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A Letter From Home

A leisurely adventure downeast centers around tiny, bony, deep-fried fish

Straying from the Kansas Road, one finds this sturdy and beautiful wharf at Milbridge. Photographs by Karen O. Zimmermann (4)
Dorothy followed the yellow brick road and landed in the Land of Oz. We travelled on the Kansas Road and ate smelts. Still, like Dorothy, we found another world. This was the tenth year my husband and I travelled to the smelt fry in Columbia Falls, a fund-raiser for Downeast Salmon Federation. This year in addition to smelts, I was determined to bike along Kansas Road, a five-mile stretch from Cherryfield to Milbridge along the Narraguagus River. We arrived at The Englishman’s B and B, a classic federal-style bed and breakfast on the banks of the Narraguagus, and put our jobs and responsibilities out of mind. After checking out the eagles and ospreys, we sipped glasses of chilled wine and listened to the constant churning of the river. Life slowed. We mellowed, and then we headed off to Columbia Falls. There we sat elbow to elbow at long tables under a canvas tent and munched smelts with hundreds of other smelt lovers. It is one of the most laid-back events I have ever attended. You ask a neighbor for a napkin, and end up exchanging stories. Many smelt eaters are also fishermen. We shared, “How many smelts did you get?” stories with the folks at our left, who, like us, go smelt dipping each spring. Even before I learned to like eating these bony little fish, I loved to catch them in local tidal rivers.
Downeast Salmon Federation chefs have perfected the batter recipe andcooking technique for perfect fried smelts.
Wearing hip waders and balancing on a rock in the middle of the night with the tide turning and the waters racing is hypnotizing. We catch the fish in rigid mesh baskets at the end of long poles. I know one or more smelt have swum into the basket when I feel a vibration up the pole and hear a quick tap-tap-tap. We scoop them out, keeping just the males, which have a scaly surface, and setting the females free to propagate. The Pleasant River, where many of these smelt were caught, sparkled beyond the tents as we discussed photography with a man from Bar Harbor, and Columbia Falls history with a couple—the husband has roots here, the wife is eagerly learning about it. In between, everyone ate smelts. In the early days I did not particularly care for these boney deep-fried fish, and would eat maybe just one or two. Now I eagerly finish off my little cardboard basket of light, barely batter-coated, flash-fried delicacies. By the time we leave the dinner, we always are full of smelts, as well as fellowship. We returned to our riverside haven to watch the sun go down and listen to deafening peepers. We could easily drive home to Otter Creek where we live. We stay because being part of such a different world is relaxing. At dawn we hiked along the river’s edge and did sunrise salutations on an old railroad bridge with the water roaring beneath and the scent of red fox nearby. After breakfast we headed off for the Kansas Road. Biking Kansas in Maine is such a foolish idea I was determined to love this route no
The Kansas Road starts—or ends—in Cherryfield, by the Knapp Saks building. Once home to a toy and gift store, the building is now vacant.
matter what. We passed scarecrows, a few cowardly kitties, cows, and alpacas, and were chased by a dog. Passing drivers gave us a wide berth and always a wave. Once in Milbridge we took side roads to a lobster co-op and working wharves. We biked, tires bouncing, out on a long wooden pier. I found a discarded bait bag and was inspired to turn it into art. My husband, whose bike it would have been tied to, vetoed the idea. We passed by some chaga growing on a tree. At home we grind up this woody black fungus for tea. We stopped to ask the homeowner for permission to harvest it. A stunning brunette with two soon-to-be-stunning adolescent girls, she was interested in the chaga, but happy to let us have it. The girls were tossing potatoes in the air and at each other. “What’s with the potatoes?” I asked. The woman smiled, and flipped one over her shoulder to her daughters. “I’m teaching them to juggle,” she answered. That’s the Kansas Road.
We sat elbow to elbow at long tables under a canvas tent and munched smelts with hundreds of other smelt lovers.
The road’s surface was rough. As we passed a man watering flowers on his deck, we smiled and waved. Then an asphalt lump in the road bounced me off my bike seat. He laughed and shouted, “Watch out for the bump.” Regaining my balance, I rounded a corner and left him behind. Twenty-plus miles later we looped back to our inn. It’s true there’s no place like home. There’s also no place like the Kansas Road. Karen O. Zimmermann is a graphic artist and owner of Z Studio Design in Bar Harbor. She writes a blog which can be found at www.fromthecreek.com. This year’s Downeast Salmon Federation Smelt Fry will take place April 18 at the Columbia Falls Fire Department grounds from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. FMI: www.mainesalmonrivers.org The Englishman’s Bed and Breakfast 122 Main St., Cherryfield, ME 04622 207-546-2337; englishmansbandb.com