As we cast off from the dock in downtown Damariscotta, water pours out of Great Salt Bay, through the nearby reversing falls, and toward the Gulf of Maine, 12 miles away.
Smokey McKeen is at the helm of a 24-foot Carolina Skiff to take videographer Bob Krist and I down the Damariscotta River to see the Pemaquid Oyster Company’s harvesting operation in action. The boat is covered in a thin sheet of invisible ice, and to keep our rear ends from freezing on the fiberglass, we sit on our lifejackets. The air is 24 degrees Fahrenheit, but it’s the wind that’s daunting. It’s blowing hard out of the north and the windchill on the open boat is biting.
Bob asks how long it will take to get to our destination. Smokey tells us the oyster dragger is only a mile away, but he doesn’t want to open up the throttles on the open skiff lest it makes things even more frigid.
Smokey is no stranger to these arctic conditions. “When we started oystering, I used to lay on the bow of our little boat and smash through the ice to get to the oysters,” he says as he chuckles at the memory.
He started oystering on the Damariscotta in 1986 with Carter Newell and Chris Davis. The three men had become friends in the 1970s at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where Chris and Carter studied biology and Smokey studied philosophy and folklore. It was one of Carter’s University of Maine graduate school professors, Herb Hidu, who planted the seed for their oyster business. In 1970, Hidu had been hired at the university’s Darling Marine Center on the Damariscotta River to get the aquaculture industry off the ground after decades of failed efforts to restore the oyster population.
In the 1950s, scientists had introduced Belon oysters from France to the Damariscotta River. The native Crassostrea virginica oysters had already been destroyed by pollution and overfishing. But the European flat oysters were a different species—Ostrea edulis—and unlike the sweeter, brinier American Eastern oyster they had a very metallic flavor. “They kinda taste like you’re sucking on the coins in your pocket,” Smokey says of the Belons. “Very minerally.”
It was Hidu who told Carter and Bill Mook, one of his other graduate students, “you guys should grow American oysters.” Carter grew a small crop in 1985, and in 1986 he recruited Chris and Smokey to form the Pemaquid Oyster Company.
“We’d go on the river and try to figure out how to start an oyster farm,” Smokey says. “We had to kind of make it up. We killed a lot of oysters and we lost a bunch of equipment. Chris still has all kinds of stuff in his barn. We call it the museum of failed aquaculture technology.”
Because the waters they leased from the State of Maine had never been dragged, the bottom was littered with big rocks. “I would hang over the rail and wrestle these huge rocks out of the drag, McKeen says. “We pulled up all kinds of stuff—tires, old shoes, a gravestone, plastic squirt guns, even a battery-operated sex toy.”
Their first boat belonged to one of their original partners, Dave Barry, who had a 34-foot sharpie replica that had been built by Michael Porter on Chebeague Island in Casco Bay. “It was an oyster boat,” McKeen says, “but it wasn’t the boat we needed.”
They used various boats, including flat-bottomed skiffs, Boston Whalers and Carolina Skiffs. Carter bought a 20-foot strip-planked Jonesporter, but the boat wasn’t heavily planked so when Great Salt Bay sent huge sheets of ice into the Damariscotta it made oystering a bit precarious. “We dragged off the pothauler and the cable would break through the ice,” Smokey remembers.
They knew they needed a bigger boat, so in 1993 they commissioned a new 25-foot fiberglass hull from T. Jason Boats in Steuben, Maine. They pulled a used 120-hp Perkins diesel out of a sailboat in a Belfast boatyard and rigged the boat themselves.
To make dragging safer and more efficient, Chris, who’d worked for a boat designer, drew an A-frame for the stern of the 25-footer, which they named Oyster Girl.
Having a real drag was a big improvement, but draggers have been known to get their sterns pulled under when the drag snags on the bottom, or capsize when they drag from the side. To make it safer, they rigged a nylon line to the steel drag cable to act as a shock absorber in case their drag got hung up. Attached to the cable with a pulley, the nylon line stretches when the drag snags on the bottom, slowing the stern’s descent toward the water and giving them a chance to reduce power. “We’re in protected water,” Smokey says, “but you can’t swim to shore in this kind of weather.”
With a 10-foot beam, Oyster Girl had good deck space and only drew 2.5 feet. She served them well for 25 years. “That was a real good boat,” Smokey says, but they needed more capacity.
