PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The first state park ever established in Maine will kick off the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the state park system on Feb. 20.
With plenty of snow in Aroostook State Park, the anniversary celebration will coincide with activities marking the third annual “Take It Outside” Winter Family Fun Day.
Aroostook State Park manager Scott Thompson said recently that the daylong winter event would feature numerous activities, including dog sled rides, ice-harvesting, ice-sculpting demonstrations and nature hikes.
The Maine state park system began in 1935 when the Legislature appointed the first State Park Commission. In 1938, a group of local businessmen donated 100 acres to the state, which became Aroostook State Park, Maine’s first state park, in 1939. Today the park has almost 800 acres and offers numerous recreational opportunities.
Gov. John Baldacci launched the Take It Outside initiative in mid-2007 to encourage children to spend more time outdoors. He urged government agencies and outdoor organizations to develop ways to get youngsters to overcome inactivity and spend more time outside.
In response, the state Department of Conservation and the Maine Recreation and Park Association tag-teamed for a series of outdoor recreation events that winter.
At Aroostook State Park, the first Take It Outside day drew approximately 150 people, and an even larger crowd flocked to the park the second year of the event.
Thompson said he expects this year’s Take It Outside day to draw even more participants than in previous years because of the increased interest in Maine’s state parks and the recognition of Aroostook County’s special place in state history.
The event comes on the heels of a very successful 2009 for the Presque Isle park. Thompson said 2009 brought a big increase in visitors. According to figures provided by park personnel, day use at the park was up 12 percent over previous years, while camping was up 9.2 percent over previous years.
“It was not an astronomical leap, but it was great to see,” he said. “The increase in people has led to an increase in activities here, which has been great for the entire region. The events we have scheduled, such as our first annual Birding Festival and our Haunted Park event, brought people from as far away as Wells, Portland and Bangor. A lot of those people stayed overnight in a local hotel and ate in local restaurants.”
The Take It Outside events, he continued, also have drawn first-time visitors to the park. Those visitors have returned to take part in more events, Thompson added.
“We’re looking forward to opening the gates and allowing people to come in and see this wonderful place,” he said.
Park conditions are excellent for lots of outdoor activities, he added, including ice skating, sledding and snowshoeing.
“The sledding now is tremendous, and our ice rink is in beautiful shape,” Thompson said. He said the sledding hill offers a short, fast 200-yard run out onto Echo Lake, and the ice rink has been enlarged.
Dog sled rides on Echo Lake will be provided by Lindy Howe of Heywood Kennel in Stockholm, Thompson said. The musher is expected to bring two sleds and two dog teams, totaling 30 dogs.
An ice-harvesting demonstration will be presented by Matt Libby of Libby’s Camps in Ashland. In two separate sessions, Libby will show how the ice on Echo Lake can be cut and prepared, Thompson said.
In addition, ice carver Bob Johnson of Presque Isle will work on an ice sculpture during the event.
For the first time at the park, Andy Hutchinson, manager of Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park in Freeport and a well-known naturalist, will offer two nature hikes to visitors. Hutchinson has been leading interpretive walks at several parks this winter. His topics at Aroostook will be “Animal Tracks in the Snow” and “Nature in Winter.”
The Maine Winter Sports Center will provide equipment and experts to help participants try out cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Thompson pointed out that Aroostook State Park would be the site later this year of other events highlighting the 75th anniversary of the state park system. Those events include the Take It Outside First-Time Campers program over several weekends this summer, the Aroostook State Park Birding Festival on June 12, Fall Foli-age Hikes, the Haunted Park in October and additional nature interpretive hikes.
The celebration runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the park. Cost is $1.50 for ages 12-64, free for children and seniors. Lunch consisting of soups and chili, hot dogs, hamburgers and more is included in the price of admission. A $2 donation is requested for participants who take part in the dog sled rides.