Barb Carley says that as hosts of the Bunker Hills Campground in Andover, she and husband George are the eyes and ears of the park.

Some would argue that for 17 summers they've been its heart and soul.

The Carleys have lived in an RV on a landscaped campsite from late April until early October. They're there to take care of late check-ins and firewood sales, direct visitors to park and local amenities, and much more.

The couple, who took on the volunteer job in retirement, will be retiring for real at the end of the summer, moving to their winter home in Mesa, Ariz. A search is on for a new volunteer host at the campground, Anoka County Parks spokeswoman Jennifer Fink acknowledges that their shoes will be hard to fill.

"When they told us, I actually cried a little," she said. "I don't know how we could find two more giving individuals."

After the Carleys retired for the first time -- George was an electrician, Barb was a registered nurse and a stay-at-home mom -- they spent time traveling around the country, towing their RV behind them. In all, they camped in 48 states. Many had hosts to greet people and keep an eye on things.

As they headed back to their Roseville home, Barb made the suggestion: What would you think about being a camp host? George thought it was a great idea.

At the time, Bunker Lake Campground had a caretaker but no hosts, and parks officials embraced the idea of taking them on.

Over the years, the park has grown from 26 campsites with two outhouses to 70 sites and three bathroom buildings with showers and electrical outlets. The Carleys have seen a real change in the character of the park, once a hotbed of high school keg parties, but now a quiet, family-oriented escape for campers who travel anywhere from three to 3,000 miles to get there. They have good communication with campground staff to spot potential problems early and head them off.

"They're so rare now," Barb said. "We haven't had an incident in three years that's even worth talking about."

Rewarding times

But their role is about more than reporting rowdy campers.

Some of the most rewarding moments, they said, are times like when Barb patched up a skinned knee and consoled a kid who fell off his bike, or when George applied his mechanical expertise to a camper's stalled car. They've also cherished lifelong relationships they've formed with return visitors and the seasonal and permanent park workers.

The Carleys can always be counted upon, Fink said, for the jars of sweet and sour refrigerator pickles and the rhubarb desserts they prepare in their tiny, but meticulously clean and well-ordered kitchen.

"It's strictly a one-butt kitchen," George joked.

Stormy moments

Some of the hardest times have been when the park was pummeled by severe storms. Many visitors have never heard a storm-warning siren before, and don't know what it means, so George has to go from site to site to direct each group to safety. It's nerve-wracking every time, Barb said, noting that they've had to do it four times already this year.

Three years ago, they decided it was time to stop hauling the 35-foot camper back and forth from Minnesota to Arizona, or to Mexico. They bought the house in Arizona. Last year, they announced that this year would be the last.

"Everything we've done we know it's the right time to do it, so we never look back," Barb said.

She said she hopes the position will remain a volunteer opportunity.

"I hope it's not someone who's doing something for the money," she said. "If they're doing it for the money, there's no heart in the job."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409