A day on the Harraseeket River

By James Rudolph

Cameron Grillo displays some of the living material that  comes up from below. Photo by James Rudolph

“I used to clean this stuff off the bottom of boats. There’s not an inch of this that isn’t alive. There’s worms, eels, crabs. It would get in my beard and I could just feel it moving.On an overcast and unseasonably warm day in December, Cameron Grillo smiled with amusement. When he did so, creases formed at the corners of his eyes. He held up a blackish-greenish clump of what looked like weeds in his orange rubber gloves. Moments earlier the clump had been hanging off a mooring. Yes, it was moving. Every bit of the clump slithered, writhed and wriggled. It was unsettling, but hard not to look closer.

Grillo went about his business that morning on the Harraseeket River in Freeport, Maine, wearing a fleece hat and jacket. A thin beard kept his face warm. Orange rubber overalls covered much of his small, lean frame.

The water was calm, and low-hanging clouds partially obscured the sun. Behind Grillo, trees crowded fingers of land that stretched into the sea. He periodically checked his charts or looked at his phone. Grillo’s phone was his lifeline to the company he worked for – Falls Point Marine, in Freeport – which billed itself as a marine-construction firm specializing in docks and piers, but in actuality performed a variety of waterfront services, including mooring maintenance.

Grillo was proud of the boat he worked out of, Falls Point, which he handled with ease. “It’s probably from the 1950s,” he said. “It’s been repurposed and refurbished many times. It’s just crazy to think of all its history . . . everything it’s done. My boss salvaged it.”

Earlier that morning, Grillo had used a crane that stood at the end of the Freeport town pier to lower a large barrel weighing hundreds of pounds from his truck to the boat. The barrel held heavy chain used to refurbish moorings. The old, rusty chain Grillo was replacing he cut free with a large, electric saw.

Watching Grillo pilot his boat, it was clear that everything he did was second nature. He navigated easily. If wind or waves shifted him out of place, a tug on the wheel put him back where he wanted. His skill as a pilot allowed him to focus on the work itself.

Part of his comfort on the water stemmed from his familiarity with the Harraseeket River, itself. And after years of working on it, he knew that summer was definitely not his favorite season.

“Not with all the dopes out on the water. I’d say spring and fall are the best. It’s great to see the leaves change from out on the water.” He pointed at the shoreline. “And to see the buds come in the spring. In winter, when it snows, you can see the high-tide mark on land. And, when it’s cold enough, the ice sheets that form.”

Being on the water in winter, of course, presents its own special challenges. “A bad day out here is if the wind is so strong that it makes maneuvering hard, especially if you’re trying to move a barge with a tug. If it’s cold enough, spray freezes to the windows and you have to stick your face outside to see where you’re going.”

Grillo’s appreciation for nature began when he was a teenager. As a Maine Coast Heritage Trust caretaker of Whaleboat Island, he picked up trash and maintained campsites. The summer job also gave him his first scare on the water when he fell from a skiff. Fortunately the small boat didn’t run for the horizon, but instead motored in circles around him.

Grillo’s fascination with the outdoors carried over into adulthood. He studied plant science for a semester at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vt., and later transferred to the University of Maine at Orono. “School wasn’t for me, though,” he said. His brother told him about the job at Falls Point Marine. Grillo loved boats, so he took the job. For this native Mainer, being on the water just feels right.

Working at Falls Point Marina has grown and challenged Grillo. “I wouldn’t have known half the stuff I know before I started working here. My boss has been willing to train me, but a big part of it is that I’ve been willing to absorb it, too. I’ve known him for a long time. He’s even kind of taught me how to sail.”

When Grillo isn’t sawing through metal chains, cleaning dirty moorings or otherwise hustling about in the Harraseeket River, he seeks other adventure. He snow-kites with his brother when lakes freeze over in the winter. “I’ve gotten up to 40 mph, but I want to go even faster. I also hunt, garden, hike and fish. I love to fish.”

Toward the end of our time together, Grillo needed to free an anchor in the mud at the bottom of the river. Falls Point had a crane purpose-made for the job. “It’s stuck down there pretty good,” Grillo noted drily. The boat groaned and leaned over as it pulled at the anchor. Gears were cranking and the exhaust itself was panting out darker smoke. Finally there was a deep rumbling and the whole boat vibrated.

“You feel that?” he asked with a smile. It was confirmation – finally – that the anchor had broken free. Grillo was proud of his work, proud of his boat, and proud of the skills he’d learned on the water.

And, on this particular day, a small slice of the Maine waterfront was better for it.

James Rudolph is a native Mainer who wants to tell – in their own words – the fascinating stories of seemingly ordinary people.