By Brian Kevin
Photographs by Chris Bennett
Baxter State Park retires an age-old — and way-cold — tradition.
Daryl Kelley won’t spend three frigid nights in a frost-covered tent in a Millinocket parking lot this month, and man, is he disappointed. The 71-year-old Portlander is one of a dozen or so members of an exclusive — some might say screw-loose-ive — little club. For the last 12 years, he’s camped out behind Baxter State Park headquarters each January, sometimes for days and in all manner of winter weather, to get his pick of summer camping and cabin reservations on what Baxter superfans call “opening day.”
For decades prior to 2005, when the park launched its online reservation system, showing up in person was the best way to ensure one’s pick of a date and site. In the early 2000s, when opening day was at its most frenzied, hundreds of would-be campers showed up, with eager registrants rolling in for days after. The park’s tiny staff handled thousands of reservations the first week of the year; thereafter, the choicest cabins and weekends were largely filled.
The earlier you got in line, the better your odds — thus, a pop-up winter tent city was born.
In the internet age, though, opening day became a scaled-back affair, with just 20 percent of the summer’s sites up for grabs and the rest available on a rolling basis online through spring. In recent years, the line on opening day sometimes dwindled to fewer than 50 folks — but that didn’t stop diehards like Kelley from pitching tents in order to be at its front.
Those diehards were crestfallen when Baxter officials announced they were pulling the plug on the opening day tradition this year. For teacher Steve Liscovitz, who’s been camping out for opening day for 20 years, and his fellow teacher and daughter Katie Liscovitz, who’s been joining him for five, it’ll mean carefully timing their online booking to continue a tradition of a pre–back-to-school week in Baxter. But it’ll also mean missing the annual reunion with their fellow January campers.
Front-of-line fanatics: Daryl Kelley (top), Chris Barnes (left), Katie Liscovitz (middle), and Sam Hayward (right).
“It’s this group of people you see once a year,” Katie says, “and it’s like your family for two days.”
“It’s become a very tight group, and it’s every walk of life,” agrees Father Phil Jacobs, an Episcopal priest from the Massachusetts South Coast who’s been coming for 30 years. One friend he’s made is a wastewater manager and member of his parish; another is Sam Hayward, the award-winning chef behind Portland’s Fore Street restaurant and a 22-year opening day diehard. The coldest night Jacobs remembers? Negative 15 degrees.
“We’ve got our lounge chairs and plenty of down parkas,” says Kelley, who was first in line last year, “and we’re just hanging out, having conversation about politics, food, photography.”
“If you have Baxter in common, there’s probably other things you have in common,” Katie Liscovitz says. The demise of opening day won’t end her summer trips, of course, but she’ll miss the hours-long dinners that overnighters traditionally shared at Ruthie’s, one of Millinocket’s few restaurants open in the dead of winter.
“I think the big loss,” she says, “is the camaraderie.”