"I always thought somebody else would do it, and then after a while it just occurred to me that if anybody was actually going to operate it as a park it would have to be me."
Myrna Hayes is the volunteer manager of Mare Island Preserve and has spent years transforming what was once the Navy's oldest ammunition depot in the Pacific into a park that is enjoyed by nature enthusiasts, history buffs, and campers alike. As a recent Hipcamp Host, she has opened up the Preserve to over-nighters, creating a steady revenue stream to combat development. A short ferry ride from the San Francisco Bay, at Mare Island Preserve campers can choose to stay in 1930’s bunkers or a yurt on a historic 1920’s tennis court.
From glampsites to indigenous lands, wineries to working farms, Myrna is the first of many spotlights to come featuring the people who have generously opened their land to the next generation of campers. Dive into the history of Mare Island Preserve, Myrna's experience and tips as a Hipcamp Host, and a peek at her camps in our interview below.
Hipcamp: How did you find out about Mare Island Preserve and how did you come to manage the land?
Myrna: The City of Vallejo tried to give the property away to two big international corporations. It was to be a liquified natural gas tanker terminal and 1500 megawatt power plant. The navy had environmental cleanup work going on and I was the community co-chair of a restoration advisory board. They brought us out here in 1994 in a little old fashioned school bus. We rode around and saw all these parts of the island. This was the first opportunity to see it, and it blew me away what was here. I always thought somebody else would do it, and then after a while it just occurred to me that if anybody was actually going to operate it as a park it would have to be me.
HC: What allowed the abandoned naval property to become a park for public use?
MH: We just kept on telling our city that we had to have this as a park. They eventually decided that it would be a park, and it was wonderful. But the minute the property transferred, there was an announcement that a secret deal had been made. We were going to have the west coast's first natural gas tanker terminal. They would bring natural gas in massive tankers right to our piers, right to this park—or what would no longer be our park. In the meantime, our community learned about it and around 11,000 people in our town signed a petition. It was so inspiring to see people come out and demonstrate and have signs in their front yards. At the end of our 9 month battle, they went and built their energy plant in Mexico, sadly.
The mayor at the time appointed 35 of us to come up with a plan. It took us four years. Finally, I wrote the draft of the report for the committee and that attuned me to what it takes to run a park. It didn't look like a very good time to try to open a park from scratch. Unless you believe, like I do, that you can partner with good people. That's what we are doing to this day. We partner with our neighbors, the Army Reserve. It means picking up the phone, getting to know people and businesses in your community, and leaning on people. Sometimes they just show up. That in a way has become more and more what I understand about operating parks, you wake up every morning and say a prayer. And you definitely say a prayer at night as you're leaving it and just go forward in faith.
HC: What is your day-to-day routine as the land Preserve Manager, and as a Hipcamp Host? Do the routines compliment themselves, are there differences?
MH: We’re open to the public every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We started by holding docent led walks on certain Saturdays of each month. Today, we still do not have the volunteer staff it would take to open everyday. I used to have to get here and open the park on the weekend but now I have some volunteers who open. So I sashay in around 11 o’clock and I stay until at least an hour after the sun sets. In the winter that’s around 6, but in the summertime that’s 10 o'clock.
I'm here every day, greeting people and being a host when we have campers during the weekdays. I spend the weekdays getting the park ready for people and masterminding future events. If it’s not actual operations, it’s raising money. We don't have any electricity here because it’s not safe to mix ammunition storage and electricity, so we run on LED lights and Honda generators. Operations is buying gasoline for the generator, doing repairs, sweeping the floors, changing the sheets on the yurts. Fundraising is talking to civic groups, and giving presentations about the Mare Island Preserve. It's pretty much all I think about, I'm a nun to the Preserve.
HC: Camping inside a 1930’s Navy bunker and in Yurts on a historic 1920’s tennis court is truly a unique experience. What inspired you to allow people to camp on Mare Island through Hipcamp?
MH: The property is to be for the enjoyment for all Californians. Some of my fellow task members knew that one of the best ways to generate revenue for the day-to-day funds is through overnight stays whether camping or not. About a year and a half ago, my friend talked me into setting up a yurt. The first nine months I had it set up, we made a modest amount of money. People stayed maybe three to four times a month.
It totally changed when a man came into our visitor center and said, "How do we rent that yurt on the hill?" And I told him to text me or message me on Facebook. He replied, "Do you have it listed with Hipcamp? You have to list the yurt on Hipcamp! I want to go to Hipcamp and see that it's listed." I looked it up and started an application but I didn't complete it. After a few months, I finished it and almost instantly it was full all the time. Every weekend people were staying either one or two nights, or we had two different parties in the same weekend, and even some people camping midweek. I was hooked. I was meeting such cool people and it was a dream that had finally come true. I knew it was such a cool property but I always wondered how I could convince people to come stay in such a quirky place.
