The Journal Gazette
Sunday, June 28, 2020 1:00 am

Love of camping, people

Volunteer hosts fill need at state parks, reservoirs

TERRI RICHARDSON | The Journal Gazette

Phil and Marcia Douglass recall the time they had to notify campers at Ouabache State Park that the park road was flooding and they had to pack up and leave.

They went camper to camper knocking on doors to let everyone know. Some took longer than others to get packed up and by the time the last camper left, the water at the Bluffton park was already halfway up on their vehicle's wheels.

That was an unusual experience for the couple, who volunteer as campground hosts at Ouabache. Most days their duties are a little less hectic and scary and involve such things as helping campers find their sites, selling firewood and cleaning.

But their ultimate job is to be there for the campers, which means helping in whatever way they can, the couple say.

The Douglasses are among several people who operate as campground hosts each season at Indiana's 24 state parks and eight reservoirs.

The state program has been going on for more than 25 years, says Jody Heaston, volunteer and Indiana master naturalist coordinator for Indiana Department of Natural Resources division of state parks.

Those interested in hosting can apply through the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and must commit to working 20 hours a week. In exchange for their volunteer work, hosts are given a free campground site during their service, Heaston says.

It is such a popular service, that many parks have a waiting list of people wanting to serve as hosts. Because of that, most parks rotate hosts each month, or have multiple hosts, so that everyone can get an opportunity to serve.

Hosts serve a minimum of two weeks or some opt to stay the entire recreation season, which usually begins in April, Heaston says.

Many of the hosts are older, but Heaston says there are a few families who volunteer. She talks about a couple who retired in their 80s and 90s as campground hosts after 25 years.

“That just shows you the commitment that some of these hosts have,” Heaston says.

Some hosts come year after year to the same site, Heaston says. Many of them live locally, and hosting is something they like to do in the summertime, Heaston says, like the Douglasses.

“This is what they do, this is their life,” she says of the couple.

The Douglasses have spent seven years as hosts at Ouabache. The couple used to live in Bluffton before they decided to sell their home and live full-time in their recreational vehicle.

They spend the year traveling from place to place volunteering. The couple say they volunteer at something for nine to 10 months a year. That includes not only state parks, but also national parks and fish and wildlife preserves.

They are currently working as hosts in Mounds State Park in Anderson, where they will be through the end of June. They will return to Ouabache for the months of August and September.

“We live in the RV full time and come back to Indiana in the summer to see family and friends,” Marcia Douglass says by phone.

Both Phil, who is 66, and Marcia, who didn't want to give her age, are retired. They started volunteering about nine years ago when they took Indiana master naturalist classes and then started volunteering at Ouabache, eventually becoming a campground host at the park.

“We had been camping for years; that always seemed like that was home,” Marcia Douglass says. “We enjoyed it a lot.”

“It seemed like the best place for us,” Phil Douglass says.

That also led them to begin planning seriously about living full time in their RV. They planned for 10 years before they made the leap and sold their home and began traveling across the country.

In addition to volunteering with the state parks, the couple will go to to see what positions are available across the United States. They already know where they will be for the winter.

The couple says it's challenging to be a full-time RVer. One challenge is going to the doctor. They usually try to schedule their appointments when they are back in Indiana and use their daughter's Muncie address as a home base for mail and other important things.

“It has greatly enlarged our worldview,” Marcia Douglass says. “It gives you a little bit different perspective on life.”

They have no plans to stop traveling in their RV anytime soon, which also goes for being a campground host.

And that seems to be the feeling for most of the hosts.

“They've become part of our family, the staff family,” Heaston says. “Some of the properties don't know what they would do without them.”

David and Chris Modlin spend about 25 hours a week helping out at Chain O'Lakes State Park in Albion. Duties include monitoring traffic, providing information at the park's historic Stanley Schoolhouse, greeting people, cleaning up the campground sites after campers leave, and basically helping campers with various needs, even if it requires David to share his hot dogs with a grandmother who had run out of them to feed her grandkids.

“I always have hot dogs,” David Modlin says. “My whole goal is to make you happy and your camping as pleasurable as possible.”

The South Bend couple share duties with other campground hosts at the park. They also rotate when they will be there, which for the Modlins will be through July.

David, 61, is retired, but Chris, 64, is still working as a client service associate at 1st Source Bank. David spends the week at the park, and Chris joins him on the weekends.

The couple, who have been married for 40 years, have always camped. It became a family affair when their daughter turned 1 and they took her camping for the first time. They have also included her friends over the years.

For David, becoming a host fulfills a need during his retirement.

“When you're retired, you have to find purpose in life,” he says. “I could not sit on the couch and just die.”

It's also a way for the hosts to share their love and knowledge of camping with others.

“We've pumped up hundreds of bike tires,” helped with awnings, lent tools and got out the tool box to help fix things, Phil Douglass says.

“Sometimes campers help us,” Marcia Douglass says. “It goes both ways sometimes.”

“We recommend to become a campground host,” she says. “It's a fun way, if you enjoy camping, to get to stay a whole month at a campground, even though you have some responsibilities ... you still have some free time ... and you enjoy that leisure time.”

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