Get outside

Campers take to local parks as camping season gets underway

Roger and Nancy Leo, campground hosts at John F. Kennedy Memorial Park, enjoy all the comforts of home in their fifth wheel. Just like home, they each have their favorite recliner.

There is a crispness in the air that is different here, where tents and campers of all sizes and features gather. In the morning, the smell of coffee brewing on a Coleman stove slowly drifts across the campground. In the evening, small talk seasons the air as friends and family gather round a fire to roast marshmallows.

Throughout the day, kids fly by on their bicycles. An older couple strolls by with their dog, savoring the day. Moms and dads clean and fry the fish, and bandage scraped knees, wanting a few minutes to relax.

Camping is an outdoor adventure with something to offer to people of all ages and interests. While the season begins in earnest with the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, diehard campers have been out for weeks, enjoying area parks before the crowds arrive.

Roger and Nancy Leo, of Fort Dodge, have served as campground hosts at John F. Kennedy Memorial Park north of Fort Dodge for 10 years now. Both retired, they show no signs of slowing down and love the relaxed atmosphere of the park.

“We enjoy meeting all the people,” Roger Leo said. “We’ve made a lot of camper friends over the years.”

Even the family cat has a favorite place to call its own in Roger and Nancy Leo’s fifth wheel. The couple actually camps with two cats, who enjoy basking in the sun and watching birds out the window.

Like the Leos, many of the campers are from Webster County and the surrounding area who enjoy the convenience of camping close to home. But other times, they meet folks from all over the nation.

“This morning I talked to a couple from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan,” Roger Leo said. “They were coming back from South Padre Island and making their way home. I assume they were just looking up county parks online as they go.”

As campground hosts, the Leos provide information to other campers and help with a multitude of duties around the park. Especially to newcomers, answering questions about the park and community is an important part of the job. They also clean the bathrooms, sell firewood, and are available to help out in a pinch.

As experienced campers, they understand that getting the hang of parking and setting up a rig can take a little practice.

“We like to sit out here and watch people come in and park,” Nancy Leo said.

Jatessa and Alyssa Martin, of Fort Dodge, are all smiles on their first outing with their new R-Pod travel trailer at John F. Kennedy Memorial Park recently. The couple were making quick work of leveling up the camper and getting ready for their first adventure together.

“That’s part of the entertainment, watching other people try to park,” Roger Leo agreed with a warm smile.

The Leos began camping largely because they inherited their first camper, a fifth wheel, from his parents.

“It started out that my folks had a fifth wheel, and they were on their second one and passed it down, along with the pickup to haul it,” Roger Leo said. “I got the fifth wheel because my brothers got farm equipment. I wasn’t farming, so I got the fifth wheel. That’s how it started.”

The Leos took to camping easily and today spend much of the year camping. They serve as campground hosts when the park opens on April 15 and serve through Memorial Day weekend. They then return as hosts on Labor Day and serve until the park closes on Oct. 15.

In between, they visit other parks in Iowa and Minnesota, and even come back to Kennedy as regular campers. Sunny days will find them outside, visiting with other campers, and getting ready to cook most meals outside. While outdoor kitchens have become popular with many campers, the Leos prefer either a stand-alone grill or just a good old fire.

Denny and Lori Summers, center, are joined by their children, Tanner and Lindsey, for a Mother’s Day celebration at the family’s campsite at Brushy Creek State Recreation Area.

“We have a gas grill, but I like to cook on the open fire,” Roger Leo said.

On rainy days, and there have been a few of those this spring, they have a puzzle board set up on the dining room table in their spacious camper.

Their fifth wheel features a comfy sofa, where the family cats hold court and bask in the sun, as well as matching recliners. There is space for an outdoor TV, and the Leos occasionally slide one in, but they don’t make a lot of use of it.

“About the only time we use an outdoor TV is in the fall when we watch football with friends,” Roger Leo said.

The fifth wheel provides just about anything the couple can want, including a large, residential refrigerator and kitchen island.

Tanner Summers has a low fire burning in preparation for some barbecuing later in the evening at his family’s campsite at Brushy Creek State Recreation Area.

“It’s like a motel on wheels,” Nancy Leo said.

Her advice for anyone shopping for a larger fifth wheel is to get one with two air conditioners, allowing one to be dedicated to the bedroom area.

“If you are camping a lot, look for one with two air conditioners,” she said. “When we had only one, it would get hot in there because it didn’t really keep up.”

For those unfamiliar with the terminology, it’s easy to identify a fifth wheel because they connect to a hitch in the bed of a pickup truck, while travel trailers are towed behind a vehicle with a conventional hitch. Fifth wheels, generally speaking, are larger and heavier. Not every pickup will haul a fifth wheel, but many vehicles will have the horsepower to haul a travel trailer.

