Our first-ever workamping experience this summer was wonderful. The pluses outweighed the minuses by a mile. We were in a beautiful place (near Glacier National Park), working with wonderful people, for wonderful people, in a campground deep in the trees in Northwest Montana. It was a new experience for us, prompted by traveling in the summer of 2016 in our RV. During that trip we realized how crowded the highways, attractions and campgrounds are, especially in July and August. We don’t HAVE to travel in those months. We are retired.
(Before you go any further, you should know, this is kind of long and doesn’t have a lot of pictures. It recaps our whole summer of workamping. I need to do it in one post so I have it all together. I hope you choose to read it. )
In November of 2015, we became fulltime RVers. We got rid of most of our stuff, saving only those things we knew we would use almost every day. With very little storage room in our RV, every inch must count. Our daughter and her family moved into our house, so we could live this dream. There is so much of America to see, so many people to meet, and so many experiences just waiting to be had. One of those experiences, something I had read about when researching this lifestyle, is workamping. (Workamping is usually a temporary seasonal job for those living in an RV, where the workers trade labor for a free campsite and sometimes monetary compensation.)
In Part I of our workamping recap, we shared how we found our summer gig and why. In this post, I want to share what that experience was, the good, the bad and the ugly.
Getting to Montana
We love Montana. Cooper’s mom was from Montana, so we would go there often (Bozeman and Big Sky, to be exact) for family gatherings. The scenery is spectacular, at least on the western side, and they really mean it when they say “big sky”. They also say “the last best place” and I believe them. The people are independent and adventurous. There are very few rules… well, more now than there used to be, but still. And there is no sales tax!
So, after spending the required few weeks at home in Colorado, doing the usual annual doctors’ appointments, catching up with friends, and trading out those items in the RV that we thought we needed for things we actually needed, we were headed to our first workamping gig.
It was early May when we hit the road for Montana. It rained the entire 896 miles. I really don’t remember a whole lot about the trip. It all looked the same. We have driven this route before, and I know it is beautiful, but it was pretty ugly and boring this time. Listening to a good book and having a knitting project helped pass the time. Cooper just drives. We tried to stick to our basic 200 miles a day with a couple of down days to relax, so it took about week to get there.
When we arrived at the campground, it was (still) raining. Luckily, the owner of the park and his brother HAPPENED to be standing outside the office, or we would never have had any idea where to go. The place was deserted. As it turned out, the snow had JUST melted in the park from an especially heavy winter and the park wasn’t set to open for another two weeks, in time for the Canadian equivalent to our Memorial Day (but a week earlier). We were instructed where to park our RV (at the top of the hill at the end of the park with the other workampers) and to take a day to get settled.
Getting Settled and Exploring
As it turns out, we were the last of four workamping couples to arrive. We got the last (and to us, the best) of the four campsites. We had to set up in the rain (not one of our favorite pastimes), but we’ve got it down to a science, so it wasn’t a big chore. Once we had the couch cleared off inside and that couch-stuff stored outside, Cooper’s smoker and pellet firepit set up and the awning out, it felt like home.
- The Good…
- We were in Montana – the last best place. We had lots of time (4 months) to get to know the area at our leisure. Glacier National Park (in our opinion, the most beautiful park on the planet) was only a half hour away, and, with our Golden Age National Parks Pass, we could get in free, as many times as we wanted. (People 62 and over can get these passes and they are good for life. One of the benefits of being a geezer… ). There are lots of lakes, rivers, streams, wildlife and forests – all the things that we love about the outdoors. I could say so much more about Montana, and will in other blogposts, but suffice it to say, we have lost our hearts to Montana. Colorado will always be our home, but there is something very special about Montana.
- The campground we worked in is owned and run by great people. There are so many horror stories out there about some of the workamping positions others have had, but I am pleased to say ours was a very positive experience. Yes, we had to work five days a week, but none of the work was particularly hard. There was lots of variety and we got paid a decent wage for every hour we worked. All the workampers learned to do everything so we could pitch in and help where needed. It really was a team “gettin’ ‘er done.”
- The people we worked with were awesome. There were four workamping couples along with the family (three generations) that owned the park, and the park manager and his family. None of the workamping couples had been here before, and two couples were brand new to workamping, so we were all learning together from scratch. (That is part of the “bad”, but we we all caught on fairly quickly.) When we made ignorance-mistakes, the family would just shrug and fix them. No yelling. No blame. We all enjoyed our experience so much that all four couples plan to return next summer. It should be easier then – for everyone – since we now have experience and know what to expect.
