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Dave and Mary Neps stand by their 1974 Airstream camping trailer in Starved Rock Campground. The Neps are volunteer hosts at the campground — a largely unknown position at Starved Rock — and stay on the grounds assisting other visitors. Starved Rock’s campground has 129 Class-A Premium campsites. All sites are available for reservation.
It was supposed to be a two-month job for nominal money and a free space for their camper. All they had to do was work the permit booth and be available to visitors with questions.
By the time their eight weeks were up, Dave and Mary Neps of Ottawa had had so much fun they signed on for another two months as hosts at Starved Rock Campgrounds. For the first time in their working lives their “job” is to go camping and mix with interesting people who share their love for the outdoors.
“We’re at Starved Rock all the time — and we have been forever — so we thought it would be a good way to give back to the community,” Mary said. “We like it. It’s fun. You meet a lot of different people.”
Didn’t know that Starved Rock State Park employs hosts to work the campgrounds? The mostly-volunteer post has existed for the better part of two decades but isn’t well publicized and offers limited perks. Mary Neps laughingly observed the job pays a whopping $1 a day. “So we figure by the time we leave we’ll have two tanks of gas, maybe,” she said.
The Neps, however, are semi-retired — Dave had been a teacher, Mary a landscape designer — and were open to suggestion when Mark McConnaughhay told them he was looking for volunteers to work the campgrounds on Route 71 in rural Utica.
McConnaughhay, now site superintendent at Starved Rock, had known the Neps from his days running Buffalo Rock State Park and knew they spent up to 120 days a year in a tent or in their camper.
“We spent an awful lot of time at Buffalo Rock State Park — it’s been our favorite park — and when Mark moved over here he asked us if we’d be interested,” Dave Neps said. “Camping has always been a big part of our life. We spent our 30th anniversary in a tent in the Florida Keys.”
Plus, they’d recently invested in a 1974 Airstream camper they were eager to put to use. They parked the Airstream and their two dogs at the campgrounds and worked the counter issuing permits to the many visitors.
Their days have been surprisingly full. The flow of visitors is steady and the campsite spans a 2-mile walk that was becoming arduous until the Starved Rock Foundation supplied them with a golf cart. Camping, however, was a lifelong pursuit for both and they relished in the task of living and working in the great outdoors.
“I didn’t leave town except to go to Utica to get a newspaper,” Dave said. “It’s been really nice.”
Starved Rock is looking for other camping enthusiasts to serve as hosts. Park ranger Don Petre encouraged interested persons to call the park office at (815) 667-5351 and complete an application.
“We want outdoor people who are people-friendly,” he said. “It’s a great job and we want friendly people to help our campers.”
Dave and Mary Neps certainly fit the profile. When not working the permit booth to greet walk-ins, they mill about chatting with like-minded folks who share their love for Mother Nature.
“We were going to come from the beginning of April until the end of May,” Mary said, “but we like it so much we’re staying until almost the end of July, then we have other things to take care of.”