The Russians and the Carp
This post is contributed by Coastal Rivers Trustee Barnaby Porter from his archive. Read the previous post here.
One late summer day, I walked down a dusty road on a backwater of Merrymeeting Bay. The tall grass on both sides waved in the breeze with the singing of crickets whose cadence filled the quiet, and goldenrod and fall asters labeled the season for what it was: warm, lazy and fleeting.
Merrymeeting Bay was a new place in my experience, a vast marshland teeming with life. I was taking part in a waterfowl survey. It was mid-afternoon, and there was a sense of irrepressible ecological richness and diversity everywhere around me. I knew in a few weeks’ time great flights of ducks would set their wings as they came gliding in for a landing on the still water, swishing to a stop on its glassy face. Centuries of migration had brought them down out of the sky for the rich feed and welcome rest afforded by its maze of watery channels and safe resting holes. I thought of the fussing and preening this place must have seen and the myriads of dangling red legs and webbed feet that had broken its surface.
The phrase “teeming with life” became a picture in my mind of snails and minnows and clouds of tiny shrimp, swimming through grasses and skimming the dark bottom muck. And wading in the shallows, I saw eons of deer, their startled faces parting the high grass. I imagined Native Americans and hunters for whom this bay was a familiar and favored haunt, its resources their sustenance for generations untold. The dramas this place has seen played out; this was what I felt.
As I walked along, I met two old couples trudging my way, carrying bamboo fishing poles and folding stools with striped, canvas seats. I got the impression they were regulars here, and from their low conversation as we passed, nodding to each other, I decided they were Russians from the nearby community. The ladies were wearing sun bonnets, and one of the men was carrying a bucket, to carry fish home in I assumed.
I walked on fifty yards or so and sat down to wait for a friend who was to pick me up by car. Presently, the old folks, too, sat on their stools on the bank of the weedy canal beside the road. I kept casual watch to see if they might catch anything, sitting there fishing in the afternoon sun.
After perhaps twenty minutes, just as I began to lose interest in their fishing expedition, there was a sudden clamor from the direction of the canal. I looked over and saw all four of the old Russians standing, and one of the old men was staggering, stiff-backed, under the strain of something tugging on his fishing line, his skinny pole bent to its limit. Whatever it was began to gain the upper hand. The old man, struggle as he might, was slowly pulled down the steep bank to the water’s edge and then into the water up to his knees.
Thinking they could use some assistance, I ran over to them. The battling fisherman looked to me for help, only too glad to hand me his bamboo. I grabbed it and quickly assumed his plight. There was indeed something serious going on down in that murky water. As I backed up the bank the two old ladies kept clapping me on the back, and everyone was very excited and garbling Russian at me at once.
At last I managed to draw a large carp (perhaps fifteen pounds) into the weeds at my feet, where it flapped and thumped and gulped for air. The old Russians were very pleased with their catch. They beamed at me and clasped my hand. They were so pleased that they even tried to give me their giant fish. Of course, I said No as I plopped it headfirst into their bucket, which was nowhere big enough for such a cargo. Nevertheless, they heaped their gratitudes upon me, and we spent some very happy minutes together, proffering that carp back and forth. In the end, I left them with their fish and walked away. I did so with a feeling that this rich place had yielded yet another of its offerings, another of its countless dramas. Like the Russians, who knew something of this bay, I was witness too.
Artist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. On October 7, 2021 Barnaby completed his tenure on Coastal Rivers’ Board of Trustees after six years of service.
White tailed deer courtesy of Donna Dewhurst, USFWS.