First Time Volunteering in a State Park

There are some differences between volunteering on BLM land and in a state park, but although I know my sample size is small with only 2 work kamping jobs, there are definitely patterns emerging.  I know folks are curious about what an average day looks like (I certainly was) and now that we are settled I will walk you through our day, but please keep in mind that every one of these jobs is different and to some extent what you make of it.  Because you are volunteering for the site, most people are hesitant about asking a lot of you.  Plus I don’t know what type of people they have been getting, but more than once Lee and I had been described as “mellow people”, which if you have met us will crack you up.  It’s not so much that we are mellow as professional and I have to wonder who they are comparing us to.  We are polite and friendly to customers and full time staff alike, always keeping in mind that we are visitors, but they have to live here.  It’s a pretty simple formula really.

So, details about this job.  We found it on the State of California volunteers webpage.  There were tons of opportunities out there, although the website can be outdated a bit so it took some legwork on Lee’s part.  First, he emailed all the ones we were interested then and it took weeks in some cases to hear back.  Then we had to get a background check (cost to us: $10 each) and fingerprinted, and send 20+ pages of application to the state.  California may be worse than others on the paperwork, but again this all took some time so some pre-planning is called for. Also, the back and forth communication was a bit vague.  Despite all of the pages of paperwork, we walked into this not knowing exactly what we were going to be doing.  That was partly our fault because we didn’t ask the right questions, but the communication was not great.  Once we go here, the people have been very friendly.  Keep in mind they don’t know what they are getting into either and there is a bit of a period where everyone is checking each other out.  Once they figure out that you’re going to help, and not make their lives more difficult,  things go much smoother.

We have been told at both jobs that “we want you to have a good time and explore the area” and the schedules allow for this.  This camp host job has us checking the overnight box in the morning for people who came in late and paid.  I then take the information and write it on a clipboard.  While I am doing this Lee puts the flags up (weather permitting) which he really likes to do.  Brings back his ROTC days.   Once he’s done,  we walk the campground loop making sure no one slipped in without paying, and everyone is in the site they stated on the paperwork.  It’s dark at night and sometimes people move around, which is fine, we just need to change the sheet.  If there are any reservations for the upcoming day, we put a little sign out so people know those sites are not available.  The “worst” of it is that if anyone did not pay, we am supposed to wake them up and have them pay.  Apparently this is pot harvesting season (yeah, who knew?) and lots of folks with tons of cash are traveling through.  But according to the staff they don’t want to pay.  Now, this is where it gets interesting.  We can’t make anyone do anything and the amount of pressure we apply is totally up to me.   So I feel about this the way I felt about people smoking pot in the BLM day use area in Susanville.  I am just not getting into all that.  Ask people politely once to do the right thing and if they refuse, document it and move on.  First of all, I think the state of California can afford the $35 if someone refuses to pay, and secondly we don’t escalate with people.  Lee taught me that.  It never leads anywhere good and that’s where being a volunteer comes in handy.  Since I am not getting paid, it’s ultimately not my responsibility.  When I explain my philosophy the full time employees and rangers seem relieved.  We are not trained to deal with these situations and they would much rather we left it to them.

Oh, one more thing.  There always seem to be some locals that you need to be a little wary of.  Either they are big shots in the community or activists who like to push the envelope.  In both places we have been we have been given detailed descriptions of folks we needed to “be careful with.”  I get it.  We lived in a small town and some people like to throw their weight around, but thus far our professional and courteous stance works just fine for those folks too.  Actually Lee is awesome at dealing with those people.  All those years of running the local public access station in the small town of Keene have made him eminently qualified for dealing with these situations.  I, coming from a corporate environment, had more trouble with it at first, but there are always people in every corporation who have power beyond their title and require special handling.  I just put these folks in the same category.  And thankfully I have had minimal dealings with the “crazies.”  My general stance in life with folks living on the fringe is to speak softly and respectfully and give them as wide a berth as possible. The first morning we didn’t have any walk-ins who didn’t pay, but the second morning we had three cars on two sites that hadn’t filled out the little envelope and put money in it and dropped it in the iron ranger. It is a little unsettling to knock on a car window at 7am, but my experience as a mother getting children out of bed to go to school definitely comes in handy here!  It’s all about unrelenting cheerfulness, which is particularly obnoxious at 7am. Hey, if they don’t pay the fee, fine, they are going to be inconvenienced.  I was definitely glad Lee was with me on these wake ups as he just stood there and looked official and I gently got people to pay.  The first car was full of 20 somethings from France and I told them how sorry I was about what happened in their country.  They paid, but needed some help with the paperwork which I gladly did.  The second car only had 30 dollars and I am pretty sure the name “Jones” was a fake one, but I took their money cheerfully and said “OK” when they said they would return with the other five.  I resisted the urge to tell them to make sure they left their campsite clean, again, years of experience with kids and mornings, and we went on our way.  It was kind of fun actually, except for that initial contact, and definitely woke me up for the morning.

