2011 RUNNING & TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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   PAYING FOR OUR "FREE" CAMPSITE

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 20

 
"I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have."
 
~ Thomas Jefferson
 
 

Most of the time people create their own "luck" or "good fortune." It doesn't just fall into their laps by happenstance, as some who call themselves "less fortunate" want to believe.

You have to work for what you want out of life. That's the work ethic Jim and I grew up with and we still believe it.

The only reason we are able to stay at Brazos Bend -- a veritable paradise in the winter -- for two or three months is our position as campground hosts. Even if we wanted to pay $20 a night for one of the RV sites there is a two-week limit, and all the sites are reserved on weekends for the rest of the year. (Host sites with sewers rent for $25/night if they are empty.)

We were invited back as campground hosts this year because we did a good job last year. We'll do a good job this year so we can return again in the future (but probably not every year).

We volunteer a minimum of 25 hours per week (per couple) to assist park staff with various jobs . . . and in return we get a "free" RV campsite with full hook-ups:

That's a great deal for the park and us. 

The hourly "wage" we "earn" isn't all that great if you look at it solely from a financial sense ($175 worth of camping fees per week divided by 25 hours of work = not much above minimum wage), but most of the work is easy and we try to have as much fun with it as we can. We are able to camp in a terrific location while most of the rest of the country is still in the grips of winter and we don't have to pay for it out of our bank account.

Besides, we're big on volunteerism; in our opinion, state (and other) parks are worthy recipients of our volunteer time and energy.

Meanwhile, Brazos Bend gets an appreciable amount of labor from two responsible retirees and doesn't have to put us on the payroll. The money they'd earn by renting out our campsite to someone else is peanuts in comparison.

Win-win.


A cute little baby 'gator (about 18" long) is well camouflaged on the lake shore.  (2-20-11)

Note: Since I don't have photos to illustrate everything I'm discussing in this entry, I'll also include some more alligator pics I took this week. Enjoy!

WHAT ARE TYPICAL CAMPGROUND HOST JOBS?

Each local, state, and national park handles campground host duties a little bit differently. Sometimes the jobs are clearly stated at the outset, and volunteers are recruited to perform those specific functions.

At Brazos Bend, we've found more flexibility than that. The jobs seem to be tailored to the individual more than vice versa.

Tina, the office staff person at Brazos Bend who has been in charge of the campground hosts since we first became involved last spring, considers each person's strengths, weaknesses, and desires when assigning jobs. Retirees who are unable to perform some of the more physical jobs like litter control or cleaning the ashes out of fire pits, for example, are assigned more sedentary tasks like office inventory or weekday campground patrol.


Some of the hosts help with inventory of merchandise at the headquarters once a month.
There are hundreds of different items for sale to help the park sustain itself financially.

Tina noted last year that Jim was skilled in some construction tasks. When we called her during the winter to confirm our date of arrival she asked Jim if he was still interested in helping build an addition to the park headquarters. He said yes.

He thought he'd be doing this job last year but the materials weren't purchased until after we left. When Bob, one of the campground hosts, returned earlier this winter he was put in charge of the project. Two additions for a staff break area and three offices total about 600 square feet of additional space, I'd guess.

Here's what the addition looks like on the exterior before it's painted:

The cone is placed at the sliding glass door where park visitors drive up to check in.

By the time we arrived two weeks ago the framing on the addition was done and it was all dried in, as above. The smaller of two spaces was already insulated and the electrical work was done. It was time to put in the drywall.

Bob, Jim, and Leo, another host, have been working on that space:


The smaller of the two additions is about 5 x 12 feet.  (2-7-11)

This carpentry job will be Jim's main assignment while we're here. After finishing the drywall the guys will work on the ceiling, floor, molding, and painting. Two of the park staff will have temporary offices in this room while the men work on the second addition.


Jim works on the drywall.  (2-9-11)

The second addition is larger and will take longer to complete. When it's done, three staff members can move into their new permanent offices. They've been looking forward to that for a long time.

INCOMING!!

