CAMDEN, Maine — All her life, 60-year-old Pat Foley wanted to try camping — but with a husband and kids who just weren’t that interested in sleeping in a tent, she never gave it a try.
That changed Friday, when the excited winner — one of 40 — of the Maine Department of Conservation’s First Time Camper raffle helped set up her very first L.L. Bean tent and campsite at Camden Hills State Park.
“It’s going to be fun tonight,” the Brunswick woman said Friday afternoon. “We’ll read stories. We’ll have s’mores … we’re planning on climbing Mount Battie, and because the weather is so beautiful, we’re going to go to Lake Megunticook. And then come back and enjoy the beauty [of the park].”
Foley was accompanied on the camping trip by her daughter Angela Smith of Raymond and by Smith’s granddaughter Alana Pelletier, 5, of Poland and her friend Mia Nagy, 5, of Greene.
The girls played tea party at a tree-shaded picnic table while the grown-ups helped Ranger Sandie Sabaka assemble the tent Friday afternoon.
“With a great-granddaughter, I feel that it’s time to do some outdoor exploring,” Foley said.
The Bangor native said that she entered the First-Time Camper raffle in May after she had lost her administrative job with the town of Brunswick in budget cuts.
“I was very disappointed, sitting at home and thinking about buying my annual state park pass online,” Foley said.
She decided on a whim to enter the raffle and was shocked to hear from the Maine Department of Conservation a few weeks ago saying that she was one of 40 raffle winners.
“And here we are,” she said.
The winning families each have a free weekend sometime this summer at one of Maine’s 12 state park campgrounds, where they’ll be taught the basics of camping by park staff and supported throughout the weekend. They’ll also get to use a complete set of camping equipment and to keep four sleeping bags in addition to other camping perks.
The program, which is part of Gov. John Baldacci’s “Take It Outside” initiative, has grown much more popular over the three years of its existence, according to DOC spokeswoman Jeanne Curran.
“It’s very satisfying,” she said of the growing numbers of raffle entrants.
More than 1,000 families entered this year, which is more than double the number of entrants in 2008.
“We very much want to encourage people to get outdoors,” Curran said.
This year’s better weather also has led to a 27 percent increase in park use over the January to May period last year, she said.
Reasons for the governor’s initiative include a concern that families aren’t spending enough time being active and outdoors, a desire to help Mainers discover the beauty of the state parks, and a hope that participants will find refreshment and relaxation in nature, she said.
Program sponsors, including L.L. Bean, Hannaford, Poland Spring Water, Wicked Joe Coffee and Oakhurst Dairy, help to defray the price of the camping raffle, according to Curran.
“The cost is far exceeded by the value,” she said.
At the campsite on Friday, the women struggled a bit but ultimately succeeded in getting their blue tent up. Foley and Smith shared an exuberant high five with Sabaka.
“I would never be able to do this on my own,” Foley said.
Little Alana wandered away from her tea party to stare at the tent with an impressed look on her face.
“Holy cow,” she exclaimed.
The campers pulled out their self-inflating ground pads and put them in the tent. Alana and Mia rushed in, giggling, and rolled around the floor.
“I love it,” Alana said.
Foley said that her family is good at making memories.
“This will be a memory,” she said of the camping trip.
To learn more about the state parks, visit the Maine Department of Conservation website at: www.maine.gov/doc.