Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Mind Boggling Overall Bigness of the Rapids of the Lower Congo River

This video by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) shows fascinating footage of ongoing speciation by fish in the extraordinary rapids of the Lower Congo River. The AMNH's study has found that some of the "deep holes" in the rapids are more than 600 feet deep and that flow restrictions and ledge barriers in the channel are sufficient to cause various native fish to become so reproductively isolated from one another that new species are being created. AMNH says:

At last count, 320 species—some with bizarre features like long snouts, tiny eyes, and colorless skin—swim in the river’s 350 kilometers of roiling brown water. “I call it evolution on steroids,” says Melanie Stiassny, curator of ichthyology at the American Museum of Natural History.

In the U.S. we have river resources just as unique and incredible as the Congo and many of them are in terrible condition (or flat out going extinct), which makes it impossible for a video like this to even be filmed here. This video could have been made at Celillo Falls on the Columbia in the 1920s. But in the 1930s the Bonneville Dam was built without any environmental review and destroyed all of Celillo Falls and a huge Native American sustenance salmon fishery there. The same goes for the Tennessee River system.

The lower Congo has long been eyed for damming and still is -- precisely because of its steep gradient and rapids. If that were to happen, all of these unique fish species that are just now being discovered and described will go extinct.

The AMNH's documentation and research illustrates how the Congo's hydrology and ledge geography creates special, isolated niches for cichlids, and these niches are creating speciation even as we speak. Their research is important as a scientific hedge against some lame brain at the World Bank thinking that putting a dam here and wrecking the place would be a good idea. Weirdly, the AMNH website does not even mention any proposals to dam this part of the Lower Congo.

Oh look ! The European Union and World Bank have already slated the Lower Congo River for destruction:

Banks meet over £40bn plan to harness power of Congo river and double Africa's electricity

Fury at plan to power EU homes from Congo dam: World Bank supports controversial $80bn project.

Not surprisingly, the dam is touted as being good for poor black people, as being "green power," as helping the "development of Africa," and ... to ice the cake ... is being proposed as mitigation credits for Europe burning fossil fuels and causing global warming. Unfortunately, all of the claims are not just false, but are fairly deliberate lies. Never saw that coming.

Who said Euro-Colonialism was dead?

Wild Geranium, Presumpscot Falls, Presumpscot River. Good Photos of 2009.

This is a wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) next to Presumpscot Falls, Presumpscot River, in Portland, Maine. Photo taken in early June.

For some reason there is an extreme profusion of these wild geraniums growing in one vale near the falls. These may be naturalized escapees from a nearby garden (there's a house at the top of the hill) or they are just wild and happen to like this area.

These wildflowers are like eating peanuts. You just can't stop taking pictures of them. On this day, I probly took 100 images of them.

Click to embiggen.

Wild Turkey Feather: Good Photos of 2009

The wedge of woods across the street from our house produced lots of good photos in 2009. One day in the summer I was in the woods with Queequeg T. Dog, Ph.D. and encountered this wild turkey feather perched on a branch. It's quite a popular place for wild turkeys. Often we see a dozen or two making their way through the understory looking for acorns. Below is another. Click to embiggen.

Philadelphia Fleabane: Good Photos of 2009

This fleabane (Erigeron philadelphiacus) is growing in the side yard and kept flowering from late May to late October. It was growing in a crack in the parking lot across the street and I dug it up before they tore up the parking lot when they built the new supermarket.

Click to embiggen

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bunchberry, Presumpscot River. Portland, Maine. Good Photos of 2009.

This is a bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) from the woods along the Presumpscot River, just above Presumpscot Falls in Portland, Maine. Bunchberries are the smallest member of the dogwood family. The flowers turn into bright red berries in late summer. Bunchberry plants are tiny, about the size of your hand, the flower is the size of a nickel, and they grow very low to the ground. These photos were taken in mid-June, 2009 in the conservation land protected by Portland Trails.
I like to get pics from the plant's perspective, rather than from peoples, which for bunchberry means lying on your belly, which means risking crushing and squishing all the plants nearby, which I prefer not to do. Since these guys were growing in a patch of broken sunlight next to a large riverside hemlock tree, there was a clear enough area of bare hemlock needles to lie down on without wreaking havoc on the bunchberries.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Daisy and Pink Striped Spider. Good Photos of 2009.