Before our arrival Tina asked me if I'd be interested in training on the park's computer system to handle incoming visitors. She pretty much begged me, actually. After she described what I'd be doing, I tentatively said yes because it was obvious that most of the other female hosts weren't interested in the job -- or able to do it -- and the staff was overwhelmed on busy weekends.

Tina thanked me profusely for even considering to learn the job. What she failed to tell me was how stressful it can be!

I've spent quite a few hours the last two weeks reading manuals about TPWD (Texas Parks & Wildlife Dept.) and Brazos Bend-specific procedures re: the computer system, handling payments, etc., being tested  regarding the same, and training with Rilla, the only other host willing to tackle this job right now, as she greets visitors and determines how much they must pay to enter the park.


OTJ training with Rilla at headquarters  (2-18-11)

The busiest time at the entrance station (headquarters) for incoming campers is Friday from 4 to 8 PM. There are also an amazing number of people just coming in for a few hours at that time, since it's staying light longer in the evening. This is the time period when Rilla and I are needed most to assist the staff.

Our work station is at a computer next to sliding doors where vehicles pull up at the gate to enter the park. There is a steady stream of incoming visitors, with rarely a chance to sit down (or eat supper!).

Beginning next Friday, I'll be on my own during this time period, with the assistance of (the very busy) staff, if needed. I'm a little nervous about that because there is so much to learn about who pays what and how to handle the cash and credit payments.


The park office on a quiet weekday; it's a "beehive" of activity on Friday evenings.
(Several jars of locally-made honey are on the counter in the foreground.)

This is not the first time I've handled cash but it's the first time I've ever used a cash register or swiped credit cards. I've often taken in large sums of cash at race check-ins where there was no real oversight or accountability; I can be trusted like that. TWPD doesn't take any chances with anyone, however. The procedures for handling cash, especially, are very tight to prevent staff or volunteers from filching any of the dough. I'm glad for the oversight, since I'd hate to be accused of theft.

My favorite part of the HQ job is greeting all the visitors. That's fun because they're invariably in a good mood and looking forward to the weekend.

The easiest part of this job is telling people where to go and what to do.

Ha! I tell overnight guests where to park temporarily and come inside to complete their registration. I remind them to bring in their park pass, if they have one, and know their vehicle tag number.

Fortunately, park staff handles the campground check-in process. It's more complicated than what I do at the door.


Visitors enter the park ahead of us.  (2-6-11)

The entrance job is more time consuming when visitors are coming in just for day use.

If they have a current campground pass (receipt) taped to their windshield, I simply wave them through the gate. If they haven't already been registered, I have to enter a bunch of information into the computer, including how many adults and children are in the vehicle, whether they have a valid park pass (in which case everyone in the car gets in at no additional cost), type of payment (cash or credit card), change they receive, etc. At the end of all the computing, a receipt is spit out for the driver to adhere to the windshield.

This process isn't as simple or intuitive as Tina made it out to be but I should get faster as I process more and more of the different types of information required. The system has been in place at all the Texas state parks since last May so most of the bugs have been worked out by now. It seems to be a good system; I just have to get more proficient at it. Having all this information in the computer really helps the individual parks and the state office to keep track of details and crank out statistics.

I hope I won't have to do this job on Saturday or Sunday, when hundreds to thousands of visitors come in for the day and may be lined up for a quarter of a mile at the entrance. Paid park staff currently handle the door and a second check-in station on those days and most of the time during the busy Spring Break week.

Otherwise, they may scare off volunteers like me!

VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE

The headquarters job is new to me this year but once I'm trained on all of its nuances, it's not the job I'll spend most of my time doing (thank goodness!).

Since I have been retired for almost twelve years now, I actually prefer some of the more mindless host jobs like litter control. I'm serious. They are much less stressful and usually get me outdoors.

I also like having a variety of things to do. It makes life more interesting. The more jobs a host is trained to do, the more flexibility Tina has in assigning tasks -- and the more invaluable the host becomes to the park. That helps when being considered for the next year.


'Gator in the grass

Hosts are continually coming and going. Parks love it when responsible hosts stay for four to six months at a time but that doesn't happen very often. A volunteer who's great at one job may not be there to do it for more than a couple of months. If Tina doesn't have a willing-and-able volunteer replacement for that task, either the park staff has to do it, the park has to pay someone else to do it, it doesn't get done until that volunteer comes back the next year -- or it doesn't get done at all.

