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Camp Hosting No Walk in Park

Recreation: The caretakers at Ventura County campgrounds work hard so others can play. They earn no pay but live year-round for free.

July 23, 2002|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Up the Ventura Freeway at Hobson Beach Park, vacationers, oil drillers and surfers line up early for the bacon cheeseburgers cooked to order on the snack-bar griddle.

Down the road at Faria Beach Park, the daily grind is a faded memory for the campers, who have nothing more pressing on the daily agenda than grilling their steaks and keeping their propane tanks filled.

Ten miles inland at Foster Park, just off the road to Ojai, a collection of tent dwellers and Lake Casitas water lovers angle every summer weekend for one of the 22 dirt campsites.

Holding it all together, making sure the snack bars are stocked and the campers stick to the rules, are park hosts--a small mix of families and couples who serve as live-in caretakers at the campgrounds, and save the county some money in the process.

They live in their own campers in eight of the 28 parks across Ventura County, and they do it on the cheap. Hosts earn no salary but live at the campgrounds for free, paying only for utilities and whatever payments remain on their mobile homes.

It can be a very busy job, especially at this time of year, given that some 400,000 people visit county parks annually--60% of them in the summer months.

Some hosts say they took the job to pad meager retirement accounts, while others figured it beat city living. For Brian Sloan, it's one more step toward a goal shared by many Ventura County residents: home ownership.

"We're saving money to buy a house," said Sloan, a 36-year-old mechanic who, along with his wife, Jennifer, lives in a shiny motor home at Foster Park surrounded by a chain-link fence, freshly cut grass and a tool shed doubling as a playroom for his two children and a hulking English mastiff named Scooter.

"In two years we'll have enough for the house, and we'll leave and give someone else the opportunity," Sloan said.

The living expenses are low for Sloan and the other hosts, but it's a right they have to earn. Hosts agree to keep the parks operating smoothly while serving as sentries of sorts for sheriff's deputies and county parks officials unable to keep tabs on the more than 6,000 acres of parkland and 29 miles of trails that crisscross Ventura County.

And on any given summer day, that's no small order.

The park host job can mean anything from getting a jammed sewer line cleared to negotiating with drunken campers. Just as important, the hosts run the snack stands and collect the nightly campsite fees that together are an important revenue stream for the Ventura County Parks Department.

"It would be really hard to survive without them," county Parks Director Andy Oshita said of the hosts. "Otherwise, whenever problems occurred after hours in the evening, we would have to call back a ranger or a maintenance person and we would have to pay overtime. Can you see how that will kill a department?"

Oshita helped start the county park host program nearly 20 years ago, after Proposition 13 began trimming local funds. Since then, park hosts have evolved from part-time caretakers to full-time, year-round personnel for the Parks Department, which has a $1.4-million annual budget and just four rangers assigned to patrol the 28 parks.

A typical summer day will find a park host solving problems that could range from dealing with a camper's demand for more propane or ice to making sure the snack stands have enough hot dog buns and snow cones. And even in vacationland, real-world problems occasionally seep in.

Earlier this year, rangers and park hosts were on the lookout for a trio of motor homes that were rumored to be part of a prostitution ring at several county parks.

"If there is a crime occurring, [the hosts] will get on the phone and call us," said Deputy Rogelio Tamase, a seven-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department who patrols the stretch of coast between Oxnard and the Santa Barbara County line that includes two county parks.

Many of the locations are remote. Faria and Hobson beach parks are tucked below the Ventura Freeway. Steckel Park, where a man leapt to his death in 2000 after being chased by sheriff's deputies, sits across a dry riverbed in the hills between Santa Paula and Ojai. Hosts have to be on alert at all times.

"You can never have [an inattentive] day," said Darlene Shaw, who with her husband, Richard, has served as a host at Faria Beach for the past six years. "But it's still a lot better than having to get dressed in the morning and go to work."

The inexpensive living arrangement is an attractive lure to the host program, Oshita said, adding that all successful applicants go through a background check.

Nearly as important as the background check, Oshita said, is the condition of the motor home the new host will park at the campground. Oshita wants them to be as clean as the applicants' background.

More than 300 applicants are currently on a waiting list in case a vacancy occurs among one of the eight positions, he said. There is no day off for the hosts, Oshita said, but he hears few complaints.

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