Mobile homes are self-contained with their own drive train. Mobile homes, which come in three class sizes, from small camper vans to mansions on wheels, can be a good way to go for first-timers.

Of course, there’s still nothing wrong with a tent, although they are not as common as they once were.

“Tent campers are few and far between, but there are still some,” Roger Leo said. “They tend to be people who love the outdoors, hiking, and are just really comfortable outside.”

As for Nancy Leo, as much as she loves camping, she likes the fact that they are seasonal hosts and can change where they camp for several weeks in the summer. By the time the season ends, that’s OK with her.

“When camping season ends, we are ready to go home and get back into some routines,” she said. “But by the time winter comes, we are ready to go back out and camp.”

A new adventure

Jatessa and Alyssa Martin, of Fort Dodge, were ready to try something new this spring so they opted to purchase their first travel trailer. The R-Pod by Forest River has a sleek design and is lightweight, while offering modern amenities.

“It was between this, a golf cart, or a boat,” the couple said. They added, almost in unison, “This was a good choice.”

After pulling it from Jefferson for their first camping excursion, they were learning how to get the travel trailer level and set up for a long weekend. While they have each done a little camping in the past, this is mostly a new adventure.

“I did some camping as a kid, but not in my adult life,” Jatessa Martin said. “This was my first time pulling a camper, but I feel like I got it.”

Their dogs were already enjoying the outing at Kennedy Park.

Alyssa Martin recalled doing a little camping growing up at Holstein, but never with a camper.

“I used to do some tent camping as a kid, but nothing inside a camper,” Alyssa Martin said. “I didn’t like anything about tent camping. It was hot; it was buggy.”

The Martins are hoping for better luck in the comfort of their new R-Pod travel trailer.

“We just wanted a break from everything and thought we would try camping,” Jatessa Martin said.

While the couple will have internet access on their smartphones, they hope to spend much of their time unplugged while camping.

“We plan to do some fishing, take some walks with the dogs, and just hang out and relax,” Alyssa Martin said.

Room to spread out at Brushy

Denny and Lori Summers, of Dayton, are regular campers in one of the equine campgrounds at Brushy Creek State Recreation Area. While they don’t have horses themselves, they appreciate the wide open spaces of the campground and the fact that there’s room for campers to spread out.

“It’s a beautiful area because it’s so open,” Denny Summers said. “You’re not right next to people. A lot of people don’t know what they are missing.”

His wife quickly agreed. “You’ve got your own, personal space,” Lori Summers said.

The couple appreciates the fact that they are close to home, enabling them to easily extend their stay during the work week.

“We both work in Fort Dodge, so this is kind of a middle ground between home and work,” she added.

The couple has a fifth wheel camper with a home-like kitchen and plenty of room for their grown son and daughter to join them whenever possible.

“This camper is like a home away from home,” Lori Summers said. “It’s loaded with everything.”

The kitchen island has room for multiple family members to help prepare the evening meal, and the full-size refrigerator can hold plenty of food. The camper even has hook-ups for a washer and dryer, which would make it easy for full-time campers. The family currently doesn’t take advantage of that feature, but it’s available just in case.

Besides, who wants to do laundry when a person can sit beside the fire outside? The Summers family enjoys fishing at the lake and taking walks together.

“I like to come out in the morning and enjoy the warm sun and hear the birds singing,” Lori Summers said. “I also enjoy the nights when we get a fire going and can roast some marshmallows.”

The family gives great credit to their campground hosts at Brushy Creek, Steven and Kathy Haakenson.

“Having great campground hosts makes all the difference,” Denny Summers said. “They are great people. We camp here all the time and they are very good hosts; you can even go up and borrow a little sugar if you need to.”

While duties of the campground hosts vary from park to park, they are always sources of information and guidance for campers. The Haakensons have been hosting at Brushy Creek for 20 years and were busy on the lawn mowers on a recent afternoon, keeping the campground looking great for other campers.

“Our camp hosts are wonderful,” Lori Summers said. “They keep us up to date and let us know if there is bad weather coming in.”

The family has ridden out a few storms in their seven years of camping at Brushy Creek. When bad weather threatens, the camp hosts open up the storm shelter, which the Summers have used on occasion.

Most of all, the family simply enjoys being together in the great outdoors. Son Tanner was collecting firewood for a campfire on a recent evening. Daughter Lindsey said she enjoys taking walks with her mom in the campground.

Both Denny and Lori Summers grew up camping and are happy to continue the family tradition.

“When I was a kid, we had an old bus that my dad converted into a camper,” Denny Summers recalled. “It was a lot of fun.”

The family’s fifth wheel offers more modern conveniences, but the happy family memories remain much the same.


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