Sunday, August 21, 2011

We're In The Army Now

During our two day stay at city-owned James McNally Campground in Grantsburg, WI, we contemplated how we might best fill an eleven day span of time before we needed to be in Rapid City, SD for an appointment.
Any further travel west would have to include an overnight at Keepers RV in Mankato, MN to address a few minor tweaks to our new RV. But that would hardly fill the the span. Spending anymore time in MN would be difficult since at the time all state parks and rest stops were closed due to the state's budget stalemate (they're now open). Our hope to stay in our favorite state park in South Dakota (Custer State Park) evaporated when we learned the park would be full during the time we expected to be there.
We finally hit upon the obvious: why leave Wisconsin? Already on the western side of Wisconsin we looked into options for parking. On our bucket list of places to try included any Army Corps of Engineers RV park. The Corps operates several in the country and the one located near Pool 9 Lock and Dam south of La Crosse looked intriguing. Not only an opportunity to cross a an item off our bucket list, it also positioned us to pursue a fairly straight line to Mankato when the time came to move west.

our work camper site

park map (our work camper site indicated by red arrow)
Our pull to the park allowed us to meander portions of the Great River Road National Scenic Byway along the Minnesota and Wisconsin sides of the Mississippi. By mid afternoon we pulled into Blackhawk Park thirty miles south of La Crosse. Our Golden Age Pass cut our site fee in half. The site we chose was in the newer lower section with plenty of space all around us.
our none work camper site when we first arrived at Blackhawk Park
One of the things about being retired: when opportunity knocked we had the flexibility to listen. A conversation with Denny and Brenda, another full-time couple who were "work camping" in the park's reservation booth convinced us to look into the other work camping position in the park that had just opened up. Work camping is an opportunity to "volunteer" time in exchange for a free campsite. Work camping also may include a stipend although in this instance it was only a free site with complete hookups (water, electric and sewer).
The position was for 30 hours/week doing 'light maintenance'. As a couple we could divide the 30 hours in half - each of us doing 15 hours/week to meet the 30 hour total. We had talked about trying a work camping experience and this seemed to be the time to try. After speaking with Denny and Brenda we walked over to the administration building and spoke with the park manager, Tom Novak and the park ranger, Eric. A few days later we cancelled our appointment in SD and agreed to take on the position for a month.

Ranger Eric, Carol, Tom, and Tom Novak (park manager)
Carol, Chad (maintenance supervisor), Tom, and Tom Novak
"Light maintenance" included several odd jobs "as needed". Most days we had no clue as to what we would be doing until we were told. Some lawn moving, weed removal, painting, morning rounds of the park, collecting water samples from the beach, and paper shredding...whatever was required. We worked under no contract and could leave at anytime. Conversely, if the park staff didn't like our work we could be asked to leave at anytime.
Our immediate supervisor was Chad, the park's maintenance man. A quiet young man, probably in his late 20's (a two tour veteran of the Iraq War) was pretty laid back. Most of our time was spent working with Chad on various projects from his "to do" list developed by Tom Novak. In addition to Tom, Chad and Eric, there were three rangers in training: Alex, Matt and Jon. All were very friendly and helpful. Having that many rangers around also meant we would not be dealing directly with campers which was fine with us.
Our first day on the job was spent driving to La Crosse with Chad to run various errands and be fitted for steel-toed work boots (paid for by the Corps). This was Carol's first foray into the stylish world of work boots. And yes, they had a lady's work boot section at the Rogan's shoe store for her to peruse.

the "ranger" a gulf cart on steroids and our main mode of transport
maintenance building
Our second day was taken up by an online defensive driving course. Passage was required to allow us to qualify to drive any of the park vehicles. Was Carol's need to take the course really necessary? After all, she's pretty defensive about her driving anyway...
Our work days were Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 7:00 a.m. to Noon. As we're morning people anyway, the early start was just fine with us. Specially since we had started work in the middle of a horrific heat wave which lasted the first two weeks of our work commitment. Early morning meant it was a tad cooler. But not much.
We started each work day morning with a routine. Check and log the high and low temperature and the rain gauge reading and log out the "ranger" (a golf cart on steroids) to make the rounds of the camping areas. Rounds included reading and logging the traffic count meters at the park entrance, cleaning some fire pits (as necessary) and generally reporting anything that appeared out of place.
While most of the park mowing and cleaning of bathrooms was contracted out to a third party company, there remained checking some of the bathrooms to make sure hand sanitizers were filled and battery operated air fresheners were operational. 

collecting water sample and painting
Most park visitors were folks on vacation. Their main interest: fishing. Made sense since the park was located along the Mississippi River. Lots of recreational boaters and kayakers as well as commercial barge traffic. For the most part the park was very quiet. The rangers kept a very close eye on things but typically folks were pretty quiet on their own. Not surprising, weekends tended to be very busy. By Sunday afternoon most of the sites were emptied out.

Blackhawk Park scenes
So how was our experience? Work camping opportunities vary widely. While the work was physical it was not all that demanding. Nothing wrong with an honest day's work. OK. Half day of work. Light maintenance wouldn't be our first choice in any future work camper positions. We're more skilled at leading hikes or doing interpretive work. Lots of national parks and wildlife preserves have such openings. Just a question of finding them and applying. Bartering for site fees made a lot of sense. A stipend would be nice but not necessary.

The southwest Wisconsin area (most of WI for that matter) is rich in Indian lore and culture. In particular the Black Hawk War which concluded badly and unjustly for Chief Black Hawk on the site of the present day Blackhawk Park.
We found park staff very friendly, accomodating, and supportive for us old farts. We have friends in La Crosse and in nearby Lansing, IA with whom were were able to spend some time. We spent a long weekend driving to visit family and friends. One weekend in the Fox Valley to see Graham and Jennie, Charles, Alrick and friends Dave and Betty Dunsmore (who put us up). The other weekend at Marge's (Carol's sister) and a visit with Carol's daughter in Madison.
"canoeing" with Alrick, Jennie and Charles (Green Bay)

working on Star Wars LEGO starship
Birding was a bit slow but we enjoyed putting out our feeders which were quite popular with our feathered friends. We had found a hanger which attached to our back window via suction cups that held our hummingbird feeder. Dueling hummers at eye level were most entertaining.
Our commitment was for a month which took us through mid-August. The next work camper would was to arrive and take our place on August 21. During our last week we shifted to work Mon-Wed and left on Thursday morning August 18 for Mankato where we spent the night to have work completed on our rig. (This had to occur on a weekday when the service department worked)
Would we go back to Blackhawk Park? A very nice park to be sure. Our only complaint: lack of a cell signal and therefore Internet access. We depend on the Internet for banking and staying in touch with friends and family. Fine to be out of touch for a few days but not for a month. Our best access was at the public library in La Crosse (as were opportunities for serious grocery shopping also in La Crosse). But La Crosse was thirty miles away. Not terribly convenient.
However, opportunity knocked and we felt good about answering and experiencing work camping. We've talked about trying work camping ever since we started our nomadic lifestyle. We'll still be listening at the door. And now we have our steel-toed work boots!

overnight guest Larry Darling (arrived with beer and Carr Valley cheese!)
took a cruise on the Mississippi Explorer
view from Pike's Peak SP (MN) toward Wyalusing SP (WI)

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