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Bountiful bivalves draw droves of clammers

Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2004

Standing up straight for the first time in over an hour, Wasilla resident Will Sena took a long stretch and rubbed out some of the tightness that had started to build in his lower back.

Digging razor clams can be hard work, but with more than 50 of the smooth, brown shelled bivalves in the bucket, Sena couldn't walk away yet. He was too close to getting his daily bag limit of 60 razors.

A few more to go and then he could begin thinking about making the long drive from Clam Gulch back to the big city.

"I've been clamming off and on for 25 years now. I always try to get 60 every time I come," Sena said.

He was down clamming with his son and nephew, who live in Soldotna, but was spending most of his time with his dog, a miniature Doberman pinscher named Jeremiah that seemed to relish chasing away gulls that got a little too close.

Sena's son doesn't like Jeremiah around, because he thinks the dog's running around interferes with the clamming process. Sena thinks differently.

 

Will Sena of Wasilla digs for razors at Clam Gulch while his dog Jeremiah stands guard to ensure no gulls get close to their harvest.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

"I like taking Jeremiah with me. It's good to get him out and get him exercising, burning off some of the weight he put