Welcome to the Woods
Campground hosts have been keeping campers happy in Minnesota’s parks and forests for decades.
In 2013, Joy Leick was camping at Moose Lake State Park, which wasn’t far from her home in Esko. Leick had recently retired from a long career in nursing, and she was chatting with the park manager when he told her the park needed a campground host.
“Oh my gosh,” she blurted out, “I’ve always wanted to be a campground host!”
The manager looked at her, then asked: “When do you want to start?”
She pulled her travel trailer home, loaded it with supplies, and two days later she was back, as she has been every year for the past seven summers.
Leick was one of at least 100 such volunteers at Minnesota state parks last season. These campground hosts spend their summers welcoming campers, keeping sites tidy, stocking toilet paper, making sure things are quiet after 10 p.m., giving directions and advice, and generally doing whatever they can to improve campers’ time in the woods.
We don’t hear much about them. They operate somewhat under the radar. They don’t broadcast their accomplishments or mug for Instagram. But this mobile army of friendly folks is the grease in the wheels of the state park system. If you’re a camper, chances are they’ve made your camping trip better and you didn’t even know it.
“The campground host program is vital to the state parks,” says Cara Greger, assistant park manager of Big Stone Lake State Park. “They’re a bridge between the state park system and our campers. They’re our eyes and ears out there too. I can’t be everywhere in the campground, so they’ll give me a call when something needs to be fixed. Most people like to go camping because they like to relax. But as a campground host, you’re expected to interact and help campers out.”
Leick, in addition to interacting, goes above and beyond: She cleans bathrooms, does light maintenance, resets the sump lift, deals with late-night emergencies, and much more.
“I’m there pretty much by myself after 5 o’clock,” she says. “I’m it! So I handle a lot of different situations out there.”
What does she, or any campground host, get in exchange? A free campsite for the season. And for most of them, that’s more than enough.
“I love people, and I love camping,” says Kathy Kinsley, a host at Big Stone Lake. “Being a campground host just slows you down. It lets you really enjoy life in the wilderness, and be around people who also enjoy what you like.”
By one estimate, at least 1,000 campground hosts have served in Minnesota’s state parks since the program began. Don Jueneman, who is 93, helped establish the statewide program in the late 1970s or early 1980s as the state park operations manager. Hosts get a plaque their first year on the not-quite-job, and the first one was mailed in 1982, according to Katie Immel, who administers the program.
“It worked terrific,” Jueneman recalls. “We had a few little problems with people who thought they were going to be park rangers and started to get tough with campers. We’d get rid of them right away. But 95 percent were really good. It just kept growing and growing. Other states would come to visit us, or call to ask about it, then start doing it.” South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Iowa all took inspiration from the Minnesota example, he says.
Before the statewide program began, campground hosts were considered part of the Volunteers in Parks (or VIP) program. One of the first such hosts in Minnesota was a couple named Willis and Jessie Jones from New York state, retired teachers who started volunteering for the summer at Lake Shetek State Park from the 1960s through the 1980s.
Since the early days, those seeds planted by Jueneman and others have flourished. There are now campground host programs across the country and in mostly every park system, including state forests, national forests, county parks, national parks, and even private campgrounds. And today they serve a role that’s even more important in a post-pandemic world.
“Campground hosts,” Greger says, “can also give people that sense of connection we’ve all been craving lately.”
Kurt and Edwige Moses first learned about campground hosting while camping in Florida. It was 2014, and they had just left their jobs in the Twin Cities to embark on a new phase of life centered around their online photography project Un Petit Monde, which features miniature people staged in real-world environments. They were hoping to minimize their living costs to survive off their art, and campground hosting seemed like a good fit.
On their way back to Minnesota, Edwige looked at park websites. They contacted Gooseberry Falls State Park, which happened to be in need of a campground host.
“Gooseberry Falls is our favorite park,” says Edwige. “It’s where we used to camp when we dated and when we were first married. So to get a position in that park was very special to us.”
At first the couple camped in a wall tent that rested on pallets. One year a woodchuck made its home underneath it, and the couple once woke to a coyote trying to dig the rodent out. Another time, their shoes went missing, and a ranger told them foxes like to take them. Park staff had previously found fox dens full of shoes.
Now the couple has been hosting for eight years, most recently at Cascade River State Park. In the winter, they volunteer as photographers at national parks and stay there. And while they did try campground hosting at a national park once, they didn’t like it.
“At the national parks, it really feels like a job,” says Kurt. “When you’re doing it for the state parks, it’s more laid back.”
“And it’s more beautiful,” Edwige adds. “In national parks, the campground is more like a parking lot.”
The two are different from the usual camp hosts in that they are younger, not retired, and artists. But there is one even starker difference: They’re introverts.
