clam right

The beach at dawn

The beach at dawn

In life you will find a number of situations in which there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way (or several wrong ways) to go about things. In these situations there is no “gray area” to wallow through; things are about as cut-and-dried and black-and-white as they come, like panda jerky. For instance, there is one right way to cook a rump roast without it becoming inedibly tough, and that is to brine it first, and roast it at temperatures not exceeding three hundred degrees. Likewise, there is a certain point in the life cycle of the Himalayan blackberry when it is advisable to pluck the fruit: when its berries are black—not green or red—and the drupelets swollen with juice. Such obvious and unequivocal cases abound—they are the “absolutes” of our day-to-day lives. Conversely, the wrong time to try and spot trumpeter swans in Washington state is between May and October, during which the big honkers are not munching tillage in the fallow fields along I-5 but instead are summering in northern Canada and Alaska. Suffice it to say that the examples are legion. I mention all this only as prelude to my main point: there is a right way to dig razor clams, and I, by sheer dumb luck, have happened upon it.

First, you must properly outfit yourself. Razor clamming in Washington occurs mainly along the Pacific coast, on tractless beaches exposed to ever-present wind, rain and pounding surf. It is often wet and miserably cold, so layers and waterproofing are key. Rubber boots and gloves are highly recommended. Because much of the clam season is in winter, when low tides tend to arrive under a veil of darkness, proper lighting is essential—a good headlamp or, better yet, an electric or kerosene lantern would do nicely. Clamming on these beaches is a surprisingly peregrine endeavor, and with all the hunching over and turning about in the darkness, it’s easy to become disoriented.

Also important is understanding and abiding by the shellfish regulations set forth by the state. People more knowledgeable than you on matters of bivalve biology determine these rules, and it will serve you well to adhere to them—and not only because it would be illegal not to. Only certain beaches at certain times of the year are opened to clamming, partly because of population densities at each site and partly because of health concerns regarding the consumption of said clams. Occasionally there are toxic algae blooms or other microorganismal maladies that affect wide swaths of the shoreline, rendering the entire shellfish harvest off-limits. Eating these clams could cause paralytic shellfish poisoning and could possibly kill you. So unless you want to die by clam, stick to the prescribed sites and season.

Next, you must familiarize yourself with the implements, the hunt, and the quarry. For razor clamming a clam gun is ideal: a hollow metal or PVC cylinder with a handle like a dynamite plunger, found at most sporting goods stores. Driven into the wet sand, a clam gun works sort of like an ice corer, pulling out plugs of the beach via suction—and these plugs, if properly sighted, will each contain a razor clam in the center. That’s the aim, anyway. Performing this push-and-pull over and over can get pretty tiring on the arms and legs, especially if you’re not sure what you’re looking for and your plugs keep coming up empty. You soon learn to put your back to the surf when you spot a clam, and to cant the clam gun slightly seaward before plunging down. The angle has to be just right; slant too far one way or the other and you risk ramming into the clam’s razor-thin shell, chopping it to bits.

Razor clamming is a rather straightforward process, provided that you can actually tell where the clams are. They coyly betray their presence with a mere nickel-sized dimple left on the sand—this is called the “show”, and once you see one show, you can usually tell them apart from every other similarly-sized dimple on the beach. It is a depression made by their filter-feeding siphon sunk just below the surface; oftentimes the bigger the show, the bigger the clam. Some nights, though, for whatever reason—perhaps the surf is too rough, or the water too warm—the bivalves don’t show at all, and in these conditions clamming is all but impossible, like star-gazing under a full moon in the city. The setting’s all wrong. Times like these it’s best to turn in and hope for better luck another night.

Once you’ve procured some clams—no more than fifteen a day, as per the law—it is imperative to keep them alive for as long as possible. As soon as the clams die, the bacteria in their guts take over and quickly spoil the flesh, possibly leading to a nasty case of food poisoning if ingested. Keep them in a container of seawater over ice, preferably for no longer than a day or so. They should be submerged at all times. Clean them thoroughly at home and either cook them fresh or freeze for later.

Finally, and most importantly, you must find someone special to share this clamming experience with. It takes a certain gumption to go to the Pacific coast in November, braving the cold and rain and shearing wind to walk up and down a beach in the middle of the night for hours, digging for clams. It requires even more fortitude when, after a night of no shows, you bring it upon yourself to give it another go the following evening—this despite thunder, lightning, and driving hail, and a later tide to boot. It is not for everyone, this wintertime razor-clamming. There are lots of runny noses, clammy hands, sore arms and legs and backs; and the sand of course gets everywhere. In life, as in love, sometimes it takes a while to figure out what’s right—that is, what works, where other options have foundered—and when this happens, you would be wise to cherish it and just exult in the aptness of it all.


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