Aroostook State Park Manager Scott Thompson of Mapleton stands near trees at the entrance to the park in September 2020. Credit: David Marino Jr. | The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — This summer has seen a surge in outdoor recreation across the state, including at Aroostook State Park in Presque Isle. Day use is up 18 percent and camping up 41 percent since last year at Maine’s first state park, according to data from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

Park Manager Scott Thompson said that many were itching to spend time outdoors after spending countless hours inside their homes during the first few months of the pandemic.

“People have gone back to the basics,” Thompson said. “They wanted to get out of the house. Get away from the news. Get away from everything that makes us fearful.”

The rise in visitors at the park is part of a broader increase in outdoor recreation during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the sale of several recreational-based items such as firearms, fishing supplies and ATVs. What remains to be seen is if this renewed interest continues after the pandemic subsides.

According to Thompson, people simply got sick of spending all day staring at their TV, computer and phone. The COVID-19 pandemic was a tipping point that made many desire the “cleansing” nature of the outdoors, Thompson said.

The move away from nature can even be felt in a rural location like Aroostook County, which has among the lowest rates of broadband internet in Maine. A 2018 study of rural adolescents by the Environment and Behavior journal found that children were spending far more time using electronics than finding activities to do outside.

The park saw several new campers, many coming from downstate and visiting Aroostook County for the first time. Thompson said he saw people from Bath, Brunswick, Portland and Belfast, among other locations.

He said many were attracted by the rural nature of The County. Others wanted to avoid the bustle and reduced capacity in downstate parks, which remained open during the pandemic.

The park did not avoid new regulations required for parks across Maine, including requiring that attendees socially distance and wear masks whenever possible. Sites and objects were cleaned more than usual to lessen the risk of the virus spreading.

Out-of-state attendees who were not on a list of five eligible states were also required to fill out a form stating that they had either tested negative for the COVID-19 pandemic or would follow laws on quarantining. Non-state residents were one of the groups that did not increase this year.

Thompson said that while some people needed to be asked to wear masks early on, most attendees closely followed distancing guidelines. Many were far more upset about the park discontinuing canoe and kayak rentals — rentals were suspended this summer for sanitation reasons.

Thompson said he was happy to let people from The County and far beyond forget about the negatives of what has been a tumultuous year. He said he believes that many first-time visitors to the park would return in future years, long after the pandemic has run its course.

“We’re going to be busier the next four or five years,” Thompson said. “And we can thank COVID for that.”