‘Queen’ to reign over Long Lake

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

NAPLES — As time approaches for the Songo River Queen II to take her final trip to the Songo Lock, owner Kent Uicker tries not to think about it.

Uicker said he cannot help but be disappointed that the state transportation department did not pursue the option of constructing another swing bridge that would have given the Queen continued passage to Brandy Pond and the Songo River.

People on this summer’s paddleboat excursions have frequently asked if he feels bad about the impending closure of the swing bridge to boat traffic. The swing bridge will stop opening for marine vessels — for good — after Saturday evening.

“I tell them, ‘I ride to the Lock a number of times a week. You do it once or twice a season, you should feel worse about it than I do,’ ” said Uicker, who purchased the boat and business prior to the 2009 summer season.

“I really think this is going to have a serious impact on tourism to this region. It’s going to surprise people how much the loss of the swing bridge will hurt the area,” he said.

“Not many regions have 50 miles of connected waterways,” he said.

He predicted that the number of people visiting the area will decrease. Whether they own boats too big to pass under the 12.-foot arch of the new bridge, or whether they perceive the fixed bridge will hamper access between Brandy Pond and Long Lake, the annual water recreationalists may vacation elsewhere, he said.

“By putting in a fixed bridge, we are depriving people from all over the world of this experience,” he said.

Each season, first-timers board the paddleboat and soak in the scenery that shifts constantly as the Queen goes from Long Lake to Brandy Pond into the Songo River to the Songo Lock and back. Even children who normally cannot endure two hours in one place are enchanted by what they see during a trip to the Lock, he said.

Many travelers pull onto the Causeway with the sole intention of riding the custom-built paddleboat – and they will still be able to book tours on Long Lake.

“We need to move on, because this is all a done deal,” Uicker said.

So, what is in store in the future for the Queen?

According to Uicker, the name of the boat won’t change – it’s an institution that is intertwined with the history of Naples and its waterways.

“Over 75 percent of our business is conducted on Long Lake. Now, 100 percent of our business will be on Long Lake,” he said.

For 2011, weekend trips on Long Lake will continue through Sunday, Oct. 16.

In addition to ongoing fall foliage tours, two theme-based cruises are coming up: On Sept. 22, a New England boiled dinner will be served; and on Oct. 8, clientele will celebrate Octoberfest with hearty German fare. Both tours occur from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., when early evening provides enough daylight to enjoy the autumn artistry.

Lake Region Caterers, Inc. put together the menus for the upcoming theme-based cruises. For more info, check out www.songoriverqueen.net.

“Give me a napkin. I am drooling already,” he said about the menu items (including Bratwurst with caramelized onions, Jack Daniels chicken, and hot potato salad) for the Octoberfest outing.

After the last Long Lake tour in mid-October, Uicker said he will have six months to brainstorm ideas to intrigue tourists and to promote the Queen.

“We will think up new gimmicks to keep it interesting,” he said.

“We are dealing with a drive-up society anyway. Everything is fast, fast, fast. No one wants to spend more than two hours in one venue,” he said.

Already, Uicker — who prefers to keep himself out of the limelight while the Queen is showcased — has expanded the boat’s participation in the annual Maine Blues Festival from one day to the entire weekend.

The Queen offers one of the best venues in town for entertainment – whether sitting dockside or cruising on the water, he said.

“We took it from one blues cruise on Saturday, to continuous entertainment with cruises from 12 noon to midnight,” he said.

“We packed the boat every day,” he said.

Despite little elbow room, those who wanted to dance did. But, most people sat back and listened to the “amazing talent of blues artists from around the state,” he continued.

The Maine Blues Festival “is a great thing for the community. It’s an early shot for the tourism business before school gets out and the Fourth of July,” he said.

The Queen had a good season, “considering the depressed economy” and the misperception that construction would cause lane closures on the Causeway during the summer months.

“Weekend tours were sometimes to capacity. In July and August, even the weekdays were pretty good,” he said. Capacity is 350 people.

For the commemorative trip to the Lock on Saturday, about 80 tickets have been sold. He expects most people to purchase their tickets last-minute after checking the weather, which is forecast to be mostly sunny with high temperatures in the low 60s.

“It supposed to be nice: A fall day that’s clear and crisp,” he said.

As far as the rumors about boats not being able to pass under the Bay of Naples Bridge, which is scheduled to be completed by spring 2012, Uicker thinks an advertising campaign needs to reach people throughout the state and New England.

“People need to be reeducated about the bridge,” Uicker said.

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