This pink striped spider made a home on a patch of daisies in our yard this summer. Taken at sunset, when the spider tended to be out. These daisies were growing along the left field fence at the old Cony High School softball field in 2007 and I dug them up and transplanted them into our yard when they started wrecking the school to built a new supermarket.

Click to embiggen.

Hanging Falls at Presumpscot Falls, Presumpscot River, Falmouth, Maine. Good Photos of 2009.

This was actually taken in 2005, but I was never satisfied with it, and the other day I used the watercolor part of Photoshop to subtly fatten it up. The trick is to make a second copy of the image using the watercolor tool and layer it with the original and use the opacity setting to mix them. The idea here is not to make a blatant "watercolor" type image, but to give the original more punch and definition while still making it look like an unmanipulated photo. A 4x5 real camera would do the same, but me lack one. If you look closely at the embiggened version, you can most clearly see the effect of the "watercolor" in the ledges in the lower left hand corner. As a matter of ethics, I think you should always mention if you do this type of manipulation to an original photo.

This image depicts a beautiful falls that comes clear off the highest part of the bedrock gorge of the Presumpscot River at Presumpscot Falls in Falmouth, Maine. This was in May, after a rain, when the little brook was quite full of water and spilling happily down the ledges next to osprey, great blue heron, shad and alewives. This spot is a 3 minute drive from downtown Portland.

The reason why the ledges in the lower left hand corner are much whiter and brighter than the other rocks above and to the right is that the falls is on a major boundary of two different bedrock types, perhaps bounded by a fault, which runs diagonally from upper left to lower right along the color change.

Click to embiggen.

China Lake Stream, Sebasticook River, Winslow, Maine. Good Photos from 2009.

My camera (an Olympus C-750) is great for close-ups but not so great for long, landscape shots which contain vast differences in lighting, like from full sun to deep shade.

But when the place and light just screams at you, you have to at least try. This happened in August, walking up China Lake Stream in Winslow with Queequeg T. Dog, Ph.D. on a brilliant late summer afternoon. A yellow lab, Queequeg was really good at staying put at this little point of rocks while I experimented with different angles and light schemes. He loves walking along streams and poking around and makes doing this fun.

This photo captures the nice stair-step character of the bedrock ledges (Waterville Slate Formation) that China Lake Stream crosses at this bend (which also forces the stream to bend). The stair steps are created because the Waterville Slate Formation is massively folded mudrock and dirty limestone from the Ordovician/Silurian and some of the folds/beds contain more quartz sand than others. The beds with more quartz are more resistant to erosion and create ridges, ie. the top of the steps. The more muddy beds are the low spots. These beds were laid down 350-450 million years ago. Cool stuff on a hot day. The photo is a bit brittle (too much sharpness added) and not silky and wet enough for my taste. Must go back and fix.

Click to embiggen.

Sundew, Upper Leach's Pond, Borderland State Park, North Easton, Massachusetts. Good Photos from 2009.

This a sundew about to flower on a floating island of peat in Upper Leach's Pond at Borderland State Park on the North Easton/Sharon line in Massachusetts. This was taken July 17, 2009.

Getting this photo required swimming about 200 feet out from shore to a small peat island with an underwater camera and climbing on top of the island, which is like a soggy mattress suspended in 15 feet of water, and not falling off or through it or stepping and falling and squishing all of the delicate bog plants growing on it.

This is something I've wanted to do since I was a little kid and first went to Upper Leach's Pond fishing with my dad. This was the only good shot from about 40 taken. Getting a sharp focus on the tiny droplets of "dew" the plant uses to attract and catch and eat insects was very hard, which caused most of the rejects. The overcast sky helped bring out the intense colors.

