Cullen Snell (left) of Big Moose Township and Torrey Hughes of Dexter enjoy the water from the shore at Wilsons on Moosehead Lake on Wednesday. Credit: Ernie Clark

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The only thing remotely close to a Memorial Day parade in Piscataquis County was a steady stream of pickup trucks hauling campers or four-wheelers south through Abbot along routes 6 and 15 on Monday afternoon.

The procession, headed back home after spending a holiday weekend in the Moosehead Lake region, seemed extremely large — particularly in contrast to an otherwise quiet spring on Maine roads prompted by coronavirus pandemic fears, stay-healthy-at-home orders and quarantines.

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“People were here camping and fishing,” said Craig Watt, vice president of the Indian Hill Trading Post in Greenville. “The numbers weren’t quite on par with previous years, but there were people here.”

The majority of this particular procession boasted Maine license plates — perhaps an indication of a trend toward staycations in these challenging times. It also was reflective of the fact that fewer long family trips are planned for this time of year because children typically are still in school at the end of May.

“Memorial Day weekend I will say historically is a little more of a local holiday for us anyways,” Watt said. “It’s the traditional kickoff to fishing season, and sometimes the ice hasn’t been out of the lake for a week or a week and a half at that point.”

Yet as many Americans struggle to live normal lives amid the threat of the coronavirus, the traffic through Abbot suggested an eagerness to experience the great outdoors again after more than two months of relative hibernation.

That enthusiasm was on display at the Wilsons on Moosehead Lake sporting cottages.

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“It was insane,” said Alison Snell, who operates Wilsons along with her husband Scott. “We could have booked this place three times, and we have 15 cabins. People are ready to get out of the house, they’re ready to spend time with their family, and they’re ready to go fishing. They just are.”

While the first unofficial weekend of summer may have provided a glimmer of optimism for this gateway to the North Woods, the immediate future for retail outlets, restaurants, sporting camps and other businesses throughout the Moosehead region remains uncertain in the age of COVID-19.

“My best prediction or best guess at this point,” Watt said, “is that as summer progresses and if the 14-day quarantine stays the way it is … once we get closer to the Fourth of July and peak tourism season for us, that’s when we’re really going to notice the difference, I think, because the people just won’t be able to come.”

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While Watt reports that more out-of-staters returned to their second homes in the Moosehead region earlier than usual this year after learning about the coronavirus, the state requirement that travelers entering Maine self-quarantine for 14 days has had a significant impact on more recent and planned tourist travel.

“I know what I’ve already had for cancellations,” Snell said. “I’ve lost a whole month of income from cancellations, and also the phone wasn’t ringing in April like it normally does because the people don’t know what the future will hold and whether they’ll be allowed to come or not.

“I’m expecting to be down 50 to 60 percent this year.”

The pandemic’s impact on the Indian Hill Trading Post — a diverse establishment that features a grocery store but also sells clothing, footwear and sporting goods and rents canoes, kayaks and paddleboards — is similarly multifaceted.

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“We can’t get product, and we’re not just talking about the supermarket,” Watt said. “On the sporting goods side of things, there’s big [fishing] lure companies like Rapala that have been closed for eight weeks now and they don’t have any inventory and we can’t get it because they don’t have anybody to ship what they do have.”

Watt also was advertising on Bangor-area radio stations last weekend in an effort to attract workers to his business.

“The last couple of years I’ve brought in some foreign workers during the summertime and I’m not getting those this summer because they can’t get here [due to travel restrictions],” he said.

Even if state mandates are relaxed further, Watt says similar challenges will remain.

“And it’s not just me,” he said. “Everyone’s in that same boat so if it went full bore all of a sudden it would create another set of problems, along with who knows what it would do from the pandemic point of view?

“I’m in the same mode I’ve been in since this started, which is just reacting to everything one day at a time.”

Snell holds out hope that if the re-opening of the state’s business community continues in response to improved news on the pandemic front, the tourists might still come.

“When we were notified on [Wednesday] May 13 that we could open up that day, I had 10 cabins full that weekend just from doing a couple of email blasts and posts on social media,” she said. “I haven’t stopped advertising, and the day they cut the quarantine it’s going to open back up again.

“We had people out here [last] weekend playing Frisbee and horseshoes or sitting by the fire or going out on their boat and fishing. People just need the fresh air, and they need to laugh.”

Watch: Janet Mills announces changes to June 1 reopening phase

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...