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Love of nature, flexible working hours and good WiFi – a winning combination for camp hosts

Most of the 150 or so campground operators who spend their summers in Minnesota’s state parks and forests belong to a well-documented demographic: retirees whose lifestyles give them the freedom to travel and live away from home for extended periods of time. In fact, many of them renew their leases every year.

Much like the changes in the workplace as a result of the pandemic, the flexibility of remote work and the focus on work-life balance have brought some new faces as facilitators. DNR managers welcome this, even if it is too early to call it a trend.

Arielle Courtney leads the program. She believes recent applicants, like a mother and her son who applied to host after school for the summer, are a sign that people are increasingly eager to experience the outdoors in more meaningful ways. And the program wants to be ready for that moment. Four weeks is the minimum commitment.

“People really want to do some of these bigger things in their lives, but schedules and other obligations prevent them from doing so,” says Courtney of the Department of Natural Resources’ Parks and Trails Division.

The program would welcome expansion as there is a need every season, April through October, especially in less visited state parks and forests.

Courtney has a penchant for repeat hosts – the foundation of the program. According to a survey a few years ago, as many as 40% have reapplied three to five years in a row. A smaller percentage have done so for longer. The relationships she has built with the campers are the reason for the high rate, she said.

“Volunteering is just an interesting way to give back and spend a lot of time outside and having fun in the parks,” Courtney said.

What follows are vignettes of the experiences of new presenters as well as experienced presenters who balanced their roles with their professional lives before they too retired.

Matt, Jackie and Beau Bentzinger: Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, Two Harbors

Matt and Jackie Bentzinger live in Coatesville, Indiana, but their hearts are on the North Shore.

Matt, who grew up in southern Iowa, remembered fishing trips and canoeing in northern Minnesota. Years later, the two visited the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness together in 2018 and finally married in 2020 at Honeymoon Bluff on the Gunflint Trail outside of Grand Marais.

When a job change forced him to shift his work to home during the pandemic, the two considered moving north. What became more economically feasible was a trip there. They bought a used Class A RV in 2022 and signed up for the campground host program at parks along Lake Superior.

The Bentzingers, their 12-year-old son Beau, three cats and a dog just returned from their second stay at Split Rock Lighthouse’s Shipwreck Creek campground, which opened in June 2022.

For the last two years they have hosted in May.

“What a great way to spend a month,” says Matt, 40, who works as a sales administrator for a farm equipment dealer in Indiana. He brings a folding desk and monitors and gets reliable Wi-Fi via a Starlink dish.

The family’s responsibilities include wiping down shower houses and taking out trash, but it sounded like those demands were far more important than anchoring in a beautiful part of the state. Plus, the couple said, Beau, who is autistic, has benefited from regular time outdoors.

“It’s definitely an environment where he thrives,” his mother said.

The Bentzingers, experienced campers, said they hope to host at Split Rock for an extended period in the fall and are considering other parks as well. “If it was feasible, we would do it,” said Jackie, 33.

Beth Borgen-Lindberg and Ann Lindberg-Borgen: Frontenac State Park

Hosting is a good choice for the couple for several reasons. They started the business six years ago alongside their professional lives and are now staying in it as retirees.

Proximity: The park, north of Lake City on the Mississippi River, is near her home in Hastings. Plus, Frontenac is even closer to Red Wing, where Beth worked in the school district. She remembered Friday mornings when she drove her RV to the park before heading to work. Ann, a former drug counselor, picked up the dog and headed south after her day at work.

Beauty: The park’s scenery keeps her coming back. Ann started camping in the park in 2006, and “it became our favorite campground,” Beth said.

Flexibility: The host program’s flexible schedule suits them. “It’s a must,” Beth said. Sometimes they commit for a month, sometimes more.

She added that camping all those years ago helped them appreciate other campers and that knowledge will help them as hosts.

“I learned that being a host is a lot about relationships…with park visitors, staff and other campers – and making them feel good,” Beth said.

Bridget and Cheyenne Mikkola-Rahja: McCarthy Beach State Park, Side Lake, Minnesota.

Graduate school around a campfire and virtual meetings overlooking the lake are balancing acts that the couple have found – with enthusiasm – as now well-known hosts of the popular park in the Iron Range.

Bridget is a high school teacher and Cheyenne works in health care. They both live in Chisholm, about 17 miles south, but when summer comes, their priority is to anchor their 29-foot trailer at the campground on Side Lake and settle in for a month — or more. They were guests for most of May and all of June and expect to return in August. Overall, they are now happily in their third summer season.

Unlike some parks and forests, the job was highly competitive for a while. After camping for extended periods of time, they realized some campers were staying longer than the two-week maximum allowed. How do we become hosts, they asked? Both the Side Lake and Beatrice campgrounds in the park had a long tradition of long-term hosts. The women applied for the role for four or five seasons before getting their break in 2021 after the system changed to accommodate more hosts. They started at Side Lake, worked for a time at a campground in Ashland, Wisconsin, then returned to Beatrice for a month.

“It was absolutely wild and chaotic and we loved it,” Cheyenne said.

Working and hosting campers was a learning process. Beatrice is the more rustic of the two campsites and has no electricity, so you have to use generators in a timely manner to power electronics and not disturb your camping neighbors. Cheyenne remembered sitting in a car once to charge her laptop. Plus, her golden retriever Charli was suffering from the heat. Thinking about air conditioning was out of the question.

Both laugh as they remember their induction ceremony – a step towards fulfilling a position they now consider their dream position.

“For me, every day is a new adventure,” Bridget said. “There are new people coming. There are people coming back. There are people we met in the first year… you look forward to seeing them again. The other part is being part of something joyful, watching it and being a part of it.”

Cheyenne said they love being ambassadors for the area and hope their story inspires others to host elsewhere.

“We always realize that we are incredibly lucky to have this beautiful place right in our backyard and to be able to share it with other people.”

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