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Trash to Treasure in Canyon County: Celebration Park Turns 25

In 1990, Canyon County Parks and Waterways Director Tom Bicak and then-Sheriff Gary Putnam rode motorcycles to a bluff overlooking the Snake River. Below them, strewn across the river bank, was a 2-acre mess of abandoned vehicles, construction trash and other garbage.

“It was a dump. It seriously was,” said Bicak, who at the time was a newly hired recreation planner and Parks and Waterways’ sole employee. “But it was for sale. That was the good part.”

“You ought to build a park in this place,” Putnam told him.

“That really resonated with me,” Bicak said.

That “dump” is now the unique and vibrant Celebration Park that encompasses 722 acres and hosts hundreds of eager students every week. They learn the history of the Snake River, its historical significance as a transportation crossroads and life for its earliest inhabitants. But it’s not all sitting and listening. They also get to use an atlatl to launch spear-like darts at targets to replicate how Native Americans hunted big-game animals.

“There’s nothing more fun for a fourth-grader than throwing a sharp stick,” Bicak said with a grin. “They will sit through anything to do that.”

The atlatls (pronounced at-lat-tills) are symbolic. They are a link to history, and something to do as well as something to learn about, much like the park.

Throughout its 25 years, the park has used history to propel it forward and become a crossroads of its own, where education and recreation meet. It’s best known as Idaho’s first archeology park, but it’s also a popular place for anglers, boaters, hikers, birdwatchers and others.

That was no accident.

After Putnam’s suggestion to turn a dump into a park, Bicak posed the idea to Canyon County commissioners.

“They said I could build all the parks I wanted, just don’t ask for any money,” Bicak said.

He secured the first grant for the park from the state’s waterways improvement fund, which paid for the original 2 acres, a boat launch and a parking lot.

But more than boaters showed up, and when visitors asked Bicak about the park, he would lead them on impromptu tours of the area’s petroglyphs. Then a teacher asked Bicak if she could bring her students down to see them.

“That’s when the dam broke, because one teacher would tell another teacher, and soon we had students down here every day,” he said.

Bicak estimates the park hosts 10,000 to 15,000 students annually.

The park’s original property was adjacent to the historic Guffey Bridge, a steel railroad span built in 1897 that crosses the Snake River. The Idaho State Historical Society owned it and sold it to Canyon County for a dollar. While it was structurally sound, the tracks and ties had long been removed, and all that remained were two I-beams running the length of it.

“It was treacherous,” Bicak said.

The park received more grants to provide materials to put a tread on the bridge, so people could walk across it, but had no money for labor. Bicak approached officials from the Idaho National Guard to see whether they could help.

They didn’t just help; they turned it into a major training project. A Navy Construction Battalion, aka Seabees, built prefabricated decking and shipped it down the park, where there was a full military encampment all summer to install it on the bridge. National Guard soldiers from as far away as the East Coast helped renovate the bridge to make it pedestrian friendly while preserving its historic character.

It was another example of volunteerism and creative thinking to develop the park. Boy Scout troops and individuals doing Eagle Scout projects contributed to the park, and Bicak watched how people used it before deciding how to further develop it.

Not only did he see how people used the park, he also worked with teachers and others to develop curriculum for the park’s archeological program and built facilities to accommodate students and classes.

“Programming is as important, if not more important, than facilities,” he said, because programming shaped how people used the park. That programming drove one of the park’s most unique features, its atlatl range.

Whose idea was it to give school kids a tool to launch spears farther and faster? Credit the students, Bicak said.

They saw paintings and illustrations of prehistoric native Americans using a short, wooden, lever-like device to hurl spears and kill woolly mammoths, and they wondered how they worked. They built their own atlatls and spears, technically known as darts, and tried to launch them.

“We had to reinvent the darn things,” Bicak said. “It was all trial and error.”

Eventually, a student became proficient enough to land a dart in a hay bale, and it was a eureka moment because it started the park’s atlatl range.

“We’ve probably created more atlatls here at Celebration Park than anywhere else in human history,” he said.

It also spawned the annual Idaho State Open Atlatl Competition, which is May 16.

Education remains fundamental to the park, and it’s ushering in the next phase of development. A museum is partially built, and dorms for visiting college students is underway.

Bicak estimates there’s been $6 million to $8 million spent to develop the park through the years, and despite not initially giving money, Canyon County has provided a generous budget and been a critical supporter in the park’s development and improvement.

“I’m lucky they (county commissioners) saw this park would be a wonderful thing,” Bicak said.

Celebration Park has turned out similar to what Bicak originally envisioned when he was trying to turn a trash heap into a park, “which is kind of spooky,” he said. “But it took 25 years.”

The park also offers things beyond history and education. There’s a small camping area, picnic facilities, a boat ramp and dock.

People can hike, bike or ride horseback on a trail that parallels the river. The trail also leads to Halvorsen Lake, which is actually a pair of lakes that are a short hike away from the park. The lakes have bass and bluegill and can have excellent fishing. The Snake River is also teeming with smallmouth bass, catfish and other fish.

Getting there-

From Nampa: Take Idaho 45 south and turn left onto Ferry Road. Turn right onto Hill Road. Turn right onto Sinker Road and left at Guffey Railroad Bridge.

From Boise: Take Interstate 84 west to the Meridian/Kuna exit. Turn south onto Kuna/Meridian Road and continue onto E. Avalon Road. Turn left onto Swan Falls Road. Turn right onto Victory Lane. Continue onto Warren Spur Road, then left onto Sinker Road and left at Guffey Railroad Bridge.

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