The Damariscotta River Cruise: A Backstage Pass to Maine's Precious Oyster Farms
“The seatbelt light will not be lit; feel free to move about the cabin,” said Chip, Captain of the River Tripper and River Cruise Host.
It was a vibrant, breeziest summer day in Damariscotta. The sun was in full form, and the trees against the crystal blue waters were the deepest of green. It was Father’s Day, so there was just a pinch of more familial love in the air than usual.
We motored away from land with absolute childish glee, just off the Schooner Landing boardwalk docks.
The River Tripper is a 49-passenger boat that glides triumphantly through the waves and dresses in candy apple red and eye-popping teal. You couldn’t miss her if you tried. For the last five years, she might as well have been on every stamp and postcard in town. This boat is a rockstar, and she’s your backstage pass to some of the very best oyster farms in the entire country. Hell, you have to walk through the Pemaquid Oyster Farm, nestled right there on the docks, just to get on to the boat. Most people don’t realize that but talk about VIP!
So, this is Damariscotta…
… and oysters. Are. Everywhere.
There may not be a more connected and universally loved couple in Damariscotta than Chip and Olga. Chip was born and raised on the River and was eight years old when he received his first boat as a gift, handmade by his Grandfather. In Chip’s words, “this finally made [him] mobile.” As a kid growing up, Chip recalled the many times he and his friends would venture by boat to the mouth of the river to swim, but it would be so cold they’d turn around and head back up to warmer temperatures. As a true Captain of the tributary, Chip guides the River Tripper with immense knowledge and wit.
Olga has the warmest, kindest eyes, and keeps guests engaged with her bartending skills and oyster shucks. Olga, a Hungarian Native, met Chip through friends during a trip up to Damariscotta. At the time, she was a Documentary Film Editor working in New York City. The two managed a long-distance relationship for 7 years (!) before Olga “fell for Chip and Maine,” and decided to move North. About five years ago, Olga and Chip launched the Damariscotta River Cruises, which has given an incredible opportunity for visitors to truly experience the beauty of the water and resource.
I asked Olga what started all this. “People will pay a lot of money to go on private farm tours, but the farms themselves don’t have great capacity to do so on top of their current workload. So, to make it affordable and educational, we began River Tripper tours. That way oyster farmers are only investing their time during our visits.”
“We have the freshest oysters in town. Not the freshest whiskey, though.”
“The difference between an oyster farmer and an oyster gardener is that a gardener can’t sell… so they get more friends.”
I can’t give them all away because the material is so fresh. But Chip’s jokes aren’t the only thing you’ll take away. Chip shares stories, tells legends, spots wildlife, and immerses you into oyster farm culture.
The Oyster Farms
The Damariscotta River accounts for 80% of Maine’s oyster production, which is why this tour is so special. You’re not only getting a glimpse of the farms – you’re gliding atop of the richest waters for some of the happiest, well-fed oysters in the world. Farms like Norumbega, Mook Sea Farm, Glidden Point, Otter Cove, and several others are on the list.
If you fancy a map, Chip and Olga's brochure displays all the oyster farms down the river. Aboard the River Tripper, the tour highlights eight oyster farms, and if you’re lucky, you might just pull up to a floating work station and speak to the farmers firsthand.
The oyster industry along the Damariscotta River has not only been a huge part of the economy, but it has increased the biodiversity in the area, which brings more elements to the tour. From harbor seals to herons, eagles to osprey, you will be amazed at the wildlife that chooses the river to call home. I can confidently say that we left the tour feeling like we’d just been on a Maine Safari.
Visit Chip and Olga
As we retreated up the river, I could feel the salty breeze on my face and humidity lingering in my hair. The smell of the air was fresh, and the afternoon sky was warm. The River Tripper offered friendly shade to those who wanted to take refuge on a cushiony, cool seat… and the bar on board, stocked with some great spirits and local brews, didn't close until we disembarked. Remember to tip your bartender!
As I slowly shuffled down the plank to the docks, there was this feeling that I experienced something that most Boston raw bar patrons would covet… I pictured their questionable faces deliberating, pencil twirling in hand, mulling over their half shell choices at the bar. If only they could be here.
I saw all of it. I touched the water where the oyster gardens grow. I tasted Maine.
Thank you, Chip and Olga, for your spirit, hospitality, and the enlightenment you’ve brought to so many visitors.
Those interested can book a tour on their website, http://damariscottarivercruises.com. Their most popular tour is The Oyster and Wine Tasting Cruise, which can be booked for Wednesday or Saturday evenings. You can also follow them on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/damariscottarivercruises/.