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Island Portrait: Manager Jack Hartt says bittersweet goodbye to Deception Pass State Park

by Joan Pringle / Anacortes American | Oct 25, 2017
Jack Hartt still remembers the campsite, fire and tent from when his family first came to Bowman Bay in Deception Pass State Park when he was 4 years old. Now, 59 years later, he’s retiring from managing the park he came to love along with the people he met and worked with during the past 14 years.
Examples of carvings by Samish Indian Nation Beaver Lodge
After 14 years as manager of Deception Pass State Park, Jack Hartt retires this week with a celebration in his honor on Saturday.
Joan Pringle / Anacortes American

Jack Hartt still remembers the campsite, fire and tent from when his family first came to Bowman Bay in Deception Pass State Park when he was 4 years old.

Now, 59 years later, he’s retiring from managing the park he came to love along with the people he met and worked with during the past 14 years.

Hartt took over the management of Deception Pass State Park from Bill Overby in 2004.

He said he knew then it was the best park in the state, and that was reinforced over time.

“It’s grown on me as I’ve discovered its hidden values,” he said. “It hits you in the face with beauty and grandeur.”

Hartt, 63, retires this week. A celebration in his honor is 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Fidalgo Bay RV Convention Center.

Hartt has been the driving force to keeping the park energized and alive, said Rick Colombo, Deception Pass Park Foundation president.

“His enthusiasm and oversight has made each of us feel we are making a difference, our combined efforts are worthwhile, and we help improve our community at large,” Colombo said. “Jack has been my hero, boss, mentor, role model, friend, fellow worker bee and opened the door for me to give the community my best.”

Hartt graduated from the University of Washington in outdoor recreation and forest management.

He’s worked at Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, the Rocky Mountain National Park, for REI and in Alaska as a fisheries technician when he was just 17, spending his days hiking and catching fish.

He’s been a ranger and manager with Washington State Parks for 40 years. Before the job at Deception Pass, Hartt worked at Cape Disappointment State Park on the Long Beach Peninsula, Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend and Riverside State Park near Spokane.

“The crown jewel”

Hartt’s favorite remains Deception Pass, “the crown jewel” of parks.

Its history is made of a native peoples, such as the Samish Indian Nation and Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, and early pioneers. Its present and future is made up of the millions of visitors each year and hundreds of volunteers that help keep it in pristine condition.

Deception Pass is now the busiest park in the state. In 2016, there were 2.7 million visitors.

It had only about 1.5 million visitors a year about a decade ago.

The park started charging a day-use fee when Hartt first came. Having to pay assured well-behaved users and a family atmosphere, and that increased attendance.

With the job came a residence on the shore of Pass Lake within the park where Hartt and his wife of 42 years, Susannah, raised their six children.

Hartt said in a recent park newsletter that half a dozen candidates for his position were interviewed by Parks officials and local residents in mid-September. The top two were interviewed again at the end of the month.

Hartt said he was deliberately not a part of the process but was as curious as can be.

Oddities, mysteries

On a recent sunny morning at Rosario Beach, as a man dressed as a rabbit was being photographed at a nearby picnic table, Hartt said “It’s Deception Pass; you see odd things,” which led him to talk about other oddities.

Like the time someone took a rubber raft over to Strawberry Island, which in itself had to be difficult, Hartt said. The currents to the island can be pretty fast, and there’s no beach to land on and no real place to camp.

Hartt said he knows the person used a small rubber raft because he found two plastic oars that could only be used for such a small vessel.

Once on the island, the person with the raft erected a small shelter, in which were a table, light, a couple snacks, a couple books, and cases and cases of plastic Legos, along with some built Lego structures.

“Of all the places to build Legos, that wasn’t my first idea,” Hartt said.

To this day, it’s still a mystery who the person was.

Where memories are shared

The park has special meaning to Hartt and the community.

“What’s here is my soul,” he said. “It’s everything I love — oceans, meadows, beaches, places where people are having parties, celebrations, and places for quiet solitude often for me.”

He has seen many joys there.

People come to the park to celebrate major events in their lives whether that be newborns, kids riding a bike, older people visiting for the last time or others spreading the ashes of a loved one and everything in between, he said.

“It’s the place memories are shared,” Hartt said. “Memories deep in the hearts of all of us.”

But there have also been sorrows, particularly at the Deception Pass Bridge connecting Fidalgo and Whidbey islands.

“The bridge is a place people chose to end their lives,” Hartt said.

It’s a difficult thing to deal with, especially when it’s not clear exactly what transpired. Hartt said sometimes a vehicle is left behind but no other evidence of what happened to the missing person. Hundreds of hours can be spent searching for them.

That is why for the past year, Hartt has worked to get funding to install a camera on the bridge similar to ones the Department of Transportation uses so that loved ones at least can know what took place.

“It would be nice to meet the needs of families and emergency responders to get some closure,” Hartt said.

Struggles, triumphs

Keeping the park in good shape hasn’t always been easy. Any business or company has three main challenges — funding, staff availability and time to do the work, Hartt said.

“Sometimes people say struggles, and I see them as challenges,” Hartt said.

About 90 percent of the park’s budget comes from the sale of Discover Passes, camping fees and miscellaneous fees, he said. Only about 10 percent is covered with tax funds, making the park mostly self-supporting.

Deception Pass park has well over 100 buildings that need work and preservation for the future, including some built by the Civilian Conservation Corps 80 years ago, as well as a considerable number of maintenance projects and daily responsibilities to keep the park functioning.

Schools, prisons and other government responsibilities often get higher priority because parks are not always thought of as critical to life, Hartt said.

“But they are essential to our well-being and health,” he said.

Part of what has made this park strong has been community involvement.

Thousands of volunteer hours were given to the park last year, Hartt said. It’s rewarding to make that happen, and it’s not hard to find things for volunteers to do.

Among them are beach naturalists who get trained each year at the park, Scout troops, Lions, Kiwanians, Rotarians, church organizations, school groups and individuals who spend a month at a time camping at the park as they work.

Along with the outside volunteers are those associated with the Park Foundation that started in 2005 when four people came forward. It has since raised tens of thousands of dollars for the park, including for an AmeriCorp employee when the park lost state funding.

Volunteers have helped maintain park structures and build new ones, as well as restore Civilian Conservation Corps features to their original condition. Others have made themselves accessible to teach the countless visitors about everything in the park from its animals to tide pools.

“To help people see what they’re seeing out there,” Hartt said.

The result of the state/community partnerships has been growth.

“I’ve seen this park become better and better,” Hartt said.

The beaches at both Bowman and Cornet bays have been restored along with the Rosario tide pools, and the acquisition of Kukutali Island through work with the Swinomish added about 100 acres to the park.

Working with them and the Samish have made them like family, Hartt said. The tribes love the park and have helped tremendously to protect the heritage of it and their ancestors.

Saying good-bye

Leaving the park and the people associated with it is bittersweet, Hartt said.

“Things I want to do and won’t do any more,” he said. “That’s a sorrow, probably my greatest sorrow.”

Hartt has always been in touch with the philosophical side of life, either through the stories he tells in the park newsletter to how he approaches the management of the park. He said it rubbed off on him from a boss he had while working at Fort Worden.

That philosophical side has deepened for him since he’s been at Deception Pass as he’s understood more what that man was talking about.

Hopefully, Hartt said, he’s become a better person and a better park manager through it all.

As he leaves Deception Pass park behind, Hartt said he doesn’t know what’s next for him.

“But I’m ready for the next chapter,” he said. “I have no idea what it is, but I hope I’m open to whatever it may be.”