Alewives and After Rain

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The weather remained cloudy and cool for most of our daughter’s visit. But we took advantage of one brilliantly sunny day to watch some alewives run.  A nearby town, Damariscotta, holds an annual festival to celebrate the spring migration of alewives–a type of herring–from the ocean to their spawning ground in fresh water lakes.

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Alewives are about a foot long and were a valuable source of food, bait, and fertilizer for the native Wabanaki and early settlers on Maine’s coast.

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Smoked alewives

As with many Maine rivers, the construction of mills on the Damariscotta River in the 1700s obstructed the area’s alewife run.  In 1807, in response to a request from the state, a fish ladder was constructed in Damariscotta Mills, to allow the fish to move upriver alongside the mill race.  Two hundred years later, in 2007, a much-needed restoration of the fish ladder was undertaken. The Alewife Festival raises money for the restoration project.

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The falls at the old mill site.  The metal contraption on the right is a harvesting pen.

Just the name “alewife” makes me like these fish. But the origin of the name is uncertain. One theory is that the fish have fat bellies and resemble fat-bellied women tavernkeeper alewives. I’m not buying it. Other theories are that the name evolved from Wabanaki or old English names for herring.

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The dark area is all alewives

Our first view of the fish was impressive. As we walked over the bridge leading into Damariscotta Mills, a wide swath of river was darkened by a traffic jam of alewives working their way to a gauntlet of seagulls lining a narrows leading to the fish ladder.

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The gull gauntlet

It was fascinating to watch the gulls fishing.

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The gulls swallow the alewives whole, creating bizarre distorting lumps on the gulls’ necks and backs as the fish go down.

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Today, harvesting of the alewives continues.

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Harvesting pen

Most of the harvested fish are used as bait for lobster fishermen, but some are smoked for eating.  The fish ladder itself is a series of pools connected with sloping channels for the fish to swim from pool to pool.

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We followed the ladder upstream, taking advantage of activities for kids along the way that the grandchildren really enjoyed.

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Then we turned around and wandered downhill through Damariscotta Mills

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and visited my favorite fabric store named, fittingly, Alewives Fabrics.

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It was a good day.

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Home again.

The rain returned the next day.

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The cool drizzly days brought on a flush of plant growth.

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The cool-weather garden crops have been going nuts and the roadsides were especially beautiful when the sun emerged after the rain.

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Bringing a spectacularly colorful rainbow.

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We did have a Capp-tastrophe this week when Capp took on a young pear tree and won. It wasn’t a contest, really, he shredded that baby in about 10 seconds flat.

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The shredded remains of the pear tree.

Capp loves to pull up vegetation and roots, so I had been surprised and pleased that he had (so far) ignored are little orchard trees. After he destroyed the pear tree, however, we wasted no time in building little fences around all of our young trees.

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George just built this beautiful arbor for our northern kiwis.  We fenced off the kiwis, too!

Fences make for happy Lab owners.

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We are in full nesting season in the yard.

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Our bird houses are full.  Two have swallows, two have wrens, and one has bluebirds.  I love this time of year.

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43 thoughts on “Alewives and After Rain

    • Although I grew up in New England, I have only seen a herring run once before–on Martha’s Vineyard, when I was a kid. We had similar runs with Hooligan (another great fish name) in Alaska, but so many rivers were blocked in New England, it is wonderful to see efforts to keep these runs going. There are efforts to get the New England salmon runs established again.

  1. It’s great that alewives still run in your parts. It must have been something to see!
    Puppies are so cute, but so destructive! Poor pear tree. 😦 I remember ours one night chewed a hole in the wallboard and a the corner of floor molding.

    • I really enjoyed watching the alewives and will make it annual spring ritual. There’s something very satisfying in seeing this ancient migration continue despite all the muddle humans have made in the environment.
      Labs are especially mouthy, so we’ve been fortunate that we haven’t lost more than a pear tree yet. I did mourn the pear, though. It’s amazing how attached I get to plants!

      • Oh, I know THAT feeling. Although I must say that when the electric co. had to dig a trench through my yard this spring, I was pretty good about not flipping out. A tad stressed… 🙂 It was a mess, but I’ve replanted everything and got gratis a new Japanese maple in the bargain – some solace. 🙂

  2. What an interesting post … You could make your posts into a book about Maine … I love learning about new places through the eye of a local. I like the name “alewives” too and thank goodness they have a fish ladder to continue their swim.. & the seagulls getting their fill.
    Fences look like a great idea with Capps around!
    Also loved the rainbow & the church & quilts … I really enjoyed the post.

    • We are so happy that we settled in Maine. We won’t run out of new things to explore any time soon. We probably should have put in the fences first thing. At least Capp didn’t go on a tree rampage and only took out one. As for the rainbow, we have had several lately, but the one in the photo was one of the brightest I’ve ever seen.

  3. How fascinating to learn about the alewives. I feel sorry for those who are caught by gulls or humans – their amazing journey stopped short – but I guess they were an important food source once and it’s tradition now. Amazing photos, as always, Brenda and lovely to see the nest boxes in use. Sorry about your pear tree but well done on fencing the others. Happy dogs, happy people all round 🙂

    • At least the alewives can now get upriver to spawn. Many, many rivers were blocked and the runs stopped. It was quite a sight to see so many fish all headed in the same direction and most made it through.
      The nesting birds have given us so much pleasure. We have several other pairs nesting in the woods around our house, so it feels a bit like a bird sanctuary this spring.

  4. Your part of the world is looking beautiful–all the rain makes for lots of green. I didn’t now one single thing about alewives so it was very interesting to be educated! And, as always, your photos are great–I think my favorite is the bedewed spider web!

    • It is extremely green and lush here. The first hay crop is going to be a beauty! I think that there are alewives in Lake Champlain, but they are an unwanted invasive species there.
      I had just headed out on a walk when I saw that spiderweb and went back to the house to get the camera!

  5. Your post taught me something new today. I never heard of alewives before and enjoyed reading about the history of the fish ladder to allow them to swim upriver. Love seeing the gulls eating the fish. Sorry about that pear tree!

  6. Never, ever have I heard of alewives and I’ve never seen a photo of a bird digesting a fish – both fascinating. Now, if we didn’t live quite so far from there, I’d be tempted to check it out along with a stop at the fabric store, of course. The pups are keeping you two busy. 🙂

    • I hadn’t heard of them either before coming to Maine. The fabric store alone is worth a trip Judy! Damariscotta is only an hour from Portland–not too far for you. And, its not far at all from the Maine Coastal Botanical Gardens. If you do get up this way, our door is always open to you.

  7. We’ve been to Damariscotta to see the alewives run, and I remember being incredibly moved by their journey and struggles against the strong current, against being eaten. But still they persevered. It actually brought me to tears.

    • It really is something to see, isn’t it? It is such a elemental biological force that we are privileged to witness. I found it very moving, too. Apparently I don’t cry as readily as you, though!

      • Didn’t expect that reaction, that’s for sure! I think it was the struggle that moved me so.

  8. How wonderful to have all those nesting birds. Today we watched a wren checking out our three new birdhouses. The stuff about the alewives is interesting. Are alewives the same as shad? Around here the only fish that runs is the smelt.

  9. What a great post. That picture where you show how the alewives are darkening the water is awesome. I love your nesting birds, as well, and that beautiful field of grasses! Summer is on its way!

    • It was entertaining to see the reaction of people as they crossed the bridge and realized that the dark portion of the river was all fish. Summer is here today! High 80s expected. I think we’ll take the dogs swimming.

  10. Some great photos in this post, but especially the gulls. Those poor fish having to run that gauntlet. Judging by the pics though the gulls are limited in how many they can eat!

  11. I agree with Derrick; that first photo of the alewives in the water is amazing. At first, i thought it was a painting. What is the flowering tree in the photo just below the green field? Is it some kind of cherry?

    • Have you been to an alewife run Jean? It was so interesting. I should have taken more photos of the fish, but was drawn to those gulls! I believe the flowering tree (which is roadside on one my walks) is a black chokeberry (Aronia).

  12. I learned much from this post even after listening to an NPR program on alewives. After seeing your pictures I have added a trip to Damariscotta to see the fishway and alewives to my bucket list. Stunning photography.

  13. It was so interesting reading about the alewives, I love that name and your pictures are amazing. I have only ever seen a salmon ladder before. Naughty Capp destroying that pear tree is must be quite strong! Sarah x

    • I’m glad you liked the alewives. Maine is trying to develop its salmon runs again, too. I would love to see that–I miss Alaska salmon. Capp can chew his way through anything now. There aren’t many dog toys that last more than 5 minutes. I don’t think he can get at any of the fruit trees now!

  14. I would have sworn that I commented on this post….utterly fascinating, who knew there was a fish with such a name, and gosh, they do run the gauntlet, birds and people. Just LOVING seeing how your adorable pups are growing, how they have me smiling, lucky them!xxx

    • Ha. Don’t you hate when you think you’ve commented–but you haven’t? We are having a wonderful summer with the pups and are so glad that we opted for the big fenced-in area. They love it.

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