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Families find joy in camp lifestyle

Mirror photo by Nate Powles / (From left) Becky Lambie, Jared Lambie, Kristy Mitchell and Jason Lambie play a game of “7 Wonders: Architects” during their annual camping trip at Prince Gallitzin State Park on Tuesday.

Some families fly to other countries during the summer. Some take road trips and stay in hotels. Others go on cruises and avoid land altogether. But an increasing number of people are choosing to pitch a tent, rent a cabin or purchase or rent an RV and camp out under the stars.

While camping isn’t new, many newcomers have entered the outdoor world in the last two years due to COVID-19 shutdowns and mitigation efforts.

When folks were told to stay home and avoid gatherings to stay safe, camping was the one avenue available for those feeling stir crazy as even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended camping as a vacation option.

Returning to roots

For Dave and Sandy Streets of Davidsville, camping is a family tradition as the couple have taken their daughter ever since she was young. Then she grew up, and they took several years off. When COVID-19 hit and Sandy retired, the outdoors were calling and the couple bought an RV in May 2020.

Traveling across the country was not what the couple had in mind, so they found Friendship Village Campground in Bedford and decided to book a seasonal spot. They take the camper to their designated spot on Memorial Day and keep it there through October. Dave is a full-time pastor at West Hills Community Church in Johnstown, while Sandy is the part-time office manager. Sandy said she is able to come to the campground more frequently than Dave and often spends a couple of days at the site during the week while Dave is working.

Dave said that as a minister, he spends a lot of his time with people and in conversation, so their campsite is the couple’s getaway where they are not obligated to interact with people constantly and can spend time with each other and recharge.

However, if they do feel like having people over, they have met several friendly people at the campground and they occasionally have church members over for cookouts.

Sandy said that the camper has become a sort of timeshare for the family, now that their daughter is grown and married with two young children. She said the two couples schedule different times of the summer to spend at the campground and the reservations rarely overlap for very long.

Dave said he and Sandy prefer to be alone when they’re at the campsite, so they don’t stay at the same time as their grandchildren. They said they spend a lot of their time at home with their daughter and family, so it’s nice to have their camping “getaway.”

Sandy said the campground is perfect for families with young children because there are usually some sort of activities every weekend. There’s “never a dull moment,” she said. The Streets’ camper is also parked right across from a playground and bounce platform, so their grandchildren are able to go play while the adults can supervise from the campsite.

Getting away from it all

Some families and couples have been camping for decades, and COVID-19 only encouraged them to get out more than usual.

Bruce and Monika Jacoby from New Jersey have been camping for 35 years. They started with a tent, then when they had their three children, a popup camper was next in line.

As the kids grew, so did the camper. Eventually, Monika said they got “tired of towing” and bought a standalone motorhome.

Camping has always been a peaceful, stress-relieving time for the couple, and they said they look forward to spending more time on the road soon when they both fully retire.

Parked at Shawnee State Park this week, the couple said it was the farthest west they had ever camped. They picked the park because they enjoy exploring new state parks and, Monika said, New Jersey is not ideal for camping.

“I enjoy nature,” Monika said. “We both enjoy being outdoors.”

Electronics often take a backseat while they’re camping, with Monika noting that she’ll sit outside and read, unplugged from the outside world.

Despite the rise in fuel prices, campers said they’ve not changed their plans as paying a lot for fuel comes with the territory.

RVs can range anywhere from 6 to 15 mpg.

“It comes with the territory,” Monika said, noting their truck would average 11-12 mpg when towing a camper.

Kenny Burtnatt of Bedford agreed, saying the getaway from town is worth the expense.

He and his wife have been camping for 22 years and have worked their way up from a small tagalong to their current single-unit motorhome.

Retired and working just a day or two part time, Burtnatt said he is able to spend a lot of time at Shawnee during the week.

The couple do stay home on the weekends when Bedford has dirt racing events, because his wife helps with those, but that works out anyway since it’s almost impossible to get reservations at the park for weekends because spaces book up very quickly and far in advance.

Like the Jacobys, Burtnatt has a dog and sometimes there are issues finding campgrounds that allow pets.

At Shawnee, there are designated areas that are pet-friendly. That’s not true at all of Pennsylvnia’s state parks, he said, noting he’s had no problems finding pet-friendly campsites in other states he’s visited.

