Members of the Hibyan family from Brunswick, Cumberland, North Yarmouth and Ipswich, Massachusetts, participate in a reunion with social distancing at Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal on Sunday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

POWNAL — Ellen and BreAnne Penley-Theis were surprised to find the campground full when they brought their three teenage children to Bradbury Mountain State Park at the start of September. When the Auburn family returned last weekend there was a greater choice of tent sites, but the campground still was far more crowded than they expected.

“People were still here, even in the rain last night,” BreAnne Penley-Theis said.

This year the number of visitors to Maine’s 12 state park campgrounds – at least 270,794 campers through Sept. 30 already has topped the previous record of 261,589 campers in 2018. Not bad considering that state park campgrounds opened two to four weeks later and because of the coronavirus pandemic, missing the busy Memorial Day weekend.

The pandemic is the very reason for this year’s surge in campers, parks officials say.

“Many people realized as more data came out about the virus that being outside was one of the safest places to be. And people were aware what the COVID numbers were around the state and they were seeking places where the numbers were low,” said Andy Cutko, director of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.

What’s more, the season isn’t over yet. State park campgrounds typically stay open through Indigenous Peoples’ Day –Monday this year – and sometimes longer if favorable weather allows.

That likely won’t be long enough to set a new record for overall visitation, a number that includes day-use visitors as well as campers. The record of 2,980,513 visitors from 2018 is well out of reach of this year’s total through September: 2,616,509 visitors.

Cutko said there is another statistic from this year’s season he is most proud of – that none of the 90 employees who work at Maine’s state park campgrounds, or any of the 235 total employees who work throughout the state park system – were known to have contracted COVID-19. And there hasn’t been an outbreak traced to a state park by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Jessica Gillman of Portland checks her phone while sitting by a campfire at Bradbury Mountain State Park on Oct. 4. Gillman, 50, was sharing the campground with her 75-year-old mother. “Mom and I have been keeping our distance and staying outdoors to stay safer,” she said. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“No one knew when this started what it would be like. And as anxious as many of us were at the beginning of the year, it’s great to look back on it and say in mid-October, we had a very successful season – not only from the standpoint of a record number of people using the parks, but also from the standpoint of managing public health and safety,” Cutko said.

Campers who came to state parks starting June 1 were looking to escape the ever-present signs of the pandemic, park rangers said, whether to vacation for a week or to just get away for a night in the woods.

Camper visitations saw a major spike at state parks in the far reaches of Maine. At Aroostook State Park just outside Presque Isle, camper numbers more than doubled, from 241 campers in 2019 to 558 this year. At Cobscook Bay State Park numbers were up 56 percent (from 1,892 campers to 2,958).

Last weekend at Bradbury, a number of families came for a last hurrah, staying just one or two nights while still running errands or going to school sporting events. This year, the park saw more of this kind of late-season use, Bradbury Park Manager Chris Silsbee said.

“We’ve seen a lot more people looking to get away for just a few days, kind of get away from pandemic life. My family and myself are going to do just that this afternoon – head to Sebago Lake State Park to camp,” Silsbee said.

James Pochurek and his daughter Josephine came to camp last weekend at Bradbury even though they live 20 minutes away in Freeport. After Pochurek climbed Katahdin this summer with his son, he wanted to give his younger daughter her own special outdoor adventure – so that was mountain biking and camping at their local state park.

Rebecca and Paul Sahlin of Cape Elizabeth stay warm by the fire at their campsite at Bradbury Mountain State Park. State park campgrounds had a 46 percent spike in visitors over 2018 and 2019 during the pandemic. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Pochureks were meeting another family they planned to camp near, allowing for a COVID-safe outdoor get together, Pochurek said.

“Our kids are in the same cohort at school. This is a way to still have a sense of friendship and togetherness – while staying safe outdoors,” he said.

Nick Weidenbach had the same idea. He was meeting his wife and two children, who were bringing their mountain bikes and camping gear from Cape Elizabeth. They also were meeting another family to camp together. It was the Weidenbachs’ second weekend in a row at the campground – and Nick Weidenbach was glad to see it wasn’t quite as full as the previous week.

“We have to get home early tomorrow for kids sports, but we’ll get some mountain biking in today,” he said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.