University of Maine ecology professor Jacquelyn Gill was sitting in her office on the UMaine campus one spring morning a few years ago and happened to glance out her window to see a large group of people standing on the lawn, taking off all their clothes, painting themselves green and getting on bicycles.
She soon learned she was looking at the starting point for the yearly Earth Day naked bike ride across campus, a tradition at UMaine that stretches back nearly 50 years.
“They were right outside my window, congregating. It genuinely surprised me the first time because I was not expecting it,” Gill said. “I eventually realized it was an Earth Day tradition. Students are getting out there and raising awareness about the environment in all kinds of creative ways, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Nobody seems to know exactly when UMaine’s naked bike ride tradition started or if people have always painted their bodies green and other spring-y colors, though it appears to have begun right around the time that the first Earth Day was held in 1970. It’s happened nearly every year since, though not in 2020, when students had left campus due to the pandemic.
Left; Seven unidentified UMaine students celebrated Earth Day 2002 with the wearing green and not much else while biking up the mall and past the Memorial Union and library. Credit: Scott Haskell / BDN Right; About 30 students at the University of Maine donned green paint and nothing else to celebrate Earth Day while touring the campus on bicycles in this 2010 file photo. Credit: Kevin Bennett / BDN
The 1970s were the peak era for streaking, with naked people popping up at events appearing all over the world, like the 1974 Academy Awards, or large sports events. Other colleges also have long standing naked bike rides or naked run events, like the University of Vermont and the University of California Santa Cruz.
Over the years, UMaine’s event has attracted anywhere from 10 to 40 riders in a given year, depending on how warm and dry a day it is. And while bicycles are generally the preferred mode of transportation, skateboards, scooters and roller skates and blades are also popular choices.
The body paint can be as simple as a solid green, or as elaborate as flowers and other symbols of nature — regardless, everyone is au naturel.
”I had a blast. I was ringing my bell, and I remember I had only painted like a mask on my face, not my whole body, so people knew it was me and were saying hi,” said Kat Johnson, who rode in 2005. “We were fearless back then.”
Organizing happens clandestinely, away from the prying eyes of campus security. Nathan Shea, a Brewer resident who participated in the early 2000s, said he and some friends were nearly cornered by campus police during the ride, but managed to take a back road through campus and then run through the woods — naked — to another friend’s apartment, eluding the cops.
Two other riders that year weren’t so lucky and did get pulled over, but Shea said it all worked out in the end.
“I guess the cop said to them, ‘You know, I could totally arrest you both. But it’s a beautiful day,’” Shea said.
Bangor resident Hope Eye rode in 2015 with nearly 40 other people on a beautiful spring day — which meant lots of people were outside on campus, and not just fellow students.
“It wasn’t cold at all, but it was also Accepted Students Day, so there were a lot of prospective students as well as parents that got an eyeful,” she said. “It felt like we were coming together as a university community.”
While there’s an element of silly, youthful fun to the ride, it’s also a way for students to continue to raise awareness about climate change and other environmental concerns. As other, major climate change protests like the global strikes for climate that began in 2019 continue, smaller actions in communities and on campuses — from more traditional rallies to more outrageous actions like the naked bike ride — make an impact on a smaller level.
“It felt important to bring attention to the fact that it was Earth Day, and that we have so much to do to live sustainably,” said Sarah Bigney, a UMaine grad who participated between 2005 and 2007. “It definitely got peoples’ attention — there was no doubt that it was Earth Day when you saw the green bikers coming.”