KAYAK POINT — Lamont Olson sipped Coca-Cola out of a plastic cup and steered a golf cart around the campground, waving as he passed guests.
It was a gray Tuesday near the end of June and he stayed warm in his distinctive green sweater and cap. Olson speaks gently and has a ready smile, thick white beard and glasses.
The retired truck driver and his wife, Pat, who teaches teens and young adults with special needs, live with their two cats in a 28-foot-long pull-behind camper surrounded by lush forest. A blue canopy stretches over their green outdoor rug. They keep a welcome mat near the door.
For seven years, they’ve called this campground home.
“I just got here and they can’t get me out,” said Olson, 66.
Not that the county park rangers have tried.
The Olsons are campground hosts. They put in at least 25 hours of work around the Kayak Point park and campground each week in return for a free, long-term site with electric, water and sewer hook-ups.
Hosts greet guests, unlock and lock entry gates, clean rest rooms, answer questions and keep an eye on things when rangers aren’t there.
Many of them go beyond the requirements. They maintain neatly landscaped lawns or gardens and fix up weathered signs. They’ll spend hours outside on busy days to make sure no one touches a baby seal on the beach. They gather up forgotten towels and stray sandals after a hot day at the lake.
There are middle-of-the-night trips to noisy campsites or to let out a boater who didn’t make it back before a park gate closed. Hosts interact with people from all walks of life, among them travelers in luxurious motor homes and hard-core “blue-tarp campers” with sleeping bags and little else.
Snohomish County has nine host positions; larger parks have more than one. Some are seasonal, others year-round. Hosts are stationed at Kayak Point, Wenberg, Flowing Lake, River Meadows, Squire Creek, and the day-use Bob Heirman Wildlife Park at Thomas’ Eddy and Lake Roesiger Park. Most of the parks with hosts also have campgrounds. In 2016, Snohomish County campgrounds drew 25,859 visitors.
Camp and park hosts are a major boon to the county, and have been for several decades, said Rich Patton, parks operations supervisor. Most are retirees and many are married couples. Some stay for years while others spend a few months as they travel the country. The county does background checks on the hosts, he said.
“We look for people with outdoor experience,” Patton said. “We want hosts who love people, who aren’t afraid of hard work.”
The work is part of what drew Lonnie and Bobbie Van Volkenburg, both 70, to the gig at Lake Roesiger Park. They’ve been there nearly a year, living in a 42-foot-long trailer down a steep driveway next to the park. They open the gate at 7 a.m. and lock it when the sun goes down. They rake leaves in the fall, empty trash cans year-round and clean up piles of litter from the busy swim beach in the summer.
The high school sweethearts from Lake Stevens have been married 52 years. Lonnie worked for Snohomish County PUD for 31 years before retiring. They lived in California for a year, then traveled the country for a few more before finding a park host job close to where they grew up.
The spot they set up in was grown over with grass as tall as they are and had a hole in the pavement, Lonnie said. It had been unoccupied for a while. They fixed it up, and there’s now a tiered garden, a patio with tables and chairs, hummingbird feeders and a neat grassy stretch behind their trailer that connects to the lakeside park.
“We’ve always had beautifully landscaped lawns and yards, so this is like having a big, giant yard,” Lonnie Van Volkenburg said. “You feel like it’s yours, and you take pride in it.”
He did such a good job at Roesiger that he was hired for a seasonal job maintaining other parks, mostly in the south part of the county.
Meanwhile, Lamont Olson has been putting in extra work for the north half of the county. In a small shop behind the visitor center at Kayak Point, he tears apart rotted, moss-covered old picnic tables and rebuilds on the metal frames with new lumber that he sands and stains. He’s putting them in around Kayak Point and making more for other parks, he said. He also plans to build benches to go near fire pits.
Before becoming camp hosts, the Olsons lived in California. He drove long hauls to Washington, Oregon or Idaho. His wife is thinking of retiring soon from teaching and they’re trying to decide what to do next. They plan to be at Kayak Point for at least one more year, with the exception of a vacation this summer to visit family in California. They have five grandkids, ages 2 to 16, and it’s a powerful lure to move back. But they love their home at Kayak Point, too
Hosting isn’t for everyone.
“If you don’t like camping, don’t do it,” Lamont Olson said. “You’ve got to be out in it every day. And you’ve got to listen to people, and talk to them, and don’t get riled.”
It’s not always easy to be the voice of reason when someone is causing problems, often because they’re intoxicated or frustrated.
If anyone is right for the job, it’s Lamont Olson, park ranger Mike Remle said. “He’s the most mellow guy I know.”
“That’s what happens when you get older,” Olson said, shrugging. “You figure it out.”
He takes everything in stride, whether it’s a wild rooster chase or a fierce windstorm.
The rooster was one of his odder experiences as a host. A few years back, someone evidently dropped the animal off at Kayak Point. It was a battered, tough-looking bird that liked to make itself known in the wee hours of the morning. For a month, no one could catch it. The bird would run down the camp roads, leading Olson or another pursuer, then dart into the thick brush and disappear. Finally, someone managed to snag it, though Olson isn’t sure what ever happened to the ornery bird.
Problems with windstorms are more common than farm animals, and more dangerous. Olson listens to snapping and cracking in the trees when the wind picks up. It drops branches and can kick up waves at the beach that toss around driftwood logs like children’s toys.
A couple of years ago, a particularly large storm knocked out power at the campground for a week. It toppled two trees near the park entrance, blocking the road, snapping power lines and nearly taking out the pay stations.
“It sounded like a shotgun going off. Boom!” Olson said. “Eight o’clock in the morning I come down here and it’s a mess.”
He could hear the power lines crackling on the ground.
When the weather’s nice, he wanders the park taking photographs. Some of his pictures hang in the park office. A few of his favorites are of owlets peeking out of a nest high in a tree. He loves bird watching, and particularly enjoys the eagles when they swoop toward the beach, startling groups of seagulls.
His wife sometimes brings her students to the beach and Olson gets a blaze going in one of the fire pits. In the winter, when things slow down, he’ll spend a few hours cutting choking ivy off of trees. He has sharp eyes for eagles high in evergreen branches or herons perched near the water. Each year, he picks a few handfuls of fresh blackberries from the choicest spot on the hillside that leads from the beach to the campground.
Out at Lake Roesiger Park, winters can get brutally cold. There are times when the lake freezes over enough that people ice skate. Inside the Van Volkenburgs’ trailer, they stayed warm on couches set up around a red throw rug, near a fake fireplace and an impeccably clean kitchen. There are two bathrooms and a washer and dryer. It’s a small space, but they live comfortably and have everything they need, Bobbie Van Volkenburg said.
The Roesiger job didn’t just come with a park for a back yard, it came with a community, the couple said. Neighbors stop by to say hello or extend invitations to barbecues. The couple helps watch a neighbor’s summer home and in return get invited over for homemade lemon meringue pie. They found a church down the road and made friends there. They feel blessed.
Olson, at Kayak Point, agrees that it’s the people, not just the wilderness, that make his job special.
Even when things gets hectic — a windstorm, a rooster chase, a midnight ruckus — it’s well worth the hassle to call a campground home, he said. He’s learned that the little things can mean a lot, such as carrying a bundle of firewood for someone or directing them to the sweetest blackberries in the park.
“It seems like if you do something for somebody, they just get a smile on their face,” Olson said.
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.