Spring in Maine, as E.B. White observed, is a haphazard season, best described in anecdotes.
by Paul DoironNow that the snow is off the lawn, my wife has returned to the subject of us getting chickens. Camden passed an ordinance a few years back permitting the small-bore raising of poultry within the limits of the village. A building boom in henhouses didn’t follow, although our neighbors did outfit themselves with some Rhode Island Reds. Based on my brief observation, I found the breed to be nasty and brutish — the hens were merciless in their harassment of each other. The wanton bullying brought back unhappy memories of junior high. If we do adopt chickens, I will look for a variety that doesn’t induce post-traumatic flashbacks. I am convinced that the dandelion was the inspiration for the mythological Greek monster, the Hydra. Chop off one (golden) head and two more take its place. Spring for me doesn’t officially start until I eat my first smelt. If you have never dipped for rainbow smelts by the light of the moon, then you have an experience to add to your bucket list. You will need a long-handled net, a 5-gallon pail to sit on until the run starts (after which it will hold your winnings), and a pair of waders or tall rubber boots. A headlamp is a must; also, a sense of humor. An adult beverage is optional. Timing is all in fishing, and smelt are no different from their larger, more heralded cousins, the landlocked salmon. The streambed that is empty at 10 p.m. might be overflowing at midnight. The creek that held the mother lode a year ago might well be a bust now. Past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, as the investment people say. I’ll bet a penny that phrase was coined on a smelt stream. Smelt are not the same as elvers, by the way, although I have heard tourists get them confused, perhaps because both are spring migrates. Elvers are baby eels, no bigger than your finger. If you ask me, they bear an uncanny resemblance to animated rice noodles. Elvers are highly prized in Asia, where they are raised on farms to adulthood before meeting their end at sushi counters. Those funnel-shaped nets you might have glimpsed at the mouths of streams are traps set by elver fishermen. Last year, dealers paid some $800 a pound for the little wrigglers, down from $2,000 in previous years (this year is high once more — past performance, etc.). The same TV people behind the realty show North Woods Law created a program about crusty eel hunters called Cold River Cash. It lasted a single season. The original title, I’ve heard, was Eel of Fortune, before Pat Sajak or someone objected. All of the seasonal shops in town will soon be open for business but for a few of the most reluctant T-shirt places, which are awaiting the rush of tourists. In Boothbay Harbor, I visited a souvenir store that opened each year on July 4th and closed on Labor Day. It struck me that it had a shorter lifespan than the spiders in my shed.
My brother gets on me about planting a kitchen garden. He is right to nag. I like nothing better than a ripe tomato, and it seems foolhardy to place my enjoyment in the hands of strangers. But my wife is the one with the green thumb, and she would prefer to please her eyes rather than her palate. I hem and haw when she asks me to accompany her to the greenhouse to pick out the summer’s array of flowers. Secretly, I would miss the annual pilgrimage, which is as much a rite of spring as my smelting expeditions. The fierce briefness of the Maine summer makes it all the more necessary for us to lose ourselves in the build up. Spring begins in mud and ends in beauty.
Paul Doiron is editor emeritus of Down East and the bestselling author of the Mike Bowditch crime novels, including The Poacher’s Son and The Bone Orchard.
Photo credit: Image by Maja Petric. This image is available under a Creative Commons Zero license.