Some outdoor places grab and never let go.
Ask Dennis Porterfield. He took a job in the boathouse of Wyandotte County Lake Park when he was a high school sophomore, 1972.
He’s still there running the marina.
Quick math says that’s 45 years. Nine American presidents. Hundreds of thousands of fish, perhaps, reeled in by visitors who know Porterfield well.
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Many of those anglers are featured in snapshots tacked to a boathouse wall commemorating some of the largest catches in the park’s history.
Porterfield pointed to the photo of a teenage Brian Antonopoulas holding a 1-pound bluegill snared in June 2000. “This kid? He’s out there fishing right now,” Porterfield said.
If you’ve never been to the 1,500 acres of feel-good known as Wyandotte County Lake Park, no worries. Many affluent homeowners within a mile of the place don’t know of it, say park managers.
Though once a newcomer drifts in — especially atop a horse, on a motorcycle or wearing running shoes fit for the dirt trails — this park seals the deal. Its rolling beauty and neighborly atmosphere combine to make a strong case that Wyandotte County Lake Park, a few hundred acres smaller than legendary Swope Park, is the best of our most underappreciated outdoor places.
A group called the Kansas City Trail Nerds has delivered the love with thousands of volunteer hours hacking and whacking to clear rugged dirt paths through forest. Babbling brooks, and we literally mean that, dot a 10-mile bridle trail where joggers step aside for stallions.
The park is highlighted in the Trail Nerds’ 2017 calendar, titled “In Dirt We Trust.” The Nerds have reserved the Wyandotte County Lake trails for what it calls Psycho Psummer runs — 10 miles to 50 kilometers — on July 22.
“This really has the feel a miniature national park,” said Cliff Jones of the nonprofit Urban Trail Co.
Yet ... neighborly. OK, a vague word that truly applies here.
The park calls a recently expanded indoor learning center on the west side of the lake: Mr. & Mrs. F.L. Schlagle Library. Mr. & Mrs.?
And it’s a fine learning center, with Curly the cornsnake, Franklin the mud turtle and Cleo the prairie king snake there to be visited by Kansas City, Kan., grade-schoolers.
The park has been a survivor since its inception.
That would be during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt launched the Works Progress Administration to provide jobs for worthwhile public improvements.
The WPA chose to dam up a tributary to the Missouri River called Marshall Creek. Around it stretched the future park, once used as a racetrack for prized horses of military officers at Fort Leavenworth.
In September 1937, with the dam nearly finished, the center section collapsed because of what federal reports called vulnerable “blue clay soil.” That section got fixed, but Wyandotte County officials were left to pay for much of the remaining work.
“Cost of rebuilding and completing the project was estimated at $2,611,839.77,” according to a history by former Wyandotte County Parks ranger Timothy H. Johnson. “I have no idea why the estimate includes 77 cents.”
Heavy rains in 1944 further hampered construction efforts. Rising waters deluged a few tons of machinery used to crush rock, equipment still situated on the lake bottom.
The rock crusher was abandoned there in what is known as Wilson Cove. It’s still visible when winds die down and waters are still.
Boaters head out to the rock crusher to fish among the steel-and-stone ruins.
“We accept it as part of the lake’s history,” said Wyandotte County Museum director Patricia Schurkamp. “Look, we’re Wyandotte County people ... just a little strange.
“We’re happy with anything that’s ours.”
Wyandotte County Lake Park
Where: 9100 Leavenworth Road, Kansas City, Kan.
Hours: 5:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 6:15 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday, Saturday
Directions: From Interstate 70 near the Kansas Speedway, go north on Interstate 435 three exits to Kansas 5. Exit right, eastbound; enter park about 2 miles on left side.