“We leave people alone,” says Kurt. “Then when they need something, we get to work.”
“Taking care of the people and getting to know them is great,” says Edwige. “We don’t seek people out, but we love meeting them and actually being able to help them. We have great friends who we’ve met being campground hosts.”
Of course, there are occasionally less pleasant encounters. One night, Kurt climbed out of their trailer—they upgraded from the tent—and heard someone chopping. He found a man using a hatchet to cut down a tree at a campsite. On the table was an open bottle of Jack Daniel’s, and the man was clearly intoxicated.
When Kurt walked over to educate him about the rules, the man raised his hatchet and said, “What are you going to do about it?”
Kurt put his hands in his pockets to show he wasn’t a threat. By this time Edwige had arrived, and together they were able to talk the man down. They told him he had two choices: They could call the sheriff or he could end the disruption. He chose the latter.
“The DNR stresses that campground hosts are to do no enforcement,” says Edwige. “But when something happens, if we can de-escalate the situation without doing any enforcement, we will.”
Most hosts have had one or two run-ins like that. But they’re extremely rare.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people are just great,” says Linda Roy, who hosts at the North Star Campground in Chippewa National Forest. “Once in a while someone is belligerent and doesn’t want to turn their generator off, so you have to deal with that. We haven’t had to call the sheriff very often, but as soon as they see someone in a uniform, it’s all good. Most people, if you knock on their door and talk to them, they’ll say, ‘Oh, gee, I just forgot.’”
Other challenges include campers feeding bears, super-bright LEDs, noise complaints, and things like that. But most campers are just out trying to enjoy some nature in their time off.
“Minnesota campers are great people,” says Leick, “and most of them are very respectful of the campground, We have quite a few return campers, and they call me by name. Last year, I met a girl [and] we’ve become almost like sisters. It’s the personal connections you make with people that are my fondest memories.”
“We’ve made so many lifelong friends doing this,” says Joy Lenz, who has hosted for eight years, mostly at Bear Head Lake State Park, “and we have friends across the country who we see throughout the year. You can make such a difference in whether theirs is a good experience or not.”
Dealing with the weather is a mainstay of the host experience. Last summer, Ron Reisdorfer, a host at Blue Mounds State Park, rode his bike around to all the park’s campsites warning campers that a big storm with high winds was coming. Everyone took shelter in the bathrooms together. After a rumored tornado touchdown and a second wave of hail, just a few branches were down, so everyone went back to their sites.
Kathy Kinsley also has experience with extreme weather.
“After a major storm I’ll go out and help everybody,” she says. “We’re down in a valley, so when the wind comes though, it’s really harsh. One time this year, I went around and told people to pull in their awnings, because they would have snapped.”
Yet despite the weather, the occasional belligerence, and the round-the-clock hours, most camp hosts wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s a wonderful way to spend your summer,” says Roy. “You’re out in the national forest, and it’s beautiful and people are nice. Especially if you’re retired, you’ve got a good reason to get up in the morning, and it keeps you active. I highly recommend it.”
“If you really want to make a positive difference,” says Lenz, “and to enjoy the outdoors—and life in general—there’s really no better way.”
Hosts with the Most
Want to be a campground host? Last year, Minnesota state parks received at least 58 applications for host positions. Here are some tips for standing out as an applicant at state parks and other campgrounds that use volunteer hosts:
Like people. Or at least like helping them. They’ll be coming to your door at all hours. “You have to be a people person,” says Joy Lenz, “and you have to really want their vacations to be the best they can be.”
Pick a park. Check state park, state forest, national forests, county parks, and national park websites. “Be careful where you put your name out,” says Dale Burns, who has hosted at Glacial Lakes for six years, “and make sure the park is going to be a good fit for you.”
Read the fine print. In some states, you’re required to work in the office or lead tours or do other things. Most camp managers would love it if you cleaned bathrooms, and that may help your application chances, but it’s not always required.
Find a niche. Every campground host has their specialty, from having donuts every Saturday morning, to making popcorn, to showing a monthly movie at their site. Some write “Welcome” in pine cones on the table. “All the little opportunities to do something extra good, it’s just fun,” says Lenz.
Go the extra mile. “You have to be a well-rounded person to be a campground host,” says Joy Leick. “You can’t just sit and get a free campsite. It doesn’t work that way.”
“We’ve started fires for people who don’t know how to do that,” says Kurt Moses. “We’ve intervened in situations where two campsites are having a dispute and got them to a place where they’re all happy and getting to enjoy their weekend.”
“Make sure people see you, so they know you’re coming around,” says Linda Roy. “It makes them feel safe to know that there is a campground host going around and checking and making sure everything is good.”