These sundews (and pitcher plants) do not grow on the shore of the pond, but only on the floating peat islands. The green in the background is not the shore, but an even larger island farther out in the pond. Without a waterproof camera, it's pretty much impossible to get a photo of these cool little carnivorous plants.

Click to embiggen.

Black Brook, Hockomock Swamp, South Easton, Massachusetts. Good Photos from 2009.

Photographing the Hockomock Swamp is not easy for many obvious reasons (bugs, water, not easy to get into), but more because it is so hard to find a shot which defines it. It's not like a mountain or a river where you can press the shutter button and people can say, "yup, that's a mountain." Taking a picture of a 6,000 acre swamp is like taking a picture of one of your skin cells and calling it a self portrait.

Like a rainforest or climax temperate forest, a forested swamp like the Hockomock is a study in verticals. Change doesn't happen horizontally, it occurs vertically. This shot, from July 18, 2009, next to Black Brook where it crosses the old railroad grade on the Easton/Raynham line, starts to capture some of the feelings, glints and shadings of the multitude the Hockomock contains when you are inside it. It also shows all of the growth layers in the swamp, from the leaf litter underwater, to the sphagnum moss underwater, to the aquatic plants growing in hummocks next to the water, to the shub vegetation and finally to the crown branches of the swamp red maples 50 feet above.

Click on the photo to embiggen it.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Friends of Merrymeeting Bay on MSN !!!

Ed Friedman of Friends of Merrymeeting Bay alerts me to a great TV piece on the work that FOMB is doing to restore and protect the lower Kennebec and Androscoggin Rivers, ie. Merrymeeting Bay, including doing lots of stuff with local kids.

Watching this, it's important to remember that when older folks around the Bay were kids in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Merrymeeting Bay was nearly dead from water pollution and those kids' only experience with the Bay was a place that stunk so bad that you didn't want to go anywhere near it. Thanks to the U.S. Clean Water Act, Merrymeeting Bay is once again a place where kids are welcome.

Monday, December 07, 2009

On how to restore native brook trout to Queset Brook, North Easton, Massachusetts

Queset Brook in North Easton, Massachusetts was for ten thousand years the native home of the brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis). They were extirpated from North Easton 200 years ago when numerous dams were built on Queset Brook to power saw mills and shovel mills.

The earliest reference to Queset Brook, in the History of the Town of Easton (Chaffin 1886) states: "The earliest name given to it was Mill River, if we except the name Trout-Hole Brook, which, however, was only applied to that portion of it which runs through the east part of North-Easton village."

The ability of the "Trout Hole Brook" portion of Queset Brook in North Easton to support trout in the 20th century was proven by William Amory Parker ("Mister Parker"), who for many years in the 1960s and 1970s paid to privately stock brown trout (Salmo trutta) in "Parker's Pond," which is the small dammed pond on Queset Brook behind his house on North Main Street. Mr. Parker let us neighborhood kids fish for and catch these trout and play in his fields and woods, which is why he did it. Many of these stocked trout lived for many years in the pond and brook above it and below it and grew to lengths exceeding 20 inches.

Even after Mr. Parker died and the trout stocking in Queset Brook stopped in the mid 1970s, older and larger trout were still seen in the brook for many years, particularly in the stretch behind Sundell's garage, in the tunnel underneath North Main Street, next to the Ames Free Library, underneath Shep Williams' Antrim Hammer Shop house, underneath the arched stone bridge just above Shep Williams' house, and in the brook from the Hoeshop Pond dam to the inlet of Parker's Pond. When brook trout were stocked in Picker Pond in 1975 to celebrate Easton's 250th anniversary, teen anglers like John Brown and my brother Tim Watts for several years caught brookies in Queset Brook in its short, tortuous, green briar jungle from Picker Pond to Hoeshop Pond.

