Hosts Lonnie and Liz Risseeuw, living for three months at Valley of the Rogue State Park, check for litter at a campsite. The couple have been hosting for four years. - Jim Craven

Hosts with the Most

For Lonnie and Liz Risseeuw of Roseburg, life is sweet in the D and E loops at Valley of the Rogue State Park.

The former Medford couple are in their fourth year of volunteering as camp hosts, and they returned this summer to the park east of Grants Pass where they spent a cold January along the frigid Rogue River, looking after die-hard winter campers and day visitors.

"I have a picture of a snowman we built," says Liz, 62. "It's a lot different here in June."

With a comfortable fifth-wheel trailer to sleep in and a manageable list of daily chores, Liz and 64-year-old Lonnie are enjoying their retirement to the fullest, trekking across Oregon to stay in some of the most beautiful state parks in the West. They just spent two months at The Cove Palisades State Park near Madras, and they'll be in Southern Oregon for the next three months. Four other host couples are joining them at Valley of the Rogue this summer, selling firewood, answering questions and picking up after campers when they leave.

"We did a lot of camping when we were younger, and when we retired we knew this is what we wanted to do," Lonnie says.

"For the most part, you meet the best and nicest people," Liz says. "We know people who, if they're camp hosting near us, they'll come visit, and we'll go visit them."

It's a story that Jill Nishball knows well. She's been the volunteer program coordinator for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department for the past five years. Nishball says hosts are "like one big family."

"We have a huge amount of people who've been doing it since the '80s and '90s," she says. "We have people who travel around from place to place who have 20 parks under their belts."

It's about a 50-50 split between Oregonians and out-of-staters who apply for and are accepted to camp hosts positions, she says.

The range of commitment is as varied as the state parks themselves. Some people host for 10 to 12 months out of the year at the same state park. Some just do it in summer. For others, it's two months here, three months there throughout the year, Nishball says.

During 2007, there were about 1,100 hosts in Oregon, spending 332,000 volunteer hours in state parks and campgrounds, state data show.

"That's more than 900 volunteer hours per day," Nishabll says.

You have to be over the age of 18 to become a camp host, but Nishball says the vast majority of volunteers are at retirement age. "Some people are calling now who've retired early, and a few more are in their late 40s and 50s," she says. "We also have people who call and haven't even retired but they're thinking about it."

There appears to be room for everybody, as long as you can pass a background check and are willing to live in an RV or camper.

Fort Stevens State Park on the Oregon Coast west of Astoria, for example, has 29 host couples working at once. That's because the park has an eye-popping 500 campsites to fill.

Within the family of hosts, men and women take on specific duties, sometimes based on their life's work or their hobbies.

"Some hosts have past experience with machinery, so they end up being our machinery experts or working in the shop. Interpretive hosts are those who do lighthouse tours, tours of historic houses and the like. We also have other hosts who conduct campfire programs for the public or work with kids' programs," Nishball says.

When it comes to enforcing park rules, camp hosts are told to only go so far.

"The thing about our hosts is that they're taught to advise people on the rules and inform them and leave it from there. If something escalates, there's always back-up to call in," such as local law enforcement, Nishball says, noting that those occurrences are rare.

Lorraine Cannon, 76, has been hosting since 1993 with her husband Ralph, 81. The former Portland residents are among the top-tiered hosts in the state program, each with at least 25,000 volunteers hours to their credit,

"I like meeting all the people, helping them," Lorraine says. "It is a fun job."

They were hosts at Beverly Beach State Park near Newport through April before moving to nearby South Beach State Park. They have caretaker status as hosts, meaning they can stay for up to 10 months at any given campground during the year.

With a 38-foot RV, Lorraine says she has all the comforts of home at her disposal.

"We didn't know we'd still be doing it after all these years, but we enjoy it. You'd have to. We meet some great people," she says.

Patsy and Steven Wright of Stayton are relatively new to hosting, but they share the Cannon's enthusiasm.

"To me it's the way to go," says Steven, 69, who started volunteering at campgrounds in August 2006. "I enjoy everything there is about it."

Steven and Patsy, 65, were inland this winter at Silver Falls State Park east of Salem, but now they've arrived at Detroit Lake in the Cascades.

After a career in auto mechanics, Steven is a volunteer maintenance host who does welding and other technical jobs at campgrounds. The Wrights have nearly 2,000 volunteer hours each, and Steven says there is no reason to slow down now.

"I've always been an active person and when I retired I had nothing to do," he says. "When this came along I enjoyed it a lot, and we get to meet a lot of people. There's always something to do."

Reach Troy Heie at 776-4474 or e-mail

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