To the Sargasso - Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish - James Prosek

Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish - James Prosek (2010)

Chapter 2. To the Sargasso

The eel weir below Peas Eddy

ANovember day, driving near the Delaware River in the Catskill Mountains of New York State, I followed a sign and a dirt road it pointed down. Nailed to a post in the tall grass and weeds, the sign said “Smoked Eel” and led me past the Cobleskill stone quarry and a transfer station to a deeply shaded and damp hemlock glen dotted with half-naked hardwood trees. The nearest village, Hancock, on the Pennsylva- nia border, was run-down, and its residents seemed either to have been cast out there by accident or to have been born there and stayed. Who, I wondered, had cast themselves yet further out to live at the end of this road, and what did smoked eel have to do with it?

At every turn, when I thought I was lost, another sign nailed to a tree confirmed my way: “Smokehouse,” “Casa di Fumo,” “Eel.” The road became narrower and more pitted, and just as I was becoming sure that this wasn’t the way, I came to a small tar-paper shack with a silver smokestack, perched on a high bank overlooking the East Branch of the Delaware River. A man with a pointy white beard and a ponytail who resembled a wood imp hopped from the plywood door of the smokehouse. His name was Ray Turner.

A gray sky threatened snow; leaves fell and faded on the muddy ground. Highway 17 and the plaintive whine of tractor-trailers seemed far away. Ray, wearing an apron over his shirt, shook my hand like he’d been expecting me. He led me into the smokehouse. There was a refrigerated counter full of smoked foods for sale—trout, salmon, Cornish hens, and shrimp, but mostly eels that he had trapped in the river. And on the adjacent wall were photos that showed how he caught them.

Every summer when the river is low, Ray refurbishes the V-shaped stone walls of the weir that funnels water through a wooden rack designed to trap fish. It takes him the better part of four months to complete the walls, each about three hundred feet long, in preparation for the eel run that occurs during just two nights in September. The run corresponds with the new moon and floods brought on by the hurricane season, when the sky is at its darkest and the river at its highest.

In the smokehouse, Ray took out his detailed record books, conjuring the seasons he spent at Green Flats, by reading from the pages—swarms of yellow butterflies on a dead shad, storms and flood levels on the river. There were lists of things he’d caught in his trap: eels, shad, striped bass, smallmouth bass, brown trout, Ivory soap—“and it was Ivory!”—a rat, a water snake. He described the run of eels in almost biblical terms: his weir receiving the manna of the river upstream. Large numbers of eels overflowed the weir and trap, many making their way around, over, and through, headed to the sea, where they would spawn and die.

“I have three jobs,” Ray said, “this smokehouse, gutting the fish, and that stone thing out there.” Ray led me down a hill behind the smokehouse to the riverbank and pulled a canoe out of the tall grass. He instructed me to do the same.

“Those flatlanders,” Ray said in his direct, military way of speaking, “summer people, yuppies, come up and buy a place here and get a canoe, tie it to the bank. They don’t understand the concept of a flood. You know what happens when their canoes tear free? That’s right—they float down and end up here. I’ve got six or seven. Never bought a canoe in my whole life.”

We paddled, each in our own canoe, from Green Flats upstream to the weir. Ray kneeled in his canoe, staying tight to the near bank. With his long beard, the hills of the Catskills and the rusty yellow foliage of beech trees behind him, he looked like an old Russian bush guide making his way up the Amur. Truly, he was an anachronism here, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Manhattan.

In this broad valley, reminiscent of a nineteenth-century painting of the Hudson River school, the weir made an impressive piece of land art. It seemed to change the landscape itself, make the mountains more majestic and the sky bigger. Ray spoke of it in metaphorical terms. “This is the womb,” he said as we tied up the canoes and stood perched on the rack. “Those are the legs.” He gestured toward the stone breakwaters stretching diagonally on either side of the river. “You see? It’s a woman. All the river’s life comes here.”

I looked at the stone walls of the weir, built every year by hand, that coax the river into the trap. Ray was careful to explain that the weir is not a dam—water percolates through it, over it, and around it.

The trap itself, or rack, looked like a hermit’s shack that washed down the river and got stuck here, made of plywood and two-by-fours, erected and taken apart every year. Like a polite host embarrassed by an untidy home, Ray explained that this weir was two months past being in tip-top shape and the wooden rack was about to be disassembled, the parts stored in his basement. As the river moved through the slats, the rack collected all kinds of debris, leaves and branches that Ray removed with a rake as we talked. He explained how the eels get pinned underneath the overlapping ramps, unable to fight the force of the water coming over the top of them.

