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Park Hosts On The Job
If you're retired, like traveling and don't mind putting down roots for just a few months at a time, there may be a job for you.

Just ask Bob Morris or the husband-wife team of Jerry and Gwenne Johnson. The three are currently serving as 'park hosts' at McHenry Recreation Area in Escalon. They work with the park rangers through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, based in Knights Ferry, and are basically caretakers for the park while they are there.

Bob Morris is situated at the 'B' site in McHenry Rec, the further site in of the two host locations. He is on a 90-day assignment here, then will rotate out and another host will move in to the RV site he currently occupies.

A Texas resident, Morris said he now lives in his motor home fulltime.

"I spend my winters in Yuma, Arizona and volunteer three months a year," he said of working as a park host. "Last year I volunteered for the National Park Service ... this year it's the Corps of Engineers. I just enjoy volunteering."

He started his volunteer work in Oregon many years ago, where he worked at a food bank.

"They tell me you live longer if you volunteer," Morris said, smiling.

Prior to retirement, Morris was a firefighter-paramedic but he isn't called on to use his training while serving as park host. He is responsible for making sure the park is neat and clean and splits shifts with his fellow park hosts on busy weekends when it's necessary to shut the gates at the entrance when the park fills up.

"You have to be a people person," he added of hosting. "You can't get upset too easily."

His daily routine includes checking the 'beach' areas along the river to make sure they are free of trash and debris, as well as tidying up the many picnic areas in the park.

"The park fills up on weekends," Morris said. "We do have to close it when it gets too full. We close it an hour and a half at a time."

Hopefully, some patrons will have left in that 90-minute window so others can be allowed in.

Open 6 a.m. until sunset, Morris said the gates open automatically at 6 a.m. and a park ranger comes in each night to close the park. A deputy is also on duty at the park on the weekends from 1 p.m. until closing, to help deal with any potential problems.

After finishing his time at McHenry Rec, Morris will get back on the road, ready to spend the rest of the summer in a somewhat cooler climate, heading to Oregon.

For retirees who, like Morris, prefer the simple comforts of motor home living, it's just about the perfect job.

"I get a full hook up site," he said, "and all the trash I can pick up."

Jerry and Gwenne Johnson are from Long Beach and also live in their RV full time. They have worked at other parks in the 'string of pearls' parks system along the Stanislaus River in the past and, after completing their assignment at McHenry Rec, will head a little further east and work at Knights Ferry.

"It's not a concrete jungle," Jerry Johnson said of what he enjoys most about the work.

"It's quiet at night when everybody goes home, you can hear the frogs, the birds," wife Gwenne added.

The two are happy to make their home in the park, settling in at the 'A' site with their two dogs, Buster and Phoebe, and making their rounds to keep the park clean and appealing for visitors. They have also become known around town as the 'upside down tomato people' because they use an apparatus that allows them to grow tomatoes without the benefit of planting them in the ground; the tomatoes hang down from their own soil pack and are portable.

"We like fried green tomatoes," Jerry said.

"We'll pick a couple at the end of the day and fry them up," Gwenne added, looking at the crop. "There's nothing like them."

Gwenne said volunteering their time to care for the park is a good exchange for getting the RV site, complete with power, water and sewer hook-up.

"This camp is pretty busy every weekend," Jerry said, agreeing with fellow host Morris about the way the crowds pack in.

While most people think of the park as drawing people only during the summer, Gwenne said there is a steady stream of visitors.

"We still have fishermen, there's boating and rafting all year," she noted. "People are always going to use the river."

The nomadic lifestyle the couple lives is one the dogs have adapted to as well.

"When we open the door and step out, they look around and say 'where are we this time?'" Gwenne said, chuckling.

"They travel quite well, actually," agreed Jerry.

Both said Easter was a very busy time this year, with an early heat wave, and that Memorial Day is when weekends really start to bring the crowds in to the park.

Looking forward to spending some time at Knights Ferry when they are done at McHenry, Gwenne said they really enjoy this part of the state.

"We'll probably be back here again next year," she said.