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Just steps from the shoreline of Lake Mille Lacs, Mary and Rich Dunn look out on a million-dollar view of water, woods and wildlife.

Deer, wild turkeys and loons are plentiful. The retired couple sometimes spot three kinds of woodpeckers before breakfast.

But the creature they have most in common with is a turtle. The Dunns, too, carry their dwelling with them, but their "shell" is a 34-foot fifth-wheel camper with a fully equipped kitchen, electric fireplace, a TV to stream their favorite shows via their Wi-Fi hot spot, and a cozy queen bed.

"It has two rooms so we can separate," said Rich.

"Sometimes we need a door between us," added Mary.

From May through October, the Dunns, great-grandparents in their mid-70s, live in a series of Minnesota state park campgrounds, volunteering as camp hosts. While their RV provides the conveniences of modern living, they prefer spending their days outdoors — hiking, bird-watching and savoring steaks or brats cooked over the fire.

"I could sit out in the woods the rest of my life and be happy," said Rich. "We are building memories."

The Dunns are among roughly 100 volunteers, mostly retired Minnesotans, who commit to spending a stretch of at least four weeks a year as camp hosts. Under the supervision of the Department of Natural Resources, they take on chores and responsibilities that occupy 20 to 30 hours a week.

In return, this corps of nature-loving volunteers gets free access to campsites (with electrical, water and/or sewer hookups where available), which saves them $20 to $43 per night. Volunteering allows them to park for a longer stay than the 14-day limit for other campers.

"They have a huge impact. They really enhance the experience for visitors. They help in ways that are super useful," said Arielle Courtney, who oversees the campground host program for the DNR.

"The extra hands on deck were especially important during the pandemic, when everyone discovered that being outside is awesome and we had a lot more visitors."

Last fall the DNR surveyed its camp-host volunteers and found that almost all of them call the experience "excellent." It's gratifying enough that they keep coming back. A third of the nature enthusiasts have volunteered six years or more, with the majority returning each year to a favorite park.

"It's a bucket-list thing for a lot of volunteers. After a fast-paced working life, they want a healthy dose of the outdoors and to give back to the parks they've loved," Courtney said. "They are keeping a promise to themselves to make the time to be immersed in nature."

Laura Kuhns and Sue Jacobson with Bella at Jay Cooke State Park.
Laura Kuhns and Sue Jacobson with Bella at Jay Cooke State Park.


Best of both worlds

Established in the late 1970s, Minnesota's camp host program was among the first in the nation. Most states have established similar initiatives; helpful, friendly older volunteers are on duty at many parks, campgrounds and forests all over the United States.

After retiring in 2014, Laura Kuhns and Sue Jacobson sold their house in St. Paul and moved to Florida, where they volunteered as campground hosts — in July.

"We'll never do that again," laughed Jacobson.

Although the muggy Southern heat left them wilted, they enjoyed the volunteer experience enough to give it another shot in the milder summer of Minnesota. This will be the seventh August for the couple to live as camp hosts at Jay Cooke State Park.

"It's rewarding. We've gotten so much more out of it than we put in," said Kuhns. "We're needed. It's enhanced our life. It makes the world both bigger and smaller."

The couple spend part of their August days sweeping out cabins and answering campers' questions, but they find plenty of time for fishing, biking and exploring the North Woods park with their border collie, Bella, in tow.

Kuhns and Jacobson said they don't mind that Jay Cooke doesn't offer campers water and sewer hookups; they retain a "honey wagon" to pump and dump the tanks on their 38-foot fifth-wheel on a weekly basis. They also don't mind not having internet or cellular service. They go to the main office to make calls or tune in the TV with their portable satellite dish.

"It's the best of both worlds: We rough it but we're comfortable," said Jacobson. "There's joy in camping, such camaraderie. You never know who you'll meet. We play all day. There's a saying that you don't stop playing because you get old. You get old because you stop playing."

Volunteers like Kuhns and Jacobson likely get more from their efforts than a free campsite. Scholarly studies confirm that staying active and engaged is a vital part of healthy aging.

"Having goals, things to look forward to, is important for life satisfaction at every age," said Tetyana Shippee, a social gerontologist and professor at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health.

"Many older people I interview in my research talk about wanting to live with purpose. As people age, they prioritize their time to focus and center on what will have lasting impact. There's a subconscious realization that time has become more fleeting and important."

Shippee said she's not surprised that the camp host program has become popular with the over-50 set. She sees the social aspect and outdoor lifestyle as beneficial for all participants.

"When we look at trends, we see many people coming out of retirement. They don't go back to work full time, but they pick up part-time work or volunteer. Some do it for economic reasons, but a lot of them feel they have more left in them. They want to contribute."

Mary and Rich Dunn enjoyed some downtime in their camper at Father Hennepin State Park.
Mary and Rich Dunn enjoyed some downtime in their camper at Father Hennepin State Park.

Kevyn Burger

Lifestyle for life

For more than a dozen years, the Dunns have spent six months in a retirement community in Florida and six months living at a half-dozen different Minnesota state park campgrounds.

This year on May 1, they parked their RV and staked a flock of fake flamingos around it at their campsite at Father Hennepin State Park on the shores of Mille Lacs. On June 15, they moved on to Sakatah Lake State Park near Waterville, Minn., for the midsummer months. They'll watch the leaves turn from a campsite at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park near Faribault, where they'll spend the last two months of the season before heading south in late October.

Their duties are many but mostly minor, from making sure restrooms are supplied, to picking up litter, to reminding campers to leash their dogs. Mary has stepped in to lead a children's program when the naturalist was unavailable. Rich used his background as a heavy equipment operator to assist in trail-building.

"We ran nature movies on Saturday night for the kids and popped popcorn. Anything they need, we do," Mary said.

They've sold firewood, joined search parties for lost hikers and helped visitors wedge their oversized travel trailers or motor homes into campsites not built to accommodate such large rigs.

They've had a few memorable experiences — following up on a complaint about a nude sunbather, guiding an ambulance to pick up a camper who cut off the tip of her finger while chopping wood and, more than once, asking partiers singing in the starlight to call it a night.

"Mary gets out her Mom voice and they tend to listen," Rich said. "We rarely have to ask anyone twice."

The Dunns are committed to the camp-host lifestyle. In 2019 they invested in a snazzy new RV to upgrade their living situation for the long haul.

"Someone said to us, aren't you getting a little old for this? But we don't think so. As long as we can do it, we will," Mary said.

"Mary says we can keep going for five or 10 years. I'm hoping for 50," Rich said. "There are no promises about tomorrow for any of us. We'll keep doing this as long as we enjoy it."

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based writer and broadcaster.

Campground host program

Interested in becoming a volunteer campground host? You can apply online at

Candidates list their top three park preferences — be warned, parks near the Twin Cities and along the North Shore are most popular.

Before starting, candidates will be interviewed by park staff and take a short training course.