The New Diving Duck Blues

by Catherine Schmitt Issue: Spring 2018

Each November, after the knotweed and sumac bushes on the roadside have dropped their leaves, black-and-white ducks appear on a bend in the Penobscot River, across from the car wash and Riverview Motel in Bangor, Maine.

The ducks are goldeneyes, some of the last waterfowl to migrate south from their subarctic breeding grounds. Together the goldeneyes dive to the bottom. Their yellow eyes search for prey, their mighty jaws tear and crush the shells of mussels, clams, and snails. They also eat algae, fish eggs, insects. None of these food items contain much energy, so the birds have to eat a lot, which can be hard when days are short and cold and ice floes drift downstream and the entire river might freeze any day.

Most are common goldeneyes, but sometimes a few Barrow’s goldeneyes show up—they have a steeper forehead, and the white spot above the male’s bill is crescent-shaped rather than round; the female’s bill is orange. These things can be hard to see from the road.   

To really see the birds, travel on foot, binoculars in hand. Cut down the embankment, rattling rusty stalks of last year’s weeds. Step carefully over the railroad tracks—crunching too loud on the railbed rocks will startle the birds, send them flying across the river.

Goldeneyes are sometimes called whistlers because of the sound their wings make in flight, a rustling whistle, like a distant train.

Train of thought

For most of the last century, the trains that moved along the Penobscot River served the pulp and paper industry, bringing chemicals—ammonium sulfate, sodium hydroxide, alum, sodium aluminate, aqua ammonia, sodium hypochlorite, sulfuric acid—to the mills, and carrying away timber, pulp, and paper through city and country, much of it the ancestral homeland of the Wabanaki people, represented today by the Penobscot Indian Nation.

Spills and accidents were common. Most went unnoted, a few made headlines, like when a 31-car train spilled 500 gallons of styrene butadiene copolymer, a synthetic rubber used to coat paper, or when a train carrying giant rolls of tissue paper derailed across from the Riverview Motel. When emergency response crews attempted to open the derailed cars, the paper caught fire, burned, then slumped into the river, clumps of pulp floating to the bay like molted feathers.

When the goldeneyes came back the next fall and started diving for food, did they come up to the surface, their bills filled with charred and soggy pulp?

Together the goldeneyes dive to the bottom. One by one they pop back to the surface.

Dive, pop. Dive, pop.

In “Diving Duck Blues,” Sleepy John Estes wrote

If the river was whiskey
I would be a diving duck
If the river was whiskey
I would be a diving duck
I would swim to the bottom,

but I would drink my way up.

Estes was from Brownville, Tennessee and the watershed of the Hatchie River, which flows into the Mississippi and is crossed by several freight railroad lines. Common goldeneyes occasionally move through the region on migration.

This train has left the station

To remain profitable, trains have to carry a certain volume of material. Lumber, coal, paper, chemicals—what gets shipped is influenced by what is bought and sold at either end of the line. For some of the most dangerous materials like chlorine and other toxic gases, rail is often the only available and legal means of transportation. And as “common carriers,” assumed to be operating in the public interest, railroads can’t refuse to transport materials on the grounds of inconvenience or unprofitability. And, according to the United States government, transporting hazardous materials to their destination in a timely manner is essential to our daily lives.

In May 2012, with barely a whistle audible above the prairie winds, a 104-car train left North Dakota and traveled east through Chicago to Rotterdam Junction, New York, and into New England. On it rumbled north and east, to Northern Maine Junction and Bangor. The train turned north along the Penobscot River, past the Riverview Motel and through river towns before turning east again. The train carried 3,120,000 gallons of oil, the first shipment to move through Maine from the Bakken shale formation of the upper Midwest.

The train was going to Irving Oil’s refinery in St. John, New Brunswick, which processes an average of 12,600,000 gallons of oil per day. More than half comes back across the border to supply the northeastern United States with heating oil for the winter, just as the birds are flying south from their boreal breeding grounds in Canada.

All the bells and whistles

The railroad tracks that parallel the Penobscot River are part of Pan Am Railway’s 381 miles of track in Maine and a 1,700-mile network in the Northeast that runs along Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau heard the trains in 1845, the rattle of railroad cars “dying away and then reviving like the beat of a partridge.”

