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During The Pandemic, 'The Inside Was Closed.' So Mainers Went Where It Was Open

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
A person on a snowmobile rides on a trail, Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021, in Rangeley, Maine.

Twelve months into the global coronavirus pandemic and Mainers continue to navigate remote work, vaccinations, Zoom school and isolation.

But they’ve also been looking, hopefully, out the window. Because while it was a big year for takeout and life behind the screen, for the first time in a while, it was also a victory for the Great Outdoors.

“The inside was closed,” says Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands Director, Andy Cutko with a laugh. “Restaurants were closed, movie theaters were closed, and so when the inside is closed, and the outdoors is open — people just came out in droves.”

For the first time, yearly visits to Maine’s state parks topped 3 million, and both day-use sites and campsites saw record high usage.

In fact, so much picnicking and paddling went on that some parks had to close down due to overcrowding. And Cutko says it seems that people are ready for more.

“In the first week of taking campground reservations in February, our reservations were up 70% from last year. And we processed more than 7,000 camping reservations just in the first week this year, and those numbers just sort of blow away prior years,” he says.

All this interest in Maine’s woods and waters is a big relief to the state’s $3 billion outdoor industry.

Jenny Kordick, executive director of Maine Outdoor Brands, a nonprofit alliance representing Maine’s outdoor organizations and businesses, spoke with Maine Public host Jennifer Mitchell about the trend.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Mitchell: So what was the story with outdoor businesses a year ago? There must have been some concern, at least initially, with those stay-at-home orders and closures.

Kordick: You’re right, we did see a lot of uncertainty at the beginning of the pandemic. I think everyone saw decreased sales and impacts to operations initially. As the weather warmed, things quickly picked up from there. We saw that people wanted to get out of the house. So bikes, kayaks, camp chairs, sleeping bags — people were going for more bike rides, they were going camping and hiking and boating. We’ve just seen that trend continue from the summer to the winter. And now, sales of snowshoes and Nordic skis have been booming. We’ve seen ice fishing license sales increased. So people are getting out there. And that’s definitely benefited Maine’s outdoor industry.

So we’ve heard that big retailers like LLBean, for example, were reporting triple digit increases in sales for things like snowshoes. What were some of the smaller success stories to emerge over the past year?

So Maine outdoor product manufacturers in particular have really risen to meet the demand. So we’ve seen a number of companies here in Maine that manufacture outdoor gear and equipment that’s used and sold here in Maine, but also used and sold all over the country. Old Town canoes and kayaks and LLBean are two of the best examples of that, I would say. But we also have some companies like Malone Auto Racks, they’re based in Westbrook, they sell car racks to carry around bikes and kayaks. So as more people were buying bikes and kayaks, they also needed an auto rack to get to the water, or, you know, to the trail. Another example of that is Good To-Go. They’re based down in Kittery. They make dehydrated meals for things like camping and boating. And so as more people were getting outdoors and spending time outside, they also saw growth this year as more people were buying their products. Again, not only because of the the increase in participation we’ve seen in Maine, but all over the country.

What were some of the ways that businesses maybe had to adapt?

So we did see a decline in tourism from out-of-state in 2020. And so many of the outdoor service providers had to pivot to the local market. But we did see enthusiasm locally for getting outside and learning something new. And that’s really promising for us, as the outdoor industry, going forward. And the one other thing we saw is that a lot of beginners and a lot of families were spending time outdoors together, so many of the outdoor service businesses and organizations have shifted to offer guided trips that are tailored to beginners and more family-friendly experiences. And we’re expecting that to continue. And I would say people should start planning now for the summer. We are expecting another busy year.

So is this something of a reversal? Because back in 2018, we were hearing in outdoor surveys, that almost 50% of Americans, you know, didn’t get any outdoor exercise at all, and that we’re losing touch with the outdoors. So is this a bubble and is it going to possibly last?

Yeah, there has been top lines out from the Outdoor Foundation on their Outdoor Participation Report. And they noted that in 2020 they saw the largest annual increase in outdoor participation in the past 10 years. So that trend definitely turned around this past year. And we think that Americans will continue to prioritize outdoor recreation even after the pandemic’s over.

*You know, chances are people didn’t lose touch with the outdoors on purpose, you know, but just the way we live got in the way. Long hours in the office, long commutes maybe, more screentime as people use more social media. What needs to happen now to ensure that people can still going forward escape the not-so-great indoors, maybe?

I think it’s all about close-to-home recreation opportunities and how we can better incorporate the outdoors into our everyday lives. We’ve had a year now to shift our behavior in a more permanent way. And there has been time for habits to start to take hold. So in this past year, we know that a lot of people went camping for the first time or they invested in a new bike or kayak and that’s just the beginning of an active outdoor lifestyle. We know we need to keep those people enthused and engaged. And part of that is helping build these habits and ensuring that there are close-to-home recreation opportunities. And this is something I think that’s going to be important for Maine’s recovery from the pandemic, both for our health but also for our economy. The outdoor industry is a big piece of Maine’s economy, and it’s an area that we should continue to invest in.

For more from Deep Dive: Coronavirus, visit mainepublic.org/coronavirus.