While some enjoy camping for its rustic feel and the ability to unplug from the world, Burtnatt readily admitted he and his wife go “glamping” with satellite TV and devices with wireless data. In fact, they recently had to run back home after her iPad’s SIM card stopped working. She was able to turn her smartphone into a mobile hotspot to watch her shows on the iPad, Burtnatt said, proving that even the most connected people can find a home in the camping world.

Why not host?

State and national parks have a host system for their campgrounds. A family or couple is allowed to stay onsite for an agreed-upon amount of time in exchange for being the first point of contact for campers and doing light maintenance work on the sites.

Hosts are not paid, but the position is often for those who love camping and the outdoors and are willing to help their fellow campers.

A host couple at Prince Gallitzin State Park who wished to remain anonymous said they have been hosting at a few different parks for seven years. They get enjoyment from seeing new generations of campers who need help navigating camping life.

“It seems like families are getting back to camping,” the wife said. “For a while, it was just the kids or just the parents, but now families are coming together.”

The husband said hosts have no actual authority and have to report issues to the park managers. Hosts are there to simply help the campers and prepare the sites and grounds after departures.

The hosts said they saw an influx of new campers with the arrival of COVID-19, as more people explored new outlets outdoors.

“Our theory was we’re out here in our own little world, in the wide open,” the husband said. “We never slowed down.”

The wife said that camping is not a cheap sport, but it’s like any other hobby. “It’s an investment.”

As for the work involved as a host, his wife said she really enjoys making sure sites are spotless for when new arrivals pull in, so they feel welcome and like they are at a second home during their stay.

Weekend stays are the most popular, the husband said. “We call them weekend warriors.”

After the typical camping season is over, the retired couple drives to Florida to escape the snow, meaning the two are camping the majority of the year.

“It’s relaxing; you’re outdoors; you get to experience nature,” the wife said of why they enjoy camping so much. “You meet a lot of nice people from all walks of life.”

Generational tradition

For some families, camping becomes a tradition that endures for several generations.

The Gossard/Lambie family has been traveling to Prince Gallitzin for almost 25 years. Jason Lambie said he met his wife, Becky, at a camping group that he and his brother Jared attended starting in fifth grade. Becky had been camping with her parents, Jim and Cindy Gossard, as long as she could remember, so camping became common ground for the families.

“My wife and I were doing this with these kids back when they were little wee guys,” Jim said. “So it’s been a long time going.”

Originally both from the Johnstown area, Jason said he and Becky eventually moved to the Hershey area, so they lost contact with some of the camping group. The tradition was rebooted with Becky’s parents and other relatives, as well as Jason’s brother and members of his extended family, after Jason and Becky had their first son, Jonah. The group now boasts anywhere from 30 to 40 people at a given time.

Prince Gallitzin became the meeting ground of choice, since a lot of the family is from Glendale and the surrounding area. The group comes for a week at the park and the time spent together is irreplaceable.

“Prince Gallitzin, we say, is magic because there’s nothing to do here,” Becky said. “The kids have freedom to just go and explore.”

Becky said that when given the choice between the week at Prince Gallitzin and a week at the beach, the “kids” — ranging from the youngest at 10 up to Jonah — always choose what they call “cousins week,” since they’re able to see family that they might not see very often.

Mixed in with campfires, swimming, exploring and relaxing, the group also sits down together for board games.

Family friends Patrick and Kristy Mitchell, who became part of the group several years ago, bring a new game almost every summer.

The games are a big hit, and after the week wraps up, it’s not uncommon for group members to run to the store to buy the game.

Now that the kids are mostly grown up, the week tends to be more relaxing, Becky said.

“It used to be a whole lot of work. … You finally get the youngest down for a nap, then it’s your turn to cook,” she said.

The tradition for meals — since the group is usually split between four or five campsites — is that one site is designated “it” each night for dinner and has the responsibility of making all the food for everyone that day. Sometimes it will be potluck style and each site brings its own dish to share, but most days, one site is given all the responsibility.

There are requests for certain meals that have become so popular that even if some of the family can’t make it to the park for the entire week, they’ll drive over just to take in that one special meal.

Becky and Jason’s second son drove to Prince Gallitzin after work one night last week to be at camp for his grandparents’ special breakfast. Cindy makes pancakes in a mountain pie iron and Jim cooks sausage that he picks up from a butcher in Johnstown.

With four generations gathered, the camping tradition will endure, the group said.

Mirror Staff Writer Nate Powles is at 814-946-7466.

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