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Fuel prices don't slow happy motoring for some

July 12, 2008|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Last month, when David and Micky Steves bought a big Winnebago Outlook recreational vehicle that gets just eight miles per gallon, they knew what they were doing.

"It's expensive," Micky, 47, said about the mileage. "But we'd been planning to do this. And we decided even though the economy was going to take a downturn, our kids are at the age we wanted to be with them and we want them to experience this way of camping and seeing the country."

Seth Eyler and Dan Barnes, both 21 and Williamsport fishing buddies, aren't letting rising fuel prices keep them from their longtime hobby, either.

"Doesn't slow us down," said Eyler as Barnes worked to fire up the motor on their johnboat at Williamsport's River Bottom Park. "We're here about every day."

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These might not be the answers you would expect as the nation's fuel prices continue their upward run, the economy shows signs of weakness and the news is full of stories about Americans cutting back.

The fun sides of living

There are some signs here of hesitation as local residents look beyond paying their mortgage and usual bills, and stretch for the fun sides of living.

Jocelyn Melton, manager of Bower Marine Sales in Hagerstown, has seen some of that economic caution. Motorboat sales "for us are down a little bit, but not as bad as what it is for the rest of the country," she said.

But, she said, "I see (customers) thinking long and hard. I see more contemplation. ... You have to look across the whole entertainment industry. People are being a little more careful. Golfers are still going golfing, but they may not be going golfing AND fishing. Your boaters are still going."

Boating is popular. Together, Marylanders' fleet of powerboats, sailboats, rowboats, canoes and the like numbered 205,795 last year, according to registration data from the state Department of Natural Resources. Of them, 4,363 were in Washington County.

Corresponding data for this year isn't yet available.

Sgt. Ken Turner, spokesman for the Maryland Natural Resources Police, which patrols the state's parklands and waterways, said his 225 police officers are seeing both signs of retreat and resurgence among boaters as gas prices advance.

"We are seeing in some areas a decline in boating traffic," Turner said. "However, if you talk to some officers where there were fireworks displays you could see by boat, they would swear that there was no fuel shortage whatsoever."

Meantime, over at Greenbrier State Park east of Hagerstown, campers in trailer and tent continue to flock in, seemingly not dissuaded by the cost of travel.

"So far this year, up through June, we have 15,386 campers versus in the year-ago same time period, we had 13,071," administrative officer Mary Jo Bartles said.

Given the price of gas, how could that be?

"I don't know," Bartles said. "Obviously, the gas prices are not hurting the camping."

Good news, bad news

At Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park Camp-Resort near Williamsport, which offers 220 camping and cabin sites amid a rainbow of water park and other activities, visitation is "down a little bit, but not much," Operations Director Carrie Cirrito said.

Many of its campers lug in big RVs, but most haven't traveled far.

"Most of our customers are within 200 miles" of home, and more than 60 percent of them have been to the resort previously, Cirrito said.

Nonetheless, there is some concern.

"I think anytime the economy is stressing people out, it's a worry," she said.

Cirrito needn't worry at all if every customer were like Fred Brown.

Brown, 53, who left Smithsburg two years ago and moved to St. Augustine, Fla., was back in Washington County this past week. Together with his wife, Leigh, their daughter Elizabeth, her boyfriend and the family's two dogs, they drove 700 miles north to Jellystone Park in their 39-foot-long 2000 Dutch Star RV, towing a small car.

Brown figures they got 7.5 miles per gallon, even with running a generator the whole way to keep the RV air conditioned. He's proud of that, pointing out he managed to save a mile per gallon by cutting his top speed to 61 mph from 65.

"Sure did," he said. "I was quite surprised."

If ever gas prices rise so much that it "gets to the point of a choice between fuel and food, then, yeah, I'll park this thing," he said. "But I'll find a nice place to park it on and take my Honda CRV on drives."

All of this is sort of a mix of good news-bad news for Roger Michael and Steven Gordon and his uncle, Harold Miller.

Miller's 36-foot-long Holiday Rambler Vacationer, a 1997 model with 30,000 miles, has been parked on one side of Gordon's driveway at 16528 Lappans Road -- across the road from Jellystone -- for more than two months.

The RV is for sale. It's attracted lots of lookers, but no takers. Gordon said a question from almost every one is -- what's it get per mile? The answer -- about 8 miles a gallon -- "I'm sure is a big part of" why the RV still sits, he said.

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