I admit to much-liking the small towns around us; the smaller, older homes, many with plaques proclaiming a pre-1800 date. But when I recall that winter comes in a big way to the northeast, not to mention that the recent epic winter remains a topic of conversation, Maine never makes the list of possible states where we’ll settle down.
Y’all might think the place you live is interesting, maybe even unique, or the birthplace of some well-known person, but I ask you, does your town have an alewife ladder???
Is this thing, 1) a ladder for the tavern-owner’s wife to use to escape drunken brawls; 2) a ladder that leads to the hold in a fisherman’s boat; or 3) a man-made method that allows alewives to migrate to fresh water when a dam blocks their way? Ok that was easy.
But what is an alewife?
They are an anadromous type of herring or shad, which means they live in saltwater but return to fresh water to spawn. They are ten to sixteen inches long; the front of the body is deep and larger than other fish found in the same waters, and its common name is said to come from comparison with a corpulent female tavern keeper. Adult alewives are preferred bait for the spring lobster fishery in Maine, but are typically eaten in smoked form, if at all. Years ago they were salted, packed in barrels and shipped to the West Indies and, more recently they were filleted, pickled and shipped widely as a specialty food. Think I’d pass.
We routinely pick up all the local free newspapers available and for two days over the holiday weekend, the Damariscotta Mills Fish Ladder Restoration Festival would be in full swing. With fresh doughnuts available in the mornings, how could we resist?
Damariscotta Mills, located in the Towns of Nobleboro and Newcastle (north of Rte 1 as opposed to south, where we are), was settled in 1729. A double sawmill was built at the head of the falls between fresh water Damariscotta Lake and the tidal headwaters of the Damariscotta River. Great for the town but lousy for the alewives who couldn’t make their annual migration to fresh water. The legislature said “tut, tut, let those alewives pass” but not until 1807 did the towns construct the ladder and a very basic one at that.
Today’s ladder, which is undergoing an extensive restoration since 2007, rises 42 feet from the bay to the lake. It is composed of 76 resting pools separated by weirs that each rise 8-10 inches. Many have wire covers to keep the seagulls from catching an easy meal. More than one half million will ascend the ladder to spawn.
The alewives enter the Damariscotta River in late April and get to the ladder in early May. They wait patiently, coloring the water dark, for their turn to navigate up which, even with the ladder, isn’t easy and only the strongest are successful. Once in the lake each female produces 60,000 – 100,000 eggs which hatch in 3-6 days. Seaward migration occurs between July and November. The juveniles descend the ladder in large schools, typically backing down rather than swimming head first. Now, that I’d like to see.
The fish are still harvested here, starting the second week of May, and sold as lobster bait which helps the Maine lobster industry in the spring when other fresh bait is scarce.
The festival offered activities and food for all ages, especially the kids. We didn’t hang around long as Port Clyde called out so we missed the poetry reading and music. A woman who lives nearby wrote a bluegrass style song, “Journey to the Lake”; one line goes, “Hungry osprey are waiting to greet them and the eagles’ circling over the bay.” Not only do the fish need strength, they need luck.
A flock of seagulls hung out (it being low tide when we were there) in the shallows before the ladder area, trying their best to snag a treat.