- We got paid for every hour we worked, which helped to enhance our travel budget for the rest of the year. For the months of June, July and August, we each had to pay $100/month as our rent (Cooper and I EACH paid $100) for our RV space (something about Montana law), but at the end of the season, if we stayed through Labor Day, we got it all back (as a “bonus”). GAS MONEY! Camping fees are the biggest part of our monthly expenses, more than food and more than gas, when we are traveling. Gone are the days of the $10-$20 a night campsites, even in state parks. $35-$45/night is pretty typical for a full-hook up site nowadays. Not paying for campsites for 4 months really helped to bolster the old bank account.
- Even though we were out in the woods, every amenity and shopping experience we could want was close by. It was only 3 miles to Whitefish, a town that could be Steamboat’s twin. Great restaurants, fun shopping, a ski area (that is older than Steamboat’s – 70 years this year), and every outdoor activity within close reach. There are so many similarities to Steamboat, that even the news in the newspaper was the same. The police blotter was a lot funnier, however. Montana sense of humor. Eleven miles away was Kalispell, with every big box store you can imagine. Being from Steamboat, where you have to drive a long way to get to Costco, it was awesome to not have to get everything you THINK you might want all in one visit because you could go again tomorrow if you wanted to. And, Columbia Falls, only 10 miles away, had it’s own special flavor.
- We got two days off together every week. Our days off were Tuesday and Wednesday, which are good days to be off. The weekend crowds are gone, especially in Whitefish, so the stores (including the grocery store) were not so packed. They were still packed, but just not as bad as the weekends. We used those days to explore. We visited Glacier a few times, drove the Going-to-the-Sun Road (once it opened at the end of June), and took a famous Red Bus tour (our driver, Don Swendsen, had lived in Steamboat for several years, which was cool).
- We ventured into Canada (our first border crossing) to Waterton National Park (the other half of Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park) to the Prince of Wales Hotel. We dined on Bangers and Mash and some other English dishes in the hotel.
- The Event at Rebecca Farms, which is a wonderful annual equestrian event in Kalispell, with jumping, cross-country races, and dressage, was a highlight for me. Many of the horses are retired horse-racing thoroughbreds that are retrained for the events. Talk about gorgeous horseflesh! (I was a cross-country “wanna-be”, back in the day.)
- Each evening, after work, the family and some of the staff members would gather behind the restaurant (yes, there was a pizza/games room restaurant also on the property where the campers got free breakfast each morning, but was a full restaurant in the evening) in what we called the staff lounge. This is where we got to know each other better, recite stories from the day, get tips on fishing holes and great restaurants, and wind down with our “shifters”. Sometimes we were too pooped to participate, but we enjoyed it when we went.
- But, the very best part of the summer was how it made us feel. For two years we had pretty much lounged about, not doing much of anything. We are retired. Having to go to work, we had to get up on a schedule, get dressed, and do actual physical labor. By the end of the summer, we were stronger, more alert, had lost some weight, and felt pretty good about ourselves. The job gave us purpose. That’s why we’re going to do it again.
There was lots more “good” I could mention, but this post is already getting pretty long. Suffice it to say, it was a great experience.
- Because all of the workamper couples were new, we were the blind leading the blind. We didn’t know where anything was, how it worked or the basic ins and outs of running a campground. (There is so much more to it than meets the eye! The owners have to know how to fix all the electric, water and sewer connections at a moment’s notice – like when someone runs right over one of the water connections or electric pedestals with his big bus!) We learned to clean camper “kabins”, clean the multiple bathrooms, prep, cook and serve breakfast, run the store and take reservations. We did repairs to whatever needed fixing, cleaned whatever needed to be cleaned, helped whoever needed helping, and anything else that came up.
- We had less than two weeks to clean up the park when we first got there. The Canadians have their “Memorial Day” holiday a week before the US does, and we had to be ready. ( More than 60% of the campers in this park come from Canada. I didn’t know that Canadians get a “long weekend” every month. Most coincide with our holidays, but we don’t get one in August.) When the park closed down last fall, it had been such a hard summer, the owners just left everything as it was and didn’t do any of the usual “closing” chores to ready the park for winter. It was a mess! I was absolutely amazed, however, how quickly everything came together, and the place was spiffed up in no time.