One of the reasons these trout could survive in Queset Brook even in the heat of the summer is a tiny brook that comes from the Easton Town Pool, which is built on top of a number of large natural springs that begin on Lincoln Street next to the Easton Lutheran Church and are called, collectively, "Lincoln Springs." The pond behind the Easton Town Pool is fed by spring water as is the Town Pool. This is why the original Easton Water Works was built at the site of the Easton Town Pool. Visitors to the town pool in the 1970s will remember the odd, 20-foot high, shingled "pyramid" in the center of the parking lot. Underneath this pyramid was the well head.

Lincoln Spring and its spring brook are still there behind the pond above the Town Pool and the entire "bowl" of land behind the Lutheran Church and the DeCouto's house is a natural spring water seep that funnels into the dug-out basin that is now the Easton Town Pool. All of the water from these springs and seeps is channelled into an old, narrow channel lined with granite blocks which crosses Parker's field and enters Queset Brook at the inlet of Mr. Parker's Pond.

If you go to Parker's field you can still see the overgrown, long and straight ditches cut into the meadow to drain it. In the 1970s, during the heat of the summer, the trout that Mr. Parker stocked would crowd into the tiny slot of the drainage channel from the Town Pool to keep cool. These were also prime frog catching sites for kids. [Some of the ditches may have been made to enhance the growth of native cranberries, which are still found in the stretch of meadow between the Town Pool and Parker's field.]

If you go to the Easton Town Pool in the late fall, after the pool has been drained, and walk around on its bottom, you will see natural springs bubbling up from its bottom that all flow into a central drain beneath the far dock. As kids we used to see tiny hornpout in the drain. How these hornpout and, downstream, the trout, survived the boatloads of swimming pool chemicals dumped into the pool every few weeks every summer to keep kids from getting ringworm is a mystery.

Survival needs for Queset Brook's native trout

In Massachusetts, Easton is a type locality and model for effective, citizen-led open space protection. Efforts to protect open space in Easton began in earnest in the mid 1960s. The results are manifest. But while the citizens of Easton have become adept and efficient at preserving and protecting open land in the town in the past 45 years, the glaring hole in these protection efforts has been the failure to address the effect of 250 years of damming on its brooks and watersheds. Queset Brook is the poster child of this omission.

To restore an extirpated species, you need to know what extirpated them in the first place. At Queset Brook, the answer is simple: numerous small, impassable dams. These dams have had two deleterious effects on native trout. First, they impound the brooks into small ponds, which raise the water temperature of the brook above the maximum which trout can live. Second, these dams fragment the brook into tiny sections and prevent trout from freely moving up and down the brook to find suitable seasonal habitat for all life stages and for giving birth.

At Queset Brook, the effect of this fragmentation and impoundment is most acute during the summer when water temperatures are at trout's thermal maximum. Trout are incredibly adept at finding suitable spawning, growing and summering habitat, if they are not obstructed from doing so, and if the critical habitat they seek is not altered or destroyed. The dams on Queset Brook, as small as they are, have the effect of defeating all of the evolutionary survival techniques which have allowed native brook trout to live in the brook since the last Ice Age. For these reasons, native brook no longer live in Queset Brook, nor can they in its existing condition. The efforts of Mr. William Parker shows that even when trout were annually re-introduced into Queset Brook for many years, they could not successfully reproduce and maintain a wild population as they did for the past 100 centuries. Mr. Parker's experiment shows something is amiss in Queset Brook.

Restoring Queset Brook so its native Brook Trout
can live in it.

A plan to restore the native trout of Queset Brook must eliminate, or reduce to insignificance, those factors which caused their extirpation and have confounded repeated efforts to restore them. This means that removing the small, remaining dams on Queset Brook upstream of North Main Street in North Easton must be a first step. These two dams are the Hoeshop dam and the Parker's Pond dam. Removal or lowering of these two dams would restore all of Queset Brook from its headwaters at Ames Long Pond and the former Flyaway Pond above Shovelshop Pond to its natural channel, elevation and habitat conditions. The next issue is the dams at Shovelshop Pond and Langwater Pond, which impound and destroy virtually all of the native habitat for trout in Queset Brook from Sullivan Avenue to Sheep Pasture, or about one half of the section of Queset Brook that Chaffin (1886) called "Trout Hole Brook." Let's consider the history of these waters in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

What is the history and purpose of Langwater Pond?

