Contributed by Will Rice
Rummaging through the literary canon of our national parks, one often stumbles on the immortal words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “There is nothing so American as our national parks.” I believe this is true, in that no body can more completely tell the history of America or provide such an abundant well of nationalism. But humor me as I take this claim one step further: there is nothing so American as our national park campgrounds. Strange as it may sound, nothing in my experience conveys the great melting pot, the far-flung dream, and the wholesomeness of Americana that exists in our park’s campgrounds. They are, in themselves, treasures on the American landscape—available to anyone for zero to $25 dollars a night.
Dream with me for a moment. You could be anywhere—on a beach of the Olympic Peninsula, on a bend in the Obed River, or in the North Dakota prairie. You have pitched your tent at a rustic site that includes a picnic table and a fire pit. On the site to your left reside a couple from Omaha, who along with their aging beagle, are lounging outside their compact travel trailer reading mystery novels and nursing a bottle of red wine. To the right you find a family from San Diego who, for the past thirty minutes, have been setting up an aluminum-framed tent large enough to accommodate a small militia. As you cook your dinner over a rusty campstove, the campground hosts roll into your site on a tandem bicycle. They just wanted to say hi and let you know that if you need anything they are in site 33, oh and at 8 o’clock Ranger Erica will be giving a program on “radical rodents” that is just wonderful.
The Nebraskans greet this news with the keenest of enthusiasm, and you aren’t really into the book your brought along anyway, so you go too. Ranger Erica introduces her cast of what turn out to be radical rodents indeed. You find yourself surprisingly enthralled with the natural history of muskrats and the fur trade’s effect on river otter distribution. You ask Erica where you might be able to spot some aquatic rodents, and she directs you and an equally interested girl scout troop to a nearby stream where she discloses the whereabouts of a beaver dam. You walk along a fire road by twilight to the stream bank where the beaver dam stands before you in all of its wonderment. Your enthusiasm only eclipsed by that of the girl scouts, you return to your tent, bid goodnight to the beagle and the family next door wrapping up their Taylor Swift sing along, and fall asleep counting the stars through the gaps in your rainfly.
This plays out every night! At hundreds of national park campgrounds across the country. It is everything that is great about our parks and provides the best elixir for the issues they are facing. Car camping stands as an accessible alternative to those groups often unequipped for backcountry travel. Financial and experiential shortcomings are minimized. Durable campsites ease overuse of sensitive areas and create a modest income for the parks. Moreover, they provide an introduction to the natural world to those who might otherwise opt for a motel.
Best of all, they do all of this at bargain prices. You can get a clean, safe site often for under $15 a night. That’s far cheaper than those you will find at a neighboring RV resort, often without the hum of RVs’ generators. Plus they hold a romance that is lost in the corporate RV park. Lacking Wi-fi and electrical outlets, they allow the visitor to disconnect from screens and connect with the natural world and friends, whether new or old.
In recent weeks Secretary Zinke has made it apparent that he wishes to privatize national park campgrounds. This is a horrifying prospect. Not only will this almost certainly translate to $30+ per night site fees, it will also take the very heart and soul out of these seemingly sacred sites. In his speech before the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association Zinke said, “My folks will never be as good [at managing campgrounds] as you are.”
I might challenge the Secretary to name the last night he spent in a Park Service campground. I feel sure that if he were to actually get to know “his folks” around the communal campfire circle or over beers by the host’s trailer, his conclusion would be far less damning of his very staff and volunteers.
Our nation’s campground hosts, a volunteer network of mostly retirees, are at their very essence the grandparents of our public lands. They have given me fresh baked cookies at Badlands, sage sunrise advice at Sequoia, and scores of warnings of “how darn cold it gets here at night”. Once after pooling into a campground late at night and finding ourselves to be the only tent around, my girlfriend and I were offered the host’s space heater and extra blankets because of the “terrible cold front moving in” (we declined the heater due to the obvious fire hazard it imposed). But it goes to my point: these people will do anything for you.
One such individual is Lyle Rutherbories. At 97, Lyle is the caretaker of Kintla Lake Campground in Glacier National Park. I stumbled upon him last summer in a brief visit to the lake, but he was far too busy to chat. During the couple of hours I was there, he cleaned out a shed, restocked a pit toilet, and welcomed an influx of campers. Once a week Ranger Lyle takes the long, pot-holed dirt road back and forth from Kintla to Polebridge carrying food, water, and propane. According to the National Park Service:
Ruterbories often goes above and beyond his daily duties, contributing countless hours to numerous projects. He has built log barrier structures for each campsite parking spot to protect vegetation, constructed a log rail fence around the Kintla Ranger Station complex, leveled all Kintla campsites, and constructed walking paths to Kintla Creek and the beach area of Kintla Lake. Ruterbories refinished the wood floor of the Kintla Ranger Station himself and still pulls weeds in the Kintla Lake Campground area almost daily.
Along with these many feats, he also is known to split logs “like nobody’s business”.
His haunt on Kintla Lake has no running water, electricity, or telephone. But it is what his late wife, Marge, considered her “paradise on Earth”. The couple became the campground’s volunteer hosts in the 1980s. Rutherbories told the Missoula Current, “I came here in 1989 and earned by badge in 1992. We brought the kids up here in ’62 or ’63. There was nothing up here but picnic tables. There wasn’t even fire rings, and it wasn’t much of a camping area.” After Lyle earned his Ranger title, Marge continued to volunteer as the campground’s host. For the better part of three decades the Rutherbories made Kinta Lake a home for its visitors, and Lyle has no plans of stopping.
“After so long, you become part of a place. I’ll keep doing it so long as I’m able.”
The prospect that Lyle might soon be replaced with an automated ticket machine is no less depressing as it is unrealistic, given the serious task of maintaining a remote campground. It was former Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall who said, “the Secretary of Interior should never make armchair judgments on national conservation issues”. I ask you to urge our current Secretary, to not make an armchair decision here, but rather a “lawn chair” decision. Let’s ask him to grab a site, pitch a tent, eat some beans, crack open a beer, and get to know the Lyles of America’s national parks. Perhaps they can all keep up with their public service, truly, as long as they are able.
Contact Secretary Zinke here or send him a postcard (or koozie):
Secretary Ryan Zinke
Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington DC 20240
Cover photo courtesy of Stephanie Stewart/Share the Experience