I was never a fish person.

Four years ago, I would have been hard pressed to tell the difference between a rainbow smelt, a brook trout, and a striped bass. Like most people, I would have been highly likely to confuse the terms alewives with elvers and certainly did not know which species we could expect to see in Camden Harbor. I saw what I saw down at the harbor and managed to ignore an astounding number of details, species, and dynamics.

Looking under the surface in Camden. Photo by Alison McKellar

To push myself into looking deeper, I had to be just about hit over the head by a few Lincolnville residents lamenting what they perceived as a very sad state of affairs for the Megunticook Watershed.

They blamed Camden. Typical, hypocritical Camden, I think she said. What the heck were we thinking, pretending to be a town that cared about the environment, while keeping all migratory fish from accessing our watershed? Hmm… Not entirely fair, because Lincolnville is not perfect either, but we can certainly do better.

I am a little embarrassed to admit I had no idea what they were talking about. I knew about migratory birds, and I had a peripheral knowledge of salmon, I suppose, but was completely ignorant to the fact that many species rely on passage between the ocean, rivers, lakes, and even tiny streams.

With fish populations collapsing worldwide and the disastrous implications for all who depend on the vitality of the world’s freshwater and marine habitat, taking a harder look at the obstacles we place in our streams is a moral imperative.

Sometimes the simplest way to know the impact that a dam has on wild fish populations is to observe what tries to get around it. After being cajoled into visiting some neighboring watersheds and seeing the alewives fighting upstream with truly mind-boggling abundance and determination, I returned to Camden to look for signs of anything similar.

It did not take long to see the fish schooling at the base of the dam, occasionally launching themselves up onto the rocks. Alewives spend the majority of their lives at sea, but they are born in freshwater lakes and spend the first few months of their lives developing before heading out to sea.

When they are around 3 years old, they fix their senses on freshwater once again and fight their way to suitable spawning habitat. Once they are finished laying their eggs, they head back out to sea, but along the way, many will be eaten by predators or caught as food or lobster bait. The migration happens in the spring and is a major tourist attraction.

These brook trout could be fish from the sea looking to spawn in the river or they could be stocked hatchery fish that fell over the dam and cannot get back. Either way, they were trying hard to get into the Megunticook River when I photographed them here. Photo by Alison McKellar

In Camden, the dams went in pretty much as soon as the first European settler arrived, which was well before photography or even a time when people could take a break from survival long enough to paint.

A school of alewives in Camden harbor looking for a way into the river. Note a few of the Main Street businesses are visible above the surface. Photo by Alison McKellar

What we do know is that in 1806, the Annual Town Meeting included the passage of a warrant to form a committee to look into inducing the dam owner to open up sluiceways for the passage of alewives and other fish from the Harbor to the “large pond above Molyneaux’s Mill.”

Someone remembered what it was like before the dams or, at the very least, noticed these little fish knocking at the door with their characteristic vigor and determination.

The numbers would have been much higher in 1806 and even higher before that, but it is remarkable that 250 years after the dams started blocking access, there are still small groups of pioneer alewives coming to Camden every year and looking for a way to Megunticook.

I was astounded the first time I realized that hundreds of the fish were just below the surface. I even grabbed them with my hands. I felt them rushing up against my legs as I fought to stay upright in the current. It was one of the most magical feelings I can remember and I have now logged hundreds if not thousands of hours in the harbor honing my observation and photography skills.

What started out as a simple attempt to document the presence or absence of a single species has turned into a beautiful obsession with the story unfolding beneath the surface.

When my sister Kristen died unexpectedly in 2018, I found myself totally overwhelmed by grief. I needed something to do with my kids other than cry and feel sorry for myself and the harbor became our reprieve. My two boys loved fishing and I busied myself with underwater photography.

It was a world I never imagined could be so beautiful. Each time I saw something new, I would post it to Facebook and soak up knowledge from the many anglers and biologists who have patiently educated me on what I was seeing.

Everything from the barnacles to the rock weed behaved in ways underwater that will give you a whole new appreciation. The special assortment of creatures that visits Camden Harbor is unique because we don’t just have a harbor, but a coastal estuary and intertidal zone right in the middle of the downtown and the influx of freshwater attracts a steady stream of visitors all year long.

Megunticook was probably always a very challenging stream to ascend for migratory fish and even resident brook trout and even though the harbor falls would not have been as high as we see it today, the drop-off in the ledge is naturally a formidable obstacle.

Still, I have watched both brook trout and alewives shimmy and flip and flop much higher up onto the rocks than you would imagine possible. In other places where natural falls are not blocked at the top by a dam, the show is magical and exhilarating to watch.

Unfortunately, their optimism at Megunticook is misguided at this point. The only success stories come from the elvers or transparent baby eels that are able to climb vertically over and around the dam under the right conditions.

Pretty soon, in March, you will have a chance to see one of the world’s great migrations for yourself and I will write more about it when we get closer. In preparation, consider reading “The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World.”

It is a truly fascinating read and you will not be able to resist heading down to the harbor with a flashlight, even in March.

Taking a deeper dive, both literally and figuratively, into Camden Harbor and the Megunticook River, has been my greatest saving grace. My mother used to say that it takes three lifetimes to learn to ride a horse. I imagine it could take a lot longer to really know the Megunticook Watershed, but the more we know, the better stewards we can be, not just of our own little area but also the connection that we have to our neighbors and the rest of the planet.

A seal startled me in the very best way last year as I was trying to document alewives in Camden Harbor. Photo by Alison McKellar

In the words of Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

For anyone interested in seeing for themselves some of what I have been fortunate enough to document in the harbor, I have a Youtube Channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/alisonmckellar/videos

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and Select Board member. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board or the editorial position of The Camden Herald. We welcome letters and guest columns reflecting other viewpoints via editor@villagesoup.com.

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