Down East 2013 ©
The Worm Digger
“How you doin’?” The booming question comes at me in a Maine accent so genuine, it sounds fake. My interrogator is David Cronk, and we are knee-deep in mud. Except that he’s prancing around like a bounding deer, and I’m stuck.
“Not so great,” I call back. In the few minutes since I’ve climbed out of the boat, I’ve managed to become mired. David comes over, digs his hands into the mud under my heels, and frees my feet. “Come on, now,” he says. “You stick close to me.” He’s carved a deep hole with the tines of his hoe and there, wriggling in the early morning sunlight, is our bounty: worms — filthy, disgusting, slimy sandworms. He gestures to one, its centipede-like legs motoring. “Go ahead, pick him up,” he urges. “Get him by the head, and he won’t bite.” I bend down, but I can’t bring myself to touch the thing. It burrows into the muck and disappears. I just cost David fifteen cents.
Which according to the Cronks, is the going rate per sandworm. It’s just after dawn on a late September morning, and David and his nephew, Cory Cronk, have invited me to tag along as they dig for sandworms in Casco Bay. We’d met at the Portland public landing at six a.m., and after they’d rigged me up with a brand-new pair of hip boots, we set out in David’s small skiff across the bay toward the B&M Baked Bean plant and our flats.
David, a lean and fit fifty-two, with close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair, brilliant blue eyes, and a Pepsodent smile, has been digging worms since he was eight or nine years old in the waters around Wiscasset with his father. Cory, 31, has also been digging since he was a boy. Worms, it seems, run in the Cronk family.
Besides Canada, Maine is the only place you can get sandworms, which are used by sport fishermen. And, like lobsters, you need a license to harvest them. The bulk of the Cronks’ catch are shipped to the West Coast. At one time Wiscasset was known as the worm capital of the world, but David says the population is declining, and many of the worm flats are dying. These days, he works almost the entire coast of Maine. On an average day, he can bring in about 15,000 worms, equaling about $225 for a couple hours’ work — that is, when he doesn’t have a rookie in tow.
As the morning advances, I reckon I have come here to worm, and I am going to have to touch one. David gets a big, fat juicy specimen and offers it out to me. I coat my hands in mud, creating makeshift gloves. Then, with the very ends of my thumb and fingertip, using the lightest pressure possible, I try to lift the glistening, wriggling thing. . . .
My scream probably knocked a couple cans off the line over at B&M. I’ve never touched anything quite so revolting in all my life. (Oh, just you wait, Missy.) As I’m recovering, David slowly extracts a seemingly endless, rubbery pink bloodworm from the mud. It almost makes my sandworm look cute.
The tide’s coming in as fast as we can dig, water sloshing into the tine tracks in the mud, and we decide it’s time to go. I don’t argue. Even playing at worming is back-aching work. Plus, I am covered head-to-toe in muck. David, however, after a quick rinse in the drink, is as fresh as when we started.
As we motor back toward the landing, Cory counts six tiny dots of mud on his uncle’s face. “He hates being dirty,” he says under his breath to me. “You’re looking at the cleanest wormer on the coast of Maine.”
I try not to look at the large mound of yellowy-white fat sitting on a piece of cardboard on the floor. But where to avert my eyes? To the droplets of blood (dried or fresh, I cannot tell) speckling the floor? To the bristly bear pelt with its head turned inside out, looking like the inside of a rubber Halloween mask? At the skull that has been freshly extracted from said “mask” and is sitting on the table with its teeth — and, well, everything else — bared? Certainly not at the task my host, Richard “Yukie” King, is undertaking: using a scalpel to scrape the meat from the metacarpal area of the paw, the fur turned back from it like the top of a hunter’s mitten.
Instead, I focus my attention on King’s partner, Paul Poulin, who is showing me a nice picture of his freeze-drying machine. Poulin, who is fifty and something of a bear-of-a-man himself, apprenticed with King through a V.A. program. “I was just about to retire,” Kings says, “but he wouldn’t take no for an answer.” King’s now been at taxidermy for more than thirty years; Poulin, just over three.
We are gathered in King’s workshop, which is tucked down in a patch of woods off Route 27 in Stratton, on the other side of Sugarloaf. Even though Poulin liberally doused the shop with Febreze as we entered, I can still detect a gamey undercurrent. The room is filled with lifelike stuffed animals — pine marten, otter, fox, coyote, fish, and fowl — in action poses. It feels like being inside a diorama at the Maine State Museum.
King, 75, is a compact man with thick glasses, a trim white beard, and cuticles ridged with blood. A Camel Light burns between his fingers. He’s taking a break while Poulin explains the freeze-drying process to me. It begins, he says, with gutting the animal. Then you stuff it with polyfill — the kind used in pillows — and pose it. It then goes into a conventional freezer to hold its form before being placed in the freeze dryer, which drops to fifty-five below zero, zapping out all the moisture. When I ask him how he decides on a pose, Poulin says without pause, “The animal tells me.” King nods, stubs out his cigarette on the vice grip on his workbench, and goes back to scraping.
