If Camden were a person, I imagine he (or maybe she for that matter) would be a little conflicted about some of the labels we’ve pasted on our postcards. While flattering to a certain extent, “quaint” sounds a lot like “cute” and neither term does justice to the wildness and dignity of a place where mountain lions once outnumbered people.

I expect that Camden the person might smile politely at our description, all dressed up in the clothes his mother sent him off to school in, and then turn around, pull a baby eel out of his pocket, toss it into the river, and run up the mountain to search for bears. Or he might tell us the story of Leonard Metcalf who famously went up the mountain in pursuit of moose and wound up clinging for his life careening down the trail aboard a young bear he had scared out of its den.

No one at that time described Camden as quaint and the people who lived here probably weren’t cute. The place was known as Megunticook and her beauty was the wild, powerful, awe-inspiring variety.

Camden still has its wild side squeezing through the cracks. For the most part, this is celebrated by both the tourists and residents who are lucky enough to witness it. The peregrine falcons who perch on the town clock, the herd of deer who parade through our back yards, the black bears who are occasionally still seen in the state park, and the harbor beavers who defy all restrictions around the cutting of trees in the shoreland zone.

People still talk about the wayward moose who accidentally ended up in the hallways of the Knox Mill condominiums. We seem to like living in a place where these things can still happen.

But what about the elvers? No, not alewives — the fish that are frequently confused with elvers because of the similar sounding names. Alewives are fish who spend most of their lives at sea but travel up rivers each spring to lay their eggs in lakes and ponds.

The scene from below the surface looking up at glass eels swimming in Camden Harbor.

 

Elvers are baby eels and each spring they are among the first of the migratory creatures to arrive in Camden, triggering the transformation of the harbor from a quaint seaside village to a sort of high stakes border crossing complete with territory wars, marine patrol, and the occasional black eye.

During the spring of 2020, as COVID was ramping up and there wasn’t much else to do, I was doing my quasi-normal thing of hanging out by the harbor with a GoPro and underwater light on a long stick. It was a little too early for the alewives to have arrived yet, but I was occupying myself with elvers and the occasional rainbow smelt.

Camden Harbor in March is not a place where you normally see many people, especially not late at night, so I was quite surprised the first time I was approached by a deputy from the Maine Marine Patrol. He had noticed what appeared to be a woman fishing for elvers in a prohibited zone — and worse, before the official beginning of the season. I assured him that I was only filming and not fishing and was allowed to continue.

The resources that go into policing the elver harvest soon became apparent, and a little mind blowing. So why all the fuss?

They provide a critical food source to everything from cormorants to river otters and they provide valuable water quality benefits through their symbiotic relationship with freshwater mussels. They also serve a valuable economic role, especially in Maine.

Well, the life cycle of the eel and many of the details surrounding, it still remains one of science’s most enduring mysteries, but we do know that eel populations are a tiny fraction of what they would have been when Leonard Metcalf rode the bear down the side of Mount Batty. Eels are said to have once made up 25% of all fish catches, but their numbers have declined to the point where the Union of Scientists for the Conservation of Nature lists them as endangered.

Here in Camden, though, they come in large numbers and we have a truly unique opportunity to witness one of the planet’s great migrations. They are born as larvae in the Sargasso Sea and drift for up to a year before arriving in Maine around mid to late March. On their way to fresh water, they run the gauntlet of fishermen’s nets, natural predators, and dams, but one way or another, some of them make it to Megunticook Lake, Moody Pond, and beyond.

A young brook trout in Camden Harbor takes advantage of the sudden abundance of food in the form of juvenile American eels.

 

They come by the hundreds of thousands, as they have for millennia, drifting in from the open ocean in search of fresh water. Once they fix themselves on a target, their drifting becomes a relentless and gravity defying act of endurance swimming against the current. The eels in this stage are often referred to as glass eels due to the transparent bodies which become almost iridescent at night when a light is shined on them.

The images that have come across my GoPro almost appear as if from another planet, and while eels were never the focus of what I set out to film in the harbor, the visual impact alone is too mesmerizing to ignore. At first, the torrent of water coming down over the dam seemed to eliminate any chance that the young eels could make it above the head of tide, but the fishermen I spoke with assured me that when conditions are just right, and the water slows, they can climb straight up a vertical wall, braiding themselves together in a long chain.

“The water’s coming down too hard now but wait for it. Keep checking. You’ll see them climbing right up under this building.” One of the fishermen told me.

And finally, I did see it. There is a trickle of water that seeps out of the foundation at the back of the Village Shop, and it seems that this has created some of the most favorable conditions for the migrating eels. They scale the retaining wall and then seem to disappear under the buildings.

Young American eels scale a vertical wall to make it around the Montgomery Dam.

 

Many don’t realize this, but all of the flow from the Megunticook River used to be directed into the basements of the building that is now Once a Tree and Marriner’s. This was the purpose of the Montgomery Dam, blocking water from traveling down its natural course over the bedrock buried in Harbor Park and routing it under the buildings to turn the grist mill. This water inlet was filled with concrete at some point when the power generating project was abandoned, but it appears that some water still trickles through along the general course.

Many of those who come to Camden each spring to fish for eels are members of the Passamaquoddy tribe who rely on the high prices they are able to collect selling elvers to brokers who ship them to China where they can be raised and sold to the Asian seafood market. Japanese Eels have been virtually eradicated by overfishing.

There are many rules about where the fishermen can and cannot be, which are enforced vigilantly by Maine Marine Patrol. And then of course there are the other rules which are unwritten etiquettes surrounding territory and fishing rights. It can actually get pretty rowdy down in the harbor around this time, much of it driven by the fact that some people come from up to four hours away with very little money hoping that the elver harvest will be the lifeline that makes ends meet.

All of this is proving too lengthy to share in just one article, so the rest will have to wait until next time.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and member of the Select Board. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board.  

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