- The reservation system was created eons ago and was on an old DOS system. It was the most frustrating thing ever! I have never used DOS and don’t ever want to again. There is nothing intuitive about DOS. I was forever having to backtrack, then figure out how to get where I wanted to go. Nothing straight forward about it. Too many steps to do one simple task. I HATED IT! I got pretty good at it by the end of the summer, but it is very frustrating to be on the phone with someone who wants to make a simple reservation and have to keep apologizing because it is taking so long. The good thing is, there is a new Microsoft system for next year. Even if I have to learn a new system all over again, it CAN’T be as bad as that one was.
- There was a huge wind storm during the “opening chores” week that knocked all of the remaining old pine cones out of the trees. The entire park was littered with pine cones. We all had to drop everything we were doing and rake the entire park. We hauled away pine cones in pickup truck loads – several of them. It was back-breaking and blister-causing work. And we weren’t in shape yet. We prayed there wouldn’t be another windstorm like it.
- Montana has a fire season every summer. Steamboat has mud season, Montana has fire season. It didn’t rain in Montana from the middle of June through August. Although this was an extreme drought year, the state allocates millions of dollars to fire suppression each year. And with the rugged terrain, it is very difficult to fight the fires. Fires started burning in British Columbia first and smoke started to blow into the campground in June. By July, there were fires starting in Montana, most started by dry lightening. There was a huge fire south of Missoula (south of us) that, before we left in September, had burned over 160,000 acres! In August, the Sprague fire, started by lightening in Glacier National Park, and only 30 miles away, added to the smoke problem. The historic Sprague Chalet (a more than 100-year-old structure that hikers can hike into for lodging and meals – not accessible by car ) burned down. Going-to-the-Sun Road had to be closed to Logan pass (the entire western side of the park and the most scenic), and eventually Apgar Village (at the west entrance to the park) was also evacuated. People started cancelling their reservations for camping. A Stage II fire ban (no open wood or charcoal fires – propane only) was put in place by the state. I not only felt bad for the guests who may have been planning their Glacier vacation for years and may never have the opportunity again, but also, the park owners who have such a short window in which to make all of their money for the year in basically 10 weeks (and really only from the 4th of July through the third week in August before the kids go back to school).
- You can’t please all of the people all of the time. This was probably the hardest part of the job for me. I want to be a people-pleaser. It makes me happy when someone else is happy, especially if I had something to do with their happiness. The nightly rates for this park are more than we would ever pay to stay anywhere, but, for families, it is a great deal! If you have kids, there couldn’t be a better place. There are “fun bikes” the kids can use for free. There is a petting zoo! There is a pool and a hot tub, an 18-hole frisbee golf course, mini-golf, a game room with multiple video games and pinball machines, pool tables and pingpong. There is basketball, volleyball, giant chess board and an in-ground pool game. And paddleboats. The playground has swings, a “fort” and a slackline. AND, all campers get a free full-blown breakfast buffet – a good one! It’s all included in the price. There is so much to do, a kid would rather stay in the park than go out sight-seeing or do any of the activities available in the area. Yes, you could pay the same to stay in a hotel, but you wouldn’t have the experience of the outdoors, the stars over your head, the s’mores over an open campfire, or the wildlife. Adults can relax while their kids enjoy themselves, both knowing they are safe. Families return here, year after year, and some, multiple times per year. But, if you are a single or an older couple, even just a couple who isn’t going to use all the amenities, your expectations may not be met. It amazed me, all summer, how, from July 4th weekend until the third week in August, the park was about 110% full -despite the prices. We had people willing to pay to camp in the parking lot or on any small spit of grass that was available – week after week. I guess the lesson here is, know what kind of a park you are checking into. They aren’t all the same.
All in all, our assumption about not wanting to travel in the summer was correct. After experiencing how desperate people are to get camping spots when they are able to travel, we will continue to travel in our RV when the kids are in school. While the weather is generally better in the summer, this is exactly why people travel then. As retired people, we are free to travel when others don’t – except other seniors. We learned that we love workamping, love refilling our coffers so we can do even more travel, and love what it does for our physical and mental well-being. As long as we are able, summer (and maybe even winter) workamping will be a part of this RV adventure.