Sunday, January 22, 2012

Day 42: Geoduck Quest


I paced around the house yesterday willing time to pass. I know I ought to embrace the precious few hours of daylight in a northwest winter, but my mind was on the prize. I busied myself with a little laundry and light house cleaning and contemplated steaming some of yesterday’s clams. But my boys are out for the weekend, and I really want to share my killer catch with them. I’m planning a major clam feast for our Sunday family dinner, and hoped to present the King of Clams, the mighty Geoduck.
For an early dinner, I roasted a modest cut of venison with mushrooms, celery, and onions, and  then caught up on reading. The blinding light of a migraine hit me around 2PM, and sent me scampering for the tranquility of my bedroom. Armed with Maxalt, sunglasses, and an audiobook version of Michael Pollan’s, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I wiled away the afternoon and evening trying to shake the damn thing before it ruined my nightime plans. I’m sure Jim thought he was in the clear. It seems he doesn’t really enjoy digging up the beach at night like I do.
Tonight’s forecast promised a miserable dig, but I didn’t care. I wanted the migraine to lift so I could get on with life. I waited 42 days for a tide low enough to dig geoducks. I wasn’t going to miss it. I felt better a couple of hours before low-tide, so we gathered gear and loaded in the truck. I can’t drive on migraine days, so reliable Jim was certainly stuck.
The thermometer in the truck read 33 degrees, as a nasty slush fell from the sky. Great dollops of rain, ice, and snow splatted the windshield like seagull droppings. The temperature warmed five degrees as we dropped in elevation and hugged the canal.
We hit the beach an hour before the lowest tide. According to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website, a geoduck bed was located just north of the parking lot and marked with yellow, fiberglass posts that could be seen at the -2.0 water mark. I scanned the beach for posts. I was an hour early, but expected to see at least parts of posts sticking up in the surf. I walked north and then further north and then further north. I’m not sure what “just north” is supposed to mean, but we walked north for a very long time and never saw a post.
At 930PM, we walked south, back toward the parking lot. I walked the tide’s edge searching for anything that might look like yellow posts. I got excited a few times when my flashlight caught something bright orange in the distance. Orange is almost yellow. The orange was always a starfish. I must have seen 50 truly impressive sea stars, orange, red, and purple, some with the standard 5 arms but most with at least 20. I wish it was legal to collect and eat them. If they tasted decent, I could eat forever off Shine Beach Park.
Freezing rain blew sideways and stung my cheeks. I pulled my hat down and lowered my head. The tide was coming back in, and I hadn’t started to dig for geoduck. My inner bitchiness swelled. I hate losing, but more than I hate losing, I hate being a cold loser. I caught myself snapping at Jim, who didn’t want to be out on the beach anyway.
Neither of us knew exactly what to look for, and both of us researched separate sites with different information about what a geoduck siphon dimple should look like. To put it mildly, we bantered and finally settled on a rectangular shaped hole that looked quite promising. I sunk a shovel and a burp of water shot in the air. I knew we found the money spot.
And so we dug, and dug, and dug. Geoducks are known to be buried four-feet down. We dug deep at first. Then we dug out the sand from collapsing walls. Walls collapsed faster than we could dig. Which I’ll tell you is a not that fast at all. My neglected abs twitched and moaned as I pulled shovel-full after never-ending shovel-full from the hole. Jim and I dug a kiddie pool worthy of a dozen toddlers. I couldn’t resist any longer. I was going in.
I flopped on the beach and stuck my head, shoulders, and arms in the hole. My hips pressed flat against the compacted shore above to serve as a counterweight to keep my whole body from sliding in. The beach mud sucked in my hands, then my elbows, and then my upper arms. I felt around in the goo below for anything clamlike. Despite the dampness, the hole was warm. Sand buffed my check, and when I let my imagination get the best of me, I was certain I smelled sewage.   
Jim continued to clean away the sand from collapsing sides, careful not to scrape me with his shovel. I was about to pull out of the hole when I felt it. “I got it, I got it.”
“Where?” Jim readied his shovel.
“Right here, but he’s stuck.” My gloved hand rocked the oval top a football-shaped object, trying to get a better grip. Most of me slid in the hole while I fought to free the giant below. Finally I felt it release and pulled my prize to the surface. I thrust the thing in the air like a t-ball trophy. “Ha! Look at this big bastard!”
“Good God.” Jim, a man of few words and even fewer emotional outbursts, looked stunned, almost impressed even. But his Ohio sensibilities killed the moment. “Nasty. You really gonna eat that?”
“Hell, yeah. He’s chowder, Baby.”
“Well, good for you. We done yet?”
“Yeah, I just wanted one.”
We walked back toward the car. Jim was ahead of me because my eyes scanned the beach for potential geoduck shows. I really only needed one, but two would be better. I found what looked like a siphon hole. “Hey Jim, take a look at this. Maybe we try just one more time.” He may not like clams, but he understands the thrill and addiction of the hunt. He slid his shovel into the ground without argument. In about 15-minutes, I pulled up a slightly smaller, monster clam.
Jasper barked his head off in the truck, begging us to come back to the parking lot. Our limits were partially full of smaller species. We tossed in butter clams, macoma clams, and cockels as we sifted through the sand from our two big digs. The tide moved in and it was time to go. I was muddy, sandy, wet, and if I let my imagination get the best of me, I’d swear I smelled of sewage.
Jim opened the back of the truck, and I was busy knocking sand off my boots when I heard him startle.
“Evening folks,” said a figure with a flashlight. “Been watching you on the beach for a while.” He flashed a badge affixed to a dark-colored parka. “You mind putting down your shovels and letting me inspect your catch?”
I squared off in front of him. We were about the same height and maybe even the same thickness. It took me a couple of air-head moments to figure out why he shielded his face from me. My headlamp was still on. “Crap. Sorry, Sir.”
Officer Balasza inspected our catch, complemented my huge geoduck, but said the smaller version was a horse clam. I doubted him but remained respectful. Apart from size, the two clams shared all the same features. He quizzed us on size requirements and limits for each species. We passed with an A+. We know the rules. I rambled about my blog. He pretended to be interested. I inquired about the yellow fiberglass stakes, and he’d never seen them.  We thanked Officer Balasza for his service, and  he sent us on our way.
 Of course we were clean. Finding sustainable food is what I’m living for. I’m not about to act like an ass and poach on these beaches or risk depleting the food sources I love. I’ve been all sorts of bad in my life, but I’m not that kind of girl, not that kind of bad.
When I got home, I laid out the catch. We had 10 cockles, a couple handfuls of macoma clams, and a few butters. I plopped the biggest cockle on kitchen scale, 8.5 ounces. I followed with the night’s prize. The digital scale flashed 27 ounces, and I danced around the kitchen.
I put the two monster clams on the stovetop, under the overhead light to get a better look. I pulled up images and read descriptions of geoducks on my laptop. I’ve read them a hundred times before, but this time I noticed something my clams were missing. My heart sank.
According to description, the geoduck’s body is so large that neither the siphon nor the mantle (behind) can fully retract into the shell. Stubby necks popped from both of my specimens, but the rest of the bodies were fully tucked. I looked up images of horse clams as my enthusiasm waned.
I failed to capture the iconic Washington Geoduck. I’m a little sad about that, but on the brighter side, the quest is still on. I have to wait until April for a tide low enough, but April will come and I’ll try again. In the meantime, I’ll chowder-chop these horse clams and invite my neighbors for supper. Maybe one evening, I’ll be able to feed my whole neighborhood at my wild table.  

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