Ever since Kaci Hickox and her boyfriend were the subject of a national media stakeout in 2014, I’ve wondered why anyone from Texas would move to Fort Kent in the first place. It’s isolated and cold. More than half of its citizens are French-speaking and proudly Acadian.
The answer is that the St. John River Valley is strikingly beautiful. Mixed hardwoods and pines break up the potato fields and the land slopes gently down to the river. It reminded me powerfully of the St. Lawrence River valley in Quebec—no surprise, since the two are only about 100 km distant. It isn’t really that isolated as long as one has a passport. It’s just three hours from Quebec City, which is one of the wonders of North America.
As US 1 runs along the border, it is dotted with little towns, each proudly proclaiming its heritage in the form of the Acadian flag and gold stars on the houses. There is a corresponding road on the Canadian side, and its towns mirror the American ones. Every town has a large Catholic Church, in excellent condition, steeples gleaming unapologetically in the sunlight. We southerners seem hopelessly apologetic about our faith and culture these days. Perhaps we could learn a lesson from our Acadian brethren about respecting our heritage.
Alas, every adventure must end. Soon enough we were in Houlton again. We were aiming for Columbia Falls for the Downeast Salmon Federation’s annual smelt fry. We were the last people served but we made it. The smelt was excellent.
I was a little confused on one point: smelting is big sport in the Great Lakes region where I hail from. Could this fish be the same creature? Apparently so.
In the Great Lakes, smelting is a sure sign of spring. When the water hits 40° F, smelters are out with their dip nets. Evidently, this is true on the Maine coast as well, when these small fish start their run up tidal estuaries. This is because, like salmon, most smelts are anadromous, living most of their lives in the sea, but traveling into fresh water to breed. Like salmon, they don’t need saltwater, so there are landlocked populations.
Smelts are beheaded and fried whole without cleaning. Great Lakes smelts are pretty small and eaten bones and all. These were big smelts so we pulled their spinal columns out before crunching. Now don’t get all squeamish on me—they’re mighty fine eating.
As I was eating, I perked up on hearing the unmistakable round vowels of the Hudson Valley somewhere to my left. I had to go say hello to the pleasant woman enjoying her dessert. “Dutchess, Columbia, Rensselaer…” I guessed. But no; hers were the pure tones of Queens. Her husband was a rabbi and they’d come to Auburn, Maine for a congregation. She had driven to Columbia Falls for the smelts just as we had.