SURRY, Maine — About six years ago, a group of concerned town residents started paying attention to a problem that had been years in the making.

Patten Stream, which runs through the center of Surry and empties into Patten Bay, was full of fish. And all of those fish — alewives or other river herring — couldn’t get any farther upstream than the bridge at Route 172.

“I remember coming down here and seeing the fish bottled up here at the base of the drop and thinking, ‘This can’t be right,’” said Norman Mrozicki, now the co-chairman of the Surry Alewife Committee. “And then we just started talking about what to do about it.”

On Tuesday, Mrozicki and a group of Surry volunteers gathered on the banks of Patten Stream to talk about the resulting project, which is nearing completion.

In the middle of Patten Stream, a large excavator stood ready to continue work on the rock weir fishway. Come spring, when the migratory alewives return again, the volunteers say work will be complete, and they’ll be waiting for the fish, which will finally be able to swim freely upstream.

“We’re going to have a celebration of the alewives,” said Susan Hand Shetterly, co-chair of the committee. “They’re going to come up here and this darned thing is going to work.”

Mrozicki couldn’t hold back a laugh.

“Incidentally, during one of our first conversations we had about this alewife issue, Susan started planning the celebration,” Mrozicki explained. “How many years ago? That’s what she was shooting for this whole time.”

Confronting an obstacle

Years ago, Patten Stream was a healthy ecosystem, and Patten Bay was thriving with wildlife.

Surry selectman Dale Sprinkle said he has had conversations with old-timers who remember what those times were like.

“Years ago they said [fishermen] could catch as many groundfish as they could possibly put in their boats,” Sprinkle said. “Decades ago, it started dwindling to where it’s almost nothing now. And that kind of coincides with this passage being blocked and the herring not being able to get [upstream].”

Groundfish, like cod, eat the alewives, Sprinkle explained. And when the natural migration to Upper and Lower Patten ponds was blocked, the alewife runs collapsed. So did the populations of cod and other fish that fed on them.

In many other streams and rivers, fish passage is blocked by dams. That’s not the case on Patten Stream, but the barrier beneath the Route 172 bridge is no less impassable to the river herring.

“When the new bridge was put in several decades ago, that created a waterfall which was too high for most of the fish to get up,” Sprinkle explained.

Mrozicki said the resulting four-foot drop proved impossible for alewives to surmount, and early efforts by the Surry Alewife Committee focused on finding inexpensive ways to help the fish.

“For a while we were putting them in buckets and doing all kinds of not terribly effective things, and that went on for years,” Mrozicki said. “Then we tried two wooden fish ladders. They were moderately successful. Of course, they got beat up and torn apart, eventually. And then we started looking at serious construction down there.”

At that point, the committee learned that the Maine Department of Marine Resources had already studied the stream, and had drawn up a fish passage plan. With the help of the DMR and other state and federal agencies, the Surry group worked to secure grants that would help fund the project.

Now, $118,000 later, the first phase of the project is nearly complete.

“The first phase is to construct the fish passage, and that’s what Linkel Construction is doing,” said Surry town treasurer Tom Welgoss, who helped the group find funding for the project. “The second phase is to turn this [streamside land] into an entranceway and parking area for the public.”

That entrance is on private land, but the owner has granted a right-of-way that will allow the public to visit the stream when the alewives are running, Welgoss said.

Contractor Lance Linkel explained that the weir is being constructed out of granite that was formerly part of the famous “Singing Bridge” in Hancock and Sullivan. He said he and his crew expect to be out of the stream by the end of this month.

“It’s a lot of working with grades,” Linkel said, explaining how the rock fish ramps will work. “Each weir has to be a certain elevation below the next one. They all have to work together as far as distance. And then all the pieces of granite have to be drilled and pinned to the ledge below.”

The result, when the project is completed: Instead of the single four-foot waterfall that faces them now, fish will work their way up a more gentle staircase as they head to their spawning waters upstream.

The project will restore access to 1,200 acres of habitat that could support a run of as many as 260,000 river herring a year, project volunteers said.

Doing the right thing

During the spring of this year, volunteers continued their effort to help alewives get upstream, transporting at least 25,000 of the fish above the set of falls that have thwarted them for decades.

Volunteers say the fact that all of the committee members enjoy spending time with each other while working on the project has played a huge part in their eventual success.

“We are an eccentric and wonderful group,” Hand Shetterly said.

Mrozicki said that after the decision was made to pursue a proper fish passage plan, more and more volunteers began taking part.

And he said his own personal involvement wasn’t a hard decision to make.

“My personal thing is, as a member of the species that caused this problem, I feel responsible that we should fix it,” Mrozicki said. “And who else are we going to ask?”

Hand Shetterly said she felt the same way.

“You see a system that is broken, it’s in your own backyard, there are things that seem too big, and you can’t figure out how to fix the big things,” she said. “Why not fix the thing right here? Maybe by fixing this, we’ll fix something else as well.”

The plight of the alewives inspired Hand Shetterly to write a book, “Swimming Home.” She said seeing the fish passage project through to fruition has taught her that her “eccentric and wonderful” friends have something in common with the river herring.

“It never would have occurred to me how hard [completing a project like this] is unless we were butting our heads, just like the alewives,” she said. “I think that we are just like the alewives because it took us so long. We just kept hitting ourselves against a wall.”

That wall — or barrier to passage, if you will — has nearly been knocked down. Sometime next spring, Hand Shetterly will finally hold her alewife celebration. You’re all invited.

But that doesn’t mean she and her friends are done working to make things better.

“My feeling is this,” she said. “Once we get this in order, let’s look for something else.”

Nearby, Mrozicki smiled.

“Global warming is waiting for us!” he said.

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...