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Winters a trial for Maine's nudists

BANGOR -- They say they like being naked because it feels free, uncomplicated. But for members of the Dirigo Naturist Association, a nude recreation club known until this month as Bare Nekkid Mainers, finding places to take it all off has been anything but easy.

When they tried to plan a dance for New Year's Eve, three function halls turned them away. When they scheduled a Labor Day lobster feed, a campground accepted their reservation, but canceled it later.

The Bangor nudists were thrust into the spotlight in January, when police were called to a bowling alley they had rented for one of their popular nude bowling parties. Summoned by a man who walked into the business with his son despite a "private party" sign outside, police found no laws had been broken. Still, the incident made news all over the country. Some New Englanders seemed stunned to learn of nudist activity in Maine in January.

Eric Soderberg , a club member from Hermon, suspects that nude recreation is more common than most people realize.

"I think there's a lot of it that we don't know about, in people's homes, at their camps, in their hot tubs," he said.

For decades, a small number of resourceful New England nudists have quietly shed their clothing at resorts, beaches, and campgrounds with tolerant owners or "clothing optional" policies. There are nude resorts in the Berkshires and on Cape Cod; a clothing-optional bed-and-breakfast near Maine's capital, Augusta; and nude recreation clubs around the region, including one based in Ludlow that hosts an annual beach clean up on the Cape.

Venues for nudity abound in the summer, when backyards, beaches, and campgrounds beckon, nudists say. The winters, however, test their dedication, especially in such places as Bangor, where winters are long, club members live hundreds of miles apart, and host establishments are hard to find.

"Those who have more money go off to the Caribbean, and us working folks are just trying to keep together," said one of the leaders of the Maine club, a Bangor woman who asked to be identified by only her first name, Hessa , because she fears harassment. "It really is truly a challenge."

Reports of nudity in northern climes are not unknown. Students at Bowdoin College in Brunswick hold an annual nude party, the college newspaper reported recently. In Vermont last summer, a group of teenagers took to hanging out naked in a parking lot in downtown Brattleboro , provoking complaints.

Despite its winters, New England is considered an important region by the American Association for Nude Recreation.

"Our members tend to be college-educated and politically moderate, with incomes above $50,000, like a lot of people in parts of New England, and that makes it very fertile ground," said Erich Schuttauf , executive director of the Florida-based group.

The naked Mainers started bowling as cold weather set in last fall. Hessa -- "a little old lady on crutches," as she describes herself -- walked into a bowling alley in Old Town, north of Bangor, and asked the owner if he would host the club. She was thrilled when he said yes.

The nudists held several successful outings at the 12-lane candlepin venue, where they bowled, played pool and pinball, and ate pizza, after taping paper over the windows and draping towels over the molded aqua seats. Then, in January, police were called to their party, and the club was besieged by reporters.

"There's something about nudity that grabs everyone's attention," said Chip Carson , the owner of the Old Town Bowling Center. "I don't understand why [ nudists] do it, and I would get nothing out of it, but nude people have to have a place to go also."

New England has two kinds of nude recreation groups: "landed" clubs, which have a lodge or campsite to call home, and "travel clubs" like the one in Maine, which rent space for their events. In the winter, when most landed clubs close down, travel clubs draw participants from afar, Maine club leaders said.

The Maine club, which changed its name to resolve an internal dispute about the ownership of the old name, had about 60 households listed as members last month. Members include a lobsterman, an artist, a truck driver, a lawyer, and a heating and air conditioning repairman.

In Western Massachusetts, the Sunchasers Travel Club holds a nude bowling party every fall, group leader Bill Falconer said. The 92-member club also hosts a January Thaw Party, where members skate, sled, and make snow angels; a Valentine's Day party, and a St. Patrick's dinner dance.

The naked Mainers kept a low profile last month. But they are planning their return to the bowling alley, and have scheduled a potluck dinner in April.

The bowling alley's owner will welcome back the club members, who were clean, polite, and well behaved, he said. No one asked him to crank the heat up to 80 for the nudists, but he did. "I wouldn't want to be naked in that place at 65 degrees," he said.

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

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