This is the deal. Spend a month or a summer in the woods of North Idaho and enjoy a campsite for free.
In exchange for the free camping you are expected to volunteer no more than 24 hours a week. The usual camp fee with hookups for a recreational vehicle is $22 per night. That works out to $660 per month of free camping. That bargain can be found in Idaho state parks.
Bud Justice, the manager of Priest Lake State Park, is clear about how essential volunteers are in the state park system. “I can’t tell them enough how valuable they are to us,” he said. Volunteers are likely to be the first person a visitor meets at the park. They seem to be all over helping the permanent staff.
Most, but not all, are retired. They come from all over the country. There are some that migrate north from the Southwest to escape the summer heat. But they also arrive from other states like Missouri, South Carolina, and as far as way as Portugal to provide help in Idaho state parks. Some are full-time RVers with no home to go back to. They travel from state to state and park to park. Most volunteers are not from Idaho, but there are a few who live in state and want to spend time in a premier vacation location and assist in making the park stand out for the visitors who use it.
Anyone who has tried to reserve a campsite during July or August knows to call in early, like in January, because the campgrounds fill up fast. All those campers visiting during the busy months require a permanent year-round staff of rangers and a large number of volunteers (17 at Priest Lake State Park) to ensure that the camping facilities are safe, adequate and clean.
Visitors need to be screened as they arrive to determine if they are just day users or overnight campers. Tent campers and recreational vehicles are sent to separate camp loops. Camp hosts watch over each campsite loop helping visitors locate their site and answering questions, explaining and gently enforcing the park rules. Hard-core troublemakers are handled by the rangers, or in extreme cases a county sheriff is called.
Campsites and fire pits need to be cleaned for the next evening’s visitors. Day activities and evening programs are often presented by volunteers. If there is a camp store, volunteers regularly assist the permanent staff by restocking and running the cash register. Camping cabins need to be cleaned and maintained. Wooden signs are made. A never-ending list of maintenance projects are worked on. These and many other tasks are performed by the volunteers supervised by rangers or seasonal employees.
General job titles for volunteers are campground host, interpretive host, visitor center, maintenance host and special projects. For example, a campground host job description includes: Campground hosts are park ambassadors. They perform a variety of tasks such as greeting visitors and handing out information, replacing restroom supplies, cleaning campsites, picking up litter and informing the rangers about potential problems.
Each volunteer receives a free campsite with hookups, a uniform consisting of a cap, shirt or vest, patch and name tag.
Hours of work do vary and an eight-hour day is possible, but the rangers at Priest Lake try to limit work weeks to 24 hours. They want volunteers to have time to experience the area’s trails, water and other features in order to help answer questions from the campers. Training is done by state park personnel and veteran volunteers.
Volunteers are needed and used in all of the North Idaho state parks, including Priest Lake, Farragut, Heyburn, Old Mission and Round Lake. The four rangers at Priest Lake need all the help they can get with 151 campsites, five camping cabins, store and a group camp with thousands of visitors each year.
January may seem too early to be thinking about summer activities, but like reservations for campsites in July and August, potential state park volunteers also need to get their applications submitted. Make an early commitment, because you will have a better chance of getting a preferred campground or job in a selected state park. A January decision could mean a summer staying in a premier Idaho state park campground. People spend good money for that privilege.
If this sounds like all work and no play, it isn’t. No doubt when on duty volunteers are expected to complete their tasks. Shortened work hours and days off allow plenty of free time for outdoor activities. The summer months in North Idaho can be spectacular when living within walking distance of a clean lake and beach. Free time allows use of nearby hiking and biking trails, fishing, water sports like skiing, motorboating and canoeing, swimming and unlimited use of the beach activities.
There is some benefit to choosing a park you want to volunteer in, walking into the park office and inquiring about opportunities for volunteering. Chances are you will meet one of people who will train you and explain how to apply. Another approach is to go online to Idaho State Parks and Recreation. Volunteer positions are listed in detail and a two-page application form can be printed out. All applications are sent to Boise for review, including a criminal background check.
This is a summer commitment that can be enjoyed. A good way to meet and enrich friendships in some of the best outdoor recreation areas Idaho has to offer.