Many people travel great distances at great expense to hunt, fish and enjoy the beauty of the Maine wilderness, yet many residents who live on the doorstep of these remote areas seldom see them.
I have lived in Aroostook County more than 30 years but have never been to Deboullie Land Reserve a few miles northwest of Caribou. It’s one of those places I have heard about and thought I would visit some day, but just never got around to it. Deboullie was one of more than 20 destinations on the fall schedule for the Take It Outside program sponsored by the Caribou Parks and Recreation Department — a program that is attracting more and more people like me with a desire to see the places in our backyard that attract tourists from around the world.
Since Sept. 4, groups of from six to 22 Aroostook County residents have traveled to the Botanical Gardens in Edmundston, New Brunswick, Baxter State Park, Kings Landing, N.B., and sporting camps on Munsungun Lake. They have explored the trains on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway and cruised the waters of the St. John River above Grand Falls where they dined on steaks grilled on board by the captain of their tour boat.
They visited Spudland Alpacas in Blaine and the Shakaree Red Deer Farm in New Limerick. They toured the Amish Village in Smyrna, the Acadian Village in Keegan and are scheduled to visit Maine’s Swedish Colony in New Sweden, Stockholm and Woodland Oct. 30.
“This is eco-tourism at its highest level,” said Neal Sleeper, recreation program director at the Caribou Wellness and Recreation Center. “We live in a rich area for heritage and genealogy. There is so much around here, and so many people know the history.”
Day trips are attracting participants from surrounding communities, as well as Caribou, and they are welcomed warmly at each destination. The Brookside Diner in Smyrna even prepares a special menu for the Caribou Parks and Recreation groups.
“People are so excited to open their doors to our groups,” Sleeper said. “It’s good for them, too. There’s an economic twist to it. That’s what Aroostook County is all about — people helping one another. It’s win-win all around.”
Sleeper says the idea for the program came from “the mother of ideas” — Kathleen Mazzuchelli, superintendent of parks and recreation.
“When I was an Italian kid growing up, older people dressed in black and sat in rocking chairs,” Mazzuchelli said. “This new generation of older people is active, they have energy, they want to learn and understand parts of Aroostook County beyond where they live.” She said when the state launched the Take It Outside program for young people under Gov. John Baldacci, “We saw a need to get everybody outside.”
At first it was just “seniors,” but demand for the trips has forced a relaxation of the “over-55″ age requirement. Now trips are open to anyone over 18. Fees range from $15 to $45 to cover costs such as fuel, admission fees and, most important, lunch.
Every trip includes a lunch, which has become a highlight of the adventures. A gourmet meal at Bradford Camps on Munsungun Lake Oct. 16, for example, included ginger squash soup, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches with zucchini relish and homemade chocolate chip cookies.
“It’s a lot about going out to lunch,” Sleeper observed. It’s also about good health, morale, esteem, companionship. He said the trips have been popular for residents who are single, widowed and others who might not want to drive to remote locations on their own. Sleeper earned Registered Maine Guide certification to qualify as a leader for outdoor excursions, and Mazzuchelli says he “passes on his passion for the outdoors” to program participants.
“This program makes people aware of and appreciate what we have,” said Doris Nadeau of Caribou, who has participated since Take It Outside started four years ago. “It’s a way to go out and see places right here locally we might not see by ourselves. And it’s not expensive. With the price of gas, you can’t get to some of these places for less than the fee. And it includes lunch.” Nadeau said she has traveled to every county in the state and to other beautiful places, but “it’s just as beautiful right here.”
Shirley Cote of New Sweden and her sister Wendy Bossie of Caribou have resolved to create memories they can “take out and enjoy during the winter.” They decided to sign up for the Caribou Recreation Department trip to Bradford Camps on Oct. 16. Both described the experience as “magical,” explaining that Sleeper was gracious, related to everyone in the group, and thought of everything, including a coffee break beside a stream by the road on the way into the camps.
“The ride in and out was just as much fun as being there,” Cote said. “We laughed so much. By the time we got back we had made friends.”
“It was a wonderful adventure,” Bossie said. “The day was sunny, the sky was blue, the water was sparkling — it was beautiful.”
And as a memory to take out in the winter, Cote says, “This is high on the list.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.