What it’s like to be a Campground Host

“You want to what?”

My reaction to Rhonda's suggestion that we try Campground Hosting last January just slipped out. My solitary, nature loving self cringed while visions of some smoke filled field packed with large and small campers, surrounded by the “toys” people bring to a campground to amuse themselves and their screaming kids and barking dogs overtook me. A grunt accompanied my wince…

Campground Hosting was on our bucket lists, although not very high up. And you do have to tick off that list, so I had no choice but to agree to investigate. Bucket list or not, I had an attitude.

The cleanup begins

Mice and bugs are evicted from their winter homes.

Our own summer 2016 schedule was filling up fast so we agreed to try very early in the season. I hoped the time would be unworkable and would nip the project in the bud.

At www.mi.gov, where we discover all things Michigan, we entered “campground host” in the search bar, and soon we were on our way to try to volunteer for the required month of our time.

Flash forward to Saturday May 28, 2016, the second “semi-official” day of the 2016 Memorial Day Weekend: I am sitting in the Coffee Shack, after our fourth and final “Coffee and Conversation With the Campground Hosts” and a “Discovery Table” event with Lauren, the Interpreter. And our overall emotion is one of sadness that this wonderful experience is ending so soon.

Prepped

Prepped and ready to go.

Back in January, though, Michigan's Tawas Point State Park (TPSP) had not yet begun to fill their campground host vacancies and as it has always been family oriented and one of our favorites, we tried there. After a background check by the state, we were soon talking to the campground secretary. As planned, we opted for the month of May but somewhat to my chagrin, we were accepted. The only caveat was that Official Campground Host Training was not run until June. We would have to attend training after we finished our tour of duty. (To learn what we did wrong?) No matter. I am a retired educator and Rhonda has done childcare and chaired social clubs, so we figured we could handle putting on craft classes for kids and whatever other duties we would be assigned.

Campground Layout

Hand drawn site map of Tawas Point Campground.

Here are the duties:

  • Say hello or greet every camper you pass or with whom you make eye contact. The whole job is to increase customer satisfaction with the camping experience. Friendliness is a must.
  • Be at the campground five days a week—you have two days off each week. There is a 30 day commitment. (Yahoo! We would not be indentured.)Camphost Jim supervises a dump station repair.
  • Be the eyes and ears of the rangers and report problems to them. Do not approach anyone to advise them of rules infractions or misconduct. In other words, leave the “discipline” to the rangers and Conservation Officers. Educate only, and if needed take complaints from other campers. (Whew!)
  • Be a visible, social part of the team, and answer questions about the campground and the area when we can. (Well, that fit right in. Try to tell a teacher not to teach!)
  • Do not clean bathrooms or do any other routine cleaning tasks. That is what staff is for. (Another Whew! Although I worked my way through college as a public school janitor many decades ago and have no fear of the chore, we didn't sign up for that.)
  • Host “Coffee and Conversation with the Campground Hosts (Bring Your Own Mug)” every Saturday morning from [8:30] to [10:30] in the Coffee Shack. There is an ample budget for the hosts to use to purchase supplies needed. Tawas Point State Park happens to not want to feed people at coffee time and has found that giving people food and disposable cups causes litter in the park. But again, each park is different.

    Scrub-a-dub-dub!

    Not a tough job, but camping always has some cleaning.

  • Since we came in early, really before most anyone came to camp, we were asked to clean our own campsite, which consisted of raking leaves and twigs and branches. We used them all as kindling.
  • Keep the campsite clean and welcoming. The Coffee Shack also has games and athletic equipment for use. There are tools and other supplies which the Campground Host can use to help campers in some common situations: air pumps for tires, air mattresses, and balls.
  • Post and maintain bulletin boards around the park. (Once again, old teacher skills at work!)
  • Do not sell firewood or ice.
  • Firewood is provided to the host throughout their stay.
  • Do weekly craft classes for the children of the park. (Duh, no-brainer there.)
  • Help the Park Wildlife Interpreter with larger groups, if necessary. (Again…)

    Camphost Painter

    We had time, so we secured some paint from the ranger and away we went!

  • The campsite for hosts is full hook-up, and near the park “administrative-ecomplx-epicenter”– Contact and Check-in Station, Garbage and Recycling Center, and Dump Center. On paper this sounds horrible, but in reality, it is a hundred or more yards from these features and no foulness of any kind is detectable.
  • On Sundays, from 10 am until about 3:30 pm, help guide traffic around and through the dump station, where trailers and RVs dump their waste water. (In the parlance of the currently popular Captain Underwear children's books, this is a “poo” job.)
  • Our only pay was a full hook-up campsite.On Memorial Day week-end the park has about 200 campers, probably two thirds of whom will try to dump within this five hour time. Some are smart and dump and leave the park early to avoid traffic, but there are many who stay as long as possible.
    (Since that event is still two days off, I can't say how well it will go, but based on previous weeks, people will be patient as long as it looks like there is a smiling camphost on hand to manage traffic.)

