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The Legacy of Helen McCabe By Sasha Wohlpart

We base too much of our life on material things. The utilization of recreation tends to inspire materialism towards the finer appreciation of nature, which can be very compensating. 

-- Helen McCabe

The campfire crackles and pops in defiance of the mid-June chill as flames reach towards the last hint of daylight and coax the stars to show themselves. The waning crescent moon hangs like a smile between treetops in the deepening denim sky. Helen settles in, wrapped in the warmth of the fire, her eyes glinting and face aglow with the flickering light and the exertion of the day’s hike. She feels exhilarated, rejuvenated. Or at least, this is how I imagine her, living the truth of her life’s work. 

Drive south on Canyon Road from Ellensburg, and just before entering the canyon, you will see Helen McCabe Memorial State Park. It is a 63-acre parcel of land that was donated to the state in 1973 and designated by the Washington State Park’s Commission in 1977 to honor Helen McCabe’s pioneering work in the field of outdoor education and recreation.   

Helen, who moved to Ellensburg 1956 to join the faculty at then Central Washington State College, recognized the inherent and recreational value of the Yakima River Canyon, with its towering basalt cliffs, steep shrub-steppe hills, and wild, meandering Yakima River. At that time, the main driving route from one end of the Yakima Valley to the other was along U.S. Highway 97, or “the old highway” as it’s colloquially known, which hugs the river and provides stunning views for travelers. In the late 1950’s work began on I-82, the last of three interstates in Washington state to be constructed as part of President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System legislation. The route that it would take was controversial, though, including the stretch between Ellensburg and Yakima. The Canyon route was the most direct and involved fewer steep grades, a plus for truckers navigating the roadway. But Helen, and others, recognized that the effect on the beauty and enjoyment of the place would be severely degraded should a highway be built there. Ultimately, her advocacy was influential in conserving the Canyon and pushing the road construction further east. A few years later, in 1968, the old highway was designated as the Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway (YRCSB), “proposed as the state’s first scenic corridor due to its great potential for allowing the traveler to pass through beautiful country at a pace enabling him to enjoy and appreciate its beauty,” proclaimed Governor Daniel J. Evans.

What a man does with his leisure is almost as important as what he does as his vocation. Perhaps a lot of the unhappiness of people is related to what to do with their free time.

--Helen McCabe

Helen believed that recreation is central to whole person health and well-being. She contended that the main goal of offering recreation should be to “allow for individuals to learn skills in their areas of interest and to teach them to use these skills to occupy their leisure time, preventing them from becoming bored with life.” Recreation, according to David Rolfe, Associate Professor of Recreation and Sports Management at Central Washington University (CWU), is a term used to describe activities that “help us to restore ourselves to our best.” He suggests that we “re-create” ourselves through hobbies or activities that we enjoy—that these pursuits ideally “nurture our body, mind, and soul,” which may explain why recreational activities, like hiking, fishing, or enjoying a campfire, are often centered in or around nature. Similarly, Helen recognized leisure as a “quality for living rather than only a quantitative function.” It’s not how long we live, but rather how we live that is most important.

Recreation is not just blowing a whistle. It is interest in people, what their needs in leisure are, and helping them to understand the importance of leisure.”

--Helen McCabe

While transformative recreational experiences can be introduced at any age, exposure to time and play in the outdoors is particularly impactful when it starts in childhood. Helen felt that abuses to recreational areas, like littering and vandalism, stem from a lack of respect and shared responsibility to care for and protect public spaces.  She argued that we must “educate our children in recreation skills and in the conservation of their resources,” a conviction borne out in her master’s thesis designed to “improve conditions of training youth for better use of leisure time now and for the future.” In her results, she recommended that “recreation and education cannot be separated from the school curriculum if schools are to provide for the development of the total personality of the students.”   In this way, students find enjoyment and passion in learning and exploring. They see themselves as part of, rather than separate from, the world around them—as members of a larger community with all its rights and responsibilities.

Helen McCabe was a local and national leader in the field of recreation and outdoor activities.  David, as a CWU alumna and current faculty in Recreation Management, describes her legacy, at the University and in the region, as “immense.” The Recreation Management Program grew out of the Leisure Services Program, which Helen created along with Campus Recreation Services. She served as the first female president of the Washington State Recreation Society and as President of the National Recreation Association. She headed the Camp Leadership Program at CWU and the Outdoor Education Program at Hebeler and in the Ellensburg Public Schools. She was a consultant to the Conservation Education Workshop and an original member of the Ellensburg Park and Recreation Commission. “The landscape of Recreation Management, as a profession, has been shaped by her work,” says David who chose this major once he realized that he could combine his passion for camping, fishing, hunting, and youth sports with meaningful work that has a profound impact on individuals and on the community.

Helen’s legacy continues to this day in the park named in her honor. Kittitas Environmental Education Network (KEEN) began leasing Helen McCabe Memorial State Park from the State in 2004 and volunteers have worked ever since to enhance and improve the area for educational and recreational use, including the installation of infrastructure projects, habitat restoration, trail construction, fishing access, and interpretive signage. It is the site of KEEN’s Ponds to Pines Summer Day Camp, where kids learn and explore through nature-based activities and games. It is the home-base for Get Intimate with the Shrub Steppe (GISS), where this year there will be hands-on science booths from 9am to 1pm on Saturday, May 11th. It is the future home of the Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center, which will serve as a hub of activity for connecting with nature, life-long learning opportunities, outreach and education for visitors to our area, and a focal point for the restoration and protection of the endangered shrub-steppe habitat. Helen would be so proud! 

Next time you’re rafting down the Yakima River, walking at the park named in her honor, or birding at Umtanum Creek, or warming yourself by the glow of a campfire after a long day’s hike, think with gratitude of Helen McCabe and the legacy of her life’s work for us and for generations to come.   



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