A case for critters in the boatyard

Shipmates Paul Lariviere, the local harbormaster, and his Jack Russell terrier Oreo relax dockside. Photo by Randy Randall

Midwinter, 2006

By Randy Randall
For Points East
One of the joys of running a small marina like ours is getting to meet so many nice people. I’m not sure whether nice people are just naturally drawn to boats and fishing, or whether being on the water brings out the best in people, but we really do have nice customers.

I was reminded of this the other day when I was sitting at the desk with the office door wide open and a family walked by headed for their boat. I saw them and yelled out, “Hi, Fritz.” Jeez, I’d said hello to their dog. I didn’t say hi to Bob or Nancy, but acknowledged their dog, for crying out loud. What a dork. But I suppose the dog is a customer, too, sort of. And that got me thinking about all the other animals we have around this place, and that naturally led me to the mice.

Yes, mice. They aren’t pets exactly, but they do play a role in getting the docks in the water. When its spring and we uncover the boats and the forklift, which has been stored outside all winter, our first concern is the mice. The little buggers are attracted to the old Clark forklift and turn the dash into a sort of mouse condo. Years ago, before we caught on to this, we were stymied when the key wouldn’t turn the motor over. We finally had to tear the dash apart, and when we did, we found that a colony of mice had nibbled the insulation off the electrical wires and soaked all the components with a winter’s worth of mouse urine!

Of course, we’ve grown smarter, and now each fall, when we lay up the old machine, we open the dash and sprinkle all kinds of rat poison around, but we don’t trust it. We still pull the dash apart in the spring to check, and wouldn’t you know, we still find those little creeps camping in there.

“Clean ‘em out,” the boss would yell at us, so we’d take the freshwater hose and blast them.

“Critters,” the foreman would grumble. “You can’t run a marina with all those critters in the way.”

Actually most of the marina critters are fairly harmless. The gray squirrels that manage the dumpster for us don’t cause many problems. There are always the darned seagulls to worry about. They’re attracted to the dumpster, too, and to the cabin tops of boats. “Rats with wings” we call them.

“G’way. Scram. Get out’ta here;” we yell and blow the horn to no affect. You learn to live with them. Customers weave monofilament fishing line across their cabin tops to discourage the gulls from perching on their boats.

There are the minks that live in the seawall. The customers don’t believe it when they see one swimming toward the shore leaving a V wake in the water. And then there’s Methuselah – the ancient encrusted snapping turtle, big as a washtub – who lives under the gangwalk. We know he’s there because when the sun is high in the sky and shines right down to the bottom we see his shadow and his shell as he slowly turns and glides imperceptibly underneath the dock.

A fox lives on the hillside under the juniper bush, and the resident woodchuck, fat as a little pig, lives on the other sunny hill, but they don’t interfere with launching or painting. Raccoons come from away and inspect the dumpster and never clean up after themselves once they’ve sampled the pizza leftovers and fish guts.

Then, of course, there are the customers’ dogs – every breed from cute little poodles to a Newfie who makes the docks shake when he galumphs down the gangwalk. The yard gang’s favorites are a couple of young black labs that beg for us to toss sticks out into the river for them to retrieve. We get a kick out of the fishing dogs that can’t wait for the boat to get under way and bark loudly urging their humans to cast off and head for the stripers. Some dogs wear life vests; some don’t.

Old Bill was a beagle who sported a yellow float jacket. He would perch on the bow of his owner’s Boston Whaler and pose like a doggy pirate, staring down every seagull, person or dog that came near. Pepper, Bailey, Cooper, Smokey, Sadie and Oreo are all well known by the marina crew, and we talk to them just as if they were people.

We don’t seem to have many cats around. Maybe it’s the dogs that keep the cats at bay, or perhaps cats are smarter than us and know better than to get involved with boats and fishing. The only snake we saw got mashed in the middle of the access road. Poor old guy couldn’t slither quite fast enough to dodge the SUV speeding toward the parking lot.

Seals swim up the river on the incoming tide when there’s food for them. Wide-eyed little guys, they pop up near the gas dock and kind of inspect everything that’s going on. They’ll hang around as long as the feeding is good and entertain the customers and their kids, but you can never count on seeing one just after you’ve told the family from away that there are seals in the river.

