There are many ways to enjoy breakfast while wilderness camping. One is to boil water on the campfire or in a Jetboil to make instant oatmeal and coffee in a French press. The Jetboil, a lightweight, portable stove, costs around $100. Deirdre Fleming photo

LAMOINE — During the coronavirus pandemic, state agencies and conservation groups have broadcast an important message when it comes to playing outside: Have a Plan B.

When going hiking, birding or fishing, have a backup plan so that when the parking lot at the trailhead is full, you can move on to a less crowded spot, social distance and help stop the spread of the virus.

Well, let’s add to the list of outdoor activities that require a Plan B – wilderness camping.

Tents today are quick to set up. And ideally should have a tarp underneath to help keep them dry and stakes to secure the fly (top cover). But if you forget your stakes, you can use large rocks to hold down the tent lines.

Tents today are a snap to set up. Ideally, should also should have a tarp underneath to keep them dry and stakes to secure it. But that’s not how this camper rolls. Sometimes I forgo the tarp and use boulders to hold down the tent lines. Deirdre Fleming photo

Just as it sounds, wilderness camping is the practice of sleeping in a tent with nothing provided but a fire ring, outhouse and picnic table. It’s enjoyed at remote locations far from grocery stores, gas stations and, usually, paved roads and cell service. You might think that also means far from people. But not this year.

In 2020, with so many Mainers clamoring to get outside during the pandemic, many wilderness camping sites across Maine might as well have “No Vacancy” signs.

“I believe June, 2020, was the busiest we have been for the same month for many years, primarily due to the virus pandemic and interest by Maine people to get outside,” said Al Cowperthwaite, the 45-year director of the North Maine Woods, which manages nearly 3.7 million acres of working forestland in northern Maine for forest companies that allow recreation on their properties.

Most wilderness sites on forestry or conservation land are almost exclusively first-come, first-serve and do not take reservations. Some land trusts and sporting camps that offer backcountry sites take reservations – and in a small section of the forestry land managed by the North Maine Woods, the section around the Appalachian Trail, the sites can be reserved.

This year across all of the wilderness camping sites in the North Maine Woods forests – those that can be reserved and those that can not – there has been a surge in use by campers going off the grid, an increase of at least 15 percent over last year – which was a record camping year at Maine state parks.

In the 175,000 acres of the Katahdin Ironworks Jo-Mary region where 70 campsites can be reserved, 80 percent were reserved every weekend from May 20 through June, Cowperthwaite said. And in the 350 campsites further north – across the 3.5-million acres in the North Maine Woods – 40 percent of campsites were filled Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends, the land manager said.

There’s a long list of gear you’ll need and want when wilderness camping. The matches you will need. The citronella candle for the bugs, you’ll want. Deirdre Fleming photo

It’s worth noting: The North Maine Woods is a solid five-hour drive from Greater Portland. And May and June is the height of black-fly season in northern Maine.

Other places in Maine’s wild interior offer wilderness camping – such as the 47,000-acre White Mountain National Forest and the 500,000 acres of Maine Public Reserved Lands. But most of these backcountry sites can not be reserved.

So just imagine taking a few hours to sort and pack all the necessary camping gear, driving five hours to a remote destinations. And then being shut out.

That’s what happened to my partner, me and our dog two weeks ago when we drove to Rocky Lake Public Reserved Land near the New Brunswick border, just inland from Machias. It’s a 11,000-acre wild land that was billed by a state fisheries biologist as remote and teeming with wildlife, like moose and eagles.

But when we got there, the only wild life we saw was a group of women who had three tents packed around a fire ring – and they weren’t welcoming any more.

The state map for Rocky Lake said it has 11 primitive campsites along the shore. But the ones you could drive to were all taken, and an older fisherman staying at one said the island site was probably occupied – since a large group of people left toward it in a power boat not long ago.

So there we were at 3:30 p.m. on a Saturday in June, standing beside a lake with no available campsites, in desperate need of a Plan B.

We could load all our camping gear into our canoe and paddle to a one of the campsites on the island, hoping it was free. But luck seemed to be against us here. There also was a Public Reserved Land about 20 miles away – along the Bold Coast Trail on the Cutler Coast, with scenery reminiscent of Ireland and campsites where you reportedly can hear whales spouting below the cliffs at night.

