AUGUSTA — Some minor changes to the Viles Arboretum Table Tour allowed the event to continue for a 17th straight year, despite the coronavirus pandemic that canceled so many annual events this year.

Executive Director Ryan Martin said the arboretum shut down in March, before reopening in July, the same month he became the executive director. Martin said staff and the board of directors started rethinking the Table Tour event right after reopening. He said the decision to hold the event was still up in the air in December.

“People were calling,” he said. “We spent a long time as a board talking about it and thinking it through.”

Last year, hundreds of participants at the event were unleashed into Hospital Street arboretum and botanical garden that offers six miles of trails on its 224 acres. During their journey through the trails, hot food was doled out and participants congregated around fires before going indoors to enjoy music and dessert.

This year, the event was entirely outdoors. Martin said reservations were limited to 160 people, with no more than 100 people being on the grounds at one time. Further, masks were being worn while participants trekked the trails, only being removed when people stopped to eat. Lines were marked out at the food stations to encourage visitors to keep a safe distance between each other.

“The science has been pretty clear, it’s not perfectly safe but it’s much more safe (to hold the event) outdoors,” he said.

On the trails, dozens were using snowshoes and cross-country skis to get between food stations, where hot soups, desserts and turkey dinners were being served. A good distance away from the food stations, smaller fires were being tended to by volunteers and chairs were placed six feet apart.

In two of those socially distanced chairs were husband and wife Jerry Scribner and Nicole Morin-Scribner of Belgrade who had just picked up cups of soup from a nearby serving station. Morin-Scribner said she and her husband have been spending time outdoors during the pandemic, but have missed out on some of their more regular outings, like going out to eat.

Viles Arboretum board member and volunteer Tracy Weber helps Debbie Cloutier strap on snowshoes Sunday before hiking into Viles Arboretum in Augusta on the Table Tour. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“We don’t feel comfortable doing outside dining right now,” Morin-Scribner said. “We like to go to a lot of musical events, … and of course that’s all lost. This feels really good to be able to do this.

“We do this event year, it’s finally a traditional thing that we can do that we haven’t been able to do it in a while,” he said, adding that the event felt COVID-friendly.

Near the head of the trail by the visitor center, Debbie Cloutier of Belgrade was getting some help strapping into her snowshoes from arboretum board member Tracy Weber. Cloutier, a retired school teacher that is currently helping with online learning, said she came to the event with an outing group, that has remained active through the pandemic and providing a much-needed social outlet.

“We’ve been doing beach walks and trail hikes and things like that,” she said. “I would be very lonely if I didn’t have it. It gives me something to do.

Martin described the pandemic as “touch-and-go” for the arboretum, with a large increase in visitation, donations and membership and nearly complete elimination of revenue from rental of events space and revenue from events. Martin said the ability to host the Table Tour in some form is significant for the nonprofit.

“We think we’ll make around $3,000 for the event, which doesn’t feel like a lot,” Martin said. “When you’re a small nonprofit, its what gets us through another couple months.”

Also noticeable on the grounds of the arboretum is a construction site, which will eventually become a barn to house an educational center. Martin said construction of the 40-foot by 38-foot barn should be completed by July. Martin said the goal for the building is to give the arboretum valuable infrastructure to hold educational programs.

“We’ve done that for a long time; we’ve done field trips, tours and occasional classes, but we don’t really have the infrastructure to support that,” he said. “It’s going to be a beautiful facility.”

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