And then, the summer before last, we were favored with a near-visit from Poco, the wayward beluga. He never quite made it all the way up to our place, but he came very close. Many of our customers saw him in Saco Bay and even had him follow along in their wake as they motored up the river.

The deer are always a surprise. Just at dusk they appear out of nowhere. We blink our eyes to make sure we’re not seeing apparitions. We know they’re around because we see their pointed hoof prints in the soft dirt. When we do see them, it’s a fleeting view, because, before we know it, 1-2-3, they bound gracefully off into the woods. We wonder where they spend their days so close to homes and streets and traffic.

There’s a bald eagle, too. We seldom see him, but when we do he’s soaring on the thermals high above the river searching for his lunch. Everyone looks up and then an argument ensues about whether it’s an eagle or an osprey. We stay out of that fracas. We’ve never seen the eagle dive on a fish, but his nest is fairly well known, and we’re pretty sure he’s one of a nesting pair.

All in all, the wildlife at the marina is pretty low key, except for the ducks. Now the ducks are a show. For us, they’re just like those sea lions that commandeered Pier 39 out in San Francisco. They’re everywhere, and for better or worse, the customers love them. They show up in the spring just as we’re launching docks and moorings. We begin trying to keep count, but about all we can do is differentiate between the dull females and brightly colored males.

When we see the duck family gliding along and the female seems to be keeping a respectful three feet or so behind the male, the significance of the scene is not totally lost on the yard crew. We don’t know where they nest.

We’ve never taken the time off from working to hunt them up in the reeds and along the shore, but along toward June and July, the little ones appear.

One day they’re not there; the next day they are – little puff balls all in a row strung out behind mama like a fleet of tiny barges being towed by a tug. The little guys skitter across the water, charging after the breadcrumbs the kids throw.

Once the ducklings appear, we begin counting and subtracting. Each day, the number of babies decreases. We know it’s the likes of Methuselah lurking under the gas dock, the mink and maybe some gulls, and even a large striped bass that feed on the ducklings.

Customers get caught up in the quiet drama and bring food from home to feed the baby ducks. The ducks reward them by staining the swim platforms on their boats and the decks of our finger piers. But it’s hard to deny the joy and wonderment of a little girl who gingerly approaches a duck perched at the end of the dock and the bird doesn’t fly away. For her, it’s like “Make Way for Ducklings” come to life.

The marina ducks are so entertaining and provide so much goodwill, it’s no wonder people willingly ignore the sign that says, “Please don’t feed the ducks.” Fortunately the ducks don’t interfere with our work. We have enough problems with wasps.

If the mice think the dash of the forklift is a nice place to hibernate, then the wasps have found an even nicer dry nesting location under the fender, and their stinging cousins, the yellow jackets, have discovered the empty bolt holes in the counterweight on the rear end. The little buggers had us coming and going, as our dockmaster found out one sunny afternoon when he bent down to pick up the wheel chock. The next thing we heard was him swearing while he swatted the bees that swarmed around him. “Get out of here, you little bastards,” he hollered as he took off running for the safety of the bathhouse flailing his arms at the dive-bombing pests.

After the commotion had subsided – and he had found the calamine lotion and some ice – we inspected the forklift and found the nest tucked up under the front fender of the machine. A blast from the pressure washer quickly took care of that.

But the fierce gang of stingers hidden inside the counterweight escaped annihilation. We had no idea there were other stowaways on the forklift until one day one of the guys just happened to see a wasp fly into a bolt hole. “Hey I thought you guys blasted those friggin’ hornets last week,” he cried.

“Yeah we did. What’s up?”

“Looks like they’re back.”

This time we emptied a can of Hit Squad insecticide into the long bolt holes. One brave soul squirted the stream into the hole while another guy quickly plugged the opening with an old shop rag. Both ran like hell. That ended the hornet threat, and we were able to reclaim our forklift.

Critters like seals and ducks, and even hornets, sure do make life at the marina interesting to say the least. The dogs just take their rightful place on the docks along with their families and kids, and the ducks . . . well, they just own the place. We don’t think about the animals all that much until we slip up and offer one of the dogs part of our sandwich. It’s all just part of another summer day at the marina when we can enjoy both the critters and the people. Besides, it wouldn’t be a proper spring if we opened the dash on the old forklift and didn’t find any uppity mice keeping house in among the gauges.

Randy and Jean Randall operate Marston’s Marina in Saco, Maine.