MILLINOCKET — It took a half dozen questions, first with the reverend, then the carpenter, next the restaurant owner. Finally, the name for this peculiar phenomenon that takes place in a parking lot in Millinocket every January came clear.

“The Baxter Line” is how it was described on Bernie Chadbourne’s list of camping supplies.

And that is what roughly a dozen Baxter State Park faithful call their annual January pilgrimage to park headquarters. They camp out the night before opening day for reservations so they can be the first to book their cabin in the park for that summer.

For more than 20 years, hundreds lined up. Back then, the system was done by hand and campers had to show up in person or let their fate be decided by the mail-in system, which afforded little luck.

But four years ago the park started going to an online system. Last year, reservations could be made two weeks in advance online. After June 16 this year, online reservations can be made for any day in the park any time.

Still, according to those on the Baxter Line, to really get what you want you must make the pilgrimage to headquarters for opening day. Because even with a spot toward the front of the line, there are no guarantees.

“You have to be flexible. Or you have to be first,” said Sarah Jackson, from Massapequa, N.Y., who camped with her dad for four days and three nights just to be No. 1.

“By the time I leave here, I know we will have our vacation in July,” Dave Jackson said.

From the park’s point of view, opening day officially begins at 7 a.m. when the doors to park headquarters open. But a good three hours before that — or in the case of the Jacksons, four days — the line starts forming.

A notebook is laid out on a folding table, and the names of those in line are written in the order they arrive. Those who camp out get to put their names first. If someone steps out of line to greet a friend, their place in line is assured.

These are the unwritten rules established by the Line.

“We’ve all done the drill before. People sign the list, and that’s how the list goes,” said Pete Churchill of Randolph, Mass., a Baxter camper for 20 years.

And those in the Baxter Line govern themselves.

Park officials don’t interfere. There are no bylaws set out by the Baxter State Park Authority to dictate how the line forms.

“Outside the door, the line members are on their own and should rely on good judgment, experience and respect for others and their environment to organize themselves — just as if they were in the wilderness of the park,” explained Park Director Jensen Bissell. “Many years of opening day experience indicates this is exactly what they do.”

For decades, hundreds used to line up and camp out for days. But when the online system was put in place and the rolling reservation established, most campers on the Baxter Line stopped going to opening day.

This year, 77 people showed up, including 14 nonresidents. For 10 who traveled to camp out at least a day, making sure they got their favorite Baxter cabin for the summer was paramount to any winter weather discomfort.

They came dressed in layers of thermal and down, with piles of bedding in their tents. They ate at the local pizza place and diners and gathered around Jackson’s camp stove.

The January pilgrimage has been a 10-year ritual for the Jacksons, who have camped in Baxter State Park for 20 years. And their story is shared by virtually all their friends on the Line.

“The park is not overcrowded. You can come back here in 50 years and it will look the same,” Dave Jackson said.

“That’s the thing I love, that everything changes but Baxter,” Sarah Jackson added.

And the truth — and weird piece — is some of these campers come to camp in January just for the fun.

“I used to come up to the park several times a year. One summer I was in the park 35 days,” said Duffy Akerley of Bar Harbor, a member of the Baxter Line for 22 years. “Now I just come up a few times. Now I don’t really have to camp out for a reservation. This year I came up partly to see people I don’t get to see any other time of the year.”

And for a dozen of those regulars on the Line, the system works and will continue.

As they said their good-byes, they planned to meet up in Millinocket next January to share Baxter memories and stories of undiscovered trails.

“The only way to guarantee the cabin you want is to do this,” said Sam Hayward of Bowdoinham. “But this is also a fun annual gathering. And I get information from friends of other trips I can do in the park.”

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