The train made trade manifest, putting resources raw and refined on traveling display. The goods rattling past Thoreau’s cabin reminded him of foreign lands and tropical seas: palm leaf, coconut husk, scrap iron, rusty nails, torn sails, rags, molasses, brandy, salt fish, Maine woods lumber, Penobscot Bay lime rock.

But the train also tied him to something unearthly. Thoreau likened the loud, steaming machine to a fire-breathing iron horse thundering and snorting through the woods, a mythological demigod making a celestial noise. Thoreau saw through the smoke and clatter. He saw a tireless and unheroic enterprise stretching beyond the horizon. “I bear the muffled tone of their engine bell from out the fog bank of their chilled breath, which announces that the cars are coming, without long delay…”

Right on schedule, every November the goldeneyes arrive on the Penobscot River, their winter home. Like the trains, the birds connect country and city, breeding grounds and wintering grounds, and they have to be adapted to live in both places as well as migrate between them. Using the earth’s magnetic field, sunlight and starlight, or something else entirely, the birds find their way each fall. Once the river freezes, their black-and-white plumage blends in with ice chunks floating on the current. But the black on the male’s head is really a deep iridescent purple, a sheen.

Keeping on track

Trains transport three-quarters of the oil from the Bakken shale beneath North Dakota, Montana, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, where both common and Barrow’s goldeneyes live along rivers and lakes.

For the railroads, a weakened industry rolling toward antiquity, oil meant renewal and profit. Within a year of the first shipment, the volume of crude oil moving through Maine increased from 63,000 gallons per day to nearly 1,000,000 gallons per day. For every town the tracks pass through, the lengthening, multiplying oil trains presented new possibilities for accidents and spills.

On March 7, 2013, a Pan Am train carrying 403,000 gallons of oil passed through Bangor and by the goldeneyes, then derailed next to the river sixty miles north. “Miraculously” only three gallons spilled.

If the river was whiskey
and I was a diving duck
I’d go down to the bottom
and I might never come up.

Used to be, when the mills shut down for weeks or months or years, the tracks got quiet. But once the oil started flowing, the trains started whistling through: a slow tantivy of commerce, a parade without spectators, cheering, or applause…(except for the protesters who in June 2013 attempted to block a train as it passed through Maine carrying 2,200,000 gallons of crude oil. Six people were arrested.)

Hell on wheels

2013. A summer night in Lac-Megantic, a small town in Quebec ten miles from the Maine border. People gather in a music café, listening to the band’s final set. If that river was whiskey and I was a diving duck….

On a hill above town, a lone engineer parks the train and walks away. He rubs his tired eyes and goes to sleep. Gravity pulls on the heavy train, 72 cars filled with 1,575,000 gallons of North Dakota crude oil bound for St. John. The brakes break, cars roll, roll, rolling rolling faster down down into town. The train screams, crashes, explodes, burns. Flaming oil runs through the streets, into the lake, where the wind pushes a blazing tide back toward shore. Hot oil flows underground, through storm drains into the Chaudiere River, into pipelines, exploding, burning.

For hours, whistles shrieked across the inferno. For days, the fire raged.

The runaway oil train and resulting fires killed 47 people.

The train that crashed in Lac-Megantic was operated by Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, whose 233 miles of “rickety” track lie along tributaries of the Penobscot River, home to wintering ducks, endangered Atlantic salmon, wild brook trout. At Brownville Junction, the tracks split into a southern line through Bangor to the chemical plants on the west side of Penobscot Bay, a northern spur that dead-ends at shuttered paper mills, and an eastbound through-line to the St. John refinery.

A few months after the disaster, Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo told the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee that safety statistics did little to show an impending accident, but after a thorough risk analysis, “pockets of risk were evident.”


The 200,000 square miles of oil-containing shale rock in the Bakken are sometimes called a pocket, a field, a patch.

The area in Maine’s largest river where the goldeneyes dive and pop is but a pocket, a particular bend that doesn’t seem like it would be high-quality winter habitat. What makes it so special? Maybe the stream that joins the channel just upriver brings warmth and nutrients swept from the pavement around the commercial district into the cove. Maybe it’s because this part of the river, which is near the head of tide, doesn’t always freeze. But sometimes it does, and so the birds are spending time and energy to get to this place even though they may arrive to find their feeding patch frozen over. So, whatever is under there must be worth it, must be enough to imprint on their memory, to cue them home each fall from the north country breeding grounds.

Both common and Barrow’s goldeneyes build their nests in tree cavities in high-elevation forests surrounding marshes and fishless lakes. The males and females leave separately in fall to molt in sheltered pockets of boreal forest, and then fly south to reunite along coasts and estuaries, like the St. Lawrence, the Missouri River in North Dakota, and the Penobscot River.

From Lac-Megantic, the Chaudière River flows north to the St. Lawrence River Estuary, home to some 7,000 Barrow’s goldeneyes; the few hundred that winter in Maine are part of this small eastern population. Considered a species of special concern in both Maine and Canada, Barrow’s goldeneyes are among several diving ducks whose populations are declining, perhaps because of environmental conditions on breeding grounds. Because they spend time along major waterways, oil spills are a major threat to their survival.

Off the rails

“The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer's yard…. Here come your groceries, country; your rations, countrymen!”

The spills began as soon as the shipments from the shale. On October 19, 2013, a train carrying oil and liquefied natural gas derailed, exploded, and caught fire outside of Edmonton, Alberta. On November 8, a train derailed near Aliceville, Alabama, spilling 750,000 gallons of North Dakota oil into a bottomland hardwood swamp of Beaver Creek, a tributary of the Tombigbee River.

In December, traffic resumed along the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway through Lac-Megantic. Near Casselton, North Dakota, an eastbound, 104-car oil train collided with a derailed westbound train full of soybeans, spilling half a million gallons of oil, setting off explosions and fires, and forcing the evacuation of 400 residents.

On January 7, the brakes failed on a 122-car train carrying propane and crude oil near Plaster Rock, New Brunswick and the Tobique River. Part of the train derailed and caught fire. Nearly 200 people were evacuated.

Pure Bakken crude oil is described as being like honey, lightweight, a clear dark yellow, and free of sulfur—“sweet.” It is sweet liquid amber, fossil resin forced from invisible cracks in the rock by high-pressure jets of water, sand, and chemicals. This hydraulic fracturing, this fracking, contaminates the oil with methane, propane, and hydrogen sulfide. The oil sours, turns corrosive and flammable, more volatile, more lethal, than what is implied by the labels on the old DOT-111 railroad tanker cars.

End of the line

Is there no stopping this train? In Thoreau’s day, to do things "railroad fashion" was the new byword—to move forward, with only a loud whistle warning others to get off the tracks and out of the way. “We have constructed a fate, an Atropos, that never turns aside,” he wrote. Atropos, one of the three fates who cuts the thread of life, daughter of the night, who, like a bird compelled to migrate home, cannot be turned.

The industry responded to the train disasters and spills by building pipelines, a network of tunnels and tubes crisscrossing the upper Midwest. The spills began as soon as the underground current of crude began flowing.

The “unexpected burst” of shale oil production, the “raging boom,” hurtled North Dakota past Alaska to become the second-largest producer of land-based oil in the United States, and putting the nation on track to be the world’s largest oil producer. No one was prepared for the scale, disruption, and damage of extraction.

Oil supplies are tracked and monitored to the drop, to the dollar. Harder to find are data on the demand. Who among us is using more? Need is accepted as fact, yet trying to unearth that fact is as difficult as squeezing oil out of stone. The mythology of supply and demand becomes the rhythm of the train rocking us to sleep, a chorus we are supposed to know by heart.

If the river was whiskey
and I was a diving duck
would I always dive to the bottom?
would I always come up?

Golden oil moved from pockets deep below the surface, across the surface of the earth in trains and pipes and trucks and tanks, only to burn for a second of warmth, the length of a city block, a turn of the gears, a reflection briefer than dying starlight, a whistling wingbeat above the frozen river of home.


Catherine Schmitt

Catherine Schmitt writes about science, nature, and the environment. She is the author of three books of nonfiction. Her creative work has appeared in Three Nations Anthology, 1966, Terrain, Collectively Quarterly, and Island Journal. She lives in Maine and online at