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Cultural Connection

Celebration Park links past, present through archaeology

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Tucked in a river canyon, rough images carved into the rock serve as lingering reminders of an ancient tale that began thousands of years ago and is still being written.

It's a tale that is marked by a great flood, by migrating bands of American Indians, by miners, pioneers, farmers, archaeologists and school children; and this story is set in Canyon County.

Just south of Melba, along the banks of the Snake River, Celebration Park's long timeline is the prime attraction. As the state's only archaeological park, it draws university-level archaeology and geology students, as well as grade-schoolers from across Idaho and eastern Oregon. Each year, roughly 15,000 students in grades kindergarten through 12th get the chance to step back in time and learn about some of the region's first residents.

It's not a typical county park, but what it lacks in swing sets and soccer fields, it more than makes up for with river access, trails and a deep cultural perspective.

"Not only [is there] Native American history, but [because of] the river along that area, there were ferry boats, explorers looking for a southern route to the Oregon Trail, miners and trackers," said Kathy Kershner, park manager.

The park boasts a visitors center with numerous outdoor areas where interpretive guides share the history of the park with students throughout the spring and fall. The field trip program has grown so popular that Kershner said she is already booking trips into 2010.

But while the park may be bustling in warmer weather, it's typically a peaceful place in the winter, although more visitors are discovering the area. Kershner estimates roughly 65,000 people in addition to the visiting students find their way to the park each year.

Park staff is on hand throughout the summer, but for the first time, an interpretive specialist will be on site on weekends throughout the winter to assist visitors who often come looking for the slightly warmer and dryer climate of the canyon.

Visitors are free to explore the park, touring the sites of Native American encampments along the river, looking for the petroglyphs hiding among the rocky canyon walls, or strolling over the historic railroad bridge that has been rebuilt as a walking path.

The Guffey Bridge once carried railcars filled with material from nearby mines, but after the track was abandoned by the railroad in the 1940s, plans called for it to be torn down and salvaged. The Idaho State Historical Society stepped in and saved it, turning ownership over to Canyon County after the park was established. Instead of iron tracks, Guffey Bridge now sports a wooden walking deck with fishing turnouts so anglers can drop a line.

Students also get a first-hand look at the cultures that once moved through the area as part of a hunting and gathering lifestyle.

According to Kershner, three sites from three different American Indian cultures have been found in the park. While none of the groups made permanent homes in the area, all three seemed to have used the canyon as a seasonal stop.

While she said the park traces occupation back to as early as 12,000 years ago by paleo tribes, Mark Plew, chair of the Boise State Department of Anthropology, said the university traces history back just a few thousand years. The discrepancy comes from different studies that have dated petroglyphs to various dates of origin.

Plew has led summer field camps for Boise State students in the park for the past 10 years. Each year, roughly 10 students spend several weeks living and working at the park, conducting archaeological digs at several sites along the river. In the process, the archaeologists-in-training learn valuable field techniques like how to take artifacts out of the ground and interpret them.

Archaeology teams have found various multi-purpose rock tools, projectile points, drills, flake tools and even grinding stones, all of which have helped the process of piecing together the story of the area. Sometimes, though, it's what the students haven't found that gives the biggest clues. Plew pointed out that some sites along the river have yielded no fish remains, showing that the groups weren't there at a time when fishing was the priority.

Primarily, Plew said it was different bands of the Shoshone tribe that used the area. "We're learning more about the area all the time," he said.

Geologists can be found scouring the hills, looking at the remnants of the prehistoric Bonneville flood, which formed the massive Snake River plain. Recreationists are there as well, taking advantage of the river for fishing. And while thousands find their way to the park each year, it's still relatively unknown.

"At least two or three times a week someone comments that [he or she] didn't even know [the park] was there," Kershner said. "It's kind of a well-kept secret."

But the word is getting out, thanks to an improved Web site and the future addition of a new teaching center and museum.

The roughly $1-million project is being funded primarily through grants, including $500,000 from the Federal Transportation Enhancement Grant program, as well as donations from several private foundations.

Construction on the new 5,000-square-foot building is set to begin soon, with initial construction estimated to be done in May 2009, and Kershner said she hopes to have the museum ready to use by the end of next year. When completed, the center will include classrooms, exhibit areas, laboratory space and even a small dormitory, where Boise State students can stay during field camp.

The center will also add to the public side of programing, giving more opportunities for hands-on learning in addition to the existing atlatl target range at the park. The ancient hunting technique involves hurling a dart—blunted for students—with a flexible stick.

Increased visitation has also had an unexpected benefit for the park: a decrease in the amount of vandalism. While archaeologists across the world have decried the destruction of historical and cultural treasures by those looking to make a quick buck, or through wanton, purposeless destruction, Celebration Park has been spared.

With more eyes around and the recent addition of a security camera system, Kershner said there have been dramatically fewer problems, which in the past ranged from graffiti to destruction of benches, or even the bridge, for campfire fuel.

Plew credits a changing overall attitude for the preservation of the park's assets.

"Culture has changed," he said. "People are more understanding and aware [of the importance of archaeological sites]."

For Plew, the park is a rare opportunity to share history and archaeology with the public, thanks in large part to its proximity to a large urban center and the field trip program.

"[It's] a great opportunity to talk to people about conservation and preservation of archaeological resources. Cultural resources are unlike other resources ... when archaeological resources are destroyed, [they're] destroyed for all time."

For more information about Celebration Park, visit canyonco.org/parks.