PORT TOWNSEND – Washington is home to 125 state parks. And while you may encounter a ranger during your visit, you’re more likely to connect with a park host. The State Park Service’s Parks Hospitality Program (there is also a National Parks version) has 80 parks with hospitality opportunities. You’ll often find these hosts at designated campsites, trading 28 hours a week for a comfortable, free spot in the park. Although historically called “camp hosts,” these volunteers do everything from selling firewood and keeping the park clean, to working in the gift shops, leading hiking trails, interpretation and even the management of various museums.
“Think about living in a park for 30 days. The park’s visitor sites are in some of the most beautiful scenery in the state,” Valerie Roberts, volunteer program manager for Washington State Parkssaid.
Park hosts are required to pass a criminal background check (initially, then every three years thereafter), have their own motorhome, and commit to volunteering 28 hours a week for at least 30 days. The Parks Department receives about 500 applicants each year – but not all applicants meet all the requirements or end up hosting. However, once you’re approved, it can be a pretty good (free) gig.
“You can be a park host forever if you want,” Roberts says.
Guests come from a variety of backgrounds and locations. The two things they tend to have in common are a love of people and the outdoors.
It’s people like Howard “Ron” Raplee, a self-proclaimed “one-legged old jerk” who started volunteering as a camp host eight years ago and was asked by a ranger to lead a trek from the first day at Fort Flagler State Park while staying there as a park guest.
“I said of course, thinking, ‘How many people are going to show up?’ I go out and it’s 57 people. I said, ‘Oh my God, I have to create a tour,’ Raplee said one afternoon at the Puget Sound Coast Artillery Museum in Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend.
Raplee and his wife live full-time in their RV and first spent a lot of time in eastern Washington before getting tired of being “chased by fires.”
That first-day hike to Fort Flagler five years ago sparked something off in Raplee and the Navy veteran became fascinated with the area’s history, spending two years studying and harassing Coast Manager Greg Hagge. Artillery Museum, whenever he had a question. When the museum closed two years ago due to COVID-19 precautions, Raplee had the opportunity to help rejuvenate it – updating exhibits, renovating equipment and donating. at the museum a general refresh up to the lighting and painting.
In a room in the museum, Raplee opens the back of an old search lamp that came from the hill above the museum called Artillery Hill, showing the refracting mirror and light he installed inside.
“Getting this thing cleaned up and learning its history was a blast. I love big heavy equipment,” Raplee says with a smile.
Raplee’s assignment is a bit unique for a park host, but he’s not alone in his passion for this volunteer gig.
Each host is required to volunteer 28 hours a week (couples can split tasks to meet their needs), but every host we spoke with for this story said their work far exceeds those hours because they love what they do.
Kit McCartney has been a host at Deception Pass State Park for 12 years.
“Some people try and it’s not their thing. My husband was retired military and he couldn’t stand people,” McCartney laughs.
The day I catch McCartney on the phone, she’s getting ready for a big weekend at the park. It’s a Canadian national holiday and she expects a full campground. It was also a windy day and she spent the morning cleaning up after the wind damage.
She lives just 10 miles from the park — and often volunteers there when she’s not hosting a camp — in part because of her love for the area.
“The West Beach sunset never gets old. We have otters, mink, you see all the animals when you’re here all alone,” McCartney says.
Hosting duties don’t always fit neatly into a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule. McCartney is a night owl – which is handy for seeing all that wildlife – and loves people, which helps him stay affable and friendly while reacting to different issues that might arise at random times of the day.
And McCartney has seen a lot over the years: she’s helped people who lost their fingers after a trailer hitch fell, or stemmed the flow of a geyser after a water tap went out. broke in the middle of the night. But she likes to meet people who come from everywhere.
Before retiring, she was a biology teacher and loved the outdoors and camping throughout her life. She and her late husband spent much of their 58 years of marriage RVing through the lower 48 states. Now, at 75, she says she has a craving for physical activity: “It helps keep the joints lubricated.”
Bert and Cathy Miller have been hosts at Fort Worden for 20 years, spending their days mowing, cleaning fire pits and telling great stories to clueless campers about the function of beehive-shaped tsunami sirens (if you meet Bert, don’t don’t believe him when he says they really are the largest commercial bee factory in the world).
“It’s not just about being present in the accommodation,” says Bert fervently.
Around 5:30 a.m. every morning, the Millers are up and having coffee at their campsite, chatting with people who might be wandering around. They spend all day working – one ranger calls them “the flight of the bumblebee” for their speed at clearing campsites – and are in bed by 9 p.m. They’re going over their planned 28 hours “by leaps and bounds,” but that’s how they like to do it.
“It’s just our style. We love the people, we love the park,” says Bert.
Some camp hosts use the program to facilitate a nomadic lifestyle and experience the country.
The day I speak with Sam Horak, a 10-foot-long snake just snuck into his campsite in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park. She volunteers in the interpretive service, organizes cave tours and works at the visitor center. Horak is from Minnesota but after retiring in 2020 she “got tired of being a responsible adult”. She sold her house and now lives full-time in her RV, driving a circuit across the United States, hosting a camp along the way.
She will be in Great Basin for most of the summer before moving on to host camp in the Florida Keys during the winter. She spends spring camp at Rainbow Falls State Park in Chehalis, and every August she returns to Minnesota to work at a booth selling natural laundry products at the Minnesota State Fair.
Her work before her retirement — she was an outreach instructor at a science museum — led her to bring science programs to geographically isolated communities and sparked the idea of spending her retirement years in an RV. But she likes people and likes to be busy.
“People come to your campsite while you are having dinner. They need help and that kind of thing doesn’t bother me. I need to be able to interact with people and be productive. As a host, you can do that,” says Horak.
For Raplee — who has spent her career working in shipyards and building cast-in-place cantilever bridges — hosting a camp at Fort Worden is the “greatest retirement ever.”
“I can play with all the toys in the state and it doesn’t cost me a penny,” he says.
As he shows me around parts of the museum normally off-limits to the general public, his commitment to history is evident. It shows an original barber chair, its porcelain armrests and black leather seat still intact. He wields a 1918 French Chauchat (colloquially known, he says, as the worst machine gun ever made) and later points to an original ticker. Later, he opens a room stuffed with old uniforms and shows the uniform of a general in the Washington National Guard.
“Every time you discover something, it’s like being a kid in a candy store. There is so much history here. It’s just a lot of fun,” Raplee says.