After writing about my beloved Eider ducks a couple of weeks ago, I think my second favorite bird in Casco Bay is the Great Blue Heron. And, I just learned that the name of the bay possibly comes from the Wabanaki word for Heron, “kasqu,” which evolved to Casco.

In this recent foggy stretch, there is a mystery to the water that is enhanced by the elegant silhouette of this lanky bird. It’s broad wings carry its heavy body low over the water with a whoosh that is somehow simultaneously awkward and graceful. I watch it do a funny kind of high-stepping dance as it navigates the rocks in search of fish. We’ve always called the resident bird in front of our house, “Harry the Heron,” but I like thinking of him as Casco, keeper of the bay.

The more I learn about the Wabanaki history of the bay, the more interested I become. The Wabanaki inhabited the islands of Casco Bay more than 12,000 years ago and were known as the People of the Dawn Lands. Spear and harpoon points and shell middens remind us of their history.

The names of the islands do, as well – Chebeague is the “broken water passage” and Sebascodegan (also known as Great Island) is the “rocky passage, almost through.” I can attest to the first from having lived on Chebeague for a year or so after college, and the second from nearly running our boat aground off Great Island in the fog.

Both of these were significant gathering places for the summer clambake, an important tradition of the Wabanaki and one that resulted in the numerous shell middens found today on the islands.
The piece of history that has most captivated me is that the bay was known as a gathering place. It was here that many native groups came together to celebrate the bounty of what we now call Casco Bay.

At these gatherings, they shared gifts of wampum, white and purple beads made from quahog shells. This was an important currency among the Wabanaki and makes me look at these beautiful shells in a more thoughtful way. However, this also became the currency with which they traded with the European settlers and this part of history is less than lovely. The Anglo-Wabanaki wars erupted in the late 1600s and, despite subsequent treaties between the two sides, the native island way of life would never be the same.

However, even today, we can learn important lessons from the native people who lived on the islands in a way that was respectful of its resources. I recently had the pleasure of helping to organize a short course for Harpswell Heritage Land Trust on “Native Foods and Medicines of the Casco Bay Islands,” and was able to spend a couple of hours on Whaleboat Island on a foggy Saturday morning.

Karyn Marden, the course instructor, told the group about some of the traditional foods that were collected on the islands from seaside plants and animals, to those living under the water. I learned about using bayberry much like Caribbean bay leaves to season cooking, and how to make pine needle tea for its anti-viral properties.

Who knew that pine sap was one of the original ingredients in cough syrup? It also contains a large amount of vitamin C and was shared with the settlers to help fight off scurvy. Or, to keep your teeth clean and mouth fresh, you can chew a little bit of spruce gum. It’s pretty tasty, if leaving your hands a bit sticky.

The overarching theme of the day was the native ethic of taking only what was abundant and always honoring the plant or animal that you were taking. What a lovely thought that is applicable both in a spiritual and a scientific way.

For example, the Wabanaki typically caught species like mackerel and alewives, fish that we tend to use only as bait to catch other fish that are higher up the food chain. But, these reproduce in great numbers, grow quickly, and are a more replenishable stock than many of our commercially harvested species. The harvest was during spawning time when they were abundant and was not focused on a single species, but rather making use of what came up in their nets.

Unfortunately, we now aren’t able to harvest some of the species that were once abundant because the rivers that those fish need to travel into for spawning were dammed in the early 1700s, cutting off natural runs of salmon, alewives and sturgeon.

Several hundred years later, fisheries are getting back to these early concepts – focusing on multispecies management that is more ecosystem based. And, local groups like the Friends of Merrymeeting Bay and the Atlantic Salmon Federation, to name a few, are working to remove dams where possible to restore historic fish runs. Restoration of these runs holds great significance to the Wabanaki people living in Maine today both as a food source and a symbol of bringing balance back in the natural world.

If you are interested in learning more about the Wabanaki history of Casco Bay, I suggest looking up Joseph Bruchac’s books about native stories and plants. Curtis Memorial Library has a wonderful collection of Wabanaki books and will also be holding several events this fall.

The history here is rich and full of lessons for the present that are worth learning more about in our pursuit of the best way to manage the marine resources of beautiful Casco Bay, bay of the majestic Great Blue Heron.