ORONO, Maine — Area law enforcement agencies are hoping the public will help stop an event that jeopardizes the lives and safety of Maine’s young people as well as public access to thousands of wilderness acres traditionally used for outdoor recreation.
The event? Chickenfest.
Despite its innocuous-sounding name, Chickenfest has earned a reputation for underage and excess drinking, drug use and sexual activity — not to mention the adverse effect on private property, Maine Warden Service Sgt. Ron Dunham said Wednesday while in Orono for a meeting of the Underage Drinking Enforcement Task Force for Penobscot and Piscataquis Counties
While they aren’t sure who is behind the event or when it will take place, stopping Chickenfest is one of the group’s top priorities, added Orono police Detective Derek Dinsmore, the task force’s coordinator.
“There’s a percentage of them who are partying and they get back on the road and we run into such items as OUI issues, we’re running into dangers on the highways. There’s absolutely no good that can come of this. Absolutely nothing,” Maine State Police Lt. Wesley Hussey said about the event.
According to a 2009 report by the Maine Campus, the University of Maine’s student newspaper, Chickenfest is an underground event that has been described as a secretive University of Maine tradition going back one or two decades. It moves around from one remote spot to another, drawing hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people in any given year.
“It’s a sojourn into the woods where anywhere from hundreds to thousands of people trek out for music, cookouts, fire, camping and intoxication. Who exactly chooses the spot, draws up the directions, sends the text messages? It’s tough to tell. It’s taken me four years of college to actually experience Chickenfest,” a Maine Campus reporter pointed out.
That’s what makes Chickenfest so difficult for law enforcement officials to monitor and prevent, Dunham, Dinsmore and Hussey said.
Though area law enforcement officials had been aware of the event for years, an unrelated suicide that occurred during last year’s Chickenfest put the event front and center because, in large part, it brought law enforcement officials to the scene.
“That’s really what brought it to the forefront, I think, or part of it, the death of that young man and the loss of him, the impact on the landowners where this was held and the impact on the sportsmen who used to have access to this land and recreate,” Dunham said.
“There was an assumption apparently that it was all right for these folks to hold their event on the property of a large timber company and they went there and set up their facilities and what have you,” he said.
“There was a lot of evidence of alcohol use, drug use, sexual behavior and whatnot and all the remnants were left behind. It was apparent that there was several hundred people at some point. It was pretty disgraceful. I would not want to be the landowner that had that event occur.”
Dunham said the property on which last year’s gathering occurred no longer is open for public use, he said. It now is blocked off by gates and rocks, off limits to outdoor recreation enthusiasts.
“The privilege of using the land is significant in this state,” he said. “It’s unique. In other parts of the country, it’s very different. You pay everywhere you go. The ranches, even the national forests, are gated. We’re very fortunate here in this state to be able to recreate on private lands. We try to preserve that privilege for everyone. It’s not just sportsmen, it’s people who want to go for a ride in the woods, go bird watching or wildlife viewing or whatnot.”
The task force members said Wednesday that they plan to conduct a media campaign about Chickenfest, underage drinking and related problems later this month, closer to when they believe the event will be held.
Anyone with information about plans for this year’s Chickenfest is urged to contact area authorities.
Tips can be left anonymously through the University of Maine’s Campus Eyes program by calling 581-9255 or through its website at http://umaine.edu/police/campus-eyes or via the Maine Warden Service’s Operation Game Thief at 800-253-7887 or http://www.maineogt.org.