Bethany Fulton of Saco sets up her campsite at Sebago Lake State Park last weekend. Fulton, who canceled a trip to Italy this summer, is going to “Plan B.” She will stay at all of Maine’s state park campgrounds instead. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

NAPLES — As a primary school teacher in Scarborough, Bethany Fulton has taken full advantage of her long summer vacations, traveling to Canada and even Australia. This year’s summer adventure was supposed to be in Italy, until the pandemic hit.

Now, rather than seeing Europe for the first time, Fulton is going to visit all 12 Maine state park campgrounds.

“It’s my Plan B. I’ve been to Aroostook (State Park) and Lamoine (State Park) so far,” Fulton said as she set up her tent site at Sebago Lake State Park last weekend. “I was supposed to go to Italy next week. I was definitely sad, but I’m better now. I’m going to do a lot of hiking this summer.”

Like Fulton, many other Mainers are opting for stays at state park campgrounds during the summer of coronavirus.

Reservations by Maine residents are up 37 percent from last year at this time – from 6,909 in 2019 to 9,467 in 2020, through June 17. Reservations by out-of-stater campers are up slightly this year, said Jim Britt of the Bureau of Parks and Lands, but overall state parks are on a pace to challenge the record number of campers they hosted in 2018.

Campers go for a swim at Sebago Lake State Park in Naples on June 12. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

State park campgrounds opened June 1 – two weeks later than usual because of the virus outbreak. Most of the 48 state parks and historic sites remained open for day use during the pandemic – except for 10 coastal state parks in southern Maine and the midcoast that were closed to all visitors from March 27 to June 1.

Unlike some commercial campgrounds where individual campsites have been closed this year to assure proper distancing, all of the campsites at Maine’s state parks are open as they have been in years past. Britt said it’s not necessary to close any sites because the state park campgrounds were designed with campsites set far apart, typically with trees in between.

However, other safety precautions have been put in place at state parks. In the bathrooms, every other stall is closed to accommodate social distancing and to allow for sanitizing more frequently. Playgrounds are closed, and sports equipment typically rented or provided to visitors – such as canoes, paddle boats and volleyball nets – is not being offered.

Last weekend at Sebago Lake State Park, the playground was blocked off by tape – but campsites everywhere were filled with grills, outdoor lights and lawn chairs full of lounging adults. The dirt roads were busy with children riding on bikes.

Sue and Guy Paquette of Biddeford relax by their RV last weekend at Sebago Lake State Park. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Guy and Sue Paquette of Biddeford sat just 100 yards from the white-cap waves hitting Witch Cove Beach as they enjoyed the evening light on the big lake. The couple, who are both semi-retired, come to Sebago every year from Biddeford – but they said they needed it more than ever this year. They arrived the afternoon of June 12, and within a few hours they had their RV unpacked and their campsite set up with an awning, rug, lawn chairs, a hanging plant, holiday lights – and a welcome sign.

“When we drove in this year we looked at each other when we saw Sebago Lake and said, ‘Welcome home,’” Sue Paquette said. “This feels normal here. This campground is so natural. We walk the trails. We biked on the trails this afternoon.”

Not far away, Shannon Belt and his wife, Lindsay, got a dream campsite right beside another beach with far-reaching water views. The Portland couple had a campfire going and their two children – ages 6 and 9 – were buzzing around it like hummingbirds just before dinner. The overnight stay marked the family’s inaugural trip in a camper van they bought a week earlier. They plan to take it to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and possibly Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska. But on this weekend, they felt lucky to be staying just feet from Naples Beach on Sebago Lake.

“We’ve been talking about a camper van and this seemed like the summer to get it. We want to stay in Maine, support our state parks. We needed to do this,” Belt said.

Shannon and Lindsay Belt of Portland with their children Kiernan, 9, and Payton, 6, at Sebago Lake State Park. The couple decided to purchase a camper van to take road trips during the pandemic. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Sebago Lake State Park Manager Owen Blease said he had to turn away just one out-of-state party that came to camp but had not fulfilled the 14-day quarantine required of non-residents entering Maine (other than visitors from New Hampshire and Vermont). That requirement will change on July 1 to allow any non-residents to stay – even if they have not quarantined – provided they can show a negative test for COVID-19.

At Lake St. George State Park in Liberty, 30 miles east of Augusta in Waldo County, the small 40-site campground was all but full on June 13 – mostly with RVs carrying regular visitors. Park Manger Warren Dowling said most campers drove up to the check-in booth wearing masks, but once they unpacked their tents and RVs, they relaxed around their campsites without them.

Christopher Montminy and his extended clan of 15 to 20 were playing the cornhole and visiting between two parked RVs set directly across the dirt road from the other. Montminy lives in the next town over, Palermo, but he said this is their home away from home every summer.

“We’re usually here by Memorial Day weekend,” Montminy said, referring to the late opening this year at state park campgrounds. “This is just us being us here. Can’t get too worried about things.”

One campsite over, Jeff Philibert of Scarborough and his family were visiting the park for the first time – in large part because of the pandemic. The family of four usually goes camping a few times a year, but Jeff Philibert said they needed “to get the heck out of Cumberland County,” which has had more positive cases of COVID-19 than any other Maine county. Philibert said it was a relief to canoe and fish during the day, while sleeping in a tent listening to loons calling at night.

“It’s nice to see people enjoying themselves. It feels normal,” Philibert said, echoing the phrase many used to describe camping this year. “Everyone seems to be social distancing, but there’s not the tension that there is in Cumberland County. This was far enough away we could fish and canoe and relax. But it didn’t take long to get here.”


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