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RETIREES DRAWN TO LIFE AS CAMPGROUND HOSTS

SHARE RETIREES DRAWN TO LIFE AS CAMPGROUND HOSTS

Gordon and Evelyn Kelly gave their business to one son and rented their home to another before hooking a 28-foot trailer to their pickup for the retirement tour they'd planned for years.

And after crisscrossing the United States for nearly two years, the road-weary retirees found an unexpected refuge at Valley of Fire State Park in Overton, Nev."I mentioned to a ranger that they could use a campground host," said Gordon Kelly, of Hesperia, Calif.

The ranger didn't miss a beat. He offered them the job and free utilities for their trailer, and the Kellys joined scores of senior citizens who serve as hosts at state and national campgrounds in Utah and the rest of the nation.

Just a few months later, rangers from Utah's spectacular Zion National Park who were camping at Valley of Fire lured the Kellys to southern Utah, where they also receive living expenses.

"I think it's great," said Evelyn Kelly. "I don't think there's any better way to live. It would be nice if young people could do it, but they have to work."

Greg Hill, outdoor recreation planner for the Bureau of Land Management in Utah, said most campground hosts are retirees and veteran campers who like the idea of a working retirement.

The hosts' roles and responsibilities vary from camp to camp. Some volunteer, while others get paid. Some do hard work and others deal only with campers.

The Forest Service uses concessionaires to hire prospective hosts, while the BLM directly recruits them.

Like the Kellys, Ethel and Lee Bunkers stumbled upon their first host stint. After 28 years in Orem, they had retired in Las Vegas and planned to winter in an Arizona retirement community.

When a friend enticed them with a host job at Mt. Charleston State Park in the mountains near Las Vegas, the pair chucked the idea of full-time rest and relaxation.

"I never thought there was such work. It is not a retirement," Ethel Bunkers said. "But if you want your campgrounds to look nice, you've got to work hard at it."

The Bunkers recently returned to Utah to work at the Gwunivah Campground in the Uinta and Wasatch Cache National Forest in Logan Canyon. They earn $4.25 an hour cleaning outhouses, emptying fire pits at 27 sites and collecting fees.

"It's good for your health to keep your body moving. It's dirty work, but I love the outdoors," Ethel Bunkers said.

The Bunkers were hired by L&L Corp. of Orem, the concessionaire for more than 100 Forest Service campgrounds in Utah and more than 1,000 in 18 other states from California to Pennsylvania.

Retirees account for 90 percent of L&L's hosts, said Ron Beach, assistant to the company president.

"We think that people in that age group are good, hard-working people, and they're not really happy if they're not doing anything," Beach said. "This gives them something to do."

Whatever their reasons for joining up, the hosts are all but indispensable.

On BLM land, where rangers are few and far between, the hosts are the "eyes and ears of the campground," Hill said.

That's the way it is with Dot and Mac Mclachlan of Tooele, who supervise the Clover Springs Campground, between Tooele and Dugway, on summer weekends. Mclachlan still works at Dugway Proving Ground, but his wife retired in 1989.

"We enjoy getting away, and we don't like big cities. We're at that age that we like a little quiet and nature," she said.

But Clover Creek hasn't always been peaceful. Before the BLM leased the land it was a haven for underage drinkers and all-terrain vehicle racers. Hill said having hosts on site has helped.

But one night last summer, the Mclachlans had quite a scare.

"We had a crowd of young people who raced around with their ATVs, and we couldn't get ahold of anyone. We just let them take over the place," Dot Mclachlan said.

Now the couple have a cellular phone to alert police when there's trouble.

Rick Vallejos, recreation manager for the Ogden ranger district of the Uinta and Wasatch Cache National Forest, acknowledged there are risks to the job.

"Campgrounds have a full mix of people, and if they have problems at home they bring them with them," he said. "We're talking here about the woods. You can't call somebody and have them be here in three minutes. So, yes, I guess (the hosts) are in some danger."

The Forest Service, however, is taking measures to keep campers and hosts safe, including spending $60,000 for weekend police patrols, Vallejos said.

At Zion, the Kellys know just what to do in an emergency.

"If we have any problems, we call the rangers. It's mostly loud stuff, people fighting over the sites," he said.

The Bunkers faced a more serious threat during their stay at Mount Charleston.

"We encountered gang members . . . who would take your life in a heartbeat. But you've got to bluff your way and take your life into your own hands," Ethel Bunkers said, adding that threats to call police usually thwarted the thugs.

"You don't run into a lot of problems but you have to be prepared," she said. "You can't be timid or you can't take it."