September 1, 2011

Sebago storms back

The popular state park lost some power and was littered with downed trees, but workers will have it ready to reopen for Labor Day weekend.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

CASCO - Sunlight glinted off the calm water of Sebago Lake on Wednesday. It was quite a contrast to Sunday morning, when Andy Haskell stood amid snapping trees and crashing waves, and realized he had to evacuate Sebago Lake State Park.

20110831_SebagoCleanup
click image to enlarge

Park Manager Andy Haskell describes how high winds that reached 60 mph during Irene snapped, toppled and damaged many trees at the Witch Cove Beach area. Crews are working dawn to dusk to restore electricity and clean up the debris.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

20110831_SebagoCleanup
click image to enlarge

Forest service rangers and workers from the Bureau of Parks and Lands and the Maine Conservation Corps remove storm-damaged trees and feed them into a wood chipper Wednesday at Sebago Lake State Park. The chips will be recycled for trails and other uses.

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Haskell, the park manager, later had to use a chain saw to cut fallen limbs on the access roads so the last campers could get out. It was still a shock, in Monday's dawn light, to see how many trees had come down and what Tropical Storm Irene had done to Maine's most popular state park.

Since then, crews have been working from daylight to dusk to clear roads and campsites, and to restore electricity. They have made enough progress that the park is scheduled to reopen for Labor Day weekend.

"It will be obvious something happened last weekend," said Tom Morrison, operations director for the Bureau of Parks and Lands. "But it certainly will be safe and pretty cleaned up."

That's good news for Haskell, who said he expects a capacity crowd for camping, day use and other activities in the 1,400-acre park over the weekend.

The bureau announced Wednesday that two campgrounds in the Naples area -- Naples Beach and Witch Cove -- will open at 1 p.m. Friday for reserved and non-reserved campsites. The day use area will open at 9 a.m. Saturday.

Despite the obvious damage, there is much to be thankful for. No one was injured and no buildings were destroyed. And somehow, the downpour of branches and tree trunks missed the scattering of recreational vehicles and campers left behind.

The power of the storm is evident in the campground at Witch Cove. South winds gusting across the lake as hard as 60 mph slammed onto the beach and ripped scores of pines from their sandy soil. Near the boat ramp, root balls stick up from the ground. Severed trunks stand next to freshly stacked logs, marking where chain saw crews cut up downed trees.

Nearby, the roar of a Maine Forest Service chipper filled the air Wednesday. The massive machine swallowed, bite by bite, a large pine trunk that was fed into its metal mouth by a front-end loader, spitting a stream of chips into the chipper truck's hopper. More than eight tons of chips were produced by noon Tuesday.

Forest service rangers joined staffers from the Bureau of Parks and Lands and crews from the Maine Conservation Corps to tackle the cleanup. Roughly two dozen workers were on the job earlier this week.

Reopening Sebago Lake State Park is a priority. The park has 250 campsites, more than any other state park. Campers totaled more than 91,500 nights last year, and when the park is full, they spend an average of $6,000 a night on fees.

The sandy beaches and the boating and fishing access to Maine's second-largest lake also draw day visitors. More than 165,000 came last year.

But the park can't resume operations until the grounds are safe and services are available.

Early Wednesday, crews working for Central Maine Power Co. restored power to the access road leading to the state park. That meant the lights were back on at the park's picnic area.

But at Witch Cove, a utility pole and a transformer next to the bath house remained down Wednesday morning and wires were on the ground. Near the beach, maple limbs rested atop wires. Those and other problems must be fixed before electricity can be turned back on.

CMP said more than 17,000 customers in 73 communities were still without power as of 9 p.m. Wednesday. The largest number, 7,528, was in Cumberland County. Next was York County, with 3,866. CMP said it expects to have power restored to all of its customers by tonight.

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