That’s when they got the 1998 32-foot Mitchell Cove, which they named Oyster Girl II. The fiberglass hull designed by Calvin Beal, Jr. had been built in Bernard, Maine, and was finished by Jimmy Jones in Boothbay Harbor in 2000. With a 2011 260-hp Cummins 6BTA5.9 diesel, the boat could pull a slightly larger drag and carry almost twice as many oysters as Oyster Girl.
As Smokey, Bob and I make our way down the Damariscotta on the Carolina Skiff, Oyster Girl II comes into view. We watch as she makes a run across the beds with her windshield still half-covered in snow. Smokey brings us alongside, and Carter, who now does all the harvesting, introduces his daughter Maise and Jonah Cameron, who are working the stern. Bob and I carefully transfer over to the harvesting boat so we can record the onboard action.
Carter puts the boat in gear, lowers the chain sweep drag and slowly makes a run. With a 4-foot draft, the 32-footer is still small enough to maneuver between the stone ledges and across the oyster beds 20 feet below.
Maise and Jonah, facing aft at the stainless-steel culling table, sort the catch from the previous run, dropping oysters into the orange baskets at their feet and leaving the rocks, seaweed, green crabs and oyster shells on the table. The oysters are sorted by size—growbacks, cocktails, selects and jumbos.
There is no heat on the open stern. Dressed in heavy Carhartt and Grundéns gear, Maise and Jonah only have their faces exposed. They work quickly, their gloved hands flying back and forth between the table and the baskets on the cockpit floor.
At the end of the run, Carter brings the drag up while Maise and Jonah lift one end of the hinged culling table to send the leftover debris back into the water. They open the bottom of the drag, release the next load of oysters onto the table, close it up, return the drag to the water, and start all over.
Bob and I work feverishly to record it all. To operate the controls on our cameras, we’ve had to remove our thick gloves and we quickly start losing the feeling in our hands. One of my cameras freezes up. Then one of Bob’s cameras freezes up. Bob’s been a photographer in 159 countries, including Antarctica and Iceland. “I’ve never had a camera freeze up on me,” he says.
After about four runs Carter asks if we have enough footage and photos. In 4 to 5 hours, the Oyster Girl II crew can collect about 6,000 to 8,000 oysters, and they’re about to call it a day.
Bob and I joke to each other that we think the nerve endings in our fingers may soon die and with Bob’s eyeglasses literally icing up, we thank Carter and his crew for their hospitality and rejoin Smokey on the skiff.
With the wind at our backs and our gloves back on our hands, Smokey motors us downriver to show us the floating nursery cages where they grow the oysters from seed. Once the seedlings reach a certain size, they get spread on the river bottom so they can be harvested in a couple of years.
Although their harvesting techniques had to be developed, their aquaculture work was always steeped in science. After acquiring a Masters in Oceanography at UMaine, Carter added a Ph.D. in Marine Biology from the University of New Brunswick St. John. And Chris, besides his biology and geology degrees from Colby, earned a Ph.D. in aquaculture from the University of Maine. Chris, who is still a partner in the oyster company, is now executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center and an adjunct professor at the Darling Marine Center.
Smokey tells us there are now 10 commercial oyster farms on the Damariscotta. In 2020, their company alone planted 1.8 million seedlings and sent 750,000 oysters to market from 20 acres of leases.
Some people worry about the dragging, Smokey tells us, but he points out that oyster farming brings environmental benefits. Oysters help clean the water, and the beds attract crabs and small fish, which attract larger fish, like stripers. And on the Damariscotta it’s brought something else, wild oysters. About 20 years ago, wild set was found on the river, spawned by the farmed oysters.
When we return to the dock at the reversing falls, the rushing water and standing waves make it difficult to land the Carolina Skiff. After tying off the boat and saying goodbye to Smokey, Bob and I walk back to our cars and laugh about how ludicrously cold it was on the water.
“I’ve never been colder than on this river,” Bob tells me, and on Facebook he later tells his friends about the trip, saying: “In that perverse and masochistic kind of a way, it was fun, and it just reinforced my ever-growing respect for Mainers.”
Mitchell Cove 32 Specifications:
Weight: 26,000 lbs.
Power: (1) 260-hp Cummins diesel
This article was originally published in the March 2021 issue.