Post by Alicia Heyburn

Is it still called a hike if we are not climbing a mountain? I like hiking, whether along a river or up a mountain, but Wednesday’s Alewife Hike was particularly appealing because it was long and secluded (although a bit buggy), while only minutes from Maine’s largest urban area – very convenient for a midweek LAC adventure. Plus, it enabled us to witness (and assist) one of nature’s great migrations.

A dozen LACers hiked the 5-mile trail on Presumpscot Regional Land Trust’s Mill Brook Preserve in Westbrook. The preserve opened in 2016 and is comprised of several parcels of land flanking the brook. I enjoy learning about new places by studying watersheds, and have even started asking people what watershed they live in instead of what town. Mill Brook is a 6-mile-long aquatic corridor connecting Highland Lake with the Presumpscot River at Route 302. The Presumpscot then flows another 6 miles until it spills under Rt 295 across from Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm in Falmouth. Drop a leaf in the stream in Westbrook, and it could end up tossed in the wake of a ferry heading out to Peak’s Island. Or take the perspective of a fish and swim upstream, as migrating alewives are doing this time of year.

From late April to mid-June alewives return to lakes and ponds in Maine to spawn, and we were right on schedule to see their return. A type of herring, the alewives may have started 100 miles offshore, using a sense of smell to find their way back to the stream where they were born years before. I overhead an LAC hiker tell of her new home on a lake, a house she felt immediately connected to when shown by the realtor. A place she felt she belonged. Do we also have homing skills? Do we follow natural instincts, or suppress them in our busy lives?

A dry spring has meant good weather for hikes, but low water levels in our streams. Combine that with a wild winter, and the fish had trouble getting past many natural barriers like fallen trees clogged with leaves. We removed some of this debris and watched dozens of fish pass by.

We gathered for lunch at a lovely spot along the brook known locally as Goldilocks Falls, because the water levels must be just right, not too high and not too low, for the fish to ascend. The water was too low when we were there, so the fish struggled. There were thousands of them pooled below the falls, dorsal fins piercing the shallow water, sun beating down from clear skies. Their bodies flapped against the slippery rocks. We watched some burst up the falls, and others get stranded and die. Witnessing struggle and death was trying for us, so we helped, rolling up our sleeves, reaching into the water to toss them over the falls. Was this help? Was it interference? Were we satisfying our emotions or their physical needs? It was just our instinct, and despite plans for picnics and parades this weekend, we wish for rain to raise the water in the brook, and help those fish get home.  

One Comment

  • I am not a member, but exploring this website and found this interesting post about alewives. May I comment?

    I witnessed the same phenomena for the first time a little further downstream at the Presumpscot Falls (Presumpscot River Preserve). It was amazing. I wanted to try eating some of the fish – they are herring afterall and what sardines are made out of – but upon checking contamination levels in the fish with the DEP (Maine Dept. of Environmental Protection), learned no testing had been done since 2002 and none in the Presumpscot River. In 2002, the alewives had 5 times higher than acceptable levels of PCB at another Maine river and similar high levels elsewhere in the Northeast. [PCB is another one of those bad-for-you chemicals that has done a lot of damage to the environment and is now banned from use; and the Presumpscot was heavily polluted at one point….] Anyway, I tried to get the DEP to test the fish this year, but they said no, maybe next year. So, no fish this year. Smoked Alewives used to be a popular treat once I read but you don’t see it anymore.

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