April 01, 2020
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Some Mainers heading into the woods — or onto islands — to avoid coronavirus

Courtesy of Robbie Nickels
Courtesy of Robbie Nickels
Robbie Nickels of Searsmont loads supplies onto his boat in preparation to moving to Lasell Island to ride out the coronavirus pandemic. Courtesy of Robbie Nickels

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As the world around him has struggled to cope with the new realities associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, Searsmont’s Robbie Nickels has decided to take “social distancing” a few steps further than even the most conservative experts are suggesting.

Nickels is retreating from Maine’s mainland to privately owned Lasell Island, a five-mile boat trip from Camden Harbor, to ride out the virus.

Nickels is among the Mainers who are heading to less populated areas in order to avoid contact with the virus. Some are heading to camps in the woods, while others, like him, are shipping out entirely.

“I’m trying to just get out of Dodge, so to speak. [I’m going to] just kind of hang out over there for a while, see what happens,” Nickels said.

Nickels, 52, has been the island’s caretaker for the past 13 years, and he typically moves out to Lasell in April, remaining there until shutting things down in the fall. This year, he’s just moving the calendar forward a bit in order to escape what he says is increasingly unpredictable conduct on the mainland.

Courtesy of Robbie Nickels
Courtesy of Robbie Nickels
Robbie Nickels, 52, of Searsmont will be heading to Lasell Island in Penobscot Bay to ride out the coronavirus pandemic. Nickels is the caretaker for the family that owns the island. Courtesy of Robbie Nickels

“It’s still a little cold to be getting over there now, but I’m kind of anxious to just get away from everything that’s going on,” he said. “[I want] to keep things off my mind. I mean, it is kind of depressing to see people scared and everything that’s going on. There’s a lot of negativity, too.”

Nickels started loading up his lobster boat, “Rolling Donut,” at the end of last week, and said he was planning to head to the island sometime this week, depending on how the weather turned out. He said he doesn’t expect any trouble staying on the island until the fall. His wife may join him at some point, depending on how her mainland job works out, and his son may head over, too.

“I live off the grid anyways, in a log cabin, so I’m generally far away from any neighbors, but everybody’s kind of in a panic, it seems like. I feel it, it’s bringing it me down,” Nickels said. “And I’ve kind of been the type of person to be prepared. I’m secluded.”

Since he regularly spends months on the island each year, he doesn’t see much of a difference this time around. And he said living on the island is very peaceful.

“There’s nobody there. It’s quiet. You don’t hear any traffic. It’s just me and nature,” he said. “You need warm clothes, a set of rain gear and rubber boots. But we grow all our food here, and hunt and fish, so we’re pretty well prepared.”

Nickels said he’ll take a bit extra this year — frozen game meat and canned vegetables from last summer — that will set him up for an extended stay.

Others, like Kathryn Marcella, 37, of Bangor are heading to the woods to severely limit social interactions. On Friday, she gave a phone interview as she, her husband and daughter drove up Interstate 95 en route to a family homestead 55 miles from Bangor.

Marcella was laid off from her job managing a midcoast restaurant on Thursday, and the family decided to pull up stakes and head north.

She and her husband hope to move to that homestead full-time at some point, and she thought the circumstances made for a perfect time to give that plan a test drive.

And while she’s concerned about the spread of the virus, she’s taking a businesslike approach to their retreat into the woods.

“I don’t think we’re fearful at all. I think we’re being safe. We’re also self-quarantining because we sort of want to pull ourselves out of the equation,” Marcella said. “We don’t want to be possible asymptomatic carriers that transfer it to other people.”

Making a decision that can not only help her and her family, but others, is important to her.

“It feels like the right place to be at this time,” she said. “We have less exposure to people, and in that less exposure to people there are less people exposed to us.”

She said she’s confident that their supplies will hold out, and she plans on avoiding civilization as much as possible.

“We feel like we’ve got enough [supplies] to just hunker down. We did get some provisions in bulk. But don’t worry, we’re not crazy toilet paper hoarders,” she said with a laugh.

In fact, Marcella said she was among those who’d become downright desperate to find toilet paper. A trip to a local natural foods store paid off, and she was able to stock up — sensibly — on Friday.

Marcella said she was sad to watch her restaurant lay people off, but considers herself fortunate to have a fallback plan.

“I’m not excited about being laid off by any means. But by the same token, it does sort of afford me the luxury of being able to step back and watch, stay healthy and make sure I’m helping other people stay healthy as well,” she said.

While some Mainers are taking to the woods for the long haul, others are using short day trips to their camps to get some exercise, escape the bad news of the day, and find solace in nature.

Count Woody Higgins in that group. He answered a BDN query seeking sources for this story with a bit of humor.

“I might walk into camp tomorrow,” Higgins said. “I realized there’s around 6 rolls of [toilet paper] there. I don’t need them now, but who knows?”

Despite the global situation, and the steady increase in COVID-19 cases in Maine, Nickels, for one, has confidence in what the future will eventually hold.

“People are scared, but we’re resilient. We’re Mainers,” he said. “We’ll always stick together. We’ll come out of this.”

 


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