UTICA — Kerry Novak was very near the end of his career at Shabbona Lake State Park when an irresistible opportunity arose, a job as site superintendent at Starved Rock State Park.
After five years at the park, and more than 40 at Shabbona, Novak is retiring.
“I was very close to retiring at Shabbona and all of a sudden this popped open and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve just got to give it a shot,’” Novak recalled. “I wish it had lasted longer because I think we’ve got some good things going and there’s a few things I would have liked to seen finished up, but all in all, I’m very happy it worked out the way it did.”
Novak grew up between Ottawa and Utica, which means Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks were regular stops for family trips.
“It was always fun, always great,” Novak said. “I remember going up with my folks and having dinner at the (Starved Rock) Lodge and was just amazed at the big dining rooms and fireplaces.”
Novak studied environmental sciences and at the time was looking for a job in the disposal of waste products, but it turned out to be a position largely held by former executives on the path towards retirement. Instead, he joined Shabbona Lake as a ranger’s aide, or assistant superintendent as the title is known now.
“When I started, there was no lake. There was no park, period,” Novak said.
Novak was put to work helping tear down buildings, pull out fence lines, clean junk piles and prepare the lake bed. It was exciting work, he said, to have a hand in the creation of the park.
Starved Rock a ‘different animal’
But Starved Rock State Park was a “different animal” due to the cliffs, winding trails and the roaring Illinois River.
Safety was also a larger concern at Starved Rock.
“Just from working in the department, I knew Starved Rock was a challenge, and I knew there was a lot of problems here, I knew there was a lot to solve,” Novak said.
The majority of those problems came not from his predecessors but took the form of increasing wear and tear on the trails mixed with years of budget neglect.
“We spent the first year here wondering how we were going to get toilet paper,” he said.
Novak said he benefited from joining at the right time to see the worst of it early on, but a relief to have it mostly balance out later and be able to fix certain issues.
“One of my disappointments is we didn’t get as much work done on the trails as I would have liked to have seen,” Novak said.
Limited resources were put into making immediate repairs, such as specific areas of the trail or to address a fallen tree or broken stump.
He’s also had to deal with an increasing number of visitors and often had to make the hard call to close the park to visitors that may have traveled a couple of hours with picnic supplies, kids and pets in tow.
“I have to say, it’s one of my very least favorite jobs is closing the gate and telling people they have to move on. I hated that every time we did it,” Novak said.
“It’s a miserable thing. I hear people say, ‘Oh, when you’re full close’ but it’s a lot easier said than done,” he added.
Success has been made in some capacity in association with the Starved Rock Lodge in having guests consider weekday visits to the park and try to take some of the large crowds on weekends and spread them throughout the week.
New land, new developments
Novak said he’s especially excited for the future of the park including the recent addition of 2,629 acres to the Matthiessen and Starved Rock area.
He said conversations are ongoing regarding the property but he wouldn’t be surprised if in the next couple of years, a piece of land north of Route 71, near the entrance to Jonesville, is opened up as a small day-use area.
Additionally, the new land could allow for additional hunting opportunities. Other ideas include the possible development of a couple of lakes, fishing opportunities along the Vermilion River as well as camping and biking opportunities.
As far as the future of maintenance, Novak said he’s coming around on the idea of a fee.
He noted he’s been to other parks where they ask visitors to schedule a three-hour visit in advance.
“Five years ago when I came here, I would have said, ‘That’s crazy, you can’t do that,’ but now I’m beginning to think that might be a pretty good solution,” Novak said.
“In over 40 years, you see the conservation budget go up and down, we’ve been through a lot of dry times and to get what’s really needed is some sort of steady income flow to support these things, and that might be the way of the future,” he added.
He said he plans to spend more time with his grandchildren and travel more with his wife, but he said even after more than 40 years, he’d be interested in continuing to lend a hand or perspective in the future development of the park.
It’s been more than just a career for him.
“It’s been wonderful. I’ve been very blessed,” Novak said. “They say if you do something you like, you don’t work a day in your life. And I think that’s pretty much the case here.”