Although King is mainly focused these days on restoration — he’s restored every sort of animal; a zebra or polar bear mount is not unusual for him — the taxidermy end remains brisk. The pair take on animals ranging in size from moose to muskrat. The cost starts at three hundred dollars to four hundred dollars for smaller animals and reaches well over a thousand dollars for a bear and moose that require a trip to a tannery. “There’s a lot of work in a bear,” says King. “The hardest part is getting up in the nose. All that cartilage.”
Okay, so I have to ask: Does any of this ever gross them out? A silence hangs in the air. I honestly do not think either of them see what I see: carcasses. Now, I’ve skinned and boned chicken before — I know what goes on underneath an animal’s pajamas — but even with a gloved hand, just lifting the paw makes me shudder. To these men, this pile of fur and sinew is simply an empty canvas, awaiting their handicraft, some might say artwork. After a moment, though, King gets what I’m driving at. “Oh, yes,” he says. “I had a woman bring in a coyote that had been shot through the stomach. Oh, that one smelled so bad I had to work on it outdoors and keep coming back into the shop to smear Vicks VapoRub under my nose.”
The Wort Cleaner
A trickle of sweat rolls down my back. My glasses have long ago steamed up and been abandoned. It’s not like I need them down here, hunched in the bottom of this giant tank. The only light sources are a small access hole above me and a drainage hole below.
Besides, my glasses would only get covered in mush, much like the rest of me. So, I lift my nylon brush in the dim light and continue to scrub by Braille, my left hand guiding my right’s way.
The vat is actually what’s called a mash tun, a fifteen-barrel (or 465-gallon), stainless-steel container used in beer brewing. I am at Maine Beer Company, located at Industrial Way (a.k.a. “Brewer’s Row”) in Portland, and I am the guest of Daniel Kleban, 34, who, along with his partner and brother, David, has owned and operated the company since 2009. The air is redolent, not with the smell of beer, but that of the grain that’s been boiled to 150 degrees in the tun to make wort, or unfermented beer. To my nose, it smells like wet Purina Dog Chow. Kleban says the aroma clings to him when he goes home — a new twist on the phrase, “You smell like a brewery.” Though Maine Beer Company is one of the smaller producers in the craft beer market, putting out just 1,500 barrels per year, it’s made a splash with their elegant ales among every hop-head I know, including yours truly.
I am performing one of the lowlier parts of the beer-making process: cleaning out the tank before it’s sanitized, a job nicknamed “scrub monkey” or “brew monkey.” In larger breweries, all cleaning is mechanized, but in ones this size, this part is often done by hand. In this case, mine.
I was led up a metal ladder to a deck on the exterior of the tank and invited to hoist myself up over a railing to the top of the tun, where I perched, my legs dangling down into the porthole-like opening. (It all felt very nautical.) Kleban told me I should feel around with my feet, until I could stand on the blades of the rake and climb down. I lowered myself in and groped with the toes of my Wellies, until I secured my footing.
The mash is the consistency of moist oatmeal mixed with sawdust and maybe a little wheat germ. My task is to clean it off the sides of the tank and the blades of the rake, and then squeegee the floor and hose everything down. The job requires pushing the rake around as you go, which is akin to moving a very heavy revolving door. The trick is to not hit your head on any of the spray arms overhead, which I manage to do with almost every turn, and to not swoon in the heat. It’s like working in a steam bath. My feet are lightly poaching in my boots, and I’m wondering why I wore a long-sleeved shirt. I know I’m moving slowly, holding up operations, but I want to do a good job. I take a second pass around the wall and across the blades with my brush, then I go at the floor with the squeegee and hose. Each time I think I’m done, however, clumps and bits of mash seem to appear from nowhere. In the end, I just use my hands to push the rest of the leavings through the little trap door and call it good.
Finally, I emerge through the hole, radiant with sweat, flecked with grain, and reeking of mash. I have just officially earned my scrub-monkey ears, and I am thirsty as all get-out for a cold Peeper Ale.
The Bait Packer
“This is the glamorous part of the job,” my workmate Al shouts over the roar of the conveyor belt, forklift, and Joe Cocker blaring from wall-mounted speakers. His blond eyelashes are frosted with flakes of salt, as are my glasses. My boots sparkle with a coating of fish scales and yet more salt. I eye the shovelful of dead pogies I’m hefting in front of me and shout back, “I see what you mean.”
I am the guest of Purse Line Bait in Sebasco, and we are transferring baitfish that has just arrived from New Jersey out of the twenty-bushel containers loaded on the truck outside the loading dock into fifty-five-gallon barrels inside. The way it works is this: The containers are dumped via forklift into a hopper, where they are mixed with seawater pumped in from the nearby shorefront. The fish are then transported up a conveyer, where they are mixed with salt and then shot down through a tube that is guided by another worker to fill the barrels, four to a pallet, before they are carted off to be loaded on a truck. From there, they will be transported to Purse Line’s warehouse, Frigid Fish, in Harpswell, where they will await sale as lobster bait. It’s our job to squeegee and shovel any fish that overflow. And, because loading these barrels is an imperfect art, there are plenty to move.
