Leo Freeman, owner of Perception of Aroostook, prepares a stack of kayak and canoe rentals outside his store in Presque Isle. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / The Star Herald

Aroostook County just experienced its most successful summer tourism season since before the pandemic.

And that was without Canadian tourists, who were unable to come because of the U.S. border remaining closed to travelers. That access was granted on Nov. 8.

People’s desire to reconnect with nature, an increase in the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine and loosened mask mandates encouraged visitors from Maine and other states to experience Aroostook’s scenic nature parks, trails and waterways, according to local business owners and Jacob Pelkey, tourism developer for Northern Maine Development Commission.

In a region known for an array of outdoor parks and recreational opportunities, tourism from Maine and out-of-state visitors has always been crucial to Aroostook’s economy. The 1.4 million visitors who traveled there throughout 2019 spent $164 million total at local hotels, restaurants, shops and gas stations, according to the Maine Office of Tourism. That number fell sharply to 216,400 visitors in 2020, who spent more than $76 million.

But although annual data for Aroostook is not yet available for 2021, those who work in the tourism sector saw firsthand a substantial increase in summer visitors compared to 2020 and 2019.

One of Aroostook’s most famous destinations — Aroostook State Park in Presque Isle — had another banner year for both day use visitors and campers, according to park director Scott Thompson.

While day use increased by 18 percent and campsite use by 41 percent in 2020, Thompson is expecting to see 2021 numbers surpass those from last summer, particularly among campers.

“We have 30 family campsites. Typically, over 25 of those would be full Monday through Thursday and we’d be completely full Friday through Sunday,” Thompson said.

Thompson estimated that at least 60 percent of summer visitors came from outside Aroostook County, especially from areas of coastal and southern Maine and New England. Numerous tourists had never visited Aroostook before and were looking for a peaceful vacation destination to escape larger crowds.

“Many people would say, ‘This is our first time coming here and we’ll definitely be back,'” Thompson said.

Fishing, picnics, hiking and swimming were activities that proved popular among park visitors, as well as kayaking and canoeing on Echo Lake. Though the park could not rent out its own kayaks and canoes due to COVID-19 restrictions, Leo Freeman, owner of Perception of Aroostook, stepped up to provide rental boats to visitors.

Rentals to Aroostook State Park guests made up at least 90 percent of kayak and canoe rentals for summer 2021, Freeman said. Since summer 2020, Freeman has opted to deliver boats rather than offer tourists rides to and from their destinations.

In addition to Maine tourists, Freeman interacted with people from Michigan, California, Pennsylvania and other states who were eager to start a new outdoor hobby or looking for adventure in a place they’d never ventured to before.

“They all were very happy to get out on the water and look at their surroundings,” Freeman said. “They were looking for a getaway into nature to clear their heads.”

Kim Rhoades of Shokan, New York, was one summer tourist who came to Aroostook for the first time this year. While visiting her daughter in Presque Isle with a close friend, Rhoades enjoyed kayaking on Echo Lake, during which she observed a bald eagle’s nest in a nearby tree.

Until this summer, Rhoades had only traveled as far north as Baxter State Park. As someone who is from a more mountainous region of New York, she was amazed by the openness of Aroostook’s potato fields and waterways.

“The vast emptiness of the country’s farmland is beautiful and so are the waterways and the sunsets. [Aroostook State Park] is a great place to unplug and absorb the natural beauty of the lake,” Rhoades said. “I’m definitely coming back next year.”

That type of sentiment is one that Steve Dobson, owner of Aroostook Hospitality Inn in Washburn and Van Buren, heard from tourists throughout the summer months.

Though most of Dobson’s guests in 2020 were construction crews working on local projects, 2021 proved to be his biggest year since before COVID-19. The majority of guests, he noted, were visiting Aroostook for the first time and many were also looking to purchase real estate.

“I probably had a 25 to 30 percent increase [in tourists] over 2019,” Dobson said. “A lot of people came from Bar Harbor. They had spent a few days there and wanted to visit Aroostook because they’d never been here before. Many people came for a day but ended up staying two or three more days.”

While chatting with guests, Dobson learned that many were from southern Maine towns such as Yarmouth, Cape Elizabeth and Portland. Others came from states such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York and North Carolina. Many came for popular summer events such as the Crown of Maine Balloon Festival, Fort Fairfield’s Potato Blossom Festival and Madawaska’s Acadian Festival.

But outdoor recreation remained a popular activity throughout Aroostook. At the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, superintendent Mark Deroche noticed an increase in large guided river trips, which typically had around a dozen people. In summer 2020, most visitors came in smaller groups of two to four people.

Most tourists visiting the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in summer 2021 were from Maine and other New England states. Like at other Aroostook destinations, rangers came across many people who had never visited the Allagash region or Aroostook County.

If this summer is any indication, Deroche said, the region might see many of the same tourists return for years to come, along with more new faces.

“I don’t remember having one conversation [with visitors] about the area that wasn’t positive,” Deroche said. “They kept saying, ‘You guys are very fortunate to live in one of the most pristine places on earth.'”