Just two months after we started with Hipcamp I was able to buy a second yurt. There was a demand for larger groups, so my second yurt was able to sleep five to six people instead of two.
HC: Describe the camping experience on Mare Island in three words.
MH: In the winter: cold. In the spring and summer: mosquitos. In the fall: gorgeous.
HC: Do you have any favorite camping moments or stories from using Hipcamp so far?
MH: I had a couple who stayed on Christmas night this year. They were from India and they now live in Pennsylvania. They were coming out to California for a two week vacation and they had a bucket list of things to do. One of the things on their bucket list was to camp because they had never camped before. Imagine a yurt on Christmas night in the Bay Area. It wasn't covered in snow like South Lake Tahoe right now, but it was cold. We had a lot of fun sitting around the campfire cooking marshmallows. Just doing things that you take for granted when you've grown up camping. At the end of the night they set up their camera so we could all be in a photo together around the campfire. I love them, they were a just a blast. Generally we have people from so many different states, and that’s what is so fun.
HC: Mare Island Heritage Trust and Hipcamp’s mission are very similar. They both focus on providing engaging experiences for people in nature. What are some of the most popular activities people participate in at Mare Island Preserve?
MH: Mare Island Preserve has been given a lot of great gifts. We have bicycles and helmets that were donated for people to rent here. I have found that when Hipcampers get here and set up their gear, they're ready to go exploring and discovering. We have an abundance of Osprey in the summertime, they're a lot of fun to watch as they hunt fish. People love to birdwatch them.
I've had a lot of people bring instruments in our bunkers and play and record themselves and enjoy how cool it is to be underground on a hot summer day. There was a young man here recently who told me his mother had written 17 ghost story books. He was here camping and starting his own writing career. I find for myself even, the yurts are a great place because they bring out creativity. I bring my laptop and do a lot of writing in them.
We have also had a bachelor party, which is perfect because you have 300 acres and you can make all the noise you want while partying all night. Then you can go on a hike in the morning if you can recover. We always try to put a bottle of wine in the ice chest so people can gather together and experience nature. Getting into nature and the forest changes everything about you. It brings you back to who we are as humans.
HC: What are some volunteer opportunities the local community (and Hipcampers!) can get involved in to help Mare Island Preserve?
MH: Hipcampers have already put themselves to good use. Hipcamp sponsored a weekend of service and people were actually paid in a Hipcamp certificate that they could spend on future camping. It was a really fantastic dinner with beer and wine. It was a great party sitting around the campfire following a movie. To me, that seems to be Hipcamp's tradition from what I've learned. First it’s about camping, but then their programs are about getting people more experientially on the land. We directly benefitted from them being here because we were then able to put our second yurt up on an area prepared by one of the teams.
If people know how to operate chainsaws after all these winter storms that would be a good volunteer activity. We do a lot of events, like our Halloween Haunt which takes a lot of volunteers. It isn’t only building the sets but actually being in costume and scaring people. And then there’s all the other things you could imagine a park would need, as simple as painting benches.
HC: What does Mare Island Preserve have planned for 2017? Are there any exciting improvements or events you hope to make happen?
MH: I was so surprised at how many people stayed in the winter in our yurts and campsites. I'm learning that people in California see it as more important to be in wildplaces to be restored and to have a place to go for solace, than it is to be super comfortable. I know that one thing we’re going to be doing is hosting a lot more people in our camping settings. If we get the cooperation of the city we will put more tent campsites in the oak woodlands. There’s always a place you could slip another little campsite in. I think this is the year to definitely redo all of our interpretive signs along the trail. The whole place just needs to be freshened up. You have to think big! A better parking lot, solar panels for our visitor center and all of our yurts. There are always things to do.
HC: What advice would you give someone who is thinking about becoming a camp host? And for someone who is a camp host?
MH: I encourage people to seriously make hosting on Hipcamp happen. You will meet the most fabulous people. It seemed like we hit the ground running and we didn't have a big learning curve. That's what I want hosts to know. People are just so grateful to have a place to lay their sleeping bag down on the earth! That's pretty much all you need to do. I could be a good spokesperson for hosts who think about it, start the process, and let it go. I'm kicking myself because maybe I could have made another $8,000 between the time the guy had tipped me off about Hipcamp and the time that I actually registered. I would definitely say that you will meet beautiful and wonderful people who will be so incredibly grateful and they will become friends. Usually you are hosting because you live or work on the most special place in the world to you. Just sharing it with other people brings you so much joy.
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Lisse Lundin is a photographer and Parks & Recreation major based in San Francisco. You can follow along with her adventures via Instragram.