Watching the steady stream of visitors flood into the Hodag Country Music Festival grounds brings little doubt they are a bunch of happy campers. Literally.
This past week, campers and RVs of every size, color and configuration were pouring into the Hodag Festival grounds.
“We have more than 5,000 campers that come to the Hodag Festival,” said an event coordinator, “and it keeps growing every year.”
And that’s just fine with Rhinelander Athletic Booster Club volunteers. Members of this organization have been directing and helping campers who come to this popular country music festival for the last 12 years, along with the Soccer Club. It’s a good deal for everyone involved, too.
“The arrangement we have worked out with Dawn Eckert, Gerry Van Harpen and Dixie Nieuwenhuis, who own the grounds, is a win-win for everyone,” said Dan Millot, a physical education teacher at Rhinelander High School (RHS), a soccer coach and the camper volunteer coordinator. “It’s a great fundraiser for a lot of the programs at RHS, but it’s also a lot of fun for the parents and supporters.”
The arrangement works like this: Parents of students, or anyone who wants to volunteer, help out at the camping station. The event coordinators donate so much money for this service and the volunteers then donate back their time in monetary value to any activity at RHS.
“Volunteers can choose what program they want to donate to,” said Dan. “Of course, I donate to the soccer program but any activity is eligible.” The money has been used to purchase uniforms, for bussing expenses to athletic games, resurfacing tennis courts, mock trial expenses and other needed items for any extracurricular activity over the years.
In addition, if a volunteer works at least 22 hours during the week (the camping station is open 24/7), he or she gets a free pass to the country music festival.
There are between 70 and 75 volunteers who take advantage of this opportunity. In addition, the volunteers get to camp in the “Elk’s Pen,” a premier location on the grounds.
“Over the years, the volunteers have become closer and closer,” said Dan. “It’s like a big family now.”
And that’s certainly true for Roger and Lori Hatlen. Roger is a math teacher at RHS and Lori teaches science. They have three children, two of whom have graduated. They’ve been volunteering at the camping station for 13 years.
“It’s really a lot of fun,” said Roger. “We’ve made many friends over the years with the people who have volunteered here and we look forward to seeing them every year.”
Besides just local volunteers, the opportunity to enjoy some good camaraderie and live country music also entices people from all over the state to help out.
Greg Lederhaus from Appleton was busy checking passes of incoming campers last week during his shift. “I really look forward to coming to Country Fest,” he said. “I don’t mind at all volunteering. The people are great and everyone is happy.”
The duties of the camping volunteers varies throughout the festival and they start long before anyone even enters the gates. First, volunteers must stake out each and every campsite. This is done by high school kids.
“We don’t let the kids volunteer during the festival,” said Dan. “But they do a lot of the prep work.”
The wooden stakes have a particular paint color on their tip, and also a number. And each site is precisely measured out. When a visitor comes in, a camping volunteer directs them to where they will find their spot. While traffic poured in steadily last Tuesday, it really starts to pick up by Wednesday and then again on Friday.
“There’s a lot of people that come here every year and make this week their vacation,” said Dan. “Many are here all week long.”
Of course, it’s only natural with that many people camping in such close proximity that problems are bound to pop up. “One of the things we have seen over the years is that campers are getting bigger and bigger,” Dan said. “That means the camping area of a spot diminishes, which can cause turf wars. Many times we have to tell people to move their camper this way or that because they are overflowing into another site.”
Camping station volunteers frequently head out in pairs in golf carts to man the camp grounds. Their primary concern is maintaining fire lanes and making sure everyone is being safe.
“It’s pretty much a non-stop party, so you don’t want to squash anyone’s fun and yet we don’t want anyone getting hurt,” Dan said. “Safety is number one.”
The volunteers also become impromptu Rhinelander ambassadors. “People are always coming up and asking questions about Rhinelander, like where to go for a good meal or sightseeing destinations,” Dan said. “We’re always happy to help them out.”
Another favorite pastime for the volunteers is just sitting back and watching people. “I’ve seen some pretty wild stuff, stuff you can’t really print in a newspaper,” laughed Dan. “But it is fun watching how the campers decorate their spots and they play some pretty wild games at their sites, which just makes the whole experience all that more fun.”
There’s no doubt the volunteers enjoy their time, and fantastic camaraderie, while they help out at this giant music festival, but deep down their primary goal is to help assist kids and their families.
“This is such a win-win situation for everyone involved,” said Dan, “and we feel very grateful we have this opportunity.”