Fallback campground

Affordable and close to town, Thane site has become popular

Posted: Sunday, September 04, 2005

When Larry Davis arrived in Juneau in April, the Georgia truck driver went straight to the Thane Campground.

He found the site where he stayed last summer and started making his bed. He inflated his air mattress, placed the mattress on a wooden board, spread his blanket and settled in.

"It costs too much to rent in Juneau," said Davis, 49. "I pay only $100 a month to camp here."

For the following five months, he would live in the bunkhouse covered with tarps while shuttling cruise ship passengers to the Gold Creek Salmon Bake.

"My wife said I am crazy that I leave a big house down there to live in the plain woods," said Davis, who owns a two-story house in Dublin, Ga.

Because of Juneau's high housing costs, the campground is popular.

Campers pay $5 a day and $100 for a month to stay at the Thane Campground. The rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Juneau averages $1,021 a month.

The city's only public campground allowing visitors to stay for more than a month, the Thane Campground has drawn seasonal workers, independent travelers, newcomers and people who are waiting for housing assistance.

At its busiest time this season - mid-June - 46 people were in residence, said Jason Layton, the campground's manager.

Camp history

The Thane Campground started out as a shelter for the homeless.

In the mid-1990s, the city faced a problem with many people camped illegally along the road and on private land for long periods of time, said Steve Gilbertson, the city's lands and resources manager.

After a lone camper's tent caught fire and he was injured, the city realized it needed to provide a safe place for the campers, said Dan Austin, general manager of St. Vincent de Paul. The nonprofit that serves homeless families managed the campground for two years.

Austin said the city chose to build a campground on the hill off Thane Road because some people already camped there. The hill belongs to AJT Mining Properties, which has leased it to the city for $1 a year since 1999. The contract expires in February 2008.

"We do it for public service," said David Stone, president of AJT Mining Properties.

At first, not many people used the campground. But every year, it has attracted more and more guests because it is affordable and only three miles from downtown.

Squatting is no longer as serious a problem, Gilbertson said.

"The campground provides the police with a place they can direct people to go to," Gilbertson said.

The campground doesn't turn into a ghetto mainly because 33-year-old Layton has managed the place with a soft heart and an iron rule: Nobody can stay there without working or doing something to improve their situation.

"There is no need to call someone homeless when everyone of us is just two steps from being homeless," said Layton, who squatted for a while when he was out of work.

"If people stay here for a month, it's about $3 a day," he said. "The money isn't much but it instills a sense of responsibility in people."

In 2000, Layton offered to manage the campground for the city for free in exchange for a place to park his trailer.

Layton got the job, and later a girl.

He met his wife, Jan, four seasons ago when she camped there. The couple now lives in Montana. Layton comes to Juneau every spring to prepare the campground.

Camp Life

Camp residents get to meet people from all over the world. They play cards, listen to live music and share stories.

Twenty-year-old Samantha Carpenter arrived in Juneau from Pennsylvania last week with her African lion hound, Seton.

Carpenter said she came to study bats and other small mammals at the University of Alaska Southeast.

"To come to Alaska is almost like something I need to get out of my system," said Carpenter, whose backpack is almost twice as big as she is. "Camping is perfect for me in my need for solitude right now."

Robert Long came to Alaska from Utah to have a fresh start.

Long, 46, was as a truck driver for years until his ear got hurt at work. Disenchanted with his marriage and work, he came to Juneau in May.

Before he could explore Alaska more, his kidney infection forced him to stay in Juneau and seek medical help. He had surgery last week.

Although he could stay at the Glory Hole homeless shelter while recovering from the surgery, Long prefers the campground.

"I've been a hardworking man all my life," Long said. "People there hit me for money and cigarettes. I don't like that."

While waiting for housing assistance, Long is the official dog watcher for the campground while others are at work.

"We try to take care of each other," he said.

Justin Papenbrock, 26, is the only one who lives at the campground year-round. He manages the campground when Layton is away and stays in Layton's trailer during the winter.

Papenbrock came to Juneau from Washington state three years ago to help remodel Carr's grocery store into Safeway, and has stayed since.

"I live at the campground so I can live within my means," Papenbrock said. "My mom has been trying to get me home but it has worked out well for me. My dog chases out the bears and keeps me warm at night."

Thirty-six-year-old Michael Sherman didn't expect to stay in Juneau for long, but he ran out of money before he could get out.

"I didn't expect it would be so expensive to leave Juneau," said Sherman, who came to Alaska for a kayaking trip in May.

At first, he camped out at the end of the road but the U.S. Forest Service asked him to leave. He later learned of the Thane campground and has stayed there for months now.

Sherman washes dishes at Silverbow Bakery, looks after children at Gold Creek Child Development Center and takes care of seniors for the Center for Community.

"I am kind of stuck here," Sherman said.

The campground has a bear-proof storage shed, two portable toilets, a covered picnic area and a 600-gallon water tank. But it doesn't have electricity, running water or a pay phone. Some campers do their laundry or take a shower at the Harbor Wash Board downtown.

"We really need hot running water here," Layton said. "Most of our campers have a job. It would be nice if they could take a shower every day."

Despite the inconvenience, modern camping gear has made camping more comfortable.

Sometimes campers watch movies on a battery-powered portable DVD player.

With the light of an electric lantern, the campers play cards at the picnic area.

When the huge cruise ships sail out Gastineau Channel with their lights shining into the campground, Davis expressed gratitude to the tourists on board.

"Thank you for the tips," said Davis as he waved at the visitors.

• I-Chun Che can be reached at ichun.che@juneauempire.com.

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