Visitors, locals upbeat during Obama family visit

Posted July 17, 2010, at 3:48 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:08 p.m.

BAR HARBOR, Maine — A spur-of-the-moment visit to the Bass Harbor Head Light turned into a close encounter of the Obama kind for two young women visiting from the Midwest.

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Elizabeth Jury, 27, an international school teacher from DeWitt, Mich., and Brittany Wilkins, 27, a professional basketball player from Arlington, Neb., were on Mount Desert Island on the most recent leg of their 27-day road trip together. They had taken a hike on the Ship Harbor Trail near the lighthouse, when they met the Obamas.

“We were sitting on the rocks, looking out on the water and taking it all in when the Secret Service came up,” Jury said. “They checked us out and we’re like, ‘Obama’s coming, Obama’s coming.’ But we didn’t think he’d talk with us.”

But he did talk with them.

“He was so friendly. He said, ‘Hey guys, how’s it going?’ His wife was in front with the dog. He was very genuine, so much more open and friendly than I expected,” she said.

Wilkins said they knew the Obamas were at the lighthouse, but decided to take a hike in order to avoid the crowds. That’s where they were when the family came by.

“It was pretty cool,” Wilkins said. “He was very friendly. Just like a normal guy. He was not at all prideful. It’s nice to know somebody like that is leading our country.”

Wilkins said she had supported Obama in the past and was glad.

“This reaffirmed my view,” she said. “I’m happy with him as president.”

Jury said the president just spoke about the weather and how beautiful the area was.

“We talked about things like that,” she said. “Nothing political. We were like, ‘Treat him like a normal person.’ It’s insane that he has to have that much security just to take a walk on a trail.”

After spending the morning in Bar Harbor, the first family traveled to Southwest Harbor where they ate lunch at The Claremont Hotel before heading to the lighthouse.

While the Obamas spent the day on the quiet side of the island, Bar Harbor was still abuzz and in a generally upbeat mood about the first family’s visit.

“People are very excited,” said Catherine Higgins, manager at Stone Soup on Main Street. “There’s a lot of talk. I think people appreciate having the president in our little area.”

It’s been hard to tell if the president’s presence has had an impact on the numbers of people in town this weekend, she said.

“It’s quiet this morning,” Higgins said. “But that’s not unusual. It’s Saturday and it’s beautiful. People are out doing things.”

At Ben and Bill’s, where they’ve created a special Commander-in-Chief Chip [red, white and blue] ice cream in honor of the Obama visit, manager Adrienne Buckley said the visit has been exciting.

“We’ve had a lot of people in. Unfortunately they [the Obamas] haven’t been in here yet, but we have one more day,” Buckley said. “We’re just glad he’s here. He’s such a wonderful man.”

All the talk on Friday was about the Obamas, said Ann Bohrer, a worker at the Bar Harbor Hemporium.

The president, his wife, Michelle, and their two children, Malia and Sasha, spent much of Friday in Acadia National Park, biking the carriage trails, touring the summit of Cadillac Mountain and cruising Frenchmans Bay in a National Park Service boat. They also snacked on ice cream and ate dinner in downtown Bar Harbor.

“People are having fun with it,” Bohrer said. “They come in and they’re talking about sightings. It’s been fun.”

Friday was a busy day at Rupununi’s a Main Street eatery, but hostess Melissa Clark said that was not unusual since there was a cruise ship in that day. It’s hard to tell whether the Obama family’s visit has had an impact on business or not. And though people are excited, they seem to be taking his visit and the sight of the motorcades in stride.

“Nobody’s making a big deal about it,” Clark said.

Acadia National Park was very busy Friday, according to Chief Ranger Stuart West. Visitation to the park has been up from last year throughout the season, and in July in particular, partly due to the good weather.

While the first family was in the park Friday, rangers dealt with five separate rescues due to falls and other mishaps. None of those took place anywhere near the president, but, along with the Obamas’ visit, the incidents kept rangers busy, West said.

In contrast, Saturday was a quiet day in the park.

West said he wasn’t sure if people were concerned that the president’s party might make it difficult to get around.

“Visitation is very low today,” he said.

A portion of Route 3 near the Regency Hotel where the Obamas are staying has been closed to general traffic. But most visitors and locals have not been bothered by that either.

“It’s added about 15 minutes to my route, “ said Allen Ericson, a driver with the Island Explorer bus service. “But it hasn’t been a problem.”

Many of the riders on the Island Explorer buses are workers in town, he said, and they’re getting to work a little later.

“It’s really not a big deal,” said Tracy Pinkham, a worker at the Bar Harbor Hemporium, who drove the Park Loop Road because of the detour. “I take that road anyway to avoid mass quantities of people. The only problem is that there’s more cars on that road now.”

Jennie and Raynald Martin came to Bar Harbor from their home in Brewer, which they usually do once a month but this time with the added incentive of seeing the Obamas.

The Martins said they shook hands with John F. Kennedy in 1960 when he made a campaign appearance in Waterville. On Saturday morning, they stood outside the Bar Harbor Club on West Street hoping to see the first family but had no such luck.

They didn’t seem to mind much, saying that just having the president visit eastern Maine was honor enough.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Raynald Martin said. “It doesn’t happen very often.”

The couple sat on a bench around 3 p.m. Saturday outside Ben & Bill’s ice cream shop, but didn’t plan to stick around to see if the Obamas might reappear downtown.

“I wish we could have seen him,” Raynald Martin said.

Bobby Spaziani of Bar Harbor and Westchester, Pa., also missed out on seeing the Obamas on Saturday morning, but still managed to be interviewed by CBS News about the experience of having the Obamas in town.

He suggested that whether he saw them or not was unimportant.

“This is great for Bar Harbor,” Spaziani said.

Some visitors to the area were not immediately aware that President Obama and his family were visiting Bar Harbor this weekend.

“We didn’t know it until we got to the hotel last night,” said Jerry Juvee, who with his wife Karen was visiting from Wisconsin. “I think it’s nice that he came here. It’ll be good for the community.”

His wife agreed.

“A lot of people might come here because he’s here,” she said. “Some of them are going to spend money. That’s good for the economy.”

“We haven’t seen him,” she added. “but I’d be happy to see him. You don’t see a president every day.”

Not everyone was so enthusiastic.

One visitor from Ohio, who asked not to be identified, was short and to the point.

“So long as he doesn’t mess up my vacation,” he said.

On the Village Green, a group of peace activists gathered in the afternoon to urge the president to “bring home the troops.” The group had met on the green every Sunday since the attack on the World Trade Center, but stopped after Obama was elected.

“He campaigned on change and hope, and we wanted to give him a chance,” said Patty Ryan of Somesville.

Their posters called for an end to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and urged the President to “bring the war dollars home.”

“In this country there is a growing gap between the rich and the poor, education costs are enormous,” Ryan said. “We need those dollars for health care, education, cultural events. We wanted to take this opportunity to stand in the park to welcome him here and to say ‘honor your promises.”’

“We support the troops,” she said. “We want to bring them home.”

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