Under the Great Bear; Amongst the Smell of Apple Wood Smoke
One hundred and forty miles north of New York City, nestled in the rolling mountains of the Catskills, lies an eight hundred foot long eel weir. At the apex of the wall rising out of the flowing waters of the East Branch Delaware River, bleached, twisted and weathered sits a handmade fifty-foot long wooden trap, referred to as the “rack”. This structure occupies the same area of the river that has had a weir on its riverbed for over a century. What is the contraption's purpose? To capture the American Eels that live in these waters. The engineer of the weir is an elderly fisherman in late his 60’s. A stern looking man with weathered skin, a smoky colored beard down to his chest and always sporting a traditional pakol hat, a hat gifted to him by a US soldier when on tour in Afghanistan. Locals call him “The Eel Man” Ray and he has been fishing river eel on the East Branch Delaware River right outside of Hancock, New York for thirty years.
A veteran himself, serving in Panama during the Vietnam War, Ray looked for ways to re-assimilate into civilian life. He began by running water treatment facilities and odd-job construction projects around the area. Over the course of a few years following the death of his twin brother, Ray searched for a solitary life that led him to the eel weir and becoming its maintainer. Over a few decades, Ray has made his livelihood out of catching and smoking American river eel and selling it out of a wooden shake with red peeling paint on his property. This year, however, the weir had experienced one of its most historically low harvests to date leaving “Eel Man” Ray contemplating about hanging his waders up for good, closing his famous eel weir, and retiring from the eel business entirely.
Through these images, I hope to open a window into the unpredictability of life on the river, and daily work that goes into running his famous smoke shop “Delaware Delicacies” as it stands for the moment with its doors open on the outskirts of Hancock, New York.