I've long held that Father's Day, the low-key cousin to Memorial Day weekend, should mark the official launch of summer vacation. With its casual spirit and low expectations, Father's Day is summertime personified and, for my family, the prompt to load the wagon and head for Lake Eufaula.
Eufaula's moody waters licking shale-covered shorelines were the backdrop of my growing-up years, where Dads' Day dinners included a jar of cheese and a sleeve of club crackers, nibbled from fingers aromatic of live bait.
No one can remember exactly how the whole thing started, but sometime in the early 1970s Lake Eufaula grabbed hold of my family and even now, isn't showing signs of letting go. A generation later, my girls skip rocks along the same boulder-lined banks as my brothers and me; and where we learned to cast a line, so do they.
Our lake crush first began at Lake Eufaula State Park, just south of Interstate 40 near Checotah. That's where we first perched our pop-up trailer and where you can, too. With shaded RV and tent sites, and comfort stations throughout, the park also features a group-camp bunkhouse that sleeps 96.
Additional campgrounds and weekend rentals are scattered along the 600 miles of shoreline, with terrains that shift from soft beaches to towering bluffs to scrubby woods. A click on TravelOK.com can deliver the full range of lodging possibilities.
Eufaula, Oklahoma's largest lake, is fed by three major tributaries: The Deep Fork, the North Canadian, and the beefy Canadian River. Lyndon B. Johnson dedicated Eufaula dam in 1964.
“It was lucky for us,” my dad used to say, that the least attractive stretch of the lake is the portion most people see. A stumpy, chocolate-milky channel passes under I-40 just west of Checotah, a circumstance of geography that's long kept lake crowds sparse. Dad will frown upon me sharing this, but just beyond the vantage from the interstate, waters of the “gentle giant” run clear and pristine and foster some of the best bass and crappie fishing around.
Much of the lake lies within the boundaries of the old Creek Nation, and part of the mystique, as you peer into the depths, is in imagining what came before.
For many families, the building of the lake meant relocating and hints of those former homesteads still wash ashore with some frequency, making Lake Eufaula a treasure hunter's hot-spot.
Among the pottery fragments and rusted farm implements, the lake will occasionally spit out a miraculously unbroken antique bottle. A lace-up leather boot like the ones Belle Starr wore found us on a recent bank stroll.
Starr is just one of the outlaws who hid out in these storied hillsides. Her newly restored grave site is a destination for those drawn to bandit lore. Located northeast of Eufaula dam near Porum, you'll find her headstone near the “Younger's Bend” sign.
Although the ‘70s are over, and handling minnows is now followed by a squirt of hand-sanitizer, some childhood lake freedoms still remain, like: exploring the lake floor through swim-masks bought at the Boy Howdy store.
A nod to those beloved five and dimes, Boy Howdy remains a relevant relic on the town of Eufaula's Main Street (U.S. 69 business loop).
Also on Main Street, Our Favorite Place (OurFavoritePlace.com) is floor-to-tin ceiling with Made-in-Oklahoma delicacies, swoon-worthy local art and must-have clothing — maybe even a gift for Dad?
On Fathers Day and throughout the sun-soaked months, Lake Eufaula holds within its sandstone shores the delicious whispers of family memories; and it is poised to make some new ones for your family too.
Shel Wagner is the Executive Producer and segment host of the weekly TV travel show AAA's Discover Oklahoma.