'A steamy good time,' but Yarmouth Clam Festival attendance wilts under the heat
YARMOUTH — Steamer, the Yarmouth Clam Festival mascot, said it perfectly.
Standing in the shade of a building on Portland Street on Friday evening, the normally tight-lipped mascot summed up the annual parade in a single sentence:
"It was a steamy good time."
This year's 90-minute parade coincided with record-breaking heat that tamped down on attendance and caused at least two spectators to seek medical help for heat-related illnesses.
Attendance suffered overall at the 48th annual festival – a three-day event that featured amusements, fireworks, music, food and one of Maine's largest parades. Ben McNaboe, assistant director of the festival, estimated attendance was down 30 percent this year, which he attributed to the high heat on Friday and threat of thunderstorms on Saturday. In previous years, attendance ranged between 100,000 and 150,000 people.
"It wasn't a horrible year. It wasn't a great year. It was an average year, but we're used to having great years," he said.
The parade was particularly affected by the weather, McNaboe added.
On Friday, the National Weather Service issued a heat advisory for coastal Cumberland County that was in effect until 7 p.m. Friday. Heat advisories are issued whenever the heat index – a calculation of heat and humidity – is between 100 and 105 degrees. In Portland, the heat index reached 103 degrees at its peak on Friday, said Mike Kistner, forecaster for the weather service.
Heat advisories are rare in Maine, Kistner said, "especially for the coastal areas because they generally get a sea breeze. It's really, really tough for the coast to break that 100-degree apparent temperature."
The weather service doesn't have a weather station in Yarmouth, but data from Portland showed a record high temperature of 95 degrees in the city. An unofficial observation from Yarmouth showed 95 degrees at the start of the 6 p.m. parade.
Fire Chief Michael Robitaille said his staff treated about 25 patients with heat-related illnesses throughout the festival, most of whom were treated on the scene or at a first-aid station. At least two spectators were treated during the parade: an elderly man who collapsed and a pregnant woman with nausea and dizziness.
Robitaille was expecting to see a spike in heat-related illnesses on Saturday during the annual five-mile road race, but it didn't come to pass.
"I was very impressed with the preparation of runners this year," he said.
Runners were also aided along the course by Yarmouth residents who had voluntarily set up water stations on their properties. The Fire Department also set up a sprinkler for runners at the fire station.
Robitaille said he and other festival organizers generally begin following long-range weather forecasts about two weeks before the start of the annual festival to help prepare.
"It all paid dividends," Robitaille said.
Parade-goers on Friday made their own preparations to deal with the heat. Many spectators stood under rain umbrellas, despite cloudless skies overhead.
Scarborough resident Peggy Pendleton sat on the sunny side of Main Street with two grandchildren; together they shared two rain umbrellas to provide shade. Pendleton had never before used an umbrella for that purpose.
"It's just too hot," she said.
If the parade was hot for spectators, it was brutal for the costumed mascots, many of whom walked the entire parade route.
The mascot from the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland, however, traveled in style. Miss Kitty – a white cat wearing yellow foul-weather gear – rode in the backseat of a convertible. Also, the costume was crammed with six ice packs and and a reservoir that provided cool drinking water for the actor, according to Patsy Murphy, executive director of the animal league.
"Last year was brutal, so we decided we had to do it better this year," she said.
Shortly after the parade, the unidentified woman who played Miss Kitty emerged from her costume with no signs of sweat.
Nearby, Richard Nadeau (a.k.a. Kracker the Clown), sat alongside three fellow clowns in a bright yellow 1973 Volkswagen Thing. Nadeau said the heat didn't bother the clowns or affect their makeup. In fact, makeup goes on better in the hot weather, he said.
"As long as people are having a good time, so are we," he said.
Harmony Brown, a clown from Raymond, agreed that the makeup holds up well, but her eyes were stinging from sweat after walking the parade route.
Brown, who is part of a three-clown team that includes her mother and father, said she has been clowning with her parents since she was an infant. She couldn't remember participating in a hotter parade.
Police dealt with few problems during the festival, perhaps in part to the lower attendance, Lt. Dean Perry said. In particular, the parade seemed sparsely attended, he added.
"It was the first time I had ever seen stretches along Main Street without people," he said. "There were actually chairs with no one sitting on them. The chairs showed up, the people did not."
It is tradition in Yarmouth to reserve a spot along the parade route by setting up lawn chairs on the sidewalks and leaving them unattended for days before the show.
The Morrison family, for instance, staked out some prime real estate on Main Street under the U.S. Route 1 bridge. Their chairs had been there for five days before the parade, said Kurt Morrison, 35.
The family has been claiming the spot for about 30 years. Many years, the spot provides shelter from rain, but the location did little to keep the family hidden from the low-angle, evening sun.
Morrison, who has volunteered at the festival for a total of about 10 years, said it was the hottest and least attended parade he's ever seen. The food vendors were also experiencing lower-than-expected sales, he said.
Nonetheless, the 35 non-profit groups and organizations that participated in the festival raised a healthy amount of funds, although actual figures were unavailable, McNaboe said. The bright spot was on Sunday, when temperatures were much cooler and attendance surpassed expectations, he said.