On the road again: ‘Ding’ volunteers often travel between federal parklands
Linda and Steve Evarts are the nomads of the Baby Boomer generation, in this case trekking between national parks and wildlife refuges. The Evarts and others travel in recreational vehicles or campers, hookup to utilities at federal parklands, earning their keep volunteering for teaching or other services in exchange for the free electric and water.
The Evarts are part of a group of seniors cruising America, down-sizing to the confines of an RV or trailer, seeking the backroads and isolated parklands, disconnecting from the grid that many had welcomed over their working lives. It’s estimated than more than a million retirees are choosing the life that the Evarts and others have adopted. Surveys report some 3.5 million Americans own an RV.
The Evarts, other couples, a biologist and a handful of interns live in an isolated camp on the outskirts of the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel. The property off San-Cap Road provides RV pads and several trailers that are temporary housing for interns and visitors working at the Ding. They are a small slice of the nearly 300 Ding volunteer corps, yet their commitment is more considerable, requiring 25 hours per person a week at the refuge. Ding volunteers each year log some 38,000 hours, a huge supplement as cutbacks affect federal programs.
And it’s not easy to gain acceptance in the volunteer program, Linda Evarts said. There are hoops and waitinglist obstacles to overcome, but once they’re in the system gaining acceptance from the federal authorities managing the parklands and wildlife refuges like the Ding, many of the volunteers travel between federal parks, six months in Montana, New Mexico or Virginia, for instance, and six months in warmer wintering climates — like Sanibel, where the waiting list is pages deep, said Linda Evarts, who like others at the Ding wears a blue pullover identifying her as a volunteer.
“We are traveling fools,” Linda Evarts said of the couple’s journeys between federal parklands. “There’s nothing like (our) beautiful country.”
For some, living the nomad life is in a small trailer or RV. Others push the budget, choosing rigs that a rockstar may envy. Most settle for something in the middle. Ken and Ginny Kopperl, for instance, live in a 34-foot RV with the amenities of a typical home. Retired teachers from New Jersey, the couple teach science classes and lead other programs at the Ding. Their RV is parked next to the Evarts. The vehicles rest in shaded pads, intravenously hooked to water and electricity, generators quietly humming to cool the vehicles while the couples volunteer.
Ginny Kopperl said the couple traveled at retirement, the idea of volunteering at federal parklands not on the radar. In fact, Florida was the first stop, as it is for many rushing away from the cold they couldn’t avoid as worker bees in the northern US, she said.
For many of the volunteers at the Ding, it’s the giving that is rewarding.
“You spend your whole life working, it’s nice to give back,” Ginny Kopperl said. “It’s what Ken and I are about.”
Those seeking volunteer or work/travel opportunities can check volunteer.gov or workcamper.com.