"There are two types of people," says Dave Parsons, the James Naismith of codfish racing, "those who enter greased codfish relay races, and those who smell good." I count myself among the former. And so, having baited two friends and a stranger into joining me, I find myself in Milbridge, Maine.
Milbridge (pop. about 1,300) is a fishing village about 40 miles east of Ellsworth (where an L.L. Bean factory outlet is located). Lobsters, sea urchins and, yes, cod are plumbed from the harbor carved out by the Narraguagus River. The local restaurants—both of them—close by 9 p.m. on summer weekends. That's because Milbridge folk rise earlier than most. "If I wake up at 5:30 [a.m.]," says Chris Chipman, a lobster fisherman and volunteer fireman, "it feels like I've slept half the day away."
This coastal hamlet, which was incorporated in 1848, throws itself a birthday party every summer on the final weekend of July. On Friday night there's a cribbage tournament, and the next morning, at 6:30 (so you can sleep in), there's a blueberry pancake breakfast followed by a parade. But we are here for the headline event, the annual Codfish Relay Race, even if it is no longer possessed of the wondrous innocence it had when Parsons first conjured it up, "irrespective of anything," in 1984.
"I don't race anymore," says Milbridge resident Debra Simons, a waitress at the Red Barn, whose team, the Red Barn Waitresses, won the first three relays. "So many rules now: No reversible rain slickers. No rubber gloves. Can't stick your fingers in the gills or eye sockets [did I mention that the cod are dead?] to achieve a better hold."
Indeed, the halcyon days of codfish relay racing in Milbridge, when Parsons would settle disputes by riffling through a clipboard of papers on which the rules were supposedly inscribed—only he knew that the pages were blank—are over. So too are the days, if in fact they ever existed, when a brash rookie quartet could hike or, more likely, sail into town on race day contemplating victory.
"How long you been practicing?" asks Brandon Holmes, who is 14 and a camper at Berwick Boys Camp on nearby Dyers Island, which fielded last year's champion. We are sitting on the porch of the Moonraker Bed and Breakfast, watching the parade bleed down U.S. 1. With us are my roommate from back in college, Jeff Grace, and his new bride, Sheryl, who I imagine is having second thoughts about the vows recently exchanged. We have yet to meet our fourth teammate, Anda Rojs (pronounced ON-da royce), the girlfriend of Chris Anderson, the photographer who is working with us on this story. And so, three hours before race time, we have yet to train.
"Urn, we haven't yet," I reply. "How about you? Did you put in an hour or two this morning?"
Brandon regards me quizzically, as do a few of the other locals within earshot. "We had tryouts for our team three weeks ago," he says. "Every boy in camp. We've been training every night this week, lugging bulky, greased-up sacks that have 35 pounds of lead weights inside 'em, jiggling around, the way the fish will."
What hath cod wrought?
My first choice for anchor leg had been Mike Smoron, another pal from my alma mater, Notre Dame, who is now a lawyer in Chicago. Weeks earlier I had faxed him details of the race and then given him my sales pitch. "Smo, you ran cross-country at school," I implored. "We need you."