Photo by Justin A. Levine
Rollins Pond manager Jesse Gonyea is responsible for all aspects of the busy campground.
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Being the manager of any public service facility can be a challenge, but a lot of joy can also be found in helping people enjoy their experience.

Jesse Gonyea manages Rollins Pond, one of the largest state-owned campgrounds in New York, and has found that the joys tend to outweigh the struggles, even after a period of 10 years of working with the public.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people are great," Gonyea said during a recent tour of Rollins Pond.

Gonyea has worked for the state Department of Environmental Conservation's recreation bureau for a decade, and most of that time has been spent in the DEC's campgrounds. DEC operates campgrounds in the Adirondacks and Catskills, while the state department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation operates the public campgrounds outside of Forest Preserve lands.

Gonyea had previously been the caretaker at Lake Eaton campground in Long Lake before moving to Rollins two years ago.

"The campers are different here. We get a lot of Canadian campers here which you don't get at other campgrounds," Gonyea said. "There's a language barrier, but most people are really nice."

Gonyea said that smaller parks like Lake Eaton can have a lot of return customers, which is both good and bad.

"Some people feel like they can get away with anything because they know you by name. But if you miss a rule when you're checking them in, it's not crucial because they know the rules. You know that they'll be back through and you can get them then," Gonyea said. "For the most part, it's better to have the same campers coming in. You develop a lot of friendships that way too."

But with the move to a park that is almost three times the size as his previous campground, Gonyea said he wouldn't want to work in a campground with less than 100 sites. Rollins Pond has 287 sites, while Lake Eaton has 127 sites.

Rollins is the third largest DEC campground in the state, and neighboring Fish Creek is the largest with 355 sites.

"It's much quieter there. They both have their pros and cons. I liked the quiet times, but then again, I like the hustle and bustle (at Rollins)," Gonyea said. "There's never a same day in a place like this. It gets pretty hectic, but this is perfect."

According to the DEC, the original plan for Rollins Pond opened in 1955, but two more expansions were added within the decade. Rollins is accessed through the Fish Creek campground, and while sometimes seen as overflow for Fish Creek, Rollins has developed an identity of its own as a quieter, more paddler-friendly park.

Gonyea said that his job is both fun and stressful.

"It's a learning experience every day," he said. "Everybody's different. You can't please everybody, that's the big thing. It's a fun job, they give me a nice place to stay and it's nice being outdoors. We're here to make the stay for the campers the best we can."

Caretakers at DEC campgrounds are mostly seasonal employees. And while each caretaker is required to live at the campground for the season, a lot are content with rent-free housing for the summer. It doesn't hurt that most of the caretaker cabins are waterfront on the various lakes and ponds that the campgrounds line the shores of.

But with that benefit comes a lot of responsibility. Caretakers are expected to answer the phone and respond to emergencies regardless of the time of day or night. Campgrounds the size of Fish Creek and Rollins Pond are small cities when full, with Rollins being able to accommodate approximately 1,700 people when fully occupied. For comparison, the village of Lake Placid had a population of about 2,500 as of 2010. Fish Creek and Rollins Pond combined have a maximum occupancy of nearly 4,000 campers. And that doesn't include day users who might be visiting the park.

But the village also has a water department, fire department, electric department, sewage workers and a police force, along with all of the employees to manage those systems. Caretakers are required to do all of those jobs, as well as act as tour guide, dispute arbitrator, cleaning crew and primary customer service rep, while managing a staff of only about 10 people.

DEC campgrounds offer what's called primitive camping, which means that there are no services such as electric or water hook-ups at the sites. Most of the DEC parks have potable water throughout the campground, as well as showers and a dumping station for RV wastewater tanks. The water systems are subject to health department inspections and testing just like any other public drinking water system, and due to Rollins' large size, the campground boasts three such systems that run throughout the park.

Gonyea said that opening the park for the season is one of the biggest challenges that he faces. The park, and all of its 30 or so buildings, sits vacant for most of the year, as do the water systems. When staff begins to open the park for the season, usually in late April or early May, the water systems have to be filled, treated and tested.

"Getting the water systems going is one of the hardest things," Gonyea said. There can be broken pipes, open drains and bad washers or seals that can cause leaks at or between any of the campground's 24 bathrooms. Each of those leaks needs to be located and fixed in the two weeks or so that staff is in the park before it opens to the public.

And fixing the leaks is just one of the issues the campground staff faces in getting the park ready to open. Trees and branches come down, picnic tables break and there can be damage to the buildings from animals or humans that were in the park over the winter.

Then there's the paperwork and computer networks that need to be set up, and since all of the support staff in the campgrounds are seasonal, there tends to be a lot of turnover from year to year, meaning that caretakers like Gonyea need to resolve all of the set-up issues as well as train new employees on the rules, regulations and customer service aspects of the job.

But "once we get open, the park runs pretty smoothly," Gonyea said.

While running a large campground can be frustrating, difficult and demanding, Gonyea seems to take it all in stride. He enjoys the job and people, or at least most of them, who camp in the park.

"I love it, it's the best job I've ever had," Gonyea said.