LILY BAY TOWNSHIP — “Where’s the electric stove?” joked Gerald Saucier, 70, as he poked through a tote of camping supplies Friday at Lily Bay State Park on Moosehead Lake.
After having driven for about 4½ hours, the Fort Fairfield man, his wife, Louise, 64, their daughter Louann Cook, 46, of Mars Hill and her son Josh Cook, 14, were eager to get their waterfront campsite ready before dinner.
Their only problem was no one other than Josh had ever camped before.
“I’ve never been hunting or fishing in my life, and I’ve never been camping,” Gerald Saucier said.
Saucier wasn’t too worried about his lack of camping skills though, as his family was one of 32 families chosen at random to participate in the First-Time Campers program sponsored by the Department of Conservation. As such, the Sauciers had their tent, sleeping bags, chairs, lanterns, bottled water and an assortment of other gear waiting for them, as well as a personal assistant.
That assistant, Gary Best, an interpretive specialist with the Bureau of Parks and Land who claims he has the best job in the state, welcomed the three generations to their campsite.
“We’re really glad you brought good weather,” Best told the family, as the sun peeked through the forest canopy. As he did with each First-Time Camper family, Best gave the Sauciers a lesson on camping and outdoor ethics, then helped the family set up their tent and install a tarp over a picnic table. Before he left, he discussed fire safety.
“I have never, ever camped before and I said I never would, but here I am,” Louise Saucier said as she watched the rest of her family and Best erect the tent. She was happy, she said, to be in the Moosehead Lake region for the first time.
The Sauciers were among eight of 32 families staying at four state parks this weekend. The camping trips for the families have been staggered throughout the summer at the various state parks because of the limited amount of camping gear available.
First-Time Campers is a program in Gov. John E. Baldacci’s “Take It Outside!” initiative to encourage children and families to experience the great outdoors, DOC spokeswoman Jeanne Curran said last week.
Families whose applications were chosen at random for the experience received a two-night, three-day reservation and a variety of camping gifts and coupons from Hannaford, Oakhurst Dairy, Poland Spring, Wicked Joe Coffee, Coleman and L.L. Bean, she said. One lucky family will receive a complete camping outfit from L.L. Bean at the close of the season.
The emphasis of the program, now in its second year, is to help remove some of the apprehension of first-time campers and get them outside to experience good-quality family time, according to Best. “We want them to have a nice, relaxing weekend,” Best said. If they have an enjoyable time on their first camping trip, they will continue camping, he noted.
Comments made last year indicate the program is working. Of last year’s participants, 50 percent said they would not have gone camping without such a program and 100 percent said they would continue camping, Best said.
“We’re seeing some of those families make reservations this year at the state parks, so we’re really, really happy with the results for the first year,” Best said.
As an added bonus for the Sauciers and other campers at the park on Saturday, the University of Maine 4-H Camp and Learning Center at Bryant Pond held a free outdoor workshop. The program offered lost-person survival techniques, map reading and nature observations. Similar workshops will be conducted at other Maine parks this summer.
The Sauciers, who thoroughly enjoyed their stay, couldn’t say enough about all the help offered to them. The park ranger even provided his canoe so Louann and Josh Cook could paddle around the lake.
“We had a wonderful time,” Louann Cook said Sunday afternoon. This opportunity has made the family realize just how much fun camping is and how quiet it can be, she said. She and her son plan to continue to camp, and her parents plan to camp a little closer to home.
“I would recommend it for anybody to try it,” Cook said. “We appreciate what everyone did for us, we had a really good time.”