It sounded easy enough to do and maybe something to keep us busy, so I had to admit it mostly sounded good. Thusly, I was trapped. We committed to May 3 through May 31, with state-required training on June 1 and 2, in Roscommon, Michigan, on our way home. We hope to find the training useful if we decide to do this again next year. More on the training after we complete it.

We're experienced Roadtrek travelers and we've come to know just what we need and what our Roadtrek will do. That experience counts, and we wouldn't suggest that folks who are brand new to any vehicle do camphosting without at least a thorough week-end shakedown beforehand. Know your vehicle and know what to expect. You'll have four weeks to live with something you may not like, or did not know about and only a small chance to fix it.

Center window early spring

Early spring view from the center window.

Late Spring little window

Late Spring

We packed our Roadtrek with clothes and food for a couple of weeks, knowing that Lake Huron weather in May varies wildly. It is helpful that Tawas City and East Tawas City were within easy reach for supplies and laundry. We brought tool sets for both automotive and “coach” problems. We brought a can of car wax, just in case I got the chance to polish up our “baby.” We packed our bicycles and ended up riding the roads of the camp many times daily. We even biked the ten mile round trip to Walmart a couple of times. Rhonda packed her sewing machine, and I brought my computer. And neither of us had the free time we expected. There was too much to see.

May 3rd—Our official arrival date, we pulled into camp after hours to find three campers in the park, lots of clean-up work to be done around the park, and no water in our site. The access road to the lighthouse was deteriorating rapidly due to an unseasonable month long battering of North Easters. Yes, they happen in the Great Lakes too. The empty park and signs of work to be done were challenging and strangely comforting.  We would have a hand in readying this park for the public.  Cool. 

Ravages of Monthlong Nor-Easters

Four weeks of atypical Nor'Easters eroded the base of the road from the park entrance to the Lighthouse parking.

Tawas is a year round park and has one heated bathroom with showers always available to paying campers. In the coldest winter time, there is a combination lock on the door, but it had been removed by the time we arrived, so we had the option of using a restroom other than our RV. Exploring it, though, we found a surprise–a single person tent pitched near the women’s bathroom door and a very high end mountain bike parked near it. This restroom, like most of the new ones in Michigan state parks, has the showers separated from the actual toilet facilities, so a person can enter the shower without having to go into the bathroom. These showers are side by side and form one side of a hallway with the restrooms on the opposite side. All are under one roof, and in the case of winter campgrounds, there are doors on each end to block out the weather. This sheltered hallway is where we found the biker tent. After calling out to the phantom camper and getting no reply, we left for our own campsite. The next morning he (she?) was gone. Great Beginning—squatters no less. But that beginning was not to predict what followed.

 

NIghttime lighthouse

Early evening pic of the Lighthouse and Lighthouse Keepers house.

The Tawas Point Working Lighthouse and Museum is the park's anchor attraction. The tour includes a wonderfully done historical museum, which was actually the living quarters of the light-keepers and their families, and an eighty-five step climb up a spiral staircase to the top of the light, which is still in use. These are staffed by DNR Historical Department staff who are very well versed in their areas. Most of them are also volunteers and we formed an instant bond.

Joe's Lighthouse BarbecueThere is Joe's Barbeque on the Beach with the best ribs this side of St. Louis. During the most of our stay, the beach was being readied for swimmers who were unsurprisingly absent in the icy cold. But there were brave (?) windsurfers who defied the elements and rode the wind and water. Their stay was short however, and they disappeared before I could hike back to camp and get my camera.

Lauren at a Mammal Discovery Table

Lauren, the park's 2016 Explorer guide with a Mammal Discovery Table on our site.

In Michigan's State Campgrounds, we have Nature Interpreters who share their knowledge and resources with children, or anyone, in pursuit of educating us all about our precious resources found in the parks. Rangers, Staff workers, Conservation Officers, and Volunteers all work to provide enjoyment of the park for their clients, the campers. And, of course, the Park itself offers so much.

What kept us busiest were birds. Two hundred fifty-four varieties of birds! Without realizing it, we had signed up for hosting during Tawas Point State Park week-long Tawas Bird Fest.

Orioles, Scarlet Tanagers, twenty varieties of warblers, woodpeckers, violes, exotic sparrows, cranes, geese, ducks, thrashers, hawks, killdeer, swifts, hummingbirds, flickers, kingbirds, swallows, titmice, catbirds, American Redstarts and even a porcupine eating breakfast in a tree each took their turn arriving and departing this birder's paradise. They kept us and hundreds of birdwatchers stalking through woods, slinking along shorelines, filling feeders with seed and orange halves and snapping pictures.

