NEBO — As visitors prepare to flock to Lake James State Park in full force as warm weather arrives and the COVID-19 pandemic further fades, a key piece still is in the works.
Nora Coffey, the park’s superintendent, said that after the project was delayed due to wetter-than-normal weather and the coronavirus, the park’s new visitor center at the Paddy’s Creek area is targeting a opening in September, but that timeline remains fluid.
“COVID caused manufacturing plants to be shut down, materials to be delayed and entire work crews who were out sick or had to quarantine due to exposure,” Coffey said. “ ... Once the contractors are done with their work, the park still has additional work to do in the building to get it ready for occupancy.”
The Cove Bridge being built nearby is on the same schedule and under the same contract, Coffey said, noting that once the contracted work is complete, there still will be some trail connections that park staff will have to complete to make the bridge accessible. The park also will have to make sure all permits are ready before Duke Energy will allow the bridge to open to the public.
“Once these facilities are in use, the public and park staff will benefit greatly,” Coffey said. “We will finally have one main hub for park staff and visitors alike. The visitor center will be open and staffed daily, so visitors will be able to stop in for park information, merchandise and educational opportunities.
“The Cove Bridge will provide a connection to the Fonta Flora State Trail via the Long Arm Peninsula. The bridge will also allow park staff to more easily and quickly access the peninsula in case of an emergency on the Fonta Flora State Trail or boat-in campsites, which are also located on the peninsula.”
Work done at the Canal Bridge Access was preparation work for the installation of the bridge, Coffey said. Several barges and cranes were brought in and floated over to the bridge location, as were the bridge sections. Coffey said the 240-foot single-span bridge was brought over in five sections, floated across to the site and then set in place over the channel.
While many people are beginning to return to a more “normal” way of life, Coffey said she’s not sure things will ever completely return to normal and it certainly never was expected to be the case for LJSP this year with COVID lingering and the opening of the visitor center scheduled.
But, as was seen at times last year, Coffey expects visitation at the park to continue to rise. And while the park appreciates its visitors, Coffey expressed concern over the high amount of traffic.
“I think a lot of people discovered, or rediscovered, a love for the outdoors in 2020, and that doesn’t just go away overnight,” she said. “Parks across the state and across the nation are experiencing an increase in visitation. This is a double-edged sword, for sure. We love to see people out enjoying nature, but there is a cost to too many people being in one place at the same time every day.
“The resources are taking a beating. Some of it they can handle, but other areas are getting loved to death. We are learning, adjusting and planning as best as we can. We are excited to be opening the swim beach this summer.”
The swim beach opened Saturday and will remain open through September from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on a daily basis, Coffey said. The park will charge for swimming when lifeguards are on duty, which normally begins around Memorial Day and tentatively is scheduled to continue daily through mid-August. The concession stand also will open around Memorial Day, which is when Coffey said the park hopes to start renting out canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards.
But all of these dates are subject to change and visitors should keep an eye out for changes.
“Folks should monitor the park’s website, www.ncparks.gov, for the most up-to-date information,” Coffey said. “The timing of these seasonal activities is determined by when we can get our seasonal staff hired and trained. The seasonal applications are coming in slower than usual this year.
“If anyone is looking for seasonal work, they should contact the park office at 828-584-7728 or email us at email@example.com. We are still looking for lifeguards and general utility workers. Lifeguard pay starts at $12 per hour and GUWs start at $10 per hour.”
Justin Epley is a staff writer for The News Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.