North

After 25 years, Whitehorse campground operators pull up stakes

Amanda and Bernard Stehelin are clearing out of the Robert Service Campground, as the city prepares to take over. "It's been very, very special being stewards for this campground," Amanda says.

'A really communal, special place,' says Amanda Stehelin about the Robert Service Campground

'It means the end of an era for us,' said Amanda Stehelin. 'We've sort of grown up with the campground.' (Sandi Coleman/CBC)

They're selling most everything, including the kitchen sink. Actually, make that four kitchen sinks.

"Twenty-five years is a very long time, to accumulate so much," said Amanda Stehelin, who, with her husband Bernard, has operated the Robert Service Campground in Whitehorse since 1993.

This weekend, they're pulling up stakes. The City of Whitehorse did not renew the Stehelins's lease and will be taking over the park as a city operation, when it opens for the season later this month.

"It means the end of an era for us," Stehelin said. "We've sort of grown up with the campground, and we've had our five kids all be part of it here. And it's been very, very special being stewards for this campground."

It's a relatively modest place — you might drive right by without noticing it. Unlike a lot of private campgrounds in Yukon, it's not designed to accommodate big RVs and trailers, with gravel pads and electrical hookups. You can't even park a car at most of the sites.

The campground is mostly designed for tents, with small sites surrounded by trees. (City of Whitehorse)

It's designed for tents, with 68 small sites scattered in the trees. And it's an easy walk from the city's downtown core, so it's been popular among tourists and summer workers looking for a temporary home. 

It's also a popular spot for locals to celebrate birthdays, weddings, or organize fundraising events.

The Stehelins estimate that close to 20,000 people use the park each summer.

"Close to the city, but not in the city. So it's your wilderness campground, but it's five minutes from downtown — it's wonderful," Stehelin says.

'It made a whole lot of sense'

The Stehelins were still dating when they took over the facility. Amanda's father had seen the tender advertised in the paper and showed her.

"He says, 'is that something you're interested in doing?' I said, 'absolutely,'" she recalled.

"I was 19, 20 at the time. I thought, great — I'll go travelling in the winter, run the campground in the summer. And it made a whole lot of sense."

The handmade signs have all come down, so the city can put its own stamp on the place. (Sandi Coleman/CBC)

Initially, it had a staff of two — Amanda and Bernard. She figures they removed about 70 truckloads of garbage from the site that first summer. They planted shrubs and gardens. 

"Then we got a coffee pot and started serving coffee. And then we started being open more hours, and things just sort of snowballed."

A single sandbox evolved into a large play area for kids, with toys, swings, and a play house. Some couches, a fireplace and bookshelves made for a sort of sheltered, outdoor living room.

Now, everything is going, in a big yard sale on Saturday — the toys, the furniture, cleaning and groundskeeping equipment and tools, the ice cream freezer, the espresso machine, and "lots and lots of signage," Stehelin said.

There's also a lot of camping equipment to go. The Stehelins kept piles of useable gear on hand for those unlucky folks who arrive by plane without their luggage. 

Then there are the tarps — about a hundred of them, Stehelin figures. They came in handy when a rainstorm caught visitors off guard.

"Our staff would run out and throw up tarps for people," she said.

Everything must go, so the Stehelins are having a big yard sale on Saturday. (Sandi Coleman/CBC)

Ready for a change

Amanda Stehelin is wistful about packing it all in, but said her family is ready for the change. The kids are getting older, and Bernard's got another tourism business to focus on.

"It's been good. It's part of what shaped us, for sure," she said. "It was a really communal, special place."

She's pleased that the city is planning some improvements. One city official said it will be mostly "status quo" this summer and possibly next, but eventually there will be new infrastructure including a new building for events, and a concession.

"I'm happy that that next stage is happening," Stehelin said. "They've got great plans for it."

Still, it's a bittersweet goodbye. 

"Being in touch with the tourists and the locals... it's been an honour, and a very incredible privilege," she said.

The City of Whitehorse says it will be mostly 'status quo' when the park opens on the Victoria Day weekend. (CBC)

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