Smelt Makes the Ice


Smelt was hungry, and restless. It was the dead of winter and the days were just starting to get a little longer. Smelt had been lying low off the mouth of the Kennebec all through the warm seasons, while voracious visitors from up-along hunted the rivers and Bay. Shag and Striper, Osprey and Bluefish had cut a swath through the finny tribes, but now they were long gone, chasing the Sun.

Smelt rose up from the deeps and sniffed the Sagadahoc tide. MMM. The mud-brown ebb spilling into Ocean’s crystal brine was rank with a promise of plenty. Smelt followed his nose into the current flowing from the rivers, his whole body quivering with anticipation. But even the low winter sun hurt Smelt’s eyes where it dazzled in the shallow waters. It had been a long time since Smelt had seen the shimmering sparkle of sunlight at the water’s surface, or the swift play of shadows from windblown clouds. He’d long been lulled by the slow swinging music of the Summer deeps, and the dizzying brightness of the cold running rivers startled him. Made him anxious. Smelt hesitated where the salt and fresh waters meet.

The smell of tender morsels pouring out of Merrymeeting Bay was almost overwhelming. Smelt wriggled in the ebbing tide, fanning his fins, dreaming of the storied goodness around the Bay where six rivers meet. It was told how the precious essence of New Life was scattered piecemeal on bottom, in the higher reaches of the Bay. Smelt yearned to find these promised treasures. Still the waters lay open to the sky, and the Sun glared into the waters.

Then, as Smelt flicked his tail and rattled his scales in the current, he started to hum to himself. Just an idle murmur at first, to match the rhythmic beating of his tail, the pulsing of his gills. Then, as the tune took hold, Smelt began to chant aloud. Calling for the surface waters above him to thicken and block the Sun. Smelt sang on.

At first Smelt’s song went unheard. The heedless rivers ran to the sea and the cruel Sun stared down. But little by little the waters changed their tune, to swing with this new beat. The thin hissing of skim ice making and breaking joined Smelt’s incantation. His chant melded into the crackle and clatter of pan ice rattling to the beat. Smelt sang on.

Each night Smelt would venture farther into the shallow waters, singing his song, only to be frightened back by the dawning brightness. The waters would skim over to the music, only to be rent apart by the forces of Day. Smelt sang on.

Wind and current churned the making ice, and sunshine ate away at the congealing waters. But each day the ice thickened. As the tide flooded and ebbed along the channels, plates of ice broke and heaved together at the edge of the shallows. Pressure ridges of glittering ice lined the channels. Bright daylight shined through the up-thrust panes of ice. Smelt sang on.

Then, on a moonless night, when the Sky was still and the tide in flood, Smelt’s incantation reached up into the last trickle of the least guzzle of the whole watershed, and all the waters knit. Smelt had sung, and the Black Ice had come.

In the morning, thick dark ice covered all the rivers and the Bay, shutting out the Sun. The great sheets of ice humped and buckled and fissured, but Smelt had sung, and the ice had made good. Under the Black Ice the river boomed a beat in time to Smelt’s song. The bright Sky couldn’t disturb the waters.

Now Smelt rode the rising tide under the ice, over the river flats and up into the tiny creeks and drains, where the tastiest treats were waiting. Day and night he roamed the Merrymeeting waters and found the tales of a Smelt Paradise were true.


Sometimes Smelt would hear the scraping of skates on the dark ice above, or catch a quick glimpse of Eagle keeping his winter vigil over an open race hole. Sometimes on a big tide he would hear the faint echo of Owl hooting at the Moon. But Smelt was safe under the Black Ice, and he hummed his song. Now all the waters were vibrating with the tune.

All through the deepest winter Smelt gorged himself in anticipation of the Spawning Time to come. In the darkness under the ice Smelt was gathering up the treasure of New Life. The scattered promises of Spring.
Which is why you can hear the boom of Smelt’s song under the Black Ice. And why you must seek the New Life in the frozen darkness.