Steve Pagano’s career began about 30 years ago with trail building, and at the end of April it concluded with construction of one final trail in Gorges State Park.
Pagano spent the past 19 years as the first superintendent of Gorges State Park, which he has called the pinnacle of his career. Many locals and visitors consider Gorges to be the crown jewel of the North Carolina state park system (see related story in this publication). It comprises about 8,000 acres of the Blue Ridge escarpment, receives more rainfall than anywhere else on the East Coast, and is home to a number of rare and endangered species.
Pagano’s last project at Gorges was a hiking path for children near the visitors’ center, with educational kiosks and interactive features. Pagano said he has seen an uptick in the amount of children who visit the park and attributes that to this generation’s younger parents who are more connected to nature than past generations. In the past, visitors to the park were college aged and retirees. During the park’s beginnings in 1999, Pagano spent a lot of time online buying supplies and equipment, and he had to rely on the Lake Toxaway Fire Rescue building for storage space. “It was kind of overwhelming at first,” Pagano said. “I told Mike Lambert, my first ranger, ‘Think of things you didn’t have that you really wanted at your last park job, and we’ll buy that first. Then, we’ll work backwards and get the stuff we knew we needed.’ It was pretty cool. We got stuff like telescopes and microscopes — stuff that gets pushed to the end usually and then you would run out of money to buy that stuff.”
But building infrastructure, mapping the old roads and trails, and cutting the grass were just the surface level projects. Engaging the community has been one of the most fulfilling parts of his career here, he said. Rumors that people who had accessed what is now Gorges for generations to hike, hunt, fish and camp circulated throughout the state park divisions – and the rumors were that they weren’t happy with losing access to this acreage. But, Pagano said, some of those folks became his biggest champions, including Bob Hoxit, a Toxaway resident who was the president of the Auger Hole Coalition, a group opposed to the creation of the state park.
“Bob was on the original park advisory committee, and he would shoot it straight to you,” Pagano said. “He would tell us what they would want. He opposed the park then. In the end, he offered some of his property to us. I remember asking him, ‘I got to ask you, you didn’t want us here and now you’re selling us 50-plus acres.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re the best game in town. I want this land protected and not developed. I’m worried that down the road generations will try and sell it.’”
Pagano said if all he’s done in his time here is to win over Hoxit, then he feels he’s accomplished something. Pagano and his staff also survived the Eclipse of 2017. The “path of totality” went directly over the park. At 3 a.m., Pagano said there were cars already lined up outside the main gate. The gates don’t open until 5 a.m., but he came back to let in a local news crew for the event at 4 a.m., and there were 50 cars in line.
“By the time we opened at 5 it stretched out of the park, all the way down N.C. 281 and back onto U.S. 64. We were full at 7:30 in the morning. We had parked 1,200 cars by 7:30 a.m.,” he said. “But people kept showing up. People were parking at the corner store and coming in through the woods. The line for the men’s room was 20 minutes long.”
Besides finishing the walking path outside the visitors center, Pagano has been working on the campground that is set to be finished sometime in 2019. With that, the master plan for the park will be about 95 percent complete, which, according to Pagano, is phenomenal to implement a master plan in 20 years.
Some of his more interesting memories include finding abandoned moonshine stills deep within the park. For a brief period, Pagano worked part time at Our Country Store, and he remembers talking with a customer about an abandoned still.
“He came in and said he had a still, and he had walked away from it 15 years earlier,” Pagano said. “He gave me some directions, and I couldn’t find it. Then, one day Bill Robinson (a local photographer) and I were out in the backcountry and realized I was walking up this creek that this guy described. Fighting our way up through the dog hobble, it opened into this big valley. (The man) said there was big dead hemlock and to jump up on that hemlock log. There was the still! I said, ‘Son of a gun.’ I got up to where he had dug this ledge. You could sit up there and see everything. If someone was coming up the creek, you would have had 15 minutes of clear sight, and no one could come in from above, the laurel is so thick. I wish I had caught that guy’s name.”
With Pagano’s retirement, Robert McGraw is the new Gorges State Park superintendent. McGraw has a bachelor’s degree in parks and recreation management from Western Carolina University. He has worked for the Division since 2009, including stints as a park ranger at Lake Norman, Mount Mitchel and three years as the advanced ranger at Gorges State Park.