Oriole at a Marshmellow roaster

This Baltimore Oriole looked away just as he heard the shutter snap. The wire in front of him is a hot dog cooker with an orange half stuck on it.

Juvenille Scarlet Tanager

This Scarlet Tanager is a male juvenile, his plumage is almost up to full color.

And oh the snapping that was done! Big DSLR cameras with howitzer-sized lenses held up by heavy duty quick release monopods snapped quietly alongside small and large digital cameras, and even a cell phone that shouted, “Say Cheese!” when a picture was clicked. We suspect the “cheeser” was a birder caught without his camera who, out of dire need, resorted to his iPhone.

Like all enthusiasts, birdwatchers are single minded in their quests. Block a coveted view of a long sought-after bird, and you'll suffer withering looks and comments or even a bonk on the noggin with a lens turned weapon.

Female Orchard Oriole

Whole sections of the campsite bore orange halves mounted in trees to attract some of the hundreds of Orioles and Tanagers which descend on the park in the third week of May each year.

Now wait. That sounded bad. Birdwatchers are very nice people. When you walk upon a group of them and stand by looking interested, they will happily teach you much about their avocation. But hinder or chide them in the performance of it, and you will pay a price. Well, really, that sounds like any group; sports fans or hunters or fishermen or even Roadtrekers!

Three Roatrek Amigos

Three Roadtrek Amigos

Speaking of Roadtrekkers, we were visited by Wanda and Jim Jawranoski and Janet Mathews.

SPAM PRACTICE

Impromptu cooking often includes substitutions. Note that we ran out of Hor's D'oeuvre Tooth Picks…Hey, our teeth were clean afterward!

We shared lunch and RT tips with Jim and Wanda who own the same model and year Roadtrek we do! Janet Mathews stayed a few days and visited.

The Memorial Day crowd is as varied as you might expect, with its fair share of well meaning, but poorly educated naturalists. Today Rhonda witnessed and foiled an incident similar to the recent botched “rescue” of a newly born bison in Yosemite. At the shore of the small lake which is stocked with fish for the kids to catch, an adult fisherman had somehow come between a doe and her young fawn in the woods. Panicked, the fawn could not get past the fisherman and fled into the very cold lake. A crowd began to gather at the sight and at the direction the fawn was frantically swimming. As they pressed forward to get a better view, the tiring fawn's head began to dip and turn as it tried to change course. Rhonda's heart was in her throat for she knew the fawn would not come ashore near people and it might drown if it turned around and swam back across the little lake to get to safety. Approaching the crowd, she passed word that everyone needed to draw away from the shore and let the fawn land. When they began to do so, she left to get a ranger. There was a happy ending, though. The fawn did make it ashore and disappeared into the woods. The ranger assured us all that it would go to hide in a safe place until dark. It would begin mewing in the dark and surely would draw the attention of the mother immediately. Because deer have no natural enemies in the park, all would be be well for the fawn.

Killdeer Momma

This Mama Killdeer, alike all killdeers, placed her nest out in the open, on the ground.

Killdeer eggs

Four eggs filled her nest.

threekildeer chicks

Thee hatch-lings appeared. The next day they were gone. The lone infertile egg remained.

It was wonderful to see and help Tawas Point State Park change and grow throughout our four weeks here. Weather, foliage, animal life, shoreline, even the campground itself changed during this time, and we were privileged to be a part of it. Liking a camping spot grows to loving it when you begin to know it more intimately. I am so glad that Rhonda, my loving wife and companion of 48 years is adventurous enough to try new things and spur me on into the adventure.

If you are thinking about Campground Hosting, every park has its own unique personality, history and features. Hosting offers a slightly different perspective of every campground. Research each state or county or campground to find out what duties are required. Unlike Michigan Campground Hosts, some positions in different states are paid and so the duties are varied. Learn as much about the park and the area as you can as campers ask lots of questions and need lots of info. Make sure you enjoy being outside and like walking. Rhonda's daily FitBit goal is 15,000 steps. She never missed that goal and some days, when we went walking or exploring, she'd get well over 25,000. That might be extreme to some (me, for example) but you will spend lots of time outdoors. So bring your walking shoes and your best positive attitude.

porcupine eating in a tree

You never know what you will find when you can stay in one place long enough.

In Michigan State Campgrounds, there is always a staff to use as a resource and to offer help. In our case, as I am sure in most others, these folks are the salt of the earth and in our four weeks here they have become more than co-workers, they are friends.

And, as Roadtrekers with a preference for more isolated camping and exploring experiences, we have come to appreciate people, even the ones crammed together in campgrounds in all manner of shelters. These are folks who also want the kind of natural experience we can get merely by pointing our vehicle in any given direction and following our whims. Their vehicles and their encounters with nature suit their needs and are as vital to their lives as our Roadtrek is to us. It is cool helping them to be successful and enjoy our world. And, it makes us appreciate our Roadtrek and our good fortune so much more.

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