The launch of a new Oakland business that offers pontoon boat tours of Messalonskee Lake could play a small role in helping the Belgrade Lakes region to compete with Maine’s other destination spots, tourism experts said.

Gary Bennett, who has lived in the area since 1972, says he has grown to love the lake over 28 years of tooling around it.

In May, he started his business, Snow Pond Cruises, to introduce the lake’s unique charms to a wider audience.

“I’m not doing this completely for the money,” he said. “I’m doing it because I enjoy it and I want people to see the natural resource and why we have to protect it.”

Bennett, who also serves on the board of the environmental group Friends of Messalonskee, is passionate about the lake and its habitat, which he called unique because it flows into a 1,300-acre marsh, an emergent wetland. Among other natural attractions, since 1946 the marsh has hosted the state’s largest nesting site for the threatened black tern.

“It’s a totally different ecosystem there,” he said. “That’s a place that we’ve got to protect.”

While on the water, he points out the local wildlife to visitors, which at any given time might include blue herons, loons, bald eagles and red-winged blackbirds as well as rare birds such as the endangered least bitterns and sandhill cranes.

Bennett is also mindful of the struggles the lake has faced, including a 60-year period during which it served as a dumping ground for metal waste, and the time a train derailment sent large amounts of oil into the water.

“I remember that,” Bennett said. “I saw it.”

These days, he said, one of the biggest challenges facing the lake is milfoil, an invasive water weed.

“They actually get to see milfoil,” he said. “They’ve heard so much about it but they’ve never actually seen it. Now they can look at what all the hubbub is about.”

TOURISM BOOST

People such as Bennett, who seek to provide an unusual experience for visiting tourists, help the entire region, according to Vaughn Stinson, chief executive officer of the Maine Tourism Association.

Central Maine sees only a small slice of the state’s high-profile tourism industry, which has played an increasingly important role in the state economy since the decline of local mills and other manufacturing firms.

According to a 2013 report commissioned by the Maine Office of Tourism, the state had about 15.8 million overnight visitors in 2012, who, when combined with day-trippers, spent nearly $5 billion.

That same report found that 71 percent of visitors come primarily to one of the state’s four coastal regions, with the most popular sites including Portland, Kittery, Freeport or Bar Harbor.

The remaining visits are split between various interior regions, with Kennebec & Moose River Valley, which includes the Belgrade Lakes Region, getting just 6 percent of that business, less than any other region except Aroostook County.

Stinson said one element that can hold a region back is a lack of diversity of attractions.

“The more you have to see and do, the more things there are for people to do, the more people will come to the area,” Stinson said.

Bennett’s business is one key to helping achieve that diversity, he said.

“There’s not anything like this in the area,” Stinson said. “This type of thing is for someone who may not be a seafarer, but here’s something you can do that’s waterborne, that you can do with a family.”

Bennett confirmed that, in these early months, he has been called on to provide services to all sorts of people, some of whom are less interested in hearing about the quirks of the lake’s ecosystem than others.

One booking was a bachelorette party.

“They didn’t want to hear about the lake,” he said. “They wanted to listen to the music and eat their hors d’oeuvres and drink their wine.”

Bennett said he recognizes that Messalonskee Lake has to stand out from Maine’s other waterways, many of which are equally beautiful and interesting.

“We’ve got 1,200 lakes in the state of Maine, and almost all of them have a rich history,” he said.

One advantage he has over many of them is that the Belgrade lakes are more accessible than remote lakes farther north. The fact that the area is near the state capital and also home to a vibrant network of lodging and dining options is also a plus.

“It’s who puts forth the best presentation of what they have in their area,” Bennett said. “Who offers the most for the family dollars.”

A MAINE EXPERIENCE

Stinson said Bennett’s deep roots in the area also will be appealing to the many tourists who seek locals able to provide them with an authentic Maine experience.

Bennett draws his unique authenticity from his own odd grab bag of experiences. He is a registered Maine guide; a former safety director for Sheridan Corp. in Fairfield; a notary public who has performed weddings on the boat; a state licensed commercial boat operator; a CPR instructor; and an advocate for those who, like Bennett, suffer from a rare genetic condition known as Marfan syndrome.

That condition limits his ability to take part in physical activity, he said, but it doesn’t prevent him from being a good guide.

“I can still sit on a boat and I can still talk,” he said.

The cruises, which have different themes, range from one to three hours in length, at a cost of $75 to $130 for up to four people, with a $10 additional fee per person.

Bennett said that, in the early going, he has attracted as many local residents as tourists.

One, Marjie Batten, of Waterville, said the cruise she took with Bennett and seven friends was of particular interest to her, because she has summered on the lake for the past 25 years.

She emphasized the historical aspects of Bennett’s tour.

“A lot of the history I didn’t know about at all,” she said. “He has a notebook with many, many pictures of what these businesses or buildings used to look like.”

Bennett said his main motivation isn’t to raise the profile of the region, but to continue to advocate for the lake and its ecosystem, a message that he said has gained increased resonance over the decades.

“I think the area has evolved,” Bennett said. “Our environmental culture was different back then. People weren’t interested so much in protecting the environment and seeing what we have and why we have to protect it.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287

[email protected]

Twitter: @hh_matt


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