Their living quarters may be small, but once Brenda and Barry Mattern step outside, they can claim a huge park as their living room.
As campground hosts at Birds Hill Provincial Park, the Matterns live on-site in their Fifth-Wheel trailer from May to Thanksgiving, ready to help fellow campers.
"It’s a nice way to spend your time if you like visiting people," Barry Mattern, 78, says of the nearly six months the couple camps out at the popular provincial park half an hour north of Winnipeg.
"I like being able to walk out the door and you’re into the woods and into the park," adds Brenda Mattern, 68.
One of two sets of summer hosts at the busy campground, the Matterns look after campers at the 220 sites in eight bays on the west side of the campground, and the other set of hosts looks after the east side. The hosts campsites are marked on the map handed out to all incoming campers.
The position requires them to be on-site every weekend through the camping season, which for Birds Hill runs from early May to Thanksgiving, as well as several weeks in the summer, explains Sloan Cathcart, head of interpretation for Manitoba Parks.
'They're out here to relax and enjoy it and get from their work. Because of that people tend to be more friendly and more open'— Brenda Mattern
"We’re looking for people who are outgoing and know the parks system and have some experience in volunteering with the public," says Cathcart of the campground host position.
In exchange for their time, the hosts receive a free full-service campsite and park pass for the summer, says Cathcart, and some hosts return to the post year after year.
"When they apply, we ask them for their preference (of park) and we try to place people according to their preference," he says.
In addition to Bird’s Hill, the parks system places summer hosts at St. Malo, Spruce Woods, Nopiming, Grand Beach and Whiteshell provincial parks.
"We tend to have hosts in locations where we have park interpreters and they work closely with the interpreter," says Cathcart.
The Matterns attend every interpretative event at the nearby amphitheatre, about a five-minute walk from their campsite, and ensure all campers under their watch know about the park activities. Each Friday, Saturday and Sunday, they don name tags and Manitoba Parks ball caps for their stroll around their assigned bays, handing out flyers about the interpretive programs, answering questions or just saying hello.
"When you walk around, people are friendly, appreciative and interested," Brenda says of the daily task that takes two hours and has them logging 10,000 steps.
The pace slows during the week with fewer campers in the park and ramps back up during weekends. During the recent Winnipeg Folk Festival, campers filled the provincial campground as well the temporary festival campgrounds, but most of the action stayed at the festival site, says Brenda.
"Actually it was very quiet with about 90 per cent adults at the park (campground) and very few kids, and nobody was ever there," she says of the daytime campground activity.
"It doesn’t really affect us that much other than people getting lost," says Barry of the extra load during the annual festival.
Before they retired from their day jobs — Brenda worked at Manitoba Hydro and Barry delivered mail for Canada Post — the couple spent their summer weekends travelling to different provincial campgrounds with the Nomads, a camping club of about a dozen couples. Initially they slept in a tent, then graduated to a tent trailer, and since retirement in 2007, they’ve lived full-time in their 12-metre-long Cardinal Fifth-Wheel trailer, equipped with a full kitchen, dining table for four and two couches.
Their bedroom on the elevated part of the trailer features an ensuite bathroom with a shower, and has room for a king-sized bed, covered with a handmade quilt featuring scenes from the African savannah. Slide outs on each side of the living room expand the space into a roomy 11-by-14-foot area, giving them all the amenities of home, including a flat-screen television.
They’ve clocked 338,000 kilometres on their Dodge Ram pickup truck, mostly from hauling the trailer back and forth between their winter campsite in Yuma, Ariz. and St. Paul, Alta., about two hours northeast of Edmonton, where they managed a private campground each summer for nine years.
"This is camping, and St. Paul was strictly an RV park," Brenda explains about the difference between their Alberta paying job and their summer volunteer gig at Birds Hill.
And the clientele differed as well. Oil workers on short-term jobs populated the St. Paul park, while Birds Hill attracts many families looking to enjoy the beach, the biking trails,and the natural surroundings of aspen/oak parkland and native prairie.
"Provincial parks tend to be more secluded and private campgrounds are more wide open," Barry says of the difference in personal space.
As managers of a private campground, the Matterns cleaned washrooms, cut the grass, collected park fees and occasionally intervened when some residents got too loud. At the provincial campground, their role is to be friendly and answer questions, with park staff dealing with noise complaints.
"In our position, we’ve helped out people with different little things, like extensions cords or having the wrong plugs," Brenda says of the requests from other campers.
Married 25 years, the Matterns applied for the volunteer position after wrapping up their tenure in St. Paul two years ago, wanting to be closer to their blended family of five children and seven grandchildren. After a dozen years of living on wheels full time, the Matterns now rent an apartment in north Winnipeg, popping in a couple of times a week to do laundry and water houseplants.
Despite minor inconveniences, such as driving to Winnipeg for groceries and living in a small space, the Matterns enjoy the camping lifestyle. The novelty of cooking and eating outside has long faded, but they haven’t tired of the beauty of their natural surroundings, or the delight of children making the campground their home for a few days at a time.
"It’s nice to see kids outside," she says of the children riding their bikes or playing in the lanes.
Most of all, they like the slower pace of living in a beautiful park alongside temporary neighbours who looking for a change of scenery.
"The people are out here to enjoy it. They’re out here to relax and enjoy it and get away from their work," Brenda says of her fellow campers.
"Because of that people tend to be more friendly and more open."
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.