Having spent most of the past 8 years camping on the western side of the continent, we’ve become accustomed to a generally laid back and easygoing style of governance at provincial and state parks. They all had basic rules (usually on a small wooden sign), but with skeleton staff, no one really is around to enforce them. That said, most people pretty much behave reasonably, and if not, out west, we deal with issues camper to camper.
So when we started visiting state parks in the east, we were surprised to discover the incredible number of park staff working in the office, patrolling around in their trucks and carts, and generally having an omnipresent influence on your camping experience. And as with any large work force, bureaucracy takes hold and along comes all the supporting rules and regulations.
The first place we visited was Fisherman’s Memorial State Park in Maine. When we arrived, there was a small glass booth at the entrance (like at a pay parking lot) and a male park staff peered out, asking what we needed. We said we’re looking for a campsite. So he handed us an orange piece of paper and told us to proceed up the road to the office to check in. The orange paper advised us that in order to register, we needed to show proof of vehicle registration, a valid driver’s license, and if you have any pets, an up-to-date rabies vaccination certificate. Wow, we’re only camping for a night, not buying a Time Share in the place!
So after digging out all the papers, Papa Bear marched into the office and noticed four park staff behind the counter (only one was checking in campers). After waiting about 10 minutes for the guy in front to get his site, Papa Bear nervously approached and presented all the documents, which were inspected, photocopied and returned. Two forms were then handed over to fill out – a check-in sheet requiring all address and contact information, and a signed attestation that the dog did not have rabies. Geez, you’ve photocopied all my paperwork – now on file – and that’s still not enough? Anyway, having completed the 10 minute ‘swearing in ceremony’ we were finally assigned a site.
The second SP we visited was Voorhees State Park in New Jersey. Voorhees is somewhat off the beaten path and is relatively small so when we arrived (mid week in the Fall) it wasn’t surprising that there wasn’t any park staff in the office. So we drove up to the camping area and noticed a huge sign saying NO PETS. What? Is this South Africa during Apartheid? What state campground doesn’t allow pets at all? We proceeded anyway and discovered only one unoccupied tent in the entire campground. The place was empty. There were no self-registration forms, so Papa Bear phoned a park number listed on a washroom building and spoke to a friendly young man who said he could register us over the phone. When told that we had a service dog, ‘Jason’ said as long as she had papers she could stay in the campground. Jason also advised that because he wouldn’t have time to drive up and place a tag at our site, he would advise the park police via email that we had paid. Everything seemed fine.
Then at 11:15pm, with all of us dead asleep, headlights beamed into the front of the RV. Then a few seconds later, there was a loud BANG, BANG, BANG on the door accompanied by a male voice shouting ‘Park Police.’ Papa Bear jumped out of bed, hid the Bear under the covers, then opened the door. The young officer, clad in full black police uniform including bulletproof vest, shined his flashlight in, stating ‘I noticed you have no park tag, have you paid?’ Papa Bear affirmed payment and explained that Jason said he would send out an email. The boyish-faced officer (likely hoping to one day join the nearby NYPD) responded that he hadn’t received any email so would require identification to confirm we had paid. After handing over a driver’s license, Papa Bear sat in his underwear waiting for the eager officer to run all the necessary checks (vehicle lights now flashing). Good thing the Bear kept quiet or that would have been another issue. A couple of minutes later, the license was returned and we were told to have a good night. Gee, thanks Officer Friendly…
So after taking a while to get back to sleep, we were awoken at 7:30am the next morning to the sound of an extremely loud and revving engine. When it didn’t quit after a few minutes, Papa Bear got up to see that a huge sanitation truck was emptying the septic tank from a nearby washroom. There were also four SP trucks all parked around the septic truck, with park staff standing around watching this noisy operation. Where did all these guys come from? Not wanting to deal with the whole ‘No dogs allowed’ – ‘She’s a Service dog’ issue, we decided to clandestinely go about our morning walk through the wooded trails to avoid another confrontation.
We then made our way to Pennsylvania and arrived at Pine Grove Furnace State Park. This park had a less rigorous check in procedure (no proof of documents required) and there were designated pet sites (still a bit weird) but at least we could legitimately camp there. However, we had to pay a $4 reservation fee, even though we were checking in immediately. It did have one pretty cool feature – a forge from the 1700s that was used for making wrought iron and munitions during the civil war.
But when we started hiking around, the Bear firmly fixed on her leash, we came across the park regulations. Holy Magna Carta! You gotta be kidding.
Not don’t get us wrong. Each of these state parks had some nice qualities and we certainly appreciate basic rules and decorum. It’s just that compared to all this insanity, we now really appreciate the Wild West, and the true spirit of camping in the (near) wilderness.