Glamping at Jay Cooke State Park with a Glass Half Full
By Deborah Locke, Department of Natural Resources Information Officer
When you sit down with Sue Jacobson and Laura Kuhns to learn about their years as camp hosts at Jay Cooke State Park, you learn way more than hosting. Their enthusiasm and spirit prompts you to remember what they say, think about it, and then change the way you do things. The two prompt you to live better.
We met on a Sunday morning over coffee at a shop near the Cloquet Walmart parking lot. For nine years, the couple has served as volunteer campground hosts at Jay Cooke State Park near Cloquet. They used to camp at Minnesota’s North Shore state parks, then saw an online post requesting Jay Cooke camp host volunteers. They applied and got the job that starts each year on Aug. 1 and ends on Sept. 1.
Their Florida home is rented out for most of the year which frees up time for hosting. Other annual trips include a drive in their 36-foot RV to an Arizona park at a location that was close to Sue’s parents when they were alive.
“Everything we do revolves around family, friends and meeting new people,” Sue said. Laura added that they see family in the Twin Cities each year, and then head for Florida to visit her mother.
Sue, 65, who said she’s had nomadic instincts all her life, is a retired St. Paul Fire Department captain, and Laura, 58, is a retired medical consultant specializing in OSHA regulations and compliance.
“We’re retired but not expired,” Sue said as customers lined up at the cash register for coffee. “So many doors open once you retire. We’ve met a tremendous network of people over the years. If a problem comes up, I just look at Laura and say, it’s all part of life, part of a big adventure. The glass is always half full, even in the face of a tragedy. After the storm comes a rainbow.”
In addition to healthy optimism, they’re the kind of couple who strike you as perfectly in sync, finishing each other’s sentences, reflecting on their rich, shared history of camping which means helping others in every way possible no matter what the circumstance. Laura and Sue first served as camp hosts in Florida in 2014, and then along came the Minnesota campground host opening. Laura attended the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, was familiar with the area, so they applied for the post.
Ty Gangelhoff, assistant park manager at Jay Cooke State Park, said that campground hosts are invaluable to park operations.
“Laura and Sue have friendly personalities and a welcoming presence,” he said. “Their years of hosting provide them with lots of park and local knowledge that they pass on to guests. We are very happy that they are here.”
The program started in the 1970s, said Arielle Courtney, partnership development consultant with the DNR parks and trails division. Statewide about 100 volunteers step up annually as campground hosts for the camping season that lasts from April or May through October. Hosts commit to at least four weeks, and many stay longer. They fill a vital hospitality need at parks and forest campgrounds, welcoming visitors and keeping the place tidy beyond what staff can do.
“Park staff often refer to hosts as the “eyes and ears” of the campground,” she said. “A great host is someone who loves state parks and camping, first and foremost, Other important host qualities include a willingness to help, and flexibility.”
Hosts do a variety of tasks, from replacing bathroom supplies to tidying campsites or even helping with a naturalist program. Arielle said that being a “people person” is helpful, since visitors frequently stop by the host’s campsite for help, sometimes at odd hours.
Innate flexibility, an upbeat personality and problem-solving skills come in handy when a good portion of your life is lived in an RV. During a trip from Georgia to Minnesota about four years ago, a RV wheel rolled off the vehicle over a July 4th weekend. In a rig that big, if a wheel comes off, you can’t pull over to the side of the road. You just stop.
It’s at times like those that Sue’s glass-half-full disposition kicks into high gear. They made calls to a local repair shop and abandoned the RV for the night. The next day a mechanic reconfigured the sheered-off lug nut and shortly after 11 a.m., they were back on the road.
“By the grace of God, we got back for the family July 4th celebration just a day late,” Sue said.
The couple’s RV at Jay Cooke was parked in the “Your campground host” spot which is a short distance from the restroom/shower building. Visitors with loaded vehicles made their way down the dirt road to Campsite No. 3; hikers headed in the opposite direction. The women get a lot of company while hosting at Jay Cooke: friends, family and returning campers stop by. Laura’s sister was due to arrive later on Sunday. It’s those connections that provide glue to a place. The women continue to reserve campground space at the Arizona location which was close to Sue’s parents because of the strong friendships they made. “It’s like a community,” Sue said. “We get to know people who become good friends.”
The RV interior looks like a high-end efficiency apartment with a built-in fireplace, large pantry, washer/dryer, and 55-inch television. A wood gameboard with marbles was set up on the kitchen table. The accommodations were far cry from the tent camping my family did at Itasca State Park when I was young. “We’re ‘glamping,’” Sue said.
During the COVID pandemic, a lot of people bought RVs and then later sold them. The couple got a good price on their RV. Still, this lifestyle isn’t for everyone.
“It’s doable, but not cheap,” Laura said. RVs require a lot of gasoline to run, and campgrounds cost $30 to $60 per night. Still, RV campers may use generators — rather than electric hook-ups — and stay at places that don’t charge fees, like a Wal-Mart. “It can be affordable,” Sue said, adding that some campers who travel are salaried employees who work campground jobs.
As our conversation closed, Sue’s inevitable glass-half-full guiding principle surfaced. With regard to the future, she said she appreciates each day and God willing, they’ll be back at Jay Cooke State Park next year and the year after.
“We’ll just keep doing what we’re doing,” she said.
With a glass that’s half full.
Campground hosts at Minnesota State Parks volunteer for a minimum four-week stay and are on duty four to five days each week, including weekends and holidays. In exchange, they camp for free. On-duty days and hours are set by the campground manager. New applications are considered in January or February for the next summer. Many hosts return each year, and secure their spot for the next year when leaving the park. To see if a park uses campground hosts, contact the individual park. For more information on the program, go to www.mndnr.gov/volunteering/stateparks/campgroundhost.html