Queset Brook was first dammed at Main Street in the early 1700s. The pond at this dam site was greatly enlarged in the late 1800s when the Ames family built a large estate at the junction of Queset and Whitman Brooks. This pond, and the farm next to it, was called "Langwater." By the mid 1970s, Langwater had completely filled with silt and mud and was only a foot or two deep in many areas. At this time, the Ames family paid several local contractors to dig all of the silt and mud out from behind the dam at Main Street so as to deepen and "restore" the pond.

Local contractors for several years (1977-78) drained Langwater and used it as their own private gravel pit. The "reclamation project" became a local joke when several 20 ton excavators got so mired in the muck at the front of the pond that they had to be chained and dragged out by other excavators. Towards the middle of Langwater, off the sheer cliff called "Big Pout," the contractors dug down to nearly 50 feet below the pond's waterline to get the most commercially valuable gravel deposits, until they were finally fired for failing to follow the prescribed dredging plan [and according to Joe Cardoza, hit several huge springs that flooded the excavators]. Upon hiring of a new contractor (Wayne Benson), the narrow, temporary channel on the west side of the pond was knocked down, the dam at Main Street was rebuilt, and the pond was raised again. This was the last time anyone would see the Queset Brook in its valley again.

From the brief glimpses of when it was drained in 1977-1978 and its shoreline topography, the Queset Brook at Langwater Pond was a deep, narrow, cliff and ledge-lined valley, with hemlock and pines rooted in massive outcrops of glacially worn bedrock that fell suddenly to a chasm of rapids, and pools and riffles far below: Trout Hole Brook. Nobody has seen this place in more than 200 years, but it is still there, stumps and all, under 30 feet of clear, still water. Based on Chaffin's description of Trout-Hole Brook as that part of Queset on the "east side" of North Easton village, the section from the dam at Shovelshop to the dam at Langwater must be what was called Trout-Hole Brook.

Today, Langwater (or "Fred's Pond") is an anomaly. It is smack in the center of North Easton Village. It floods nearly a mile of Queset and Whitman Brooks from Main Street to Elm Street and yet there is no canoe launch on the pond, and except for the conservation land on Pond Street next to Big Pout (where the shoreline is extremely steep), there is no public access to the pond. Oh well.

Shovelshop Pond

Unlike Langwater, the public has much greater access to Shovelshop Pond, primarily along Pond Street. Shovelshop was drained and dug out in 1973-1974 which removed a century or so of toxic, industrially polluted sediments, even as the Steadfast Rubber Company was pumping fresh toxic chemicals into the pond at the same time, via their concrete culvert at the corner of Oliver Street next to the entrance to David Ames' house. This illegal, toxic discharge only stopped after my cousins Todd and Peter Heino and myself put the weird vaseline-type gook coming out of the pipe into mason jars and walked the jars down Elm Street to Mary Connolly at the Easton Board of Health. We were about 11 at the time (Pete was 8). Thanks to Mary, soon after, the discharge of weird toxic goop from the cement pipe into Shovelshop Pond suddenly stopped.

Today, the multi-year dredging of Shovelshop and Langwater Ponds on Queset Brook in the mid 1970s would be totally prohibited by natural resources conservation laws. These activities were also prohibited by federal and state law in the 1970s but were allowed to "squeak through," which is shorthand for "don't tell us much about it and let's hope nobody sues you/us."

Up until about 2000, the dam at Shovelshop allowed the water of Queset Brook to flow down into its original channel, in a deep ravine next to Pond Street, until it was impounded again by the backwatering effect of the dam at Langwater beneath Main Street.

Since about 2000, the heirs/assigns of the Ames family stopped up the dam completely and increased the level of Shovelshop Pond by about three feet, causing Queset Brook to flow down an artificial channel several hundred yards to the north and along the Ames property formerly owned by David Ames. As a result, the original channel of Queset Brook along Pond Street is now virtually empty and the "new channel" created by this raising of the pond level is marked with numerous large "No Trespassing" signs. In effect, the entire free-flowing section of Queset Brook from Shovelshop to Langwater Pond has been usurped by David Ames' heirs/assigns and moved onto their posted property.

