DAMARISCOTTA – What will the people who live around the Damariscotta fish ladder do after the completion of the decade-long restoration effort that has raised $600,000?
“Probably have a drink,” said volunteer Jim Brinkler with a smirk.
To be sure. But even then, the volunteer effort behind the alewife ladder’s restoration will not die, locals say, even if the fall fundraising festival and spring migration celebration are no longer needed.
“I think there will always be reason to hold an event. The fish ladder has been built well to make sure there are only minor repairs for the next 100 years. But the work around the fish ladder will continue,” said Deb Wilson, the Nobleboro representative on the project.
Built in 1807, the stone fish ladder local communities have rallied around represents more than the ancient thoroughfare of small, shiny fish. Alewives have been harvested from the site since the area was first settled in the 18th century. They were salted, packed and shipped to the West Indies.
But the ladder, where alewives swim up to Damariscotta Lake in the spring and migrate out to sea in the fall, is a grass-roots success story about a living historic site that closely binds the natural world with the people who live around it.
After three decades of bean suppers and fish festivals, the fundraising is nearing an end, but the story is just beginning.
In 2008, just 150,000 alewives returned to spawn in Damariscotta Lake. This past summer, a half million were counted running up the ladder formed from a series of pools that have been secured with cement and lined with stone.
The ladder’s rebirth has resulted from grants totalling more than $93,000 and money received from harvesting the fish. Over time, locals have chipped away at the cost of building a model fish ladder.
Finally, with another $300,000, they’ll be able to finish the ladder’s renovation in the next year.
“The fish ladder restoration has pretty much involved everyone who lives around here,” Brinkler said. “We’ve finished the top two-thirds. We have only the bottom third to finish. If we raise enough money, we can finish it next year.”
But all agree, showcasing of the ladder will continue.
Two weeks ago, many in the surrounding towns gathered at the bottom of the ladder for a fundraiser that coincided with the local Pumpkinfest celebration. What began as a few dozen people inspecting the old and newer sections of the ladder exploded into bottle-necked crowds gaping into the running water.
Debra Lomas of Damariscotta brought her two small children to watch the fish migrate back to sea and said the spectacle never gets old.
“We came to watch the fish return in the spring. The fall run is more interesting. It’s sort of like a hunt for them. We make a game out of it. I’ve seen fish ladders before. This is by far the most natural looking,” Lomas said.
And Kelley Curtain and Joe Bernstein, both of Chicago, were entranced by the man-made structure that helps lift and propel the fish.
“I don’t know much about fish ladders. But we like the outdoors and being outdoors, and being able to see such an important endeavor to preserve a fish, especially something with so much support, is special,” Curtain said.
Russ Williams, a volunteer who built a home beside the ladder, said the success of the fish ladder has attracted more and more tourists who climb the hill there all summer long.
“I travel quite a bit (for work) and I’ve met a lot of people from around the country who have ended up in my backyard,” Williams said.
“When we get the ladder done, then we’ll work on foot traffic. And we’ll see where it goes from here. I’m sure there will always be some form of festival.”
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: