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In the '80s

by Robert Spencer

It is the Ides of March and our weather has turned decidedly warmer than normal. Keoka ice is thinning and water stands along the shoreline at Brown’s Cove, open in places one hundred feet or more from shore. We are returning from dinner at BarJo eatery in Norway, one of the only area restaurants serving more than a sandwich at this time of year. As the sun sets in the west over Rice Hill a rosy pink and radiant gray sky, like a Maxfield Parrish painting, spreads across the lake. With temperature all day in the upper 50’s, a mist has risen above the water making it difficult to make out the curves of Waterford Road leading us safely home. In the thickening haze a pale-yellow glow fills the cove.

As we slowly wend our way along the road the fog thins just enough for the headlights to illuminate cars and trucks parked on both sides, narrowing the width of the pavement to a very narrow single lane. People are walking in the road. Some carry buckets, others carry fishing nets and flashlights. Many are wearing hip boots and waders. One man has a camera, its flashes brightening the scene before us.

We stop, park in the line of vehicles and join the crowd on the sandy shore where patches of ice linger in shady patches. As strangers here, we have no idea what is happening. Out in the water men and women are standing waist or knee-deep in water, shining lanterns above the surface. Their lights create yellow circles showing ripples in the water as they move. I am not understanding what I’m seeing, so I approach a young woman who holds a wooden bucket.

“What is going on?”, I ask.

She says nothing, only tips her bucket toward me and points into it. Dozens of small fish flip around on top of each other, splashing water into the air.

“It’s the smelts”, she says. “They’re running.”

I reach into her bucket and pull out a silver and gold smelt, but it slips quickly from my fingers back into Keoka.

“No problem”, she says.

“There are thousands of them. My Dad will catch enough tonight to fill the freezer.”

I close my eyes and visualize this scene happening, not in the 1980’s, but 1880’s or 1680’s. Instead of people wearing rubber pants, the Abenaki fishers wear leather leggings or perhaps they are naked. Instead of battery powered lanterns over the water to attract the smelts, their lights are flaming torches.

The cove on our Keoka’s western shore is the same in every instance.

Note: Sadly, smelting no longer occurs on Keoka Lake. The smelt population has been decimated since the introduction of Largemouth Bass and White Perch beginning in the late 1980’s.


The world view from a position overlooking the dam at Watson’s Falls is unique. Keoka water, on its way to Bear Pond, drops the same eight feet as it has since 1795 in our “lower village” South Waterford or Waterford City. As local writer Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote. “The whirling bubble on the surface of a brook admits us to the secret of the mechanics of the sky.”

Over the Dam” by Robert Spencer will be a regular contributor to the KLA Newsletter.

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