My visit to the brook on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2009 shows the Ames heirs/assigns have removed all the vegetation along the brook and place large obstructions (cut logs) in the brook channel itself. While I understand the Ames heirs/assigns might wish to have a nice, neat lawn going right to the bank of Queset Brook, it's kind of against the law.

Interestingly, my brother Tim told me about wandering around the brook below Parker's Pond around 2000-2001 and seeing trout jumping at the base of Parker's dam. That same fall, at Thanksgiving, I was walking down North Main Street across from the Ames Free Library and noticed a trout spawning nest (called a redd) in Queset Brook just below where the brook exits the tunnel beneath the street. These redds are very distinctive because the female trout use their tails to dig a depression in the stream gravel in which they deposit their eggs. They then move a few feet upstream and dig another depression and the current pushes the stones downstream to cover the eggs. Curious about our observations, Tim consulted the late Joe Cardoza who told him that during this time, the state had been putting some trout in Shovelshop in the spring, as Joe said, "for the kids to catch."

Apparently the trout Tim saw jumping at the base of Parker's dam had swum up from Shovelshop and were living in the brook, and based on my observation, had spawned in the brook that fall. Whether the spawning was successful, I am not sure, however, since trout spawn in late fall, it shows the water conditions in the brook remain good enough to support trout through the critical low-water and high temperatures of the summer months. This also shows how useful it would be if the trout could get over Parker's dam and be able to utilize the entire brook up to Flyaway and Ames Long Pond. It's all about connectivity and the lack thereof.

But what about Whitman's Brook?

Whitman's Brook rises in a series of small natural ponds near the Easton/Stoughton line and flows southeasterly to its junction with Queset Brook at Langwater Pond. The northerly half of Langwater is actually an impoundment of the southernmost terminus of Whitman's Brook. Two small ponds on the Springhill estate impound the brook. The lowest is known as the "Horseshoe Pond" because of its shape, and is very small and shallow. The second is known as the "back pond" and was created by the Ames' family for cranberry cultivation and is also quite small. A second set of very old cranberry bogs (with typical, straight-lined ditches) is found at the southern end of Totman's field just south of the Easton/Stoughton line. There is a significant spring entering the brook just above its crossing with Elm Street, which unfortunately is covered over by the road going to the Spring Hill subdivision (how they were allowed to build a road right on top of a spring is beyond me), and the spring now goes through a small culvert into the brook. The water is excellent and the spring runs all summer. Most likely, Whitman's Brook also supported some brook trout prior to being ponded.

What Is to Be Done?

Damned if I know. Okay, I'll bite. If I was King of the World, I'd breach all four dams -- Hoeshop, Parker's, Shovelshop and Langwater -- and let Queset Brook revert to its natural channel, creating an immense amount of green space and wildlife habitat in North Easton village, and restore the necessary conditions for trout to resume living in Trout Hole Brook. The logical first step would be to breach the old wooden Hoeshop dam, since it impounds very little water and is partly on conservation land owned by the Town of Easton. This would fully restore Queset from Parker's to Flyaway and Ames Long Pond, and more important, would restore connectivity from the brook above Parker's to the thermal refugia in the brook coming from Lincoln Springs. The next thing I'd do is test the water in that little brook to see if it is being affected by the chlorine used at the Town Pool. It is illegal to discharge chlorine into a waterbody in concentrations that affect aquatic life. So that needs to be checked out. And, at a minimum, I would put fish ladders at Langwater, Shovelshop and Parker's to restore connectivity. Given the springs which Joe Cardoza said they hit digging out Langwater in the 1970s, it's possible that the water in the deepest parts of the pond are cold enough and oxygenated enough to act as thermal refugia for trout during the critical summer months.

