DAMARISCOTTA, Maine -- The Abnaki called it ''place of many small fishes" after the schools of spawning alewives that choked the river in the spring. The alewives still run in May, but today's visitors to this old fishing village might rename it ''place of many small pleasures" -- among them a quintessential coastal Maine landscape, art, music, good food, and tantalizing traces of the area's past.
Damariscotta sits at the head of a salty tidal river by the same name on the inland end of the Pemaquid Peninsula, about 18 miles northeast of Bath. The brackish water pumping in and out of the river has nourished abundant communities of fish and shellfish, which in turn attract all manner of critters, from ospreys to otters to humans. This fecund natural setting is the main attraction, and the town allows its surroundings to shine. In fact, except for the shipbuilding that once kept the economy humming on this part of the coast, the village proper looks much the same as this 1886 history described it:
''The town is thrifty, and the houses in the village and the country are alike in excellent repair. . . . The [Damariscotta] river forms a good harbor; and its shores near the village usually present [a] busy and cheerful aspect, from the shipbuilding that is almost constantly going on in the warmer season. Drives up and down the river and across the country in either direction afford some very pleasing views."
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Views proved very pleasing indeed from the Oak Gables Bed and Breakfast, an early-19th-century house on 11 riverfront acres. The property also includes a carriage house, a cottage, and a boathouse with a deck for moon viewing or sunrise coffee. Martha Scudder, the affable owner, seemed happy to suggest things to do and see, including the summer concert series at the Round Top Center for the Arts in Damariscotta and Edgecomb Potters crafts gallery in the neighboring town of Edgecomb. She also offered to lend her copy of a local trail guidebook and mentioned the local sea-kayaking outfitter, Sea Spirit Adventures, which offers kayaking tours, rentals, and instruction from a downtown shop. The area, with its many inlets and coves, is a kayaker's paradise, although its challenging currents demand experience and/or a guide and instruction.
In Damariscotta village, the chief shopping and dining spots line four or five short blocks on Main Street. Bargain bins invite shoppers to pick through clothing in front of Renys, a discount store. Narragansett Leathers sells sandals, bags, hats, and belts of sophisticated workmanship. On a tiny side street, Marlowe's Chocolates displays Asher's fine chocolates in glass cases, like jewels. The Maine Coast Book Shop and Café is a rainy-day dream, complete with espresso drinks and a Wi-Fi hot spot. A few doors down, Gallery 170, one of several art galleries on Main Street, occupies the elegantly restored 1803 library. An artfully decorated shop called Brambles makes for good browsing, with unusual garden ornaments, folk art, birdhouses, and potted herbs. Owner Lisa duHamel attributed a slow Friday afternoon to people out watching for the annual alewife migration, which, according to local rumor, was due to start any day.
Thrilled at the chance to witness this rite of spring, in which thousands of herring-size fish fight their way upstream to spawn and die in Damariscotta Lake, we followed duHamel's directions to the fishway -- a string of man-made pools ascending a steep stream. Some form of the fishway has been operating since 1807. Alas, the temperature hovered in the 50s, and the alewives opted to wait for a warmer day. But it was fun to examine the fish-moving contraption, a great steel bucket that scoops up loads of alewives and hoists them over a dam at the base of the fishway.
The thought of fish stirred our appetites, and we set out on Route 130 from the center of Damariscotta, chasing a tip about a new lunch spot 8 miles down the peninsula in New Harbor. The Cupboard Cafe, a log cabin on Huddle Road, delivered with thick grilled sandwiches on homemade bread and a brilliant shrimp stew. Fortified, we drove 10 miles to the Pemaquid Point Light, a squat stone tower erected in 1835. Next door, in what was the keeper's house, the Fisherman's Museum displays relics of this toughest of trades. A granite shelf tilting into the sea below invites a scramble, with a gradual slope and enough footholds to reach the water's edge. (Beware: Waves have been known to snatch people off the rocks.)
Other natural and historical pleasures reward a drive up the western shore. The fine sand of Pemaquid Beach lines a scallop-shaped cove. A mile or so from the beach, Colonial Pemaquid State Historic Site holds the ruins of Fort William Henry, built by the English in 1692 to defend the northeastern frontier of what was the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The fort, the second of three to occupy this point at the mouth of the Pemaquid River, is now a ruin of low stone walls. A museum displays Colonial relics unearthed on the site. A 17th-century burial ground occupies a field on the opposite end of the point.
By the time English settlers arrived on this peninsula in the 1620s, Native Americans had been roaming it for at least 5,000 years -- and consuming tons of oysters. The evidence lies in the Whaleback Shell Midden on the east bank of the Damariscotta River, a dune-size heap of oyster shells and other prehistoric garbage piled up between 2,200 and 1,000 years ago. Even though the midden, now a protected historic site, was mined for fertilizer in the 1880s, it still covers several acres and sprouts a young spruce-fir forest. The vast Glidden Midden, 30 feet deep and 150 feet long, is visible on the opposite riverbank.
Oysters were on the menu at Backstreet, a restaurant at the river's edge behind Main Street, although we chose shrimp and salmon from the New World and Asian-influenced offerings.
On the river outside the window, an otter chased its own dinner in the incoming tide, part of the ancient rhythm of life in a coastal New England town.
Jane Roy Brown is a writer in Western Massachusetts.