How Maine’s small towns are preparing for the once-in-a-lifetime eclipse

Bill Jarvis has no idea how many visitors will descend on Jackman, the western Maine town of fewer than 800 people, for the total solar eclipse. But the fire chief predicts April 8 will be “busier than the busiest snowmobile or Fourth of July weekend we’d ever had.”

Jackman is one of a handful of Maine towns along the center of the path of totality, where people will be able to witness the eclipse for the longest stretch of time, as the moon completely covers the face of the sun, cooling the air and shrouding everything in darkness. A given place will experience totality once in about 400 years.

In Houlton, one of Aroostook County’s largest towns, leaders began planning three years ago for the large-scale celestial celebration. Church meals for thousands, a weekend concert series and a “spiritual tent” with tarot card readers and healing sessions are among the attractions. But small towns like Jackman with limited resources have little to no public events planned.

Some, like Mars Hill in Aroostook County, are keeping a low profile because they lack the infrastructure to accommodate large crowds. In others local businesses have opted to extend hours or open during their off season because it’s a chance to capitalize on an influx of visitors during a slow period of tourism in Maine.

Emergency agencies in the towns are gearing up for a surge in traffic and figuring out how to respond quickly amidst the congestion. It’s also New England’s notorious mud season, so they expect to rescue folks “from away” who wind up stuck.

Anything else they can do to prepare — from anticipating many visitors will arrive, how much food to prepare and how many portable toilets to rent — is a shot in the dark, according to organizers.

The Maine Office of Tourism has met with chambers of commerce, regional tourism directors, the Maine Department of Transportation and emergency management agencies around the state to coordinate efforts, though much of the planning has been left to the communities. The state office has distributed 33,500 pairs of eclipse glasses and 1,000 eclipse posters over the last year, promoted events on social media and given $40,000 in marketing grants to chambers in Houlton and Rangeley, spokesperson Jennifer Geiger said.

Jarvis, who oversees the Jackman-Moose River Fire & Rescue Department, has worked with area agencies over the past year to develop a plan for the event, which is Maine’s first total solar eclipse since 1963.

He’s convinced that hordes of people will come because lodging in the region has been booked for nearly a year, he said. Those with seasonal homes are returning to Jackman to enjoy the eclipse, or they’ve rented them out. Some locals have told him they’re hosting more than 20 visitors.

“I think people are excited, but they have raised concerns about more people coming to the region than we expect,” he said. “We can only handle so much. We just ask people to come prepared, and we’ll do the best we can.”

Smokin’ Barrels in Jackman is among the local businesses that sees the eclipse as an opportunity. Although typically closed Sunday and Monday, the restaurant will be open to feed visitors and earn extra income, especially given the short snowmobile season, co-owner Meg Calkins said.

When the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce went on a speaking tour to towns last June, people were generally unaware that a rare celestial event was occuring in the region the next spring, said Gail Fanjoy, president of the board of directors.

They were afraid of what it might bring and felt unprepared to host thousands. They just wanted the event to go away, Fanjoy said. One person even asked her to change the date.

Now that the eclipse is nearly here, much of the panic has subsided, and “there’s been an awakening that’s still unfolding,” she said.

The Katahdin area chamber received $20,000 from the Penobscot County commission in January to cover the cost of an event coordinator, toilet rentals and marketing, among other things. 

Among the seven communities that the chamber works with, Millinocket is offering the largest variety. The town is partnering with Outer Reach Broadband to host an eclipse party with food, a DJ and vendors at Veterans Memorial Park. The Millinocket Museum and Boreal Theater will also be open leading up to and on April 8.

Area businesses have stepped up in creative ways. For instance, Baby Ruthie’s Takeout & Snack Bar is undergoing renovations, so it’s doing a “takeover” at the Appalachian Trail Cafe. The cafe will sell coffee and doughnuts streetside through the weekend, according to its Facebook page. Katahdin Candle Co. will also set up a booth outside.

“We had a hard winter in terms of no snow, so we’ve told businesses to make up for some of that,” Fanjoy said. “Sell eclipse merchandise. Be open, and be welcoming.”

In Shin Pond Village and Island Falls, “they’re rolling out the red carpet,” to attract visitors, Fanjoy said. Those with an eclipse pass to the “Shin Ponderosa Dark Side of the Moon” festival will get a self-guided map to waterfalls, a hot dog lunch, live music and a bonfire, among other activities. 

East Millinocket is exploring how to restore a tri-color traffic light ahead of eclipse weekend, Fanjoy said. After the Great Northern Paper Company mill closed in 2014, the town set the light to blinking yellow for through traffic on State Route 157 and blinking red on the intersecting street. The town has a grocery store, but there is no lodging or much else, so it’s mostly a place for people to drive through, she said.

For small towns that aren’t used to much disruption, “it’s difficult for people to grasp what this will all look like,” she said. 

In Greenville, many are viewing the eclipse as similar to the International Seaplane Fly-In in September, when about 10,000 people from around the country come to watch seaplanes on Moosehead Lake, though likely on a larger scale, said Jennifer Aucoin, who is president of Destination Moosehead Lake.

The town, local hospital and emergency personnel will be ready for the crowds, and businesses that are normally closed in April have decided to open their doors. The Moosehead Lake Visitors Center will operate Sunday and Monday, when it is normally closed, and two portable toilets will be stationed there.

“We have one road in and one road out,” she said. “You can’t get here by multiple routes. So we’ll see how traffic goes. We hope everyone has a safe and memorable experience.”

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