Subdued Memorial Day weekend kicks off a very different Maine summer

Memorial Day weekend, the official kick-off of the summer season, was an occasion of toned-down events and generally respectful visitors. As a test of preparedness, we did OK.

There were rumors of lodging occupied by travelers other than “essential workers,” the only people entitled to rent rooms before June 1 under the current travel restrictions. There were out-of-state license plates for sure, but who knows who they are, why they’re here, whether they’re quarantining or what. Many people wore masks, even outdoors. Others had them around their necks, at the ready, should they need them.

A non-scientific survey suggests the worst demographic for masks and social distancing is young men, from about the teens to mid-20s. These are the people emergency room staffers call the “young immortals,” glorying in their youth and health, full of a sense of the invincible. The other unmasked men are the bicycle riders, usually riding close together, inhaling deeply of the Maine spring air, vigorously exhaling anything lurking deep in their lungs.

For the most part, people were keeping their distance. Restaurants with a scrap of ground to put them on set tables and chairs outside. Despite persistently chilly temperatures, there was plenty of enthusiasm for dining al fresco.

Weekend activities were tempered by caution. Many people, locals and visitors alike, are just not ready to mix it up in an indoor dining room or a shop. Park benches everywhere held picnickers with take-out food or bring-your-own. Kids ran around the grass in circles while parents kept an eye out and soaked up the sun.

The next step, coming June 1, will be the opening of lodging to Maine residents and the opening of the Park Loop Road in Acadia National Park. Time will tell whether lodging availability, even just for Mainers, will make a noticeable difference in visitation Downeast, but the opening of Acadia will be a draw, for sure.

Other than the campgrounds in Acadia, which will remain closed longer, the park will be back in business June 1. This is a mixed blessing. The opening of the park is a welcome event every spring, a time in the early season when locals can enjoy it as much visitors.

This year, an Acadia with no vehicle traffic was something to behold. Walking in the park anywhere within spitting distance (don’t do that) of the Loop Road was an experience normally only enjoyed in winter. The only sound was birdsong. The air was clear, with the light scent of emerging plant life. On the road itself, little bitty bikers screamed with glee, pedaling to their hearts’ content on the car-free road. Parents coasted along behind, or walked, the kids riding ahead and looping back to check in.

Grown-up cyclists could ride the Loop in a pack, untroubled by vehicles passing or car doors unexpectedly opening into their path. They could even check out the scenery as they rode, a fatal indulgence in a “normal” summer.

OK, so we can’t have Acadia all to ourselves, but my, oh my, there is something to be said for a park full of peace and quiet. It’s Acadia the way Acadia should be. In a car, the narrow, rock-lined roads demand our full attention. Scenery? If you’re the driver, a passenger will have to tell you about it.

And it will be all cars this year. The popular Island Explorer buses have been, as the National Park Service website puts it, “postponed indefinitely.” In the Maine Legislature, indefinite postponement of a bill is a death sentence. That puppy is not coming back. Nor are the buses, not this year anyway. This year’s money funds next year’s buses. A dramatic drop in park revenue this year would mean not enough bus money next year.

That, plus the challenge of finding and training drivers this far into the spring, plus the inability to maintain the proper distance between passengers adds up to no buses this year. Pandemic notwithstanding, Acadia already had some limits. The bike express from the Bar Harbor Village Green to the Eagle Lake carriage road system was closed to devise improved safety plans and accommodate the huge number of users. Certain carriage roads are closed for repairs.

And the peregrine falcons? It’s spring fever for those dudes. They are a recovering species, formerly endangered. The NPS website advises that “Park staff has observed adults at these sites engaging in courtship and pre-nesting behavior…” We presume they mean adult peregrines, although courtship and pre-nesting behavior among hikers is not unheard of in the park.

On top of worries about falls, faints, bites, stings, sprains, strains, overheating, underhydrating and getting lost, now Acadia officials have a pandemic to worry about. Give ’em a break. Follow the rules, be safe, stay well.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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