But if Rocky Lake’s sites were full, surely the Cutler unit’s would be, as well.

We also considered driving to the Public Reserved Land by Tunk Lake outside Ellsworth. But it is known to be a location of, shall we say, great merriment among the local youth. So it, also, was likely packed.

Instead, we drove toward Lamoine State Park on Frenchman’s Bay, not too far away and on the way home. It wasn’t wilderness camping. But it seemed the wise choice because if we were shut out at least we were heading in the right direction.

There's usually something one forgets on a camping trip, especially for a quick one-nighter away. On a recent trip, this good man had to make do with a peanut butter sandwich, after his human friend forgot his dog food. He took one for the team without complaint.

There’s usually something you forget when camping, especially for a short trip. Just don’t forget the dog food. Deirdre Fleming photo

The park ranger I spoke to on the way there said every one of the 62 campsites that could be reserved was reserved. But state parks hold a small percentage of sites for “walk ups,” and we had a shot at one of those. At 4:45 p.m., we paid for one of the two left, and pitched our tent.

There we practiced the wilderness camping ethic – using all our own water, using the outhouse rather than the bathhouse, and packing out all our trash. We were definitely happy campers.

Still, Plan B continued to be the trip theme.

First, I forgot the stakes to hammer in the tent. This was easily addressed by using boulders found around the campsite to hold down the tent lines.

Then came the realization I forgot dog food for our Australian-cattle-dog mix, Bingo. But this guy can pivot on a dime (quite literally), and took one for the team with a peanut butter sandwich.

No, the real oversight was the fact I chose a clear plastic bin to store our dry food, which also was a bin with a top that easily popped off. The see-through sides seemed helpful when I packed it, but the usual bin we use with a lid that locks would have been the better choice.

I realized my mistake at 2:30 a.m. when the sounds of someone rifling through the bin filled the dark campsite. I instantly knew the intruder: the raccoon our neighbors warned us about.

With head lamp glaring, I rushed from the tent, sending the raccoon running into the woods, and secured the bin lid with a water tank on top. Not a half hour later, the unmistakable suction sound of the cooler being opened next filled the campsite. And the slapstick routine started again. Because it was a comedy of errors. In the morning all the bread for our breakfast sandwiches (including Bingo’s) was gone.

Sometimes, I realized, a Plan B is not good enough. Sometimes you’ve got to get it right.

So with that, here are suggestions for wilderness camping done right – if you’re lucky enough to nab a campsite.

TIPS AND GEAR

* When traveling on logging roads – the usual byways to wilderness camping sites – flat tires are common, so have a spare and know how to change it.

* Always have a well-stocked first-aid kit.

* For your shelter, a tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and head lamp are needed. Also bring a tarp and rope to string it up over your tent area in case it rains. You can forgo a pillow by stuffing the sleeping bag sack with your clothes.

Even when traveling into the woods far from restaurants, you can enjoy a gourmet meal, such as steak, asparagus and a pre-baked potatoes warmed up over the fire. Deirdre Fleming photo

* For the camp “kitchen,” bring a grill that can be staked into the ground near the fire, basic dishware, unbreakable mugs, and cutlery (much of which you can get for less than $40).

* Store food in a dry bin for non-perishable foods and a cooler to keep dairy, proteins and vegetables cold. Be sure to bring a bag you can hang from a tree in bear country. For the cooler, make your own ice blocks by freezing water in milk jugs that stand up and won’t spill the water as it melts.

* A large metal kettle is great for boiling water for cleaning dishes and making coffee the next morning. Bring environmentally friendly dish soap, a sponge and a dish basin (although in a pinch you can use one of your bins.) A portable drying rack is nice, but you can always towel dry dishes.

* For the campfire, bring newspaper, camp wood and kindling purchased from a hardware store in Maine. Don’t expect a ranger station to sell the wood. And never bring wood from outside the state – to avoid spreading invasive pests.

* Nice extras include bug spray, citronella candles to keep bugs at bay, and cards or a Scrabble board. We bring a small, lite plastic fold-up camp table to hold the game board, but we’ve also constructed a table with fire wood, Tinker-toy style.

* Finally, Leave No Trace – bring everything you need, and pack it all out when you go. Leave the site as you found it for the next campers.


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