Leaving behind a legacy

Scenic Beach State Park Head Ranger Mike James looks out at the Hood Canal Monday morning. James will retire from Washington State Parks in April. - Photo by Jesse Beals
Scenic Beach State Park Head Ranger Mike James looks out at the Hood Canal Monday morning. James will retire from Washington State Parks in April.
— image credit: Photo by Jesse Beals


Staff writer

Mike James will lace up his boots and don his ranger hat one final time April 30. The Scenic Beach State Park head ranger/park manager is scheduled to retire after nearly 40 years with Washington State Parks, 35 of which were spent with Scenic Beach in Seabeck.

“I just ordered the retirement plaque,” James said. “I had indicated last year that the 30th of April would be the timeline.”

During his time at Scenic Beach, The 67-year-old Michigan native has seen the site blossom and grow from 31 acres to an 88-acre state park complete with a campground and breathtaking views of the Olympic Mountains. He is sad to leave his job as head ranger, but excited to see what retirement has to offer.

The beginning

James has always loved the outdoors. Growing up, he enjoyed gardening and building things with his hands.

“I’m a farm boy from Michigan. I got to be playing in the soil,” he said with a smile.

James attended San Diego State University and earned a degree in recreation administration. He then worked for the U.S. Forest Service in California. James previously spent time in the Marine Corps and worked at a cannery in Kodiak, Alaska.

James moved to Washington in 1970 where he was assigned to Kopachuck State Park near Gig Harbor. James and 10 other rangers were the first group of “professional” rangers in the state.

“It was kind of the good ol’ boy society,” James said. “We were the core of the first professional rangers.”

James, his wife, Elsa, and their three children then packed up and moved to Seabeck in 1973 where Scenic Beach State Park would eventually stand. The park did not open until 1975, but James and his family lived there a couple years before it was open to the public.

“We were here two years before the development started,” he said. “Which is kind of unusual,”

The family lived in the Emel House inside the park for many years. Elsa fed raccoons while their son and two daughters frolicked along the waterfront and amongst the trees. The house was built in 1911 and holds many special memories for James and his family.

“My daughter, Melissa, was married on the front steps of the Emel House. That was delightful,” James said with a smile. “The kids all got to grow up in a camping environment. This was home to them.”

Even though James already lived at the state park, he still had to apply for and be selected as the park’s head ranger. The pick for Scenic Beach State Park head ranger had to be in the top three of the candidates. James was No. 4, but his good friend, who was in the top three, gave his spot to James so he could become head ranger at the Washington park.

“Even though I was here I had to be selected for the job,” James said. “One of my good friends bought out to give me the job.”

While contractors did a lot of work creating Scenic Beach State Park, James put his own finishing touches on the property. He built the volleyball court, horseshoe pits and constructed fences along the property.

“I started building fences that were kind of unique to what we have here,” James said.

James originally dreamed of becoming a park ranger in Canada, but later learned that Canadian park rangers needed to reside in the country for at least five years.

Although he never made it to Canada, James has enjoyed his career at Scenic Beach and made lifelong friends and memories.

Making memories

James has many memories during his 35 years at Scenic Beach State Park. He now lives just outside the park’s boundaries, so he and his dogs frequently trek down to the waterfront and check out the scenery.

“To stand down on that beach and look out on those Olympics, if that doesn’t melt you ... it’s mesmerizing,” he said. “Each year I’m still mesmerized and overwhelmed with how much beauty there is here.”

At one point in his career, James was privileged to watch a pod of orcas cavort in the waters of the Hood Canal.

“For an hour I got to stand on the beach by myself and watch those devils work their magic,” he said with a smile.

The seasoned park ranger said the severe windstorm in 1991 was one of the craziest things he dealt with at Scenic Beach State Park. The 100 mph winds blew huge fir trees toward buildings and ravaged the property. James also experienced the Nisqually earthquake, which split the fireplace inside the Emel House.

The recent December 2007 storm took its toll on Scenic Beach, wiping out gravel paths and creating waterfalls throughout the park.

“It was just a river, it absolutely eroded, but building-wise everything held up,” James said.

When duty calls, James has a group of dedicated volunteers he can call on to help when needed. He’s enjoyed forging friendships with each and every one of them.

“Over the years we’ve had some unbelievably marvelous folks that have worked for us,” he said. “All I have to do is make three phone calls and I have volunteers.”

James will be 68 years old in April, but that does not keep him from performing manual labor at the park. He recently constructed wooden fences and added new gravel to some sections of the trails.

“I’m a very hands-on guy,” James said. “You can’t pluck me down in an office.”

James takes pride in the state park’s appearance. He believes “the better you keep a place, the more respect you’ll get from the people.

“People don’t understand what goes in to running a park and keeping it looking good,” he said.

James calls on his assistant ranger Shawn Copeland and volunteers to beautify the park when he cannot do so himself.

“I don’t think I can spend eight hours shoveling gravel anymore,” James said with a smile.

Retirement and beyond

James and Elsa had been married for more than 45 years when she died in July. Her illness took its toll on James and his family, but everyone, including Elsa, charged forward with smiles on their faces. Elsa lit up the doctor’s office when she went in for kidney dialysis, according to James.

“(Elsa) came in there smiling and just tipped the place upside down,” he said with a smile.

After his wife’s death, he knew it was time to retire. James intends to spend time doing the things he loves, such as kayaking, skiing and visiting his four grandchildren.

“I’ve got more time to go out and do things I missed doing,” James said.

He has family in Alexandria, Va. and Nashville, Tenn., which he plans to regularly visit once he retires. James recently traveled to Quebec with his 16-year-old granddaughter, Ashley Wagner, to watch her compete in a figure skating competition. Wagner is a 2007 junior world bronze medalist and is proving to be a rising star in the figure skating world. She will compete in the U.S. National Championships in St. Paul, Minn. later this month and James looks forward to traveling with her to future events.

“There’s big things on the horizon,” he said.

As he walked through the park on Monday, James said he is proud of what he has accomplished and looks forward to spending more time at the park he helped create.

“I can walk through here now and just feel good about everything that has been done,” James said.

As for the next head ranger of Scenic Beach State Park, James is pulling for Copeland, his assistant ranger.

“She’s still got to compete for it, but she deserves it,” he said.

James has even more plans for Scenic Beach State Park, but knows that he cannot do the work for the next generation of park rangers.

“I can’t be doing everything,” he said with a smile. “I got to leave something for the next contenders.”

Because he still lives just outside Scenic Beach State Park, James plans to continue helping out however he can.

“I’m not going to see it fall on its ear just because there’s nobody to take care of things,” James said. “I’ll come back and do what I can. I’ll be right out the back gate.”

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