That's kind of what happened regarding the addition at HQ. Park staff counted on Bob coming back in November or December so they put off the project until he returned.

Tina told us prior to our arrival that we could do a variety of other jobs like we did last year -- litter control in the campgrounds, picnic areas, and trails; mingling with campers and answering their questions; painting and erecting signs; map folding; and at least one new task, weekend patrol duty once a month.

LITTER & LIMBS

Litter control is one of the most common tasks campground hosts are assigned. Although it's an ongoing job -- because some people are inconsiderate all of the time -- Monday mornings are always prime time to pick up trash around the campgrounds and picnic areas. That's because of the big influx of visitors over the weekend.

More people = more litter.


The Hale Lake picnic area is much larger than this one section.

Rilla and I are primarily responsible for keeping the campsites cleaned up in our loop and for picking up trash at and near the Hale Lake picnic area. We also check the nearby youth group camping areas that are nestled back in the woods, a couple miles of trails around Hale Lake, and two short, steep paths that folks use to get down to the lake to fish.

Rilla and I work together for two or three hours on Monday mornings, driving one of the 4 WD Gators (ATVs).

We park the ATV and walk around with one or two plastic buckets to pick up the trash and clean out ashes from several campsites. Then we dump our buckets into other buckets in the back of the ATV and move it to the next spot.

There's a lot of bending, carrying, and walking involved! However, we both prefer to walk and clean up several campsites at once rather than move the Gator to each site. Our MO is the same in the large picnic areas.


Part of the trail around Hale Lake

When we're done, we dump the ashes and trash where designated, clean up the Gator, go back home, and take a shower!

Those ashes are filthy and we get them all over us even if there isn't a breeze. Rilla and I don't mind the work because we get to be outside and moving around. And Rilla's fun to work with; our personalities and interests are enough alike that we have lots of things to talk about.

Last year Jim helped more with this job but this time he's more occupied with his carpentry duties. When it's time to shovel ashes out of fire pits I'll need his help; that's much harder for an arthritic woman with prior rotator cuff problems! Not going there again . . .


Each campsite has a picnic table, grill, and fire pit.  (2-7-11)

Other campground hosts keep the 200-loop, overflow camping area, primitive camping area, shelter loop, and Elm and 40-Acre picnic areas clean. Hosts cover for each other when someone's gone or assigned to another job, so sometimes Rilla and I will clean up other areas of the park.

I'm real happy that "The Sisters" are willing to check on the bathrooms when the ranger who usually does that job is off duty! Jim and I avoided all bathroom cleaning last year and hope to avoid it this year, too.

I also walk and/or ride my bike around our campground loop on a daily basis, checking campsites that have been vacated so they are clean before the next guest arrives. That's also a good time to chat with visitors who are outside their rigs. I've already met some interesting folks this way and learned as much from them as they have from me.


This part of the 200-loop is empty on a weekday but other folks are camped around the corner.

Volunteers at Brazos Bend are encouraged to come up with their own ideas of how they can help. I really appreciate that attitude. Both Jim and I are pretty good about seeing what needs to be done and doing it (with or without permission!).

When I saw the need to clear limbs and branches from some of the more remote trails in early February, e.g., I mentioned to Tina that I was doing this routinely on my daily hikes and rides. She allows me to count some time for that in our 25 hours. The work clearly needs to be done and the rangers don't have time to do it.

I'd do it even if I couldn't count the time, just because I feel some "ownership" of this place and want to keep it looking great. Of course, a clear path also makes it easier for me to walk and ride there, too!

Before and after:  a few of the limbs I cleared on the Sawmill Road Trail.  (2-13-11)

Meanwhile, I'm getting in some volunteer time during a good workout. Or vice versa.

Other more sedentary hosts sometimes pick up limbs when riding around on an ATV. It's more fun and easier for me to pick up trash while I'm walking or cycling. Park staff don't care how we keep the place clean, as long as we do it.

More photos and stories about our jobs on the next page . . .

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2011 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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