Of all the harbingers of summer, my favorite is the one that arrives in Damariscotta Mills in the middle of May. The story of the Mills (people usually drop the “Damariscotta” bit) is a fairly common one in New England. Once upon a time ( in 1729) a damn was built , taking advantage of the elevation drop where Damariscotta lake drains into Great Salt Bay, and the water power used by a double saw mill. The water powered a variety of machine over the years, lately an aging hydroelectric plant, but the truly amazing thing is what else still uses the water.
- Note the net which prevents the alewives from going the wrong way
Great Salt Bay is at the head of the Damariscotta River, which, being heavily tidal, is actually an estuary, complete with horseshoe crabs (while not included in the technical definition of “estuary”, in my mind all estuaries should include horseshoe crabs, because they are just so amazing and strange) and is host to a large run of Alewives. The Alewives return from the sea every year, climb the falls (at least until they were damned in 1729) and spawn somewhere in Damariscotta lake, after which they return to the sea. The good folk of the Mills built a fish ladder in 1807 around the damn, and every year since the return of the alewives has meant that summer has truly arrived. (Actually, I have no idea how people in 1807 viewed the return of the alewives, but for a number of reasons I suspect that it must have been positive).
The arrival of the alewives has always been exploited by the local humans and wildlife. During the run village house roofs are white with sea gulls (and their droppings) ospreys are a common site, cormorants flock in the bay, and people move in to dip out their own share.
The odd metal structure is actually a dip for harvesting alewives. The fish ladder branches off to the right.
Back in the day the alewives were caught and used for lobster bait or preserved, smoked or canned, for human consumption. Town widows were allotted a number of bushels of alewives a piece as part of town support. (My good friend Kelly has a theory that this policy was as much about given responsible men an excuse to talk to eligible women, or rather for the matchmakers of the town to set up responsible men with eligible women, as it was about giving support to the poor – given the life expectancy for men back in the day many widows would probably have been quite young). These days they mostly go for lobster bait, though a few are still smoked and the widows can still draw their share.
The alewives run for several weeks, and given the cold weather up here they may run may take longer than usual this year, but the Alewife Festival is always Memorial Day weekend, complete with live band, vintage car rides, games for kids, and raffles.
The fish ladder has been repaired a number of time over the years, and is currently undergoing a true rebuild (more information about that here).
Watching the fish ascend the ladder is one of the most extraordinary things. Eighteenth century authors often say that a given New England river is so full of fish that one may cross the river on their backs, and while it is and clearly was hyperbole, seeing how fish behave in the ladder I realize that the description is less of an exaggeration than I thought.
The start of the ladder, covered in nets to protect the fish from the seagulls. Yes, all those dark spots in the water are fish.
This spring has been a cold one, and the fish are not as anxious to ascend the ladder as they normally are (I suspect that the water coming down the ladder is too cold for their liking at the moment) so, while dense with fish, at the moment the fish population is less dense than at the same time last year.
A pool part of the way up the old section.
The finish! Fish arrive in the mill pond through the gate in the damn.
And on a completely unrelated note, the recent good weather has allowed me to stop wearing the my aran long enough to finish tucking tales and blocking. I will be writing the pattern out, and hopefully it will be available soon(ish) complete with sizing and everything.