Though sultry summer skies have given way to crisp autumn breezes, Beavers Bend State Park is still flourishing with fun outdoor activities. To keep the park ship-shape for visitors, park rangers like Mike Willeby keep a close eye on this McCurtain County treasure year-round.
Willeby is the assistant park manager and ranger, and he’s called McCurtain County home his whole life. He’s been part of the Beavers Bend park ranger team for 14 years, but he got his start in law enforcement, even doing a stint as county sheriff. As a longtime steward of this unique area, we asked him what he loves about Beavers Bend and some fun things guests can expect this time of year.
When did you realize you were interested in becoming a park ranger?
When I was 10 or 12 years old, my mom and dad started bringing the family to camp, all the time. My parents would interact with the park staff and my mom would always tell me I should become a park ranger someday. At the time, I didn’t really think it was for me.
I began a career in law enforcement in 1987, working for the local police department. I was a detective, and then worked as a K9 officer. I really ran the gamut. In 1999, I ran for McCurtain County Sheriff, won that election and was sheriff up to 2004.
During that time, I’d work as a seasonal park ranger to make a little extra money. I really enjoyed it and whenever I was no longer sheriff, I thought I’d give it a try full-time. It’s a different aspect of law enforcement, but the setting is a lot friendlier—most people that come to the park are families who want to recreate. The kinds of problems I’d dealt with in previous law enforcement were pretty stressful, as you can imagine. This job has been very therapeutic. It’s still challenging and there’s still something different every day. But come on, it’s the greatest office in the world. Here in the park, being outdoors most of the time, I love it.
What are some popular activities in Beavers Bend State Park in November?
During the summer months it is so busy and there are so many people around, it can take away from the outdoor experience. The best thing about this time of year, you really get to experience the outdoor aspect of the park.
We have quite a few trails within the park system and they aren’t confined to just the park’s land. There’s Army Corp of Engineers’ land, and other forest lands that our trails blend with. We have a range of trails for beginning and intermediate hikers. There are also trails for the more experienced hikers.
The fall colors coming in with the leaves, it’s just beautiful this time of year. And Beavers Bend State Park is close to the Talimena Drive. A lot of people will come to the park to see the fall colors and head up north on Highway 1 and drive along the Talimena. It only takes about an hour to drive it.
What critters are scampering around the park in November?
You’re likely to see more animals this time of year. Birdwatching is big here. We have bald eagles here in the park. A lot of them come here to winter, and I actually saw my first of the season the other day. Our deer population is really healthy, so you’ll see a lot of deer. Once in a while, you will see a bobcat or a fox. We have had a couple of sightings of bears in the park. The main bear populations are concentrated north of here, but every once in a while, one will meander this way.
Are fishing and hunting still popular during the fall and winter?
Fishing in the fall is usually pretty good. We have a dedicated trout stream that runs through the park and they stock it every other week. We do have some regulations, like you can’t use bait and you can only use barbless hooks. But for the most part, fishing is a year-round activity here. You’ll usually be able to catch your limit.
We are surrounded by forest service land, which is open to public hunting. You have to be sure to check the regulations, check the maps, and make sure you know where you are at. A lot of people do hunt around the park, but you’ll want to check in with the US Forest Service for all the information.
What kinds of Beavers Bend activities would you recommend for the kiddos?
We have a festival coming up that I just love, and kids enjoy it, too. Our annual folk festival is held the second full weekend in November. It’s a great event, people come together to do old school stuff, like candle-making, crafts, perfect for gifts. It’s inside the Forest Heritage Center in Beavers Bend Park. We have a tram that is pulled by a tractor that runs back and forth to drop folks off. The kids love that. You can take your car, but the kids always want to ride the tram.
Oh, and there is all kinds of food. I usually gain about ten pounds at the festival!
So, we’ve established there’s a lot to do in the park—what about outside the park?
The nearby town [Broken Bow/Hochatown] has really exploded with new development, like shops and restaurants. It’s really created a situation where we have more for visitors to do, more opportunity to do different activities together.
Can you tell us about the lodging options in the area?
There are close to 2,500 private cabins in the area. We have our own cabins inside the park, but there are also luxury cabins all around. So there are a lot of options.
We have 48 cabins [inside the park], and we also have over 200 campsites and around 100 RV sites. A lot of people like to camp this time of year because it is cooler and you don’t melt in your tents in the evenings. And it’s fun to build a campfire to stay warm. A lot of our concession operations do shut down during the winter months, but if the weather is good, they will open up on the weekends.
Any special safety tips you’d offer park visitors and campers this time of year?
Hunting season is in full swing in the forest lands that surround the park. So, the only thing that I would encourage people to do is wear bright colors, and make a lot of noise when they are on the trails. Just to be safe. You can also stop by the park information center inside the park for hiking trail maps and other great information.
If you plan on hunting, definitely check in with the US Forest Service Office at the main park entrance. They have all kinds of literature and brochures, and there will be people there to answer all your questions about fishing and hunting regulations.
Bundle up and get ready for fun! Plan your autumn getaway to Beavers Bend today.