The mid-January news from Coddington is that the smelts are running in the Chiboctous. That’s the river that flows by our land in something of an east-west direction. But not always. Half the time the river passes by in the opposite direction, west to east, because the Chiboctous is an estuary whose salty waters change direction with the rise and fall of the tides. In fact, if you navigate the fourteen miles of this serpentine river from its mouth to its source, you’ll have sailed by every point of the compass.
“Serpentine” is certainly the word for the Chiboctous, not only when you look at the chart but also when you look at its history. The record shows that in 1782 the Rev. Abraham Cunningham reported that English sailors sighted a three hundred foot serpent in the Chiboctous. History is silent as to what was in the ship’s grog or how freely it was flowing the day the monster was sighted. To date, I have yet to spot the serpent myself, and, this being my first winter living by the Chiboctous, I haven’t seen the smelt running either. I do know that the smelt, at least, are for real, because I’ve seen the ice houses out on the river’s upper reaches and observed the silver beauties close up at the Bagduce market. John, the markets’s owner, has them on offer in his old-fashioned refrigerated display case, fresh from the river, at $1.99 a pound. I plan to pick some up later this morning and serve them for lunch. My fisherman neighbor told me how to clean and sauté the sweet things. I won’t buy very much, however; my life’s companion in most things wants nothing of this particular experiment.
Living by this remarkable estuary, whose Indian name means ‘a river having many large coves or bays,’ has taken us by surprise. When we were looking for somewhere to settle, we’d hoped it would be near water, thinking we’d enjoy a nautical view. Living on the Chiboctous, however, overlooking the Douglas Narrows, is like living beside the pull of the moon. There’s no need for a tide chart here. One glance out the window and you know just where you are in the inexorable cycle of the seas. Twice a day the scene changes in phases running from rushing rapids to majestic flood. The narrows create the effect of a reversing falls and the range between low and high tide can be as much as fourteen feet. Guide books warn paddlers that this part of the river has its dangers; for me, growing familiarity with the river has bred great love for its pleasures and real respect for its hazards.
The ever-changing Chiboctous reminds me that Heraclitus was right: nothing is permanent, to live is to change, all things contain their opposite, life and death are linked in a circle dance through time. I do catch myself looking out at the emptying river and feeling regret for what is past and lost. But this symbol of death we live beside is also a sacrament of renewal. It’s a backyard metaphor not only for letting go and giving over but also for taking back and making discoveries. One tale of loss and discovery linked to the Chiboctous played out over the course of one hundred fifty years.
The story was published in the annals of the Maine Historical Society in the form of a monograph written in 1859 by Society member Joseph Williamson. It seems that in 1665 the French baron Vincent de St. Castin, an officer in the guard of the Sun King, emigrated to Quebec and from there settled along the Chiboctous at the place that now bears his name, the town of Castine. The nobleman turned fur trader lived on the river for thirty-six years, not without trials in the form of attempted hostile takeovers by the English. In response to one raid, Williamson tells us, as the enemy approached, “Castin placed his most valuable articles in canoes and retreated with them up the river to the Douglas Narrows.” From there, he took an ancient path that once ran across our land. The Indians developed the route to avoid the narrows as they made their way east and north.
An afternoon here on Johnson Point in late November, 1840 is the setting for the story’s next chapter. On that day, Captain Stephen Grindle, who farmed this land was hauling wood down the bank to the river. Near a half-buried rock he discovered an old French coin. As he and his son, Robert dug further, they uncovered hundreds of ancient pieces, all dating from before 1689, minted in Belgium, Spain, Portugal and the earliest days of Massachusetts. Grindle’s wife Hannah spread wide her apron for the booty that afternoon, later calling it “the best lapful I ever carried.”
What she carried in her lap, historians believe, was part of a fortune that the Baron de Castin buried in haste on the banks of the Chiboctous before making his last escape across Johnson Point. Stephen, Hanna and Robert Grindle now lie in a tiny cemetery abutting our property close by the spot on the riverbank where they found their treasure. But loss follows gain, as the Chiboctous teaches, and the stark tombstones in the beautiful glade tell us that Stephen and Hannah lost their son Robert to the sea just two years after their great discovery. The captain died four years later, and his wife six years after that.
I’ve thought about having my ashes interred under a stone bench set just outside the cemetery since Maine allows only those who can prove a blood relationship with the current occupants to be buried in these old family plots. I think it would be comforting for folks to sit beside the gravestones and watch the river flowing back and forth on the tides. My wife takes a position on such final arrangements similar to the one she took on my smelts for lunch proposal — she’s not so sure.
We’re blessed to live in a storied place where sea serpents once were sighted and the remnants of a baron’s boon might yet be discovered. My neighbor suggests I keep an eye out for half-buried coins. But I feel there’s treasure enough right here in plain sight. It’s there in the river reminding me that life always has its cycles, and that what matters most is not where we’ve been but what we’re becoming. I think I’ll pour a glass of wine to toast the ebb and flow of things when I sit down to eat those smelts.
Edward R. Dufresne © 2012