It’s the second summer since Alaska State Parks banned camping at the Portage Cove State Recreation Site in Haines. But on May 17, a smattering of tents popped up there anyway. A few dozen people showed their support for reopening the park to tent campers. 

Mayor Tom Morphet organized the event, calling it a “camp-in.” He said he was acting in his unofficial capacity as a resident and supporter of state parks, not as mayor. According to Morphet, some 40 people attended, and they left around 1 a.m.

“It’s about consciousness-raising and keeping the pressure on,” Morphet said. 

Lori Mastrella signs a petition asking the state to allow camping at Portage Cove during a "Camp-In" organized by mayor Tom Morphet on May 17, 2024. (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)
Lori Mastrella signs a petition asking the state to allow camping at Portage Cove during a “Camp-In” organized by mayor Tom Morphet on May 17, 2024. (Lex Treinen/Chilkat Valley News)

For years, Portage Cove was the only public place to set up a tent in town and the only one intended for visitors without cars. About a mile from Main Street, the cove is easier to access by foot or bicycle than the other state-run camping areas in the Haines Borough, like Chilkoot Lake and Chilkat State Park. 

But at the end of 2022, the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation turned the long-time campground into a site for day-use only. Park managers were looking for ways to cut costs, curb litter, and reduce bear attractants. Southeast Area parks superintendent Preston Kroes said at the time that the site generated little revenue from camping fees. Kroes could not be reached for comment about the camp-in.

Since then, some Haines residents and officials have called on the state to restore the campground or hand over management to a private contractor or the Haines Borough. Earlier this year Mayor Morphet wrote a letter to the Department of Natural Resources to see if the state would sell the site to the borough for $1. 

In response, DNR Commissioner John Boyle said the state wouldn’t consider selling the park because its designation as a national Land and Water Conservation Fund site “greatly increases the time and complexity required for such a transaction.” The Land and Water Conservation Fund is a federal grant program for public outdoor recreation areas.

Jennifer Allen was one of the residents who attended Friday. Allen worked for the division of parks for over a decade as a natural resource technician. Her job involved maintenance at Portage Cove. 

“I’m a strong supporter of camping in Haines,” Allen said. “I was very disappointed when the campground was closed to camping and turned into a day-use area.”

Allen said she wouldn’t expect running the campground at Portage Cove to cost much more than a day-use area because parks employees still have to do maintenance, like pumping the site’s outhouses, and are now missing out on camping fees. 

Sue Libenson also showed up at the camp-in. She told KHNS that Portage Cove is particularly special because it was the first place in Haines that several long-time residents stayed when they first came to town. 

“It’s just a great cornerstone of the Haines community and it just needs to come back into service,” Libenson said.

Bill Zack, a former Haines park ranger, spent his first night in town at Portage Cove — about 40 years ago. In 2022 he told the Chilkat Valley News, “It was one of those beautiful days. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.” 

In that interview, Zack predicted it would be tough for park managers to keep people from camping at the cove.