Ray shared the physics and hydrology of his weir and trap, putting to use his training as an engineer in the army. “There are two wings of stone, as you can see.” We waded into the water above the weir. On the inside of the V, the walls were steeper and “chinked” with lots of small stones and quarter-sized gravel. On the outside of the weir the walls sloped more gradually and were covered with beautiful flat paving stones that fit together like puzzle pieces. Ray was intimate with every large stone; some were so heavy, he admitted, he needed the help of three or four friends to move them. A few of the biggest ones were granite sidewalk slabs from the village of Hancock, dragged there by horses on a stone boat in the 1920s. A large rectangular stone that Ray moves back into place every year will be his tombstone when he dies.

“All summer in the low water I’m working on the weir,” Ray said. “I get some help from a fifteen-year-old named Jaime and a few friends, but other than that it’s all me.”

All of this was in preparation for a handful of nights when Ray’s yearly catch was made. “How do you know when the eels are going to run?” I asked Ray.

“I say what my brother used to say when he was a bear guide in Alaska—look for signs.” A few days before the run, a number of large eels show up in the trap, one here, one there—then the next day ten, then forty, then a hundred. Ray calls these early fish the vanguard eels. The storm that triggers the run could be a thousand miles away, he says—a hurricane may only just be hitting the Gulf coast and it’s sunny and clear on the Delaware River—but the eels know it’s coming. The eagles show up and get agitated. It’s close to the new moon. Days later the rain comes and the river level rises. The water gets off-color. And if all this happens within two weeks either side of September 27, the eels run. Everything has to be ready. He can get over a thousand eels a night—a ton in two days, a hundred an hour. He fills the canoe with eels and brings it down to Green Flats, dumps the eels in the tank by the smokehouse, paddles back up to the weir, fills it with eels, brings it down again. “All night I’m going,” Ray said.

Ray is one of just a few individuals on the entire Delaware River system who is permitted to operate an eel weir. He inherited the right to build it from his father, Ray senior, who had inherited it from his predecessor, Charlie Howard. You can’t really say he inherited the weir itself because, like every human structure, it is to a certain extent fugitive; in fact, it was abandoned for a number of years, until Ray revived it. Every year he repositions the stones into walls, using manpower and ingenuity, and every winter the ice and floods take them down again.

“I believe that work is a privilege of life,” Ray says.

On old topographical maps, the location of Turner’s eel trap is marked Eel Weir Hollow. There has been a weir there on the East Branch of the Delaware River for at least a century, and it is likely that Native Americans had an eel weir at the same site, or at a site nearby, for thousands of years before. Charlie Howard operated the weir in the early part of the twentieth century. When he died, in 1948, the front-page headline in the Walton Register read, “Hancock Recluse Lived in Lonely River Cabin.”

The obituary, which Ray later showed me a copy of, described Howard as being “as close to the popular idea of a hermit as was Thoreau,” who “conducted an eel rack near his home, gaining part of his sustenance from the eels.” Howard was an eccentric whose personal belongings included a box of discarded women’s shoes and a jar of silver dollars. He lived upstream of the town of Hancock, in a tar-paper shack by the river. Ray Turner now lives across the river from that old residence and may be Charlie Howard incarnate.

Back atop the rack, we stood and stared up the river at the V-formation of flat water ahead of the walls. A braid of water about six feet wide slipped into the rack like a lacy veil, then splintered through the wooden slats, forming a frothy waterfall beneath our feet. I stared upstream at the force of all this water coming toward us and I got scared, a genuine feeling of fear.

“The river is a formidable thing to tame,” I said to Ray.

“We’re not here to stop the river,” Ray said, “we’re here to catch eels. That’s our creed. If you’re trying to stop the river, it just shows how fucking stupid you are.”

On the hill above the river was a small house that looked abandoned. That was roughly the site, Ray said, of Charlie Howard’s shack.

“Somewhere I have a picture of him,” Ray said, “all grainy and fuzzy, but you can make it out, him on the weir with a net. He died sixteen days after I was born.”

From the top of the rack we had a view of the changing light over the river and hills. The trees and the Japanese knotweed on the sandy riverbanks had lost their leaves. Ray pointed overhead.

“There’s Baldy,” he said.

As I looked up I saw a mature bald eagle fly low over us and land in a tall tree on the far side. Ray began again to rake leaves that had got caught in the slats of the rack.

“When I’m catching eels there’s four or five of them here,” he said of the eagles. “I see them every day—it’s nothing for me.”

“Wow!” I said, in awe of the huge bird and struck by Ray’s apathy. “You don’t have to go to Alaska like your brother to see the wilderness, do you? It’s all here. Didn’t you say your brother is up in Alaska?”

“He’s dead,” Ray said. He kept raking. “Actually, he was murdered.”

“Geez,” I said. “I’m sorry. Up in Alaska?”

“No, here—down the drive where the paved road meets the dirt road. He and some buddies got in a fight and were outnumbered. My brother was killed.”

