DOVER-FOXCROFT - The woman behind the screened-in registration booth at Peaks-Kenny State Park looked sympathetic on Saturday, but when she heard I had registered online just three hours earlier, she couldn't help but break out in lackluster laughter.
"You have to register weeks in advance," she told me, flashing an all-knowing smile, as I leaned on the counter trying unsuccessfully to get a campsite for the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
I explained to her that I was online that morning looking for directions when I found the campground reservations link at the state's Bureau of Parks and Lands Web site and, after checking availability at the state park, had registered and received a request number needed at the check-in.
The Web site was easy to use and walked me through the five-step process, including: selecting a campground; checking campsite availability; the rules; registering, which required a credit card; and finally, the request acknowledgement number.
My selected Peaks-Kenny campsite was No. 53, and my request number was 6243.
It wasn't until I arrived at the registration booth in a Saturn packed with camping supplies and three teenage boys that I learned that Maine's state park reservation office in Augusta, which processes the online registrations, is not open on weekends and the online availability information was wrong.
"We're full," the friendly state park lady said, adding that the entry booth doesn't even have a computer and would have no way to check online registrations.
Luckily, Lily Bay State Park in Greenville, which was listed Saturday as full on the state's Web site, had one available camping spot, reserved for walk-ups, and my party and I were able to kick up our heels on the shores of Moosehead Lake.
Once back in Bangor, I was curious as to why my online registration didn't work. That's when I found the Web site's fine print - something I missed Saturday morning with my son and two of his friends hounding me about when we were going to leave.
The state's Bureau of Parks and Lands Web site states that advance notice of at least two days is required to process registrations, including those done online, and no reservations can be made on Saturdays, Sunday or holidays.
Jim Crocker, director of public information for the Department of Conservation, which includes the Bureau of Parks and Lands, suggested Tuesday that reservations be made even earlier.
"When we open registrations on the first Monday in February, people are waiting, and they have us on speed dial," he said. "They're ready and they're poised and they have their credit cards out. At 9 a.m. the phones are ringing off the hook, and it doesn't stop for two weeks."
He added that I was not the only person to book a spot online without reading the fine print and that I was very lucky to get a site at all because "everybody was full this weekend" for Memorial Day.
Twenty percent of the state's 975 campsites are set aside for walk-ups. "You can't count on it, but if you show up early in the day, you have a good chance" to get a campsite, Crocker said. "You can call the park itself and they would be able to tell you [if it is full]."
The state added online registration in 1998, and the process now accounts for about 60 percent of camp reservations.
"Make sure you register early," Crocker said. "We only have fewer than 1,000 sites in the state parks system, and our parks are where people want to be."
The Bureau of Parks and Lands Web site lists 12 state parks where a person can register for camping. In addition to online registration, would-be campers also may call the Augusta office, mail in a reservation form or walk in and use the bureau's computers to register.
The Allagash Wilderness Waterway, Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park are not part of the reservation system.
Now that my almost perfect weekend is over, I'd like to pass along a little advice for those who do not want to hit the same road bumps that I did: Register as early as possible, and get confirmation.
Then sit back and enjoy the many pristine state parks Maine has to offer.
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