Matthew Dickerson

* Excerpts of work from Acadia published in a book, The Voices of Rivers (Homebound Publications, 2019)

Of Alewives and Salters (and a Heron named Honey)

Mid-May had come to the Maine seacoast. Forests were alive with color rivaling their more famous autumn foliage. Mixed with the varying evergreen shades of pine, spruce, hemlock, and cedar, the first newborn leaves of aspen and birch glowed more yellow than green, while maples still burned deep red with buds waiting to burst. A few scattered hardwoods had tiny blossoms as white as the wave tips on a windy Echo Lake.

Nearing the end of the first week of my three-week stay as artist-in-residence at Acadia National Park, I walked down to a grassy shoreline looking for a good place to launch a canoe for a paddle up a tidal marsh river with my wife. No houses stood in sight. The park’s landscapes had largely escaped further development since its founding over a century earlier. Forests crowded the shoreline in all directions, and rose—dark green with splotches of the soft vivid yellow-green I knew would fade in a week or two—up the steep slopes of the ridge of peaks a few miles past the far side of the marsh.

Several Canada geese, black and white and tan, paused from searching for delicacies in the bright green grass close to the water, and eyed me cautiously as I approached. A little farther away, I spotted the neck and head of a great blue heron as it waded through taller grass. Its beak might have blended with the sandy brown tops of the grasses, but its long white face and light neck contrasted with the darker red-brown background of the brush behind it which had not yet leafed out.

Over the previous week I had also seen osprey, bald eagles, kingfishers, loons, gulls, and numerous ducks hunting or swimming in the various waters of the park. Yet it was the sight of the heron by the side of an undeveloped Maine river that cycled my thoughts back to how my current journey had really begun some forty-six years earlier. The story now unfolding in my visit to Acadia tied back to so many other stories I had been hearing, learning about, and telling in the writing of this book. On this particular river, my thoughts returned—not for the last time—to May of 1972, and that earlier trip to Maine when I also saw heron, osprey, geese, and unfamiliar ducks, and where I first listened to the strange call of an American bittern and the mournful song of a loon. (See “The Sound of a Bittern: Birds, Trout, and Protected Waters”.) Although I’d never been to Acadia National Park before, when it came to my love of rivers and water, and the inspiration of places wild or almost wild, coming to Mount Desert Island felt like a homecoming.

A Wasabi Subaru and a Lightweight Canoe

Designers or marketers at Subaru invented some glamorous color-name for the shade of green of our Outback wagon, but my wife and I forgot it soon after we drove out of the dealer lot. “It’s more the color of wasabi mustard,” Deborah said. And the name Wasabi stuck. Two years later, for our thirtieth anniversary gift to each other, we bought a new ultra-light kevlar canoe we’d been dreaming about for a few years: a fifteen-foot long heron touring canoe made by the Wenonah Canoe company in Winona, Minnesota. At a mere thirty-eight pounds, it had only half the weight of the ABS plastic canoe we’d been paddling around Vermont the previous quarter of a century. I think the name heron subconsciously attracted me to the model as much as did its design, which fit our paddling style. But we don’t often refer to the canoe as “the heron”. As she had done with Wasabi, Deborah also named the new canoe before it even left the dealer. As we effortlessly lifted it onto the roof of Wasabi—wondered why we had waited so long to buy a lightweight canoe—the afternoon sunlight shone through the translucent golden kevlar weave. Deborah commented that it looked like honey in comb, and from that day one we would be paddling a heron named Honey.

We picked the canoe up at canoe dealer in New Hampshire on our drive from Vermont to Maine. It took its maiden voyage on a quite brackish creek on the northeast side of Mount Desert Island, within sight of Acadia National Park’s iconic Cadillac mountain—not quite inside the park boundaries, but on a watershed draining its northernmost pond.

Honey looked good sitting on top of Wasabi as we wandered the roads of Acadia over the next three weeks. It looked even better paddling the park’s various lakes, ponds, and tidal rivers. It was the morning of our fifth day when we parked at a dirt pull-off near Bass Harbor Marsh and I walked down to the water and spotted the great blue heron, our canoe’s official namesake and the wading icon of marshes, beaver ponds, and quiet rivers. Though this particular river was a tidal marsh—an estuary fed by several small freshwater streams—the shoreline and surrounding forests looked similar to a few stretches of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway where forty-six years earlier a canoeing, fishing, and camping adventure with my father had sparked my imagination. The scene lacked only osprey, brook trout, and the mysterious call of a bittern, and before long two of those three would make an appearance.

Anadromous Salters and the Streams of Acadia

But now my story is jumping all over the place. Memories have a way of jumbling a narrative. What brought me to this particular water known as Bass Harbor Marsh as part of my artist residency? As a narrative non-fiction writer with an interest in nature, outdoor, and environmental writing, part of my goal was simply to experience the park’s many unique and diverse aquatic habitats: to be observant, attentive and curious, to watch and listen, and also to find delight. However, I did have a few topics I came particularly interested in exploring, all of which were related in one way or another to streams and lakes and the cold-water ecosystems they support.

One topic I hoped to write about was the presence of salters on Mount Desert Island. “Salter” is the colloquial name for an anadromous strain of brook trout that move back and forth between salt and fresh water. In comparison with other species of salmonids with greater commercial value, salters have only recently become the object of much scientific study and of conservation efforts. Much is still unknown about them. What is known, and also lamented by many, is that salters (along with other anadromous fish) have disappeared from many of the native waters they once inhabited before European settlers began to clear forests and build homes—and dams, and roads with bridges and culverts—up and down the North Atlantic Coast.

Man with a goatee beard and wearing a striped shirt
Matthew Dickerson

Matthew Dickerson is a narrative non-fiction nature and environmental writer (as well as a novelist) with a special interest in river ecology including the interactions of river and lake, stream and woods, freshwater and salterwater. His works have appeared in a variety of books, journals, magazines, and newspapers. Writings and photographs from his May 2018 residency at Acadia National Park can be found in his book The Voices of Rivers (Homebound Publications, 2019). He lives in Vermont and works a professor at Middlebury College, and paddles his Wenonah Heron canoe around local lakes, rivers, and ponds as often as possible.


Last updated: January 7, 2020

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