NAPLES — The Mayo family has been coming to Sebago Lake State Park Campground for more than 40 years, and this year they planned to spread their mother’s ashes at her favorite vacation retreat. When reservations opened for the park on Feb. 1, they booked seven sites for their family reunion in July, envisioning a few near the lake beside the playground, where the late Rhoda Mayo’s great-great grandchildren could play within sight of the adults.

What they got, Jean Mayo said, were a few of those campsites beside the road. Oncoming headlights hit them as they sat around the campfire at night. 

“The day I make the camping reservations is the most stressful day of the year. But this year was the worst,” said Amy DeCapua of Limington, Jean’s daughter and Rhoda Mayo’s granddaughter.

Campground managers across Maine have similar stories of longtime campers unable to get their favorite campsites this year because of the boom brought on by the pandemic. That, coupled with a spike in recreational vehicle sales, meant that choice campsites went fast as soon as reservations opened earlier this year. 

“There are a few nights here and there during the week and we have walk-up (reservations). But if you weren’t online the first week of reservations, you have few choices. The first day we had a 60 percent increase in reservations,” said Sebago Lake State Park Manager Owen Blease.

Carol Fitzgerald of Uxbridge, Mass., unfurls a tarp while setting up a tent at a waterfront campsite overlooking Casco Bay at Winslow Park and Campground in Freeport. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

According to RV Industry Association, shipments from recreational vehicle manufacturers across North America set an all-time record in the second quarter of 2021. That was a 2 percent increase from the previous record – set during the first quarter of 2021.

And RV owners need somewhere to park their rolling camps.

Maine state parks are on pace to break last year’s attendance record, with total nights reserved at the 12 campgrounds around the state up 29 percent compared to the same time as last year, according to the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

It’s the same story at many campgrounds. According to an independent study paid for by Kampgrounds of America, Inc., active camping households in the U.S. grew from 82.3 million in 2019 to 86.1 million in 2020. But the number of new camper households mushroomed from 2.7 million in 2019 to 10.1 million in 2020.

Those numbers boil down to this: If you didn’t have seriously fast typing skills when online reservations opened earlier in the year, you likely were out of luck.

Phil Bibeau of Buxton has camped at Sebago Lake State Park for more than 40 years. Now that he’s retired, Bibeau enjoys settling down in his favorite spot near the lake and inviting his children and grandchildren, who all live within 45 minutes of the park.

But when trying to book the site online, Bibeau couldn’t get his favorite site near Witch Cove Beach at any point this summer. So when he came to the park in mid-July, Bibeau got another walk-up site, then staked out his favorite site to see if the people there might leave early due to the rain – which they did. Then Bibeau waited at the check-in booth and switched sites when his favorite was vacated. 

“It’s nice. My backyard is the lake, my side yard is the woods,” Bibeau said. 

At Winslow Park and Campground along the Freeport coast, Rosemary and Ronald Lavigne of Old Orchard Beach got their favorite oceanfront site by using a double-team effort, with both on computers on April 1 when reservations opened at the park. 

When they got to the park in mid-July, Rosemary Lavigne said she realized just how lucky they were. Reservation horror stories were passed around by many other campers.

“This year was the craziest reservation day in 10 years when reservation opened,” said Winslow Park Manager Neil Lyman. “There was about four hours of me and one other person on the phone talking to people who thought the online system was broken. It wasn’t broken – people were just beating them to the site they wanted. I pulled advertising this year for the first time. Why use it if I have nothing to reserve anymore?”

Rosemary Lavigne of Old Orchard Beach takes in the view from her campsite overlooking Casco Bay at Winslow Park and Campground in Freeport. Lavigne and her husband used separate computers to reserve their site the moment reservations opened – and hit paydirt. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Lyman said reservations at the Freeport campground are up 35 percent from 2019 – and that is with 15 sites being blocked off to help spread people out because of the pandemic.

Roger and Diane Lavertu of Lewiston weren’t as lucky as the Lavignes. Their daughter-in-law made their camping reservations this year at several campgrounds, including Winslow Park.

The Lavertus camp all over Maine, from Boothbay to Bar Harbor and as far north as Eustis. They also wanted to be along the shoreline at Winslow Park, but ended up back in the trees. While their daughter-in-law scrambled to get them a site and booked early, they still came up short.

Diane Lavertu said being at a site on the water would have been special.

“Of course we would have liked that. When we camped on the shore before, we used to kayak up to the Harraseeket for ice cream,” Lavertu said of the Harraseeket Lunch and Lobster Company. 

At Shore Hills Campground and RV Park in Boothbay, Rick Towle of Saco was hoping for any camp site. But when he looked to book a four-day solo camping weekend at the last minute in mid-July, he was shut out at Shore Hills, and everywhere else. Towle called eight campgrounds around the Midcoast, but could not find a campsite.

“Usually I can find a site with two calls. This year – nothing,” said Towle, a Jay native and lifelong Maine camper. 

But Towle got lucky. Shore Hills co-owner Jean Reny had a cancellation and called back Towle, who has stayed at Shore Hills before. In a pinch he was there with his pop-up trailer ready to relax. 

“My family does a bit of a tour in the summer, staying in at least six, sometimes 10 campgrounds along the coast and up to Dover-Foxcroft,” Towle said. “This is the busiest summer it’s been since we started taking our daughters camping 19 years ago.”

Towle thinks the camping craze will continue, and he’s glad to see it, being a camping veteran. He pointed to a what appeared to be a new Airstream trailer parked near his weathered decade-old pop-up, which his daughters fondly call “Patches.” 

“I’m drinking a PBR and he’s drinking a craft beer. But we both love camping,” Towle said. “And all those people who bought campers last year, they will fall in love with camping.”

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