New Ephraim recreation director says he’s glad to come to the ‘big city’
By James Tilson
EPHRAIM—After working the same job in rural Alaska, Ephraim’s new recreation director says he’s “moved to the big city now” and he couldn’t be happier to settle into Central Utah.
Donnie Wood, who officially started on Jan. 1, took over from the retiring Phil Murray.
Wood has worked in recreation for most of his life. In fact, his first job at age 14 was working for the recreation department in his hometown of Oxford, Ala. making $4 an hour.
After he graduated from high school, he spent three years as a high school sports official before going on a mission to Hawaii for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Then he started working on his degree at Jacksonville State University, where he met and married his wife, Veronica.
While in college, he joined the Air Force National Guard and in 2009 served a tour of duty in Iraq. When Wood left the Air Force in 2013, he decided he wanted to get back into recreation management and he took a job in Oxford, Mississippi (same town name as his hometown, but in a different state) managing youth leagues.
But the “great adventure for the family” started when he took a job managing the recreation department for Bristol Bay Borough, Alaska. Wood called the job a “great decision.” “When the job showed up on my radar, it was like a dream come true.”
Wood lived in the very little town of Naknek, which is located at the mouth of Bristol Bay, where the Aleutian Islands start. While the town only had a full-time population of 900, during the summer, when the salmon started to run, the population ballooned to 9,00010,000.
And people were not the only ones drawn to the little town by the salmon. Wood said the residents grew accustomed to sharing fish with brown bears.
“They run around our yards just like the deer do here,” said Wood. “When you walk outside, you have to look around the corner to make sure you’re not going to startle a bear.”
Brown bears are the larger cousins to grizzly bears and are related to the even larger Kodiak bears, which are located a couple of islands over from Bristol Bay. However, according to Wood, the brown bears were pretty docile, although the bears and humans tended to stay out of each other’s way.
“Most of the time, the bears would come down to eat [the salmon in the river], and we’d leave our fishing. When they finished, we would go back. Except of course when momma bears with their cubs came down. [Then] everything stayed out of their way.”
Distances and sports events are a little different in Alaska, Wood notes. Th e nearest town to Naknek is South Naknek, population 40, which is only about a mile away. But South Naknek is across the Naknek River, and the only way to get there is by boat or plane.
Wood re-started a turkey shoot for South Naknek, which has been held in the past but abandoned. By the time he left , the shoot had turned into a two-day event with people coming from all over the peninsula.
After almost four years in Alaska, Wood decided it was time to come back to civilization. He has two children, Josephine 13, and Ezra 7, and with his daughter approaching high school, he and his wife felt the children would benefit from more social and educational opportunities. So they began to look for jobs in the lower 48.
Wood had connections in Utah. He had friends who lived here, and his sister had graduated from BYU. He interviewed for a couple of jobs, but the job with Ephraim worked best for him.
“We love it here,” says Wood. “People would ask us how we were adjusting to living in a small town, and we would have to giggle. We feel like we’ve moved to the big city now.”
He says they’ve been welcomed by everyone—the people, the city, the staff and employees. “Everyone’s been super helpful.”
Wood has been figuring out the relationships that go into his job. That’s been important, he says, because the city doesn’t own the facilities it uses for its recreation programs.
“We want to keep these relationships strong, and make sure the facilities stay in good shape, since they don’t belong to us,” he said.
He has also learned the city has been studying the possibility of building its own recreation facility, although he cautions the project is in the early planning stages.
Wood is also working on plans for summer programs, not just for the kids, but also for adults. He has looked at the Utah Summer Games held in Cedar City for inspiration, and thinks Ephraim may eventually host a biathlon or triathlon.