Since our summer plans had us settling in Ohio, we thought one way to stretch our dollars and to “give back” to our state parks was to camp host at ones close to our home base in NE Ohio. Camp hosts are volunteer positions within state and national parks. Duties vary from state to state, but hosts are mainly the “eyes and ears” of the park rangers. Camp hosts keep the campground sites tidy, check on restrooms, answer camper questions, and are the first point of contact should trouble arise. We applied online at the ODNR website last winter and were contacted by Beaver Creek and West Branch State Parks. After phone interviews and emails with each park’s manager we were offered positions at both parks for about one month at each location. The scheduling worked out perfectly since we had already made travel plans to visit our son’s family in New York a couple of times and would be unable to host for an entire summer at one park.
Beaver Creek State Park
Nestled in the hills of southern Columbiana County, Beaver Creek State Park became our home for four weeks in June and July. We had camped with our boys at Beaver Creek several times in years past and were looking forward to camp hosting there. Beaver Creek has a 53 site family campground, with only 6 sites having electric. Since it is primarily a tent-only campground, very few sites will accommodate rigs over 35 ft. There is water available, but NOT enough to fill the water tank of an RV, so fill up before you arrive. Three vault toilets and one sun shower are provided for the campers, as well as a dump station. This is a PRIMITIVE camping experience, so one should not expect a “resort-type” atmosphere. Each campsite has a gravel parking pad/area, a fire ring, and a picnic table. The state park also has group camp sites and a horseman’s camp.
Beaver Creek State Park is where you go to get away from it all. The park encompasses over 2,700 acres in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountain. Little Beaver Creek, a state and national wild and scenic river, winds its way through the park providing opportunities for fishing, kayaking, and canoeing. Several locks, the remains of the Sandy and Beaver Canal, can be seen as one roams the miles of woodland hiking trails. One such lock, Gretchen’s Lock, is wrapped in mystery, lending itself to tales of hauntings and ghost-sightings. As the story goes, Gretchen’s father, Gill Hans, brought his family over from Holland to construct one of the locks on the canal. After arriving, Gretchen contracted malaria and died. Grief-stricken, Gill had Gretchen’s casket entombed in the lock he was constructing. When the time came for him to return to Holland, he removed the casket and took it with him. Alas, on the trip home, a mighty Atlantic storm caused the ship to sink, taking the lives of all onboard. On the anniversary of Gretchen’s death, some have reported seeing the ghost of the young Dutch girl walking along the lock at Beaver Creek State Park.
Down the hill from the campground, friends of the park have restored and reconstructed a pioneer village. A covered bridge, a one-room school, a church, a blacksmith’s shop, and Gaston’s Mill are among the buildings you can visit. Once a month, the pioneer village comes to life as costumed interpreters walk and talk you through life as a pioneer in early Ohio. Gaston’s Mill is fully operational and stone-ground flour and cornmeal can be purchased in the general store. Up the hill from the pioneer village is the Wildlife Education Center which has a remarkable display of over 300 mounts as well as many displays of Ohio animal life and geology. Educational programs are held here throughout the year for school groups and the center is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays. The volunteers who work the center are very friendly and knowledgeable.
We love to hike and Beaver Creek has miles of moderately challenging hiking trails. In fact, back in 2010, we spent many days hiking the trails in preparation for our rim-to-rim hike at the Grand Canyon. Since we didn’t have to be helicopter-rescued from the canyon, I would say Beaver Creek was a great place to train for such a hike. The North Country Trail which runs from North Dakota to New York threads its way through Beaver Creek State Park. We had a couple of thru-hikers who had been following the Blue Blazes and stopped for a rest at the campground.
Beaver Creek was a great place for our first camp host experience. The park staff was friendly and very helpful. And since it is a smaller campground, it didn’t take all of our time to perform our duties which gave us a lot more time for relaxing, visiting family and friends in the area, and building relationships with the other campers.
The biggest problem we had to deal with? Raccoons. Some campers need to realize they are camping in the raccoon’s home and if you leave food outside OR in your tent, the raccoons will gladly help themselves.
West Branch State Park
The month of August found us hosting at West Branch State Park in Portage County. Whereas Beaver Creek is a small, primitive campground, West Branch is a hopping place! The big draw at West Branch is the Michael J. Kirwan Reservoir covering 2,650 acres, an ideal place for water sports of all kinds. The marina across the lake from the campground rents dock space, jet skis, and boats of all types. There is a large public beach with tons of picnic areas, two disc golf courses, the Michael J. Kirwan Dam which is open for tours at specified times, several boat launches, and a few hiking trails. The park also employs a naturalist who hosts many activities and events throughout the weekends, including full-moon hikes, fishing tournaments, paddle-boarding lessons, and a portable “touch and feel” animal skulls and skins display.
