Refuge Notebook: How campers make good neighbors

There’s just something about dinner roasted over an open fire (maybe a s’more or two for dessert), birds singing and kids playing games that don’t need Wi-Fi. Sharing a little slice of the outdoors with one another during the fleeting summer days has been a lifeline for Alaska families emerging from a year of stress, anxiety and challenges.

It sure has been for my family and me. We have a new-to-us camper, and our weekend campouts have been treasured breaks together.

Many of us have invested in travel trailers, RVs and tents and made a beeline for campgrounds, both public and private, this past year. More campers are settling in around the campfire rings of the two most popular campgrounds on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, too.

I love the neighborhood of a campground. I really enjoy hearing the adventures of fellow campers during our campouts, finding out about awesome trails to explore or seeing the kids make fast friends with others from neighboring campsites.

While the phrase “the more, the merrier” is the usual reaction to increased visitation to your public lands, a few campers are not joining the campground community with the intent of being good neighbors. Dogs go unleashed, fires are left to burn unattended, food is left out where it can attract bears and quiet hours are ignored.

When campers combine these rather typical missteps with what has been, until recently, more atypical and egregious actions like cutting down live trees, target shooting and starting fights, well, it can absolutely ruin a great weekend campout.

Unfortunately, when conflicts arise, some wonderful volunteer camp hosts often bear the brunt of it. That’s really the sad part of this story. Refuge staff are paid to clean campsites, fix broken facilities, patrol the recreation area, and are, for the most part, ready to take on the challenge of the more than doubling of our formerly “busy” summer visitation.

It’s a terrible thing to hear reports of campers challenging the volunteer camp hosts after ranger patrols conclude but before the sun sets and disrespecting them while our hosts perform their duties. Yes, they are really challenging volunteers over campground rules, even our most basic ones!

So, what does a campground host do, really? Their duties are simple until they are not. Their job is to provide a welcoming place for you to camp.

Have you walked into a campground pit toilet stall and found it well-stocked with toilet paper and smelling clean? Thank a camp host. Did your fire pit look clean and ready for your evening campfire? Thank a camp host. Is your campground free of litter? Thank a camp host.

Run out of firewood on a chilly evening? The host has you covered with dry bundles for sale at cost. Did you need a satellite phone to call for emergency medical assistance? Yep, the camp hosts are ready for that, too. Is there a bear in camp? The camp hosts regularly haze bears with air horns and keep tabs on bears that may be showing signs of sticking around, so we avoid that bear picking up bad habits.

All of these duties are performed … unpaid. So, I think we can all agree, when a camper yells obscenities, refuses to change their behavior to meet camp rules, or steals another person’s campsite while they are away hiking a trail for the day, that’s simply unacceptable — for the campground host and all of us seeking the respite of the campground.

I don’t want this article to spiral into the dark side of campground management because 99.9% of every day in camp is awesome. Most days are filled with happy families spending time together, visitors seeking a great time in the great outdoors and Alaskans meeting up for summer adventures in their own backyard.

Besides, I know a day when the campground is filled with people is a great day for a campground host. It certainly isn’t boring! Instead, I want to review the five easy steps to camping at Hidden Lake or Upper Skilak Lake Campgrounds so that everyone can have a great stay:

1. Arrive prepared. Pack for each of the activities you hope to do at camp. Building a campfire? Bring a bucket and trowel to put it out cold. Taking a hike? Prepare to be traveling in bear country and bring deterrents and/or read up on how to stay safe on the trail.

Driving a self-contained RV which means you will be driving your RV, and it can’t stay to “occupy” the site? Tuck a tent into your gear so you can properly occupy your multiday site. If you leave your paid site vacant, it will be released to another camper without fee reimbursement (camp hosts do not have access to fees and do not take responsibility for refunds).

Flagging off a site or leaving a cooler or camp chair isn’t an adequate “occupation” of a site. What is adequate? Leave a tent, vehicle or camper in the paid site … if you can stay the night in it, then it will hold your site while you recreate.

2. Find a vacant campsite. If every camper follows the occupied site procedure noted above, then this is an easy step. No tent, vehicle or camper in a site? Then, you can move right on in.

Is there a paid permit hanging on the site post that is dated for the night you will be staying? Things get interesting here. You can check with the host for guidance. Perhaps the campers have taken their trailer to the dump station and will be returning soon. Perhaps they had to change their plans and just didn’t remove their paid permit slip.

If there are other sites with no posted permit, that is the safest next move. If there are no vacant sites, the camp host is your best bet to figure out if it is occupied. A double booking rarely ends with two happy camping parties.

The alternative to a first-come, first-serve campground is a contracted one with a reservation system, and that means a rate increase and a change to the heritage of these much-loved campgrounds. Without your help, this may be our shared future.

3. Set up camp (but keep some things packed). After paying and occupying your campsite, you can make it feel like home. Set up the camp chairs, get firewood ready and extend that awning before any rainclouds burst.

Then, leave the coolers, food and dog bowls stowed until mealtime arrives. That leaves your campsite free of wildlife attractants while you explore the campground and do the next step.

4. Pay for your stay. It’s a rarity to have a hosted campground anymore that costs only $10 per night. Hidden Lake and Upper Skilak Lake Campgrounds are the only paid campgrounds on the entire Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and for now, we have kept to a nominal fee that just covers maintenance costs.

The camping fee is paid at an unmanned kiosk where envelopes with detachable permit slips are available. Cash or check is accepted, but no change is available. Post your paid permit slip on the post at your campsite for rangers to see later, and you are all set!

Take the time to thank a volunteer host for their work. Check in with the camp host while you explore camp and ask about recent wildlife sightings or get their recommendations for nearby recreation. Read up on the posted campground rules so you can be a good neighbor as you walk back to your home away from home and start a campfire for the night’s dinner.

There’s just something about dinner roasted over an open fire.

Leah Eskelin is Lead Park Ranger and Visitor Center Manager at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Find out more about refuge events, recreation and more at or Facebook:


Kenai National Wildlife Refuge