The retiree hosts who help keep Pennsylvania’s state parks running
So far in 2019, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said 35 campground hosts have volunteered 9,700 hours of service at state parks.
LOWER MIFFLIN TOWNSHIP, Pa. — If someone comes knocking on George and Doris Stewart’s 35-foot camper after midnight, they’ll both answer, but it had better be something urgent, such as a gang of raccoons pilfering hot dogs or a broken black water line on an RV.
“That’s the toilet water,” Doris, 65, explained at a picnic table beside their camper last week at Colonel Denning State Park in Cumberland County.
The Stewarts are part of a small army of volunteers, most of them retirees, who live rent-free at the dozens of Pennsylvania state parks that offer camping. They are called campground hosts and are given their own campsite by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, free of charge, for a month at a time or longer during the season, as long as they perform a variety of duties. Campground hosts collect fees, offer directions to sites, clean out fire rings, and generally act as friendly faces for visitors to meet when they get there. Cricket, their blind shih tzu mix, is the official campground host dog.
The gig, the Stewarts said, feels a little bit like camping and a little bit like work, and that’s the way they like it.
“Basically, we tell people as long as we’re here, we’re here to help you,” Doris said.
So far in 2019, DCNR said, 35 campground hosts have volunteered 9,700 hours of service at state parks. Some have been doing it for 25 years. Bureau of State Parks director John Hallas said hosts were an “invaluable and necessary component” to the system.
"They are our very talented ambassadors of our parks for our overnight guests,” Hallas said in a statement.
George, a retired mechanic and U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War, and Doris, a retired office worker, are campground hosts at Colonel Denning, and have been backing their camper into the host site by the entrance every July for 13 years. Before that, the Carlisle residents were longtime campers at the heavily shaded, 273-acre park in the scenic Doubling Gap of Blue Mountain.
“They actually got married here,” said park manager Jeff Johns.
It’s true. The Stewarts met at a singles dance in Harrisburg. In 2008, they planned a family reunion along the lake at the campground, and once all the guests arrived, they surprised them with a wedding.
"My one sister-in-law said, ‘Why are there flowers on all the tables?’” Doris recalled.
After the ceremony, George’s grandson tied cans to the back of his motorcycle and the couple rode off for a honeymoon.
Now the couple are a staple at their favorite state park, waving to nearly everyone who walks or drives by. George has fixed countless flat bicycle tires. Doris once patched up an Amish girl’s scraped leg, and her sugar-water feeders attract an array of hummingbirds, buzzing around her site like floating jewels.
“We’ve dried a few tears over the years,” George said.
The Stewarts don’t enforce the rules, such as quiet time at night or the DCNR’s ban on alcoholic beverages at state parks. There are park rangers for that.
“The lights on the camper go out at 10 p.m., but I tell everyone we’re here 24 hours for emergencies,” George said.
Some campgrounds require a little more work, such as cutting lawns or volunteering at museums or craft centers on the property. The Stewarts sell two of camping’s biggest necessities: ice and firewood. Their $10 for a wheelbarrow full of firewood may be one of the better deals in the commonwealth.
Locust Lake State Park in Schuylkill County has 282 campsites, a very popular swimming lake, and three different sets of campground hosts. Michael Sieliekus and his wife, Donna, have been hosts there for 22 years and spend nearly a third of the year at the campground. Michael, 66, a North Philly native, said he’s made a lifetime’s worth of friends hosting at the campsite.
“I meet a lot of people and make it a point to come back, " he said. “Snowbirds go south. And in the spring they come north.”
The Stewarts are snowbirds themselves, traveling to Florida in the winter. For now, they’ve got to finish out July and an extra week in August, when the new hosts get there. On a walk through the campground one day last week, they checked campsite reservation tags, gazed into fire pits to see whether anyone was burning plastic or glass, and most acted neighborly, just like DCNR wants them to.
“I’ve been coming here since 1982. I’ll always come back to Colonel Denning,” said Phyllis Gipe, of York. “George and Doris, they’re like family. They’re really dedicated. Maybe too dedicated.”
DCNR often advertises for campground hosts and other volunteer opportunities. For more information, visit the agency’s volunteer page.