Regular staff is here every day from 10-6 so we have the day to ourselves to work from the rig or explore.  We try to be back by 4pm  to help with the walk ins and we are then “On Duty” until we go to bed.  They have an Iron Ranger station (drop box with envelopes where people register) so we are available to answer questions and sell firewood or make change for people.  Two days in we have had no one see us at night, but we will see how the weekend goes.  We do have two days off, not sure when those are yet, but the expectation is 20-25 hours per couple.  Mainly though we are here as a presence.  As Ranger Thomas stated, folks might rethink mischief if they know there is a Camp Host on duty.  And again, since this is off season, so far we are only getting 5-6 campers per night. Oh and no restroom cleaning here.  They have a maintenance staff that cleans the restrooms and showers and empties trash, so that’s cool.

So after hearing all that you might be thinking, “Well, why bother?”.  You might have income coming in, and you don’t need to supplement your income.  Well, it turns out there are numerous perks that might make it worth your while, the financial benefit aside.  Some of these we have experienced, and please don’t expect these because I am sure they won’t be everywhere, are:

  1.  An “All Access Pass” – We get keys,  and so far, in both of the places we’ve been, the keys have allowed us access to areas where the general public can’t go.  This allows us to drive our truck on roads less traveled and really absorb an area.
  2. Having the place all to yourself – We love the shoulder season.  Yes, the weather isn’t optimal, but the places are largely deserted which lessens the work load and gives you tons of opportunities to be the only people experiencing a place.  Totally worth the trade off in our mind.
  3. Getting a full hookup site in a place you couldn’t normally stay – This is a big one.  This campground for example has only one site we could squeeze into and at $35 a night for no services at all  it is unlikely we would have ever stayed here. Thus far our two sites have been big with great views and the water, electric, etc have all worked great.
  4. Getting to really know people in the area – Folks have gone out of their way to get to know us and spent time educating us about the area.  They want you to like it, because they want you to come back. The free education has been wonderful, plus when people are super passionate about where they work, it’s infectious.   Really enhances the experience.
  5. Access to extra services – Here they have a full kitchen, small library full of books about the area, free wi-fi, a giant maintenance area with tons of tools that we can borrow, a woodworking shop, and one of our favorites: free firewood.  Since these jobs don’t pay they often offer extra little perks to sweeten the deal, because again, they would like for you to come back.  And why not?  Repeat volunteers make their life easier, plus give them some continuity of volunteer staff.
  6. Being part of a community – Part of how we travel is to go to an area and learn how the people live.  This is much easier when volunteering because people go to a lot of trouble to introduce you to the locals, give insights on the best businesses in the area, and basically make you feel more like part of the community.  You can pass through an area and see it, but our goal is to experience it which is different.  Experiencing an area involves getting to know the people a little bit as well. So volunteering is a short cut to meeting people.
  7. Giving a little back – Even though we are getting something for volunteering, we are giving something back to our wonderful parks system.  Volunteering was something I rarely had time for when I was working, going to school, and raising kids and it’s a nice feeling to contribute, even in a small way.  Being thanked by people for picking up trash or giving information goes a long way towards making it feel less like a chore and more like something of value.

So that’s my summary thus far.  Again, it’s a small sample size but I feel pretty confident about what I am seeing.  I’ve shared some pictures from our tour below.

forgot to share a picture of this delicious chinese buffet we ate at. first decent Chinese food in a year and the sushi boats were awesome

Forgot to share a picture of this delicious Chinese buffet we ate at our first night in.  First decent Chinese food in a year and the sushi boats were awesome and only $12.99 for dinner

Me and Ranger Tom in front of a Burl that was stolen and recovered. These are used to make clocks and the street value is $1K the retail is $5K. The rangers protect the forests from people poaching them

Me and Ranger Tom in front of a Burl that was stolen and recovered. These are used to make clocks and the street value is $1K the retail is $5K. The rangers protect the forests from people poaching them

Lee admiring the crazy big chain saws

Lee admiring the crazy big chain saws

There are lots of these little houses that summer workers stay in

There are lots of these little houses that summer workers stay in

This tree was at the visitors center with tags on what was happening at the different rings

This tree was at the visitors center with tags on what was happening at the different rings

The center was 912 AD so I had to touch it. Crazy old

The center was 912 AD so I had to touch it. Crazy old

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Here's our site

Here’s our site

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7 thoughts on “First Time Volunteering in a State Park

  1. What a wonderful place and volunteer position. Your site looks phenomenal and must smell great in the morning to wake up to. As for the pot, this is where the hippies congregated in 60s. How long are you here? Probably not long enough.

  2. This is a fabulous post, Tracy. Diana and I discussed it tonight, as there are so many things we can relate to from our work camping jobs this summer. We love your explanation of Lee’s policy of not escalating.

    Once again, all around great post!

  3. Pingback: Second Year – By the Numbers – Camper Chronicles

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