The campground has almost 200 sites, 14 primitive, 29 full hook-up, 155 electric, and about 6 full hook-up, pull-throughs. Each site has a paved pad, fire ring, and picnic table. Most sites will accommodate any size camper. We saw tiny Casitas as well as monstrously big Class A’s all rolling in and somehow they all found a place to fit. West Branch is a popular campground with weekend sites being reserved 6 months in advance. We did notice the last part of August when school was starting, many sites were open during the week.
Water levels at the lake were extremely low, due in part to a very mild winter with little snowfall. The Kirwan Reservoir is controlled by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The reservoir is one of many that feed into the Ohio River, which feeds into the Mississippi River, which is the chief trade and commerce route for the Midwest. It is of utmost importance to keep the Ohio River flowing and when the flow becomes sluggish, the Army Corps opens up one of the reservoirs to feed it. This year, the Kirwan reservoir got picked. Because of that, the campground swimming beach was closed and boating lanes in the lake were restricted. This, however, didn’t seem to hinder anyone’s enjoyment and activity at the park.
West Branch State Park has a very active friends group which provides additional help and funding for different needs around the park, such as, the playground, movie night, the purchase of golf carts for camp hosts, landscaping, and a host of other special projects. In addition to private donations, the friends raise money with a Saturday night ice cream social and the family-friendly “Haunted Trail” during October. Though we were only there a month, we were warmly welcomed by the friends group, some of whom have been camping at West Branch for over 30 years!
The facilities at West Branch are exceptional! Four large, beautiful shower houses, dubbed the “Taj Mahal” of state park campgrounds are scattered throughout the park. Each includes flush toilets, 5 spacious private showers, a private handicap toilet and shower, a vending machine, book exchange, 2 sets of washers and dryers with a coin machine, and 2 outside kitchen sinks. What a treat! The park employs a full-time cleaning lady who scrubs the bathrooms daily and keeps them immaculately clean. The park also has a dump station which can accommodate 2 campers at a time. Not bad, unless it’s Sunday afternoon, then the line of rv’s backs way up.
Our camp host duties, though not taxing, did keep us busy. We were responsible for cleaning the fire rings and litter pick up for 33 sites plus 3 group sites. The only day this was stressful was on Sunday since we had a quick turn-around of folks leaving and new campers coming in. However, we were still able to go to Sunday morning church each week and had time to complete our tasks before the 3:00 check-in time. We also had a one-hour shift at the Friday night “Meet and Greet,” an event created by the friends group to help facilitate the influx of campers on Friday evenings. Though not required, we volunteered to help at the friends ice cream social on Saturday nights and were responsible for one movie night, though we got rained out.
West Branch State Park is a beautifully maintained, well-organized state park. It’s a busy place, especially on the weekends, so if you are looking for an activity-filled get-away, look no further—-just make sure you book in advance!
The biggest problem we had to deal with? Well, actually, Alan had to deal with it. Seemed as though every weekend, some boy would try to see how much toilet paper he could stuff into a toilet. Alan’s grumbled response, “We didn’t have to deal with clogged toilets at Beaver Creek!”
Apples to Oranges,…
So to compare Beaver Creek and West Branch State Parks is like comparing apples to oranges. Each has its own draw, whether it is the peace and solitude of the creek and forests of southern Columbiana County or the bustling, fun-filled days at West Branch. Beaver Creek had us close to my dad and Alan’s summer teaching gig. The pace was slow and since we love to hike, this park was ideal. I did get a little weary of the pit toilet and sun shower and the fact that we couldn’t find a decent laundromat closer than an hour’s drive away. When we parked at West Branch right across the street from the super deluxe shower house—-oooh, baby! That was nice! West Branch was close to my mom and stepdad, our home church, and Alliance, our home base for lots of business. It was nice to have other hosts to share the load of work and to get to know. Though the pace was quicker, we rarely found the work to be overwhelming or taxing. We never camped at West Branch with our boys because of the busyness. We always preferred a quieter, more primitive camping experience, so to see folks rolling in with half their household goods, including TV’s, we just shook our heads. It’s not our style of camping, but that’s ok. Everyone seemed to have a good time.
What would be nice to see at all Ohio state parks is for them to offer their hosts a full hook-up site. It got to be a drag having to use a Blue Boy to drain our tanks or to haul the dishes over to the public kitchen sink 3 times a day and use the public showers to conserve water usage. The other disheartening aspect of Ohio state parks is the way the budgets have been slashed, eliminating so many park rangers. When we were at Beaver Creek, we found out that our park ranger was also responsible for 5 other state parks, reaching from south of us to Cleveland! In an emergency, it could take him well over an hour to respond. That’s just not right.
However, Ohio state parks are still FREE! In many other states we visit, a day use fee is charged, either by the car or per person. Ohio state parks also offer many camping discounts with the Golden Buckeye card or Passport America, and disabled veterans camp for FREE. All in all, our first experience with camp hosting for Ohio state parks was terrific! We met some delightful people, staff and campers alike, and we felt like we were able to “give back” and thank our Ohio state parks for all the wonderful memories they helped us and our family create over the past 30+ years of camping.