, horseback and bicycle trails have yet to be developed. There are 10 primitive campsites for walk-in or canoe-in campers, with 10 more due soon and two launch ramps for car-top boats.
Noel reckons the location is ideal for anglers who can put in at the low-water bridge next to his shop in Bentonville, 3 1/2-river miles upstream, and float down through some extremely fishy water, then take out at the camp. Or they can put in at the camp and float another four miles down to the public takeout at Karo Landing.
Both are beautiful, nonthreatening floats, though the current drought has kept the water so low even an expert like Noel had a hard time finding enough water to get across some of the rock ledges. No matter, when the canoe fetched up hard on a rock, you could step out in the warm water and start casting.
Pence, the park manager, said shore fishing will not be permitted at the park in an effort to keep folks from trampling the environmentally sensitive banks, but anyone with a canoe or tube or a pair of tennis shoes and shorts is welcome to paddle or wade out from the designated shore access points and work the rocky riffles and runs.
The main picnic area overlooks a river-wide rock ledge known as "Fish Trap Ledge," and as a former member of Three Bends Hunt Club, I can attest that it's chock full of bass and sunfish, which prove particularly responsive in the evening. I spent several satisfying sunsets there, watching the light fade and the bass jump. Now everybody can, to a point.
"The park is open from dawn to dusk," said Clay, the former Three Bends officer. "When I went down to fish with my son the other day, we were still catching fish when they sent a ranger down to run us out. He drove along the bank blowing his car horn to let us know it was quitting time."
Oh, well. Nothing's perfect. "It was okay," said Clay with a resigned chuckle. "We'd had our fun."
Raymond R. "Andy" Guest Jr./Shenandoah River Park's grand opening Saturday starts at 10 a.m. The park is eight miles south of Front Royal on Route 340.
CAPTION: Trace Noel, chairman of the volunteer Shenandoah River Recreational Planning Committee, lands a smallmouth near Shenandoah River Park.