The water gurgled nervously under our feet and the eagle kept his perch on a tree downstream.

I watched the river for a while and Ray put down his rake. We turned around to look upstream. Ray took a deep breath and exhaled. I sensed by the way he was breathing that I should prepare myself for a little philosophy.

“Up here,” he said, “it’s me and God, and that woman’s singing.” He gestured toward the river, the “woman” he was speaking of. “It sings to you with a splash and bubble. When the flatlanders have gone back south and the eels are migrating, most of the time when I’m harvesting at night there are no lights anywhere—but the Big Dipper, on the night of the run, is framed by the hills there, just downstream. I love building the walls. The harvest is hell.”

Back at the smokehouse, Ray showed me the two concrete-block chambers where the eels—dressed and brined in salt, brown sugar, and local honey—are hung on rods. Behind each smoking chamber is a fifty-five-gallon drum stove with a door on the front and a chimney hole with two pipes in the back. Once the fire is going in the stove, Ray directs the heat and smoke into the chamber, and the eels are cooked at 160-180°F for a minimum of forty-five minutes.

When the September run is good, Ray can take up to 2,500 eels. This year he had taken exactly 2,406 at an average of .85 pound per eel—just over one ton. Ray kills the eels by putting them in buckets of salt, turns them in a cement mixer full of gravel to take the slime off, then guts them with a knife, cleaning the fish’s cavity with a stainless-steel spoon. The hot-smoked eels are sold to passersby, as well as to restaurants and a few retailers. Ray keeps some for his own eating. “Always check the product,” he declared. “I consider the eels to be the best-quality protein in my line—a very unique flavor of fish, applewood smoke, and a momentary lingering of dark fall honey. All the fish I smoke, trout and salmon, are farm raised except the eels. The eels are wild; they’re like free range.”

Ray ushered me through the back door of the smokehouse, past neat stacks of hand-split applewood, to a large wooden tank, like a giant wine cask cut in half, covered in moss and dripping water through its swollen slats. I peered over the chicken wire around the rim into a clear, dark pool. Ray stirred the water with a net, agitating some five hundred dark silver eels, most about as big around as silver dollars and up to three feet long. They were lithe and sensual in their movements—just magical.

“Every year,” Ray said, staring into the black water, “I let the biggest girl go. When I finish this year, she’s free.” He pointed. “Nearly five pounds.”

Ray has his opinions on where the eels go. He agrees with the prevailing theory that all the freshwater eels on the east coast of North America spawn in the Sargasso Sea. There, eels that grew up in rivers from Florida to Maine and beyond all meet in the same general vicinity, mixing their collective eggs and sperm in the warm currents in an orgy referred to by scientists as a panmixia. But Ray doesn’t buy into the popular idea that eels die when they spawn. Based on the length of the arduous journey and the fact that no one has ever seen an adult eel returning to freshwater, it is a viable theory. Still, this has never been proven very directly.

“No one knows,” Ray said. “No one knows.”

He and I clung to the tank edge, mesmerized by the dark fish writhing at the bottom. I wanted to glimpse Ray’s world again—I wanted to see the run.

At the end of the day we retired to the warmth of Ray’s home. Snow began to fall outside.

“First snow of the year,” he said, petting his dog, named Smell. “And yet I don’t like these gloomy days.”

He contemplated his work while making me a hot chocolate. Ray seemed keenly aware of the ephemeral nature of our lives on earth—of the rigor of building a wall, watching it get knocked down, and building it again. “It’s amazing that a man would do work,” he said, “knowing that his work is never complete.”

Ray grew up in Hancock with his parents and twin brother, went off to college to study engineering, and enlisted in the army during the Vietnam War (he ended up in Panama). After being honorably discharged, he moved back to New York and worked several civilian jobs, from construction to designing and running wastewater treatment plants.

When his brother died, Ray decided to build a house on family property outside of town on the river and live there the rest of his life, reviving the fallow eel weir downstream of Peas Eddy on the Delaware River.

His home is built around a massive chimney that starts in the basement and grows like a giant mushroom through the house. He said that he’d laid every stone in the chimney and every stone had a story. One came from the bottom of the wastewater treatment plant where Ray used to work; another was a geode from Brazil. Some are from the Rogue River in Oregon and the beach in Plymouth, Massachusetts, but mostly they’re from his property on the Delaware.

“I live out here ‘cause I want to,” he said, “at the end of the fucking road.” He sat down and rolled a cigarette, using a book to support his hands. “I’ve seen people come to the head of the driveway, take one look, and turn around. I know what they’re thinking—that they just stepped onto the set of Deliverance. Those that are brave enough to step out, I tell them, ‘This isn’t just a smokehouse, it’s an adventure.’ Most people come, they see the smokehouse, they see the eel tank. You’re seeing it all. For you, it’s a journey.”