Labor Day weekend starts early at public campgrounds.
Some campers are worse than Garth Brooks fans spending the night on sidewalks waiting for concert tickets. To get that perfect campsite, some stake claims days in advance, even if it means a long drive back to civilization before the weekend begins.
“We were lucky. I think we got the last spot,” Donna Griffin said Friday as she kicked back in her director’s chair at the Fort Spokane campground along Lake Roosevelt. Her husband, Tom, had returned to his job in Spokane for one more day.
The Griffins’ neighbors weren’t there Thursday - but their chair was. They had come by earlier to pay for a site and mark their claim.
“If the site is paid for and occupied, it’s theirs,” said Suzanne Halverson of the National Park Service. “However they interpret it.”
Squatter’s rights are alive and well in the West.
A few spaces away from Griffin, Tim Ferguson said he had no problem with squatters. What he doesn’t like are the freeloaders.
“It’s one thing when you just leave your stuff here and don’t pay,” said Ferguson as friend Aaron Hall fried bacon on a gas burner.
The 20-year-olds from Colville wanted more space, so they cleared someone else’s cooler and lawn chair off an unpaid site next to theirs.
They took over the space Friday, and filled it with the guttural chug-chug-chug of punk rock.
It didn’t appear much like the great outdoors. Fort Spokane looked more like a trailer park. Or a shanty town. Trailers, tents, lawn chairs and RVs were everywhere.
“We must have had 50 cars through here,” Scott Price said. He and his family woke up at 10 p.m. Thursday to the sound of a car hot-rodding its way through the narrow camp road.
Price thought the driver was all revved up because there were no spaces. Then came music at 3:30 a.m.
The noise and a tight schedule chased off Ron Adamson and the 25 high schoolers he was watching. The Newman Lake church group didn’t want to be around any partying.
“When we packed out, there were people waiting, and they were glad to see us leave,” he said.
Thinking of heading to that other popular Lake Roosevelt spot, Porcupine Bay? Its campground was full, too. But there was still beach space for those who wanted to hang out.
Patty Earls, who goes there every Labor Day weekend, sat soaking up the sun Friday afternoon. “I came out Wednesday, and there were just a few spaces left,” she said from behind round, tinted John-Lennon-style specs.
While you can bake yourself on the beach, you can’t start a fire.
“We’re in an extreme fire danger,” Ranger Eric Scott said of both camp areas. Recent wildfires have rangers concerned. Fires are allowed at campgrounds only.
If campers can find one, that is.
Farragut State Park, 28 miles north of Coeur d’Alene, has been tent-to-trailer nearly every night this summer.
Spokane’s Brian Johnson was glad he didn’t try to sleep after working all Thursday night. Instead, he gathered up the tent that blew into his front yard when he was 13, his girlfriend, her children and drove east Friday morning for a weekend vacation in North Idaho.
The nicest spots weren’t available. At most, the Johnson clan could have had a primo spread for a night. They settled for one of the less desirable places for the weekend, but all seemed happy.
“I have a feeling if we had tried tomorrow, we wouldn’t have gotten anything,” Johnson said while pounding stakes into the dry dirt with a hatchet.
He had lived in Coeur d’Alene for 13 years and never visited Farragut.
“Somebody told us about it,” explained Janice Nall, his girlfriend, dusting off a foam rubber pad and listening to her son and daughter chatter about more exciting things: swimming and roasting marshmallows and hot dogs.
By noon Friday, more than 100 of Farragut’s spots were taken. Park Manager Bryan Rowder expected the vacancies to disappear rapidly.
Late Friday, about the only spaces left at big camping areas were found at Spokane’s Riverside State Park. “We don’t expect to be full, but you never know,” park office assistant Nancy Farrar said. “People don’t like to camp in their back yard.”
But folks definitely love to get away from it all, even though they often bring everything they’re fleeing along with them.
“Watching campers was kind of humorous,” said Halverson of the National Park Service. She lives on Highway 25 along the way to Lake Roosevelt. “They were racing each other to get here.”
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