Fred Turner and his wife were serving as campground hosts at Bruneau Dunes State Park during a violent summer storm. While the wind shook their trailer, they heard a knock on the door.
“This poor lady is crying — sobbing,” Turner, of Boise, said. “I said: ‘Come in. What’s wrong?’ She said: ‘Oh my God, I don’t know what to do. The last time I saw my tent it was on its way to Nevada.’ ”
The woman was camping at Bruneau Dunes with her two sons. When the weather turned “just plum nasty,” Turner said, the family climbed into their car. Without the occupants’ weight to hold the tent in place, it blew away.
Turner moved the trio into one of the park’s cabins for the night.
“We never did find their tent,” Turner said.
That is one of Turner’s favorite stories from two seasons as a campground host at Bruneau Dunes with his wife, Janet.
Hosts are volunteers who perform chores such as cleaning fire pits and hanging reservation signs, provide information to campers about the area, help with miscellaneous maintenance projects and monitor activity. In exchange, they receive free campsites — usually with full hookups. They typically work 20 to 30 hours a week.
Idaho State Parks and Recreation uses hosts at all of its campgrounds. Most are retirees.
“When we first started volunteering, we wanted to utilize the motorhome and get out,” said David Bernstein, who has volunteered primarily in Idaho state parks for 13 summers to escape the Arizona heat. “Three days of work and four off, how can you beat it? There’s very few downsides to it at all and the people are wonderful.”
Bernstein and Kim Smalley spent two years as camp hosts at Bruneau Dunes, which has an observatory, because of Bernstein’s passion for astronomy. They didn’t like the desert heat and mosquitoes there, so they moved to Farragut State Park near Athol in North Idaho. They work at the fee-collection kiosk at the park entrance — one of several other volunteer jobs available in parks besides hosting.
“We’ve made a lot of friends here at the park,” Bernstein said. “And this area of the country is beautiful. ... It’s like if you have a cabin in the forest somewhere, but have a big-city job. You want to get away. When you get away to that cabin, it’s a completely different, relaxing environment. That’s what Farragut is.”
The volunteers are a critical part of state park operations. They sometimes are the only people working in the park who make contact with a visitor. They are expected to assist and educate campers — including about rules — but don’t handle any enforcement duties.
Priest Lake State Park has three campgrounds, utilizes six or seven hosts and offers nine other volunteer campsites. One annual volunteer is 89 years old.
“They are not only our eyes and ears, but they are great for public relations because they actually stay right in the campground,” said Lonnie Johnson, the park manager at the North Idaho state park. “... They like keeping busy and they like being in the outdoors. They like sharing their trades.”
Campground hosting is a nationwide program with opportunities listed at volunteer.gov. Many of the U.S. Forest Service campgrounds in Idaho also have hosts.
For state parks, the majority of the hosts come from out of state. They begin applying almost a year in advance and spots usually are filled before the Memorial Day-to-Labor Day busy season. The department needs 300 to 350 volunteers each summer.
Some hosts stay for the season. Others work for a month and move on. The average stay is about two months.
“That’s just the nature of who they are, who this traveling generation of retirees are,” said Kathryn Hampton, the volunteer services coordinator for Idaho State Parks and Recreation. “They don’t want to stay in one place. The whole point of having an RV is to move around and travel.”
The best fits as campground hosts, Hampton said, are people with extensive camping experience who decide they want to give back and enjoy meeting many new people. They might get awakened in the middle of the night because a child is missing, and they likely will have to tell many folks to put their dogs on leashes.
“They don’t enforce the rules, but they are certainly asked to inform people of the rules,” Hampton said. “We want them to be people people. We want them to be friendly, helpful and make the jobs for the park managers easier.”
Volunteers must apply, pass background checks and interview for state parks jobs.
“It’s a competitive process,” Hampton said.
Volunteers who return to the same location, she said, are drawn back by the people they’ve met.
“Scenery is great,” she said, “but it’s not anything compared to having a good experience with the people.”
He says he “can’t think of a downside” to hosting. Rowdy campers always responded to reminders about quiet hours and other rules issues, he said.
“The people who are full-time park rangers, they’re just so great because they’re willing to help you any way they can,” Turner said, “because they recognize you’re taking the pressure off of them.”