Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish - James Prosek (2010)
Chapter 8. Eel Weir Hollow
Ray at the weir
Summer is a beautiful time at Green Flats and Eel Weir Hollow. The river is low and clear and good for swimming, and the weir is taking shape again after the winter ice and spring floods pulled it down.
At this time of year, Ray’s home is cheerful, with a garden of carefully cultivated wildflowers and bushes—black-eyed Susans, witch hazel, spicebush, hostas, irises, roses, jewelweed, milkweed, jack-in-the-pulpit, and ferns. Stone shelves jutting out from the walls of his house support small pots with herbs. The depleted piles of split wood that heated his home and fueled his smokehouse the previous winter are growing again, the yard is clear of debris from the floods, and the cold storage is filled with smoked eel.
In the warm weather Ray is most often found in his summer uniform, a white T-shirt and cutoff jeans. When the river is low enough he starts to rebuild the stone walls of the weir. Although he builds the walls mostly by himself, he sometimes gets help, especially during a festival he hosts in late July when his friends come down to the river and camp on his property, eat, drink, share stories, and have contests with ancient spearthrowing devices called atlatl. Ray figures it takes about 450 man-hours to build the weir every year; out of those, 30 will be contributed by others. At the rate of 8 hours a day, that’s roughly 56 days of lifting stones, pushing gravel, and rolling small boulders.
As the stones are being put back into place on the walls, Ray begins to build the wooden trap or rack at the vortex. Initially he needs the assistance of a friend because the studs are long and unruly and setting up the footings in the river requires skillful carpentry (Ray prides himself in his ability to drive a nail underwater). The pieces of the trap or rack—the studs and siding, and the latticework for the floor of the structure—are taken out of storage in Ray’s basement and floated up to the site on an improvised catamaran that Ray makes by lashing two canoes together. Upstream of where the trap will be constructed, Ray makes a big pile of rocks, which acts as a cofferdam to divert the flow of the river around his work area. The first pieces of the rack to go in are the six overlapping ramps of wood with one-inch spaces between to let the water through. These latticed ramps start low in the water on the upstream side, building up higher and higher, each overlapping the next by about a foot, forming a long right triangle (as viewed from the side) inclining toward the back or downstream side. The latticed floor is supported by a wall on each side (also partially latticed to let water through) supported at the foundation with more rocks. The finished structure is roughly the size of a small bus—about six feet wide by twenty feet long. It is designed so that in a flood the trap will not be taken downstream, but the high water will flow over the last and highest ramp (to reiterate a Ray maxim, “We’re not here to stop the river; we’re here to catch eels”). If a flood of this magnitude happens during the run of eels, the eels go right over the top of the trap. Usually during the run, though, the water is flowing over the second or third ramp, leaving the last three or four dry, and the eels are trapped under the overhanging latticework with no way to get out.
Long before Europeans arrived, a stone weir like this one would have been built not by one man but by an entire Indian village, or several, that had set up temporary camps on the river in anticipation of the fall eel migration. In the weeks or months before the run, members of the tribe would be busy repairing the weir, digging out pits where the eels would be held (and sometimes salted), erecting drying racks, and building traps (different from Ray’s, more like fish pots) that were designed to fit over the mouth of the weir at its vortex.*
In late summer I started calling Ray to see if he had an inkling as to when the run of eels might happen. I lived three hours from Hancock, so if it appeared the conditions might precipitate a run, I figured I would just jump in my car and hit the road, arriving in time to see the migrating eels fill up Ray’s trap. As it turns out, it was not that easy.
Around the middle of September, the remnants of Hurricane Isabel (that hit the Carolina coast with force) brought wind and rain to the Catskills—though not enough to encourage the eels. A subsequent low-pressure system from the west looked like it might drop enough rain to summon the migration, but the rain fell too hard and too fast and before long the East Branch of the Delaware was in flood stage.
