The Kennebec River is a 170-mile-long body of water that carves its way through central Maine before emptying into the Gulf of Maine, and ultimately, the Atlantic Ocean. It slinks its way past towns like Fairfield, Waterville and Vassalboro, dividing the capital city of Augusta in half for good measure. In the winter, however, its uppermost layer is rendered still in the freezing temps Maine is known for. But that doesn’t mean the Kennebec is lifeless. Scattered on the frozen shores up and down the river, small communities of simple, wooden shacks rise up with a common goal—smelt.
We pull into Worthing’s Smelt Camp in Randolph, Maine a bit earlier than we anticipated. The air is noticeably cooler than in Portland. We’ve hitched a ride with Allagash Brewing’s Mat Trogner, his back seat and hatchback area both filled with newly canned offerings of White and River Trip. As we greet others who’ve come along for the day of fishing—folks from Eventide, the beautifully curated publication Maine The Way, as well as a smattering of fellow Maine brewers and friends—I glance west towards the river for the first time and am rendered equal parts speechless and frightened. Growing up in Virginia, I’m not sure I’d ever seen a frozen river, save for maybe one that had the thinnest layer that a tiny pebble might puncture with a light toss. That’s not at all the case here. Across the river, a row of houses stare back at us. On our side, a grouping of the aforementioned huts. And between, a solid, hard-as-a-rock sheet of ice. The bridge we took to cross from Gardiner to Randolph won’t be necessary.
Our group takes temporary ownership of three adjoining huts. To one end, a small clearing will serve as a prep area for the food and drink that will be available throughout the day. While cold outside, inside the huts there’s a soft warmth given off by wood burning stoves. We all mill about, exchanging names and smiles, acquainting ourselves with one another and with our homes for the day. The huts are cozy if not spartan. Wooden crates serve as seats on plywood floors. Two troughs cut into the ice run the length of the structure. Above the troughs are spools attached to poles. This is fairly passive fishing. The idea is, you bait the hooks attached to the spools, lower them into the water where the troughs are cut, at which point you sit and wait, preferably with a beer in one hand and some food in the other. Not a bad way to spend a few hours.
The day starts slow in terms of fishing, but the Eventide Oyster Co. crew is on hand and walk around with food that passes the time in the most delicious of ways. Out of nowhere a wooden slab overflowing with cheeses, crackers and piquante peppers appears. An offering of grilled oysters appears shortly just after. In between, we wander from hut to hut, poking our heads in as we do. We wander out on the ice, each step carefully placed atop the glassy surface. All the while, cans of Allagash and Oxbox circulate. Before long, people begin sabering bottles of Farm To Face, an army of pointed cameras surrounding the subject.
As the sun sinks, the river and the sky take on the blue tones of a February night in Maine, the warm glow of the huts being the only complimentary color to the otherwise cool scene. We pack in and make the walk back to the parking lot just at the edge of the river. The short drive back to Portland is spent recapping the day. While the fish may have been in short supply, the laughs, smiles and memories certainly were not.