I’d had an opportunity to see the warehouse earlier in the morning, when I met Purse Line owner Jennie Bichrest at 7 a.m., where she was whipping around on a forklift, unloading one of her semis that was filled with forty thousand pounds of herring. Dressed in a bulky jacket, thick gloves, and a Scandinavian-style hat with earflaps, she looked almost elfin as she darted in and out of the massive freezer, bathed in its blue light. Only when I got a little closer and saw the crinkles around her eyes, the tan skin, and the grave expression of concentration, did I know this was no bait sprite. This petite woman, who started lobstering at the age of twelve and has since carved out a significant niche in a traditionally man’s world, is all business. At one point, she stopped just long enough to say, almost apologetically, “I guess this job is not so dirty as it is smelly.” Then she was gone.
Actually, it isn’t as stinky as I expected. Even now, as I am standing ankle-deep in dead pogies, there’s a definite marine smell in the air, but no more so than at a fish market. But that’s because, I am told, this is fresh dead fish. If I wanted a true snoutful, I should go work on a lobsterboat where the bait bakes in the sun all day. Mmmm.
As I move fish, I realize there is a certain dance-step quality to what we’re doing, a sort of maritime minuet. The four barrels are filled by the worker guiding the tube, which involves circling the pallet. You can step in behind him and squeegee as he goes, but it’s better to wait until the pallet has been removed, and then push all stray fish up against the wall before the next pallet is lowered. Then you can shovel, dodging the movements of the tube man.
When there’s a break (better to wait to speak, lest you get salt sprayed into your mouth), I ask Al what kind of pay someone can make at this job. He pauses, and then says with classic Maine reticence, “Decent.” And do they mind the nature of the work? No, they don’t, although the tube man adds, “Good thing for Tide with Febreze, or we’d all smell like fish forever.”
The Dairy Farmer
“What some people might consider dirty,” says dairy farmer Katie Webb, “I just consider processed plant matter.” We’re at her family farm in Pittston, just outside of Augusta, and we’re discussing dung inside her cinder block barn, where cow flaps of all shapes and sizes dot the stalls.
It’s a late fall evening, and there’s a raw chill in the air. But Webb, 33, who is beanpole-thin and has a broad smile and big laugh, has already broken a light sweat and doffed her hat and jacket. She’s been galloping around like a colt, her long dark ponytail swinging behind her, tending to her twenty-six cows, mostly Jerseys, Guernseys, and mixes thereof. Suddenly, she interrupts our conversation to chase after a calf. She blocks it, it refuses to budge, and she throws her entire weight against the thing until it yields. “If you let them, cows will take over your life,” she says with her big laugh, before she trots off to wrangle another.
I’d arrived a half-hour earlier and met Webb’s brother-in-law, Luke Kruk, 29, while we waited for her to get home from her day job at Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. He and Katie work with Katie’s dad, Donnie Webb, whose father and grandfather came from Houlton and established the farm around 1914. When Katie was growing up, they had seventy-five Holsteins. But they gave up dairy farming in the early nineties, when the bottom fell out of milk prices. Now, they’re trying to establish a micro dairy, where they will not only commercially produce organic milk, but also cheese and other dairy products. But they’re still building up to that point, Kruk says.
He and I strolled to the pasture, where a number of cows were already starting to queue up for their trip to the barn for feeding and milking. The entryway was thick with black mud (or mostly mud, I was assured), and we slogged through it to the gate. We picked our way around discus-shaped cow pies and crested a hill, overlooking acre upon acre of rolling meadow. There, I met Frosty, a cow who’d been born in a snowfield and developed frostbite on her tail and ears and now, fully grown, had a bum leg.
As we descended, Webb arrived, and she bounded out of her car to greet us. Then, she leaned in at her brother-in-law over the gate, and said almost gleefully, “Let’s do chores!” They began to call the cows home, with a combination of Kruk’s “Hmmm, boss. Hey, bossie boss” and Webb’s kissing sound, like she was calling a kitten.
When the cows had been led, prodded, pushed, and poked (both Webb and Kruk admit they aren’t yet the best-trained cows) into their appropriate stalls, Webb set to work, leading the calves from their pens to suckle. As we talked, Frosty let loose a sideways soda fountain stream of urine. Although it was perilously close to us, no one batted an eye.
And now that the cows have been fed and milked, it’s my turn to try my hand at dairy farming. Katie loans me a hoe, and we set about scraping the flaps and urine-soaked sawdust from each raised stall out onto the floor, which will later be plowed out by tractor into the manure pit. It’s not much of a job, really no more effort that a croupier exerts clearing, excuse the pun, a craps table. I scrape carefully around the cow’s legs and backsides, just in case. Katie and I work in tandem, clearing dung and redistributing the sawdust over any slick spots. She compliments me on my technique, and I try not to get in her way.
No, I didn’t really get very dirty this time out. But I got what I came for: the love of a job, dung and all.