Gareld and Verna Stockdale of Spring Valley stand by their “Campground Hosts” sign at Lake Louise State Park near LeRoy. Verna holds their guest book signed by many campers.  LISA BRAINARD/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPERS
Gareld and Verna Stockdale of Spring Valley stand by their “Campground Hosts” sign at Lake Louise State Park near LeRoy. Verna holds their guest book signed by many campers. LISA BRAINARD/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPERS
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Someone who loves meeting people while enjoying time outdoors in nature may find a perfect retirement opportunity serving as a campground host, whether at an area state park or some other location.

That’s certainly the case for Gareld, 71, and Verna, 70, Stockdale of Spring Valley. This summer marks the couple’s 12th year as volunteer campground hosts for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) at Lake Louise State Park near LeRoy. One will easily find their campsite when entering the campground. Just look for the personalized wooden sign they’ve decorated that says “Stockdales." The sign is also surrounded by lovely potted flowers they tend.

Campground hosts are found across the country. Arrangements may include totally serving as a volunteer, to being paid, or even making a bid to win a contract for the duties, depending upon the type of campground and the agency or business running it.

Minnesota DNR

The Minnesota DNR explains its volunteer campground host positions on its website, “If you enjoy the great outdoors, scenic vistas, and the company of other campers, then consider volunteering to be a ‘live-in’ host for at least four weeks (one month) during the period of April to October at a Minnesota State Park-operated campground.

“A host's primary responsibility is to assist campers by answering questions, explaining the campground, performing light maintenance work around the campground, picking up litter, sweeping and stocking supplies in toilet buildings, and making emergency minor repairs when possible.

“Hosts may be requested to assist in the naturalist program by posting and distributing schedules, publicizing programs or helping with programs. Volunteers will set an example by being model campers, practicing good housekeeping at all times in and around the host site, and by observing all rules.”

In return, the campground host gets a free campsite. The Stockdales said their site would run $27 a night if they were not volunteering as camp hosts. Some campsites provide a full hook-up for an RV, while others provide fewer features.

Gareld and Verna have opted for a pop-up camper they pull with their truck, while using a large screen house/tent to cook in and at times sit in. They also have electricity at their site and are near the park’s modern shower and restroom building.

One of their host duties is to keep that building clean. They take pride in hearing comments from campers about how it’s one of the cleanest such campground facilities they’ve seen. Gareld and Verna also may check some of the park’s vault toilets as assigned by park staff, sweeping them clean and delivering toilet paper.

Not that those are tough tasks, but other parts of the job may be a bit more fun.

For example, they’ve met people from Russia, South Africa, Kurdistan, Colombia, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and many other places. Often, Verna noted, these visitors will be part of a group from the Twin Cities at one of Lake Louise State Park’s two group campsites. One holds 35 people and the other accommodates 65. Gareld said the Russians commented how friendly everyone was to them in this area.

“We welcome people,” he said. “We help them register and we help match people to campsites.”

They also can assist with the purchase of a state park vehicle permit, if needed. He said they deliver a local paper to all campers, in which he sticks brochures for area attractions. Gareld noted this practice was lauded by both campers and a DNR southern region park staff supervisor.

Lake Louise is a small state park. The couple said visitors are often surprised by all it offers. First, there’s the lake itself, with the chance to fish, paddle a boat, swim or just hang out at the beach. People enjoy hiking and riding horses on the park trails. Plus, the DNR’s Shooting Star Trail runs through the park as it runs between LeRoy and Rose Creek. Future DNR plans call for connecting it to the Blazing Star Trail, which will head east from Austin.

A group bicycle ride was recently held on the Shooting Star Trail. Gareld and Verna have a few extra responsibilities with that, doing a little trail trimming. They also check park trails, noting to staff if they need any maintenance or clearing.

History of hosting

The Stockdales initially got into nature and camping through family ties with the Boy Scouts. Their son, David, went all the way from Cub Scouts on through the organization to earn the honor of Eagle Scout.

Verna laughed and said their daughters first liked camping for what it offered and then for Boy Scout counselors. It certainly taught cooking skills which were on display for a quick meal served at the annual state park open house event at Lake Louise. The Stockdales also have chosen to host a get-together for campers when the park’s campground season – which opens in May – comes to a close over Labor Day weekend.

The Stockdales first got the itch to be campground hosts when they were greeted by hosts at another campground. They went through the required application process and background check with the Minnesota DNR and soon found themselves “hired” as volunteers.

The Stockdales hosted at the campground from Wednesday or Thursday through Sunday for two years. Then the DNR went through budget cuts and statewide staff reductions. There were no longer rangers at Lake Louise, managed by Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park. Gareld, who was employed driving trucks, would pop in at Lake Louise other nights on his way home to check it.

Gareld and Verna enjoy seeing wildlife and birds. They easily watch the birdfeeder they’ve put up from their picnic table. They also take care of the bluebird house trail in the park, making additional wooden bluebird houses in the off season.

“We have 34 houses,” said Verna. “Seventeen pair.”

They count the bluebird eggs and keep sparrows from their nests in the houses. Verna said young birds recently fledged. Gareld added there are usually three hatches a summer.

This summer they’ve seen more traffic at the park since the detour for construction being done on Highway 63 runs right by the park entrance. Gareld said some people will just pull in to take a break from driving.

If they have any questions, the campground hosts will have the helpful answers. They enjoy walking around the campground to meet the campers. However, Gareld pointed out they don’t linger if it appears a camper is otherwise busy. He said that’s quickly figured out.

Those who do share a conversation will learn a lot about the area, and maybe share entertaining stories. Many who’ve enjoyed meeting the Stockdales have signed and commented in a guestbook they have.

Gareld and Verna Stockdale were a great fit for Lake Louise right from the start – and certainly still are.

To check details on becoming a volunteer campground host in a Minnesota state park, go to www.dnr.state.mn.us/volunteering/opps/index.html or call 888-646-6367. If one would like to be a campground host at a location other than a Minnesota state park, make contact with its staff online.