“There’s too much water,” Ray told me over the phone. “I have to wait for the water to come down before I can even get out to the rack and reconnoiter.” All he could do was wait and hope that the river didn’t rise to the point where it would blow out and over the back of his trap, allowing all the eels to go through.
The next morning I drove to Ray’s. The rain had stopped, but overnight the river had crested and was high enough that it was nearly covering the whole structure. By afternoon the next day, the river had come down enough that we could paddle up to the weir and inspect it for damage. Despite all the water, the well-engineered rack was in good shape, but in the twenty years Ray had operated the weir, this was the first time he had failed to harvest any eels during the run itself (he had caught a few in the days before the rain). It was a victory for the eels. Ray might catch a few more in the weeks before he removed the rack for the winter, but the majority had gone by.
A year later, in early September I called Ray in advance of a storm.
“Is this the week?” I asked Ray.
“Will the rain bring the eels down?”
By the time I was able to get up to see Ray, he was bailing six inches of rainwater out of his basement.
A few nights before, the voluminous moisture from Hurricane Ivan reached the Catskills, dropping eight inches of rain. Flooding was as bad as anyone alive had seen it, forcing the highway department to close Route 17 from Roscoe to Hancock.
“Are you going to check the trap?” I asked Ray. It was Saturday morning, the eighteenth of September. The storm had blown through and the sky was clear, but the river had not yet crested. “The river’s going by at thirty miles per hour,” Ray said. “No one should be out there.”
This was the second time in thirty years that Ray had had water in his basement. “The first time was the hundred-year flood in 1996,” Ray said, “and this is worse. I was looking out the window all morning. It was raining so hard, the surface of the river was frosted from the drops. There were trees, picnic benches, refrigerators—all form of human garbage going by. But we were able to save the canoes before it really came up.”
Chris Pappas, a slim man with a scruffy beard who grew up with Ray, told me that it was the worst flood he’d seen since 1972, when an ice dam formed above the village and caused the river to back up.
Ray said he was out at the trap until eleven-thirty the night the storm arrived. “I only saw one eel,” he said. “The lightning kept them down.”
“They don’t like lightning?”
“From my experience, no.”
If you’d been betting on the eels, you would have won two years in a row. A flood was the eels’ best and safest way to salt water. The greater the volume of water, the more efficient it was for migrating fish to overcome obstacles and the more energy they could reserve for their journey to the spawning grounds.
In the two weeks before the river flooded, Ray had caught 650 fish, at least enough to keep him cleaning and smoking for a while.
In early April of the following year, I drove up to the Catskills to see how Ray had fared over the winter. He was waiting at the end of his muddy and icy driveway for his blue-eyed, pony-tailed, flint-knapping buddy, Chris Pappas, to pick him up and bring him into town to retrieve his truck.
“Drive shaft blew,” Ray said. “Very expensive.”
Ray seemed happy to see me and gave me a tour of the deck and screened-in porch he’d just added on to the back of his house, furnished with discards from a local nursing home. “Put me in the hole,” Ray said, pushing at some exposed insulation. He pulled a wad of dollar bills out of his pocket. “This is all I have left.”
Ray offered me a cup of hot chocolate. We sat down at a table next to the stove in his kitchen. His speech was short and clipped; I wondered if it was because he hadn’t talked to many people during the long cold months.
“Tough winter,” he said, lighting a cigarette. “Dog died. That was hard.”
After a moment I asked, “You gonna get a puppy?”
“Naw. Can’t do it yet. Come out this summer,” Ray said. “June through September I’ll be building the rack and the weir.”
In late June I was in the Catskills for a friend’s wedding in the hamlet of Oliverea. After a beautiful, cool evening, the day had turned pleasantly warm. I decided to steal away from the party and drive over the mountain into Hancock.
When I arrived at Ray’s home there was a handwritten note on the smokehouse door to anyone who might happen by. “Come out to the water’s edge and wave,” it said.
I walked down the path beside the house to Green Flats and the riverbank, took off my shirt, and waded out into the Delaware. I let myself drop into the currents and drifted gently down before standing up on a large flat boulder (Ray called it Duck Rock, and the large eddy behind it was Duck Rock Eddy) to look upstream. The weir was broad and distant, framed by the hills of the magnificent valley. Standing in the water above the weir was a slim figure I recognized as Ray.
Ray doesn’t wear a watch, but he has a sundial out by the weir—a nail driven upright on a level piece of the eel rack. Out on the river, though, if you ask, he’ll say it’s summertime.
He wore a frayed white T-shirt and cutoff jeans. His face and arms were tan. It seemed he was charged directly by the sun. He showed me his fingernails, ground down to nothing from “chinking,” or taking handfuls of gravel and piling them up on the inside of the weir. Normally in summer, he said, he worked with his “secret weapon”—an eighteen-year-old named Jaime. “He’s worked like a real soldier this year,” Ray said.
Even though Ray didn’t have the best experience in the army, he had picked up the lingo, using words such as reconnoiter, soldier, and vanguard. He often talked about his time in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and in Panama “blowing things up”—his fights with the sergeant about overworking the men in 105°F heat without water, his being caught with contraband and being honorably discharged (typical of Ray’s Catskill humor, he hung the discharge certificate over his toilet). The engineering he learned in the army he uses in his everyday work. To him, nature is full of engineers—birds building nests, beavers building dams, caddis flies building cases of sand and silk—and he’s just another one of them.
“I’ve been asked, ‘Why don’t you bring in a dozer?’ ” Ray said. “That totally goes against the point of the operation. Myself or my friends have touched every one of the stones that go into the wall. That’s significant.”
Ray paused and looked up at the sun, his shirt and shoulders wet with river water.
“I’m a little out of sorts, Jimmy,” he said. “An old friend died yesterday. I was up till six A.M. and slept an hour and I haven’t eaten lunch.”
I followed him to his canoe, where he had some food in a cooler. He unwrapped a small piece of smoked eel from some tinfoil, tore off a piece for me, and ate a bit himself. It was sweet like honeysuckle and made your fingers glisten with oil.
As the summer sun warmed our shoulders, we sat on the rack and nibbled on smoked eel. I told Ray that back in April I’d attended a hearing in Old Lyme, Connecticut, organized by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to discuss the status of the North American eel population. Ray said he’d gone to a similar ASMFC meeting in April in Narrowsburg, New York, about two hours from his home. More such meetings were taking place up and down the East Coast, Virginia to Maine, prompted by a citizens’ petition to list the freshwater eel as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The petition to list was submitted by two brothers from Massachusetts, Doug and Tim Watts, who had grown concerned about the eels’ precipitous decline. Commercial landings for eels were the lowest on record—not just in North America but worldwide.
Ray had more immediate concerns than a decline in the eel population, namely, maintenance on his house, cutting and splitting wood for the smokehouse, fixing his truck, his health, building the walls of the weir and the rack for the fall season, and hoping that a flood would not ruin his catch for the third year in a row. There were easier ways to make a living (I almost felt like he would continue to operate the weir whether the eels showed up or not).
That day I helped Ray shift, tilt, and tumble some of the larger stones into place, using an iron bar as a lever. A few dead shad, summer casualties of the rack, littered the bottom like silver coins in a wishing well.* Two bald eagles sat patiently in the trees above us, waiting for the shad that they would take as soon as we cleared the area. At some point it occurred to me that I’d better return to my friends’ wedding in Oliverea.
Late that summer Ray spoke confidently about the work he’d done on the weir. Cosmetically and functionally, it was the finest one he’d ever built.
“The weir is at a place where it’s close to done,” he told me over the phone. “The anxiety is gone. Now I can just go up there to admire and tinker.”
The large flat “paving stones” that sloped on the outside of the weir’s walls were seamlessly fitted. The pebble-sized gravel on the inside of the walls, the “chinking,” was in place and had been further sealed by leaves of Japanese knotweed that floated downstream—torn off their stalks by beavers. “Nature’s black plastic,” Ray called it. The curve of each of the two convex walls was the best he’d ever created, forming a braid of currents at the vortex of the trap with just the right pull to coax the eels.*
He had made improvements to the wooden rack as well. The eels would still be caught underneath the overlapping lips of each slatted ramp, but in the pockets where he would normally have stood all night, using a dip net to scoop the captured eels into a canoe, he put escape paths of PVC piping that led the eels into a big cage, a holding pen with a top. He could now empty each night’s catch the morning after the run, in the light of day, while relieving stress on the rack and keeping predators such as eagles, herons, osprey, and bears from stealing his fish when he wasn’t looking.
The beautiful condition of the weir and Ray’s pride in his creation seemed to promise a fruitful catch. Now the weather needed to cooperate.
In late August a large tropical storm began to form in the Caribbean and eventually morphed into a full-blown hurricane. I called Ray on the morning of August 29, and he answered with his customary greeting: “Smokehouse.”
“Hey, Ray, it’s James.”
“What can I do for you, Jimmy?”
“Well, I see there’s a storm coming, wanted to check in.”
“There’s a band of rain from central Pennsylvania to the Yucatan,” Ray said. “Based on my experience, I’d have my boots on for tomorrow night.”
I got in my car and headed to Hancock.
The weather forecasters were noncommittal about the path of the storm (now a category 4 hurricane called Katrina), but the system was carrying a lot of water—enough to trigger eel runs on every major East Coast river, in domino-like fashion, from south to north. A week before the first drop of rain fell, before the hurricane had even touched the Gulf Coast, the eels in the Delaware River had begun to move (the early eels Ray called vanguard eels). By August 29, Ray had caught 926 eels, more than he’d ever taken by that date. Only the year 2000 had been close, with 840.
“Just look at the numbers,” Ray said, one eye on his logbook, one eye on the Weather Channel in his living room. “That storm is hundreds of miles away, and they know it’s coming.”
It had begun to rain, and all through the night the rain continued, but by dawn the river had risen only slightly. The land was very dry and thirsty for the water, and the reservoir upstream was below capacity.
We spent the day preparing—cleaning out the canoes, filling buckets with salt, draining the eel tank and filling it with fresh water.
Toward nightfall we returned to Ray’s house for a dinner of “pancakes”—oatmeal and corn, flour and Bisquick and raisins. It was pretty tasty. Ray offered me a beer while he himself drank out of a large mason jar, a 50-50 mix of orange juice and water with a can of ginger ale. After dinner he sat in his chair by the fire and clipped his toenails, a lit cigarette in his mouth. Ray placed a tray on his lap and rolled two cigarettes for our trip upstream.
We walked down the riverbank to where he had his canoes tied up. We each got in one and paddled upstream. It was a warm, dark night—the new moon was only three days away—and a low mist hung over the water. The air was filled with the damp smell of early autumn, though in daylight the trees had only hints of turning color. The sound of the current was still gentle, but the rain continued to fall lightly, teasing the hope that at some point the river would rise, but not rise too much.
We walked along the walls of the weir, our eyes adjusted enough to see the beauty of his workmanship. Near the base of the rack the walls were ten feet thick. He tapped the rim of his baseball cap in homage to Jaime, the young man who had helped him most that summer. “Jaime did this in a truly soldier fashion,” Ray said, pointing out a particular feature of the wall.
We climbed onto the damp and slippery slatted ramps where the eels are actually trapped. Looking upstream, I could see clearly the two arms of the weir and the smooth surface of the river above the V. The river made a soft thundering sound as the braid of water funneled through what Ray called the “slipdrop” into the rack and out beneath under our feet.
I helped Ray clear the ramps of debris—sticks and knotweed leaves—and then we sat at the top of the rack under a rain fly he’d rigged to stay dry while we waited for the eels. Ray took one of the cigarettes he’d been keeping under his hat, lit it, took a puff, and stared off at the mountain.
“You can stay here till midnight,” Ray said, “and you’ve had the whole experience.”
He passed me the lit cigarette—it was shaped like a snake that had swallowed a mouse. I was mesmerized by the sound of the rain on the tarp over our heads and the droning of the waterfall created by the rack.
“I’ve been to heaven,” Ray said, “and this is it.” He’d once told me that his ideal death would be to drown in the river.
“I wonder where they’re going,” I said after a pause.
“They’re going someplace,” Ray said.
A warm breeze blew through the rack.
Ray took another puff. “You save your hair when you get it cut?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
Some time passed. The drizzle pattered on the rain fly over our heads.
“I save mine,” he said. “I haven’t cut my hair since 1969. Whenever I brush my hair, I save what comes out. I also save my fingernail and toenail clippings. I don’t want any of my DNA floating around out there. ‘Cause when I go, it all goes in the box with me.”
This paranoia about hair seemed odd yet familiar. Ray’s habits, I realized, hewed closely to the rituals I had learned from Stella and her sister, Wiki, that Maori customarily never cut their hair at night for fear that a spirit might take it. And when they do cut their hair or their fingernails they bury it so that no one can get hold of it and put a curse or makutu on them. The fact that Ray saved his hair was not so much weird to me as fundamental among people of nature-based faiths.
Talking about the weir, Ray said, “Isn’t that a sublime effigy to Mother Nature? Last night there was a mist in front of that hill and it looked just like an elderly pubic mound. Look at the walls of the weir. They are the legs of Mother Nature, and we are sitting in pleasure central. Tell me that isn’t true. Nowhere is nature so motherly portrayed than in this weir. We are in the structure of fertility. Think about it—it’s a very feminist thing. I feel it so strongly.”
I felt it as well. It was uncanny to think, too, how this graphic representation of Mother Nature was made more effectual when the eels swam into it, like thousands of spermatozoa.
“This night she’s in good shape,” Ray said. “Look at the water coming over that slip-drop. That is a perfect formation. In the dark she looks young tonight.”
In the hours until midnight, we didn’t see any eels come into the trap. I spent the night at my friend’s cabin across the river in Peas Eddy, and was back at Ray’s house in the morning.
At about eight o’clock I found the eel fisherman at the start of his routine.
“Make coffee, feed the emu, check the eels in the tank, have a cigarette, take a shit, watch the Weather Channel,” as he himself described it.
We spent the whole day on the river. It rained all morning and then the rain let up. Before our eyes, the clear river began to rise and get color—a milky bluish green as an overture to muddy brown. Ray was nearly certain now that the run was going to happen that night, or at least a good preliminary push of fish.
Ray and I went upstream after dark to check the weir. There was noticeably more water coming through the slip-drop into the rack at about nine o’clock than there had been the night before at the same time. We stood in the wooden structure of the rack, the rising water thundering beneath our feet.
In the foamy waterfall, glistening in the darkness, where the river met the ramps of the rack, I suddenly saw a shimmering black and silver fish shimmy up the wooden slats and tumble into the trap. Another came over the ramp, then another and another. It was what I’d come here to see; it was happening—the run. I started down from the top of the rack to the slippery part where the eels were coming over. Before I could get to the waterfall, Ray urged me to turn away.
“Let’s go back, kid,” he said to me.
I was surprised and torn. This was Ray’s weir; how could I stand out here without him? But I’d come to see this wonder of nature. Over the years I’d imagined what it would be like, a surge of life down the river. I stopped moving toward the water as more eels came over the top of the slats, unable to beat the force of the falls and the shelf of wood over their heads to get back.
“I’ll call Jaime in the morning to come down and help transfer the eels.”
“You don’t want to stay out?” I asked, needing to say something.
“There’s no reason to. They’ll all be in the holding cage in the morning. You’re going to need sleep. Tomorrow we’ll be bringing eels down to the house for half a day, carrying them bucket after bucket by the hundreds up the hill from Green Flats to the tank. And the tank, as it is, is overflowing with fish. I’m going to have to rig up another tub with an aerator and then hope the power doesn’t go out. And if there’s still time, we’ll start processing these eels to make room for more.”
I felt powerless. Was it all business, a military operation? Was it more efficient to leave the weir so we would be well rested for the work the next day? Or was it something else? I couldn’t help but wonder if Ray wanted the brunt of the run to remain veiled, and whether it had to do with the sanctity of what he called Mother Nature. Out of respect, I did not question his decision further.
In the four years that young Jaime Galietta had worked with Ray, this was the first run that he’d witnessed. The previous two seasons the trap had been blown out and the times before that he’d been in school. Ray was generous and social, not simply the odd recluse I had first imagined him to be. Of all his friends, Ray talked most about Jaime, but it was the first time I’d met him. He was a modest and quiet strong young man with a shaved head and a handsome appearance.
“What qualifies it as a run?” I asked Ray that morning.
“If it’s close to a thousand,” he said, “that’s a run.”
We made our way up to the weir with anticipation. Ray and Jaime paddled up in one canoe and I walked up the riverbank, wading out in the high water to meet them at the trap. After tying the canoe to the rack, Ray climbed up onto the wooden structure. Jaime and I followed.
“See that?” he said, running his hand over the wooden latticework, water gushing between the slats. “That’s eel slime.” He then pointed to scratch marks visible against the wet wood. “And that’s where Baldy tried to get at the eels.”
The talon marks on the wood of the rack had been made that morning. Upstream, one massive white-headed perpetrator was sitting in a tree looking at us. “He can see these fish,” Ray said, “probably got a few. Their vision is incredible.”
Ray opened the top of the cage and sank his dip net to the bottom. Jaime and I steadied the canoe, watching as Ray ran the head of the net this way and that. Finally he pulled up the net by the handle. It was loaded with beautiful silver eels.
“There’s a lot of them, boys!” Ray said, shouting over the rushing water, dumping them into the boat. “Take a look. The bottom of the cage is black with their backs.”
Ray kept loading the canoe with fish until the bottom was covered. The eels banged and clanked against the hull, snaking up the gunwales, unable to get out.
The three of us, wading along the shoreline, carefully guided the canoeload of eels downstream to Green Flats. When we got back, Ray gave orders. He would stay with the canoe at the riverbank and unload the eels into buckets. I would carry the buckets up to the smokehouse, and Jaime would count the eels, one by one, as he dumped them into the tub.
It took several trips to the weir and most of the morning to get all the eels up to the smokehouse. Seven hundred forty-nine fish had tumbled into the trap in the previous ten hours or so, more in one night than the totals for each of the previous two years. So far that year, Ray had caught 1,758 eels, all of which were alive in the wooden tank outside the smokehouse, the slats dripping water and covered with moss.*
“We should get as many eels again tonight,” Ray said. He was afraid he’d run out of space to hold them, so for the rest of the afternoon Ray and Jaime began the work of processing the eels to make room for more.
They put sixty to eighty live fish into a vat of salt for fortyfive minutes, where they essentially suffocate and die. Then they are turned in an old cement mixer with gravel, which takes the slime off the skin as they tumble.* Once deslimed, the eels are cut open along the belly with a knife and a spoon is run along the spine to remove the kidney and any remaining internal organs. The cleaned eels, their skin almost a translucent violet, are hung by the head with strings in a walk-in freezer. Ray says that freezing them “crushes the cells,” allowing excess oils in the fish to drip out while smoking. After being frozen, they are brined for two days in a mixture of salt, brown sugar, and dark fall honey, and finally smoked at 160-180°F in a cement chamber connected via pipe to a barrel stove burning with hand-split applewood.
Ray and Jaime cleaned eels side by side in the smokehouse.
“Of all the people who’ve helped me with processing, no one cuts them open faster than Jaime,” Ray said.
Jaime gave a quiet smile.
After a pause Ray asked him, “Who won the match today?”
“What match?” Jaime asked.
“U.S. Open,” Ray said. “Tennis.”
And then the men were silent for a while except for the clink and clank of their focused work.
Time and again I visited Ray. Initially I had wanted to see the run, but after that objective came and went I found myself returning to Green Flats anyway. Maybe it wasn’t the run I was interested in so much as Ray. Or maybe he was the run—the persistence to live life, to rebuild the walls, in the face of life’s hurdles. No matter; I felt sometimes as though there was nothing to learn or figure out, really, just stuff to take in. I told Ray once that I admired the way he lived. “Don’t look up to me, kid,” he said, “look with me.” Nowhere else did his homespun aphorisms make more sense than when I stood on the river beside him and heard the words come out of his mouth as he was lifting those stones: “It’s not the journey, it’s the road,” or “Art is nature out of proportion.”
I helped Ray with some odds and ends one day in June, and toward evening I drove into town to get us a pizza. Ray was appreciative of the treat. He offered me a beer.
“Why’d you quit drinking?” I asked him.*
“Let’s see,” Ray said. “Was it the time we were in the toboggan being towed behind a truck in the snow and we went off the road and hit a tree? Or all the times I crashed my car in hit-and- runs? Or was it the time I got up in the middle of the night, not knowing where I was, and fell out of my bed—mind you, my bed is ten feet off the ground—and nearly gouged my eye out on the corner of the dresser? I haven’t had a drink in nineteen years.”
One day I ran into a childhood friend of Ray’s named Ken Mason, who lived up Peas Eddy Road. Ken had been described to me as “a thinker who went up every day into the woods to read books.” I told Ken I’d been visiting with Ray, and he shared some insights into Ray’s life.
“My sister Janet lived at Green Flats with Ray in the late seventies for three years,” Ken said. “She tended the garden and lived barefoot. Hippies, you know.”
I asked Ken why he thought Ray lived out there alone.
“The beavers come up into the oxbow near Peas Eddy,” Ken said. “They build their dams every year, and every year the ice and spring floods scour them out.” I saw where Ken was going with his metaphor.
“Why does he keep rebuilding the weir, year after year?” I asked Ken. “What gives him the energy?”
“Pure and simple,” Ken said. “Freedom.”
* Fish traps of this kind, working on the same basic principles of structure and form, but sometimes built with different materials, were made to catch migrating fish all around the world. According to historian David R. Wagner, remnants of stone weirs built by Native Americans to trap eels still exist in New England, despite not having been maintained for more than five hundred years. Wagner writes, “Massive group efforts would be required to build, operate, and maintain each weir.” Elsdon Best writes in his 1929 book Fishing Methods and Devices of the Maori of the weirs (calledpa tuna) used by the Maori to trap eels: “There were two forms of weirs in former times-the V or double V, and the straight single- fence weir employed in the Whanganui Valley, but so far as I am aware, in no other district.”
* By law, Ray had to throw the shad back into the river to return to the biomass. Oftentimes he buried them in the wall itself; whether that was functional (the smell may attract eels) or spiritual, I don’t know.
* Over the years, Ray has learned through experience that straight walls are not as efficient as curved walls.
* The tank, like a big barrel cut in half, Ray told me, was from an old trout hatchery, made by a silo company in Unadilla, New York.
* This is an innovation unique to Ray. Others use ashes or detergent to get the slime off the skin. The Japanese leave the skin on the eel and don’t bother to deslime. Still others skin the eel before cooking.
* I never asked him such questions about his life until years after I first met him.