Anyways. Here's a little movie Tim and I made when we walked around Lincoln Springs and up to Flyaway and Picker Pond a few Thanksgivings ago. This is the source of cold, pure water that kept the native brook trout of Trout Hole Brook alive. The first frame shows one of the spring holes bubbling up from the bottom of the Town Pool. You can hear the guns from the Ames Rifle & Pistol Club in the background. The music is by Ali Farka Toure, from his album "Radio Mali."

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Sturgeon at Norridgewock, Maine, on the Kennebec River and Sandy Rivers.

A "scute" or skin plate of an Atlantic sturgeon, recovered from a 2,000 year old shell midden near Bristol, Maine, July 2005.

Art Spiess, senior archaeologist with the Maine Historical Preservation Commission, sends along some more details of a recent archaeological dig at the Norridgewock Mission site, dated 1695-1724. Feature 15 at the site, a straight sided, flat bottomed storage cache, contained 469 fish bones, of which 77 could be identified to species. The breakdown is 1 sturgeon, 24 American eel, 3 alewife/shad, 22 white sucker, 1 striped bass, 4 yellow perch, 1 Atlantic salmon, 21 hornpout (bullhead). The data are from a 2002 Ph.D. thesis by Ellen Cowie. [Note: the numbers refer to individual bones identified to species, not the number of individual fish.]

What is striking about this find is the wide variety of fish species present, including most of the above-tidal migratory fish species native to the Kennebec, as well as three non-migratory species, white sucker, yellow perch and hornpout. The only native migrating fish not present in the cache are sea lamprey, rainbow smelt and tomcod.

Most surprising is the presence of sturgeon, which according to conventional wisdom, did not migrate up the Kennebec past Ticonic Falls in Waterville, Maine, 30 river miles downstream from Norridgewock. The find of a sturgeon raises the "carried there or caught there" conundrum. In order for the sturgeon to have been caught 30-50 miles downriver, it would have to have been smoked hard at the capture site to keep it from spoiling and then transported back upriver for 30-50 miles and then, finally, eaten.

Locations of sturgeon remains from Kennebec River Native American habitation sites.

This raises the obvious question of why someone would go through all of this effort to catch a sturgeon at tidewater, smoke it, and then paddle 30-50 miles against the current up to Norridgewock before eating it. Why not just eat where it was caught? Why not eat it at some point during the long, hard 50 mile canoe trip back upriver?

The great variety and number of fish in the cache shows there was no shortage of fish to be caught at or nearby the Norridgewock mission site. Why make such an effort to catch, smoke and transport a single fish from 30-50 miles downriver when there was an abundance of fish to be caught on-site?

And why do we even need to question whether the sturgeon was caught at the site or not?

The reason is that conventional wisdom holds that sturgeon did not migrate up the Kennebec past Waterville, 30 miles below Norridgewock. This belief is not based on information and evidence, but on a lack of information and evidence. Up until now there are no documented records of sturgeon above Waterville. There may be some, and only diligent search can turn them up, but to date, they have not. A problem with estimating a fishes' natural range by this method is that it violates the general evidence rule of science: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, ie. you can't draw a positive conclusion from a negative finding.

In contrast with sturgeon, there are independent lines of evidence which confidently rule out such hypotheticals as swordfish or bluefish swimming up to Norridgewock, since they cannot survive in freshwater. If a swordfish bone were found at Norridgewock we could say with confidence that it had to have been carried there from saltwater. As Thoreau said, "sometimes circumstantial evidence can be quite strong, as when you find a trout in the milk." But unlike a swordfish or whale bone, there is no reason a sturgeon at Norridgewock would be like "a trout in the milk."

Five foot long Atlantic sturgeon leaping in the Kennebec River in Augusta, Maine. The entire photo sequence is here.

Looking at the documented migrational range of sturgeon in other Atlantic coast rivers, we find that the distance from Norridgewock to tidewater on the Kennebec (approx. 50 miles) is well within the migrational range that sturgeon are known to travel. A sturgeon swimming 50 miles above tidewater is not an unusual behavior or occurrence. It is quite normal.

The discrepancy between archaeological evidence and the 'conventional wisdom' of the range of sturgeon is not confined to the Kennebec River. On the Penobscot, the 'conventional wisdom' holds that sturgeon did not migrate past the ledge drops at Indian Island in Old Town. Yet there is a well-known record of burned, calcined shortnosed sturgeon bone from the Hirundo site in Alton, Maine on Pushaw Stream, a number of miles upstream from Indian Island. This aerial view shows the rapids at the Hirundo site, Pushaw Stream, Alton, Maine. Pushaw Stream drains Pushaw Lake, which historically held a very large alewife population. Shortnosed sturgeon conduct their spawning runs in early to mid-May, at the same time as alewives. A weir fishery for alewives at this site would intercept shortnosed sturgeon present.
This map shows the location of sturgeon bones found at the Hirundo site on Pushaw Stream in Alton as compared with the location of the alleged 'impassable' barrier for sturgeon at Old Town and Milford.
The risk associated with an over-reliance on 'conventional wisdoms' is shown at the State of Maine and University of Maine's official 'scientific synthesis' website for the Penobscot River. This resource cites the Hirundo archaeological site as one of three places on the Penobscot River where sturgeon bones have been found, but goes on to say in the next sentence, "Most likely, sturgeon historically ranged as far up the Penobscot as Milford, where natural falls and ledges prevented them from migrating any farther upstream." A small problem is that the Hirundo site, on Pushaw Stream, is located well above the ledge drops in Milford. The same page states the Penobscot River is the "northern limit" for Atlantic sturgeon, even though the supporting scientific link for this statement correctly states that Atlantic sturgeon live as far north as the Gulf of St. Lawrence and southern Labrador. This resource is further contradicted by an 1825 eyewitness description of 20-40 pound striped bass in the middle and lower Piscataquis River, 30 miles above Milford. These basic errors of fact show why sources relying on a 'conventional wisdom' approach require careful scrutiny.

Steve Fernandes with a medium sized shortnosed sturgeon from the Penobscot River.

Junction of Kennebec and Sandy Rivers near Norridgewock Mission Settlement, Norridgewock, Maine. The Sandy enters from the opposite side.

On the Kennebec, in contrast to the Penobscot, the archaeological record prior to 2000 agrees with the "best conservative guess" of an upstream limit of sturgeon somewhere near Ticonic Falls in Waterville. Prior to the Norridgewock find, the farthest upstream prehistoric records of sturgeon were at the junction of the Kennebec and Sebasticook Rivers in Winslow and one mile up the Sebasticook at the outlet of China Lake Stream. With the Norridgewock find, the migration limit of sturgeon shifts upstream by at least 30 miles to the falls on the Kennebec at Madison and the Sandy River up to Farmington Falls. While this more than doubles the natural range of sturgeon in the Kennebec River, this revised range is well within the normal migrational range of the species documented in other U.S. and Canadian rivers.

Additional supporting evidence is provided by the recent capture of adult shortnosed sturgeon at the very top of Ticonic Falls by the dam owner, FPL Energy, during spring flashboard replacement. Due to the configuration of the low dam spillway at the top of the ledges at Ticonic Falls, it is apparent that if the concrete dam spillway were not present at the site, the shortnosed sturgeon captured by FPL at the toe of the spillway would have been able to continue swimming upstream.

Unlike statements in old historical records, the remains of sturgeon bones in an archaeological site are direct, physical evidence of presence. Their existence at a site must have an explanation. In this instance, there are only two possible. The sturgeon either swam to Norridgewock or was caught 30-50 miles downriver, smoked to prevent spoiling, and then carried to Norridgewock and eaten. Occam's Razor favors the former, as it requires far less special pleading than the latter.

If and when funding becomes available to conduct additional archaeological surveys of prehistoric habitation sites along the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers, faunal remains found at these sites should provide us with additional illumination on the natural range of all of the migratory fish native to these rivers.

Are sturgeon weak swimmers? You decide: