Alaska: Camp Hosting in The Last Frontier

Photograph by Jay McCormick

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“Dad, you know when you watch a sad movie and you get that lump in your throat? That’s how I feel about leaving Alaska. Why can’t we just stay?” Luke, our 14 year old, asks the night before we are scheduled to leave the Last Frontier.

When we began our wandering ways, one of our goals was to visit all 50 states in an RV (yes…we have an “RV” plan for Hawaii). For a “visit” to count we have to spend at least one night in the RV, in the state and after wandering through 22 states in 2018 we set our sites on Alaska for 2019.

None of us were overly excited about investing so much time to get to and from Alaska. It just wasn’t a place that called to us, that we longed to visit. Plus, I was worried that the Alaska Highway would destroy our rolling house, that bears would harass us, mosquitoes would torment us, and that we would not be able find a place to enjoy a hot pizza and a cold beer. Our, or at least my, idea of Alaska was that it’s some alien land that only old people on cruise ships visit. That the locals all lived in igloos or remote cabins (the cabin thing is partially accurate). I think I had convinced myself that Alaska just wasn’t a place to spend a lot of time. I was wrong. Very wrong.

After obtaining a copy of the Mile Post (everyone that ventures to Alaska should purchase this travel bible), joining and reading through Alaska travel related Facebook groups, and seemingly infinite perusing of the World Wide Web, I had our Alaska adventure planned. Version 1 of many iterations to come.

Our plan was to arrive in Alaska in mid-May before the annual invasion of bugs and tourists, see as much as we could over 4 to 6 weeks, then head south. For the Memorial Day weekend I booked a spot at the K’esugi Ken campground in Denali State Park. After I booked the site I scanned the Alaska state parks website for a K’esugi Ken trail map when I came across information on volunteering as campground hosts. A two month minimum commitment was required. We can do this, I thought. What’s a couple more weeks after spending so much time just to get there.

So I pitched the idea to the family, showing them some pictures of Denali State Park, that we could do some good as volunteers, and as a bonus we could live rent free, with full hookups, for a couple of months. We would use Denali State Park as our base camp and explore the area. Once our 2 month commitment was over we would head to the Kenai Peninsula, over to Valdez, then head south to the Canadian Rockies. Surprisingly, this was an easy sell.

I submitted the application and received an e-mail from the Denali SP Ranger a few days later. A few days after that we had an introductory call. The ranger explained that the host position at the K’esugi Ken campground was filled by the same hosts that had volunteered the past two seasons. The campground opened in 2017 and the initial summer hosts decided to participate in the winter hosting opportunity, then summer again. They had hosted for two entire years straight after never before visiting Alaska. They just couldn’t bring themselves to depart (we found out that Alaska has this effect on many people.)

Back to the introductory call. The ranger said they had an opening at the Byers Lake campground which is still in Denali State Park. The ranger explained that the campground was a locals favorite and a special place, but there were no hookups and cell reception was spotty at best. He explained that our duties would include general maintenance, fee compliance, selling firewood, helping with janitorial services if we had time, and participating in search and rescue efforts if necessary. We had several follow-up calls and I would get more excited after each conversation. He told us that we’d be an hour away from a small grocery store and a couple of hours away from a real one. That we’d likely only work a few hours in the morning and a few in the evening, and that the rest of the time we could spend hiking, fishing, canoeing, or just exploring the area. We would have two days off each week and that was flexible if we needed more time off. We had several more calls over the next month and at the end of each he would ask me if I understood that we were going to be relatively remote, essentially off the grid, and that if one of us needed medical assistance that it may take a few hours before help arrived.

This was starting to sound like a great adventure. I was excited, our son was excited, our daughter was still skeptical, but the big surprise was that my wife, Reim, was all in. Our nomadic life had changed this city girl.

After my side hustle as a ski instructor in Park City ended for the season we packed up our rolling house and headed north. We were taking a month to wander through Idaho, Oregon, and Washington before crossing into Canada. All was going as planned. But, and there is always a but, then there was the call that would potentially derail our plan. The ranger and park specialist called us while we were in Oregon to let us know that there’d been a Spruce Beetle infestation that had a significant impact to the Byers Lake Campground. Trees were falling. Big trees. The superintendent of the state parks in that region decided to shut down the campground indefinitely until the problem could be addressed (felling the infected and dead trees) and the area was safe for visitors. The ranger let us know that they had another opportunity for us, but would understand if we wanted to back out. The other opportunity would be to serve as custodians of the Alaska Veterans Memorial, which is essentially connected to the Byers Lake Campground, but not in the Spruce Beetle Danger Zone.

“Sounds good to us. We’re in!”

Fast forward a few weeks, we spent time in Washington, British Columbia, the Yukon, and finally crossed over into the Last Frontier. We spend a night by a river outside of Tok before working our way down to Palmer in the Mat-Su Valley, where we spent a week waiting for the snow to melt enough so we could start our volunteer gig. We had found cold beer and hot pizza, that most people in Alaska live in normal sticks and bricks homes, and–after a week here–had not seen a single bear or mosquito.

left: Mom and Luke working at some landscaping, right: Luke wearing a hardhat
Reim and Luke McCormick.

On May 17th we made our way up the Parks Highway to the Alaska Veterans Memorial where we met the ranger and the parks superintendent. After introductions we settled into what would be our home for the next two months. We loved it immediately. We had access to the host cabin, the lake was a short hike, the view of Denali from the Veterans Memorial was spectacular. We were happy campers!

Over the next ten days, in preparation for the annual Memorial Day celebration at the Veterans Memorial we stained, painted, planted, weed whacked, cleaned restrooms and picked up trash. The Veterans Memorial was our baby and we wanted to show it off! We spent our evenings walking through the vacant campground, or hiking along the lake trails, or paddle boarding, or canoeing. During this same time we came to the realization that Alaska was way more than we expected. We wanted to stay longer.

So, we asked the ranger and park specialist if we could extend our volunteer assignment through Labor Day. The answer was “absolutely”, but with one caveat. They needed us to move to the K’esugi Ken campground as the hosts there had purchased land in Alaska and wanted to start working on building a dwelling before winter came. Funny how this happens to people when they come to Alaska for a few weeks (or two months) and decide to stay indefinitely. I thought the move to K’esugi would be great. It’s the premier campground in the state parks system, we would have full hookups, be close to our new friends, and be around people again. When I told the rest of the family the situation I had a near mutiny on my hands. They loved the isolation, working our own schedule, being within walking distance of the lake. It took some convincing to relocate to K’esugi Ken.

Being campground hosts at K-Ken was unthrottled craziness, but in a good way. The campground was full most nights, with usually a handful of folks ending up in the overflow lot. We had a bad wind day that knocked down several trees, a bear on one of the trails, and a momma moose that would make an occasional appearance. Each day Reim and I would make a morning round to check on things, then another round to put out reservation tags and clean bathrooms. Typically we would make several more rounds in the afternoon and evenings to check on the campground and campers, but mainly to meet people. And we met a lot of people. Some have become friends.

On our days off we’d spend time in the quirky little town of Talkeetna (they once had a cat as mayor) or in Denali or the farm town of Palmer or hiking. We spent Reim’s 50th birthday in Seward on the Kenai Peninsula watching orcas cruising in the open water, eagles circling the shallows for their dinner, otters frolicking in the surf, and a glacier calving. The point is that we got the hell out of Dodge on our days off–otherwise the “off” quickly turned back “on.”

While in the campground we would have the park staff over for coffee, breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner. It was Reim’s mission (to her great enjoyment) to make sure each of them were well fed. It was fun having them, now our dear friends, around.

Although the kids couldn’t officially serve as volunteers (16 year old minimum age), they were always included. One of the highlights of their Alaska story was assisting with the field dressing of a black bear that had been mortally wounded on the Parks highway. How many kids in the lower 48 can claim that experience? It was a roadschooling lesson for the ages.

a family of four stands before a massive glacier
The McCormicks in Alaska.

Alaska had an effect on us like no other place and about six weeks before we were scheduled to start our trip back to the lower 48 Reim and I began to discuss buying some Alaska real estate. A place where we could have a cabin and an RV pad. Where we could spend time during the summers and falls and maybe even a winter or two. A place our friends and family could stay while visiting this amazing state. We started looking around Talkeetna before finding a couple of places that interested us, and the week before we left, purchased a few acres with a small cargo container house. It’s a short walk from the homes of the ranger and park specialist only a few miles from Talkeetna. We had plans to return to Alaska this summer to work on our place. To make it ready for rentals while we were not occupying it. Those plans are now paused, but only temporarily. And although we are not ready to stop our wandering ways we know we have our little slice of the Last Frontier waiting for us.

We’ve been asked many times if we would volunteer as campground hosts again. The answer is a resounding “Yes!” The people we worked with, the campers we met, the scenery, the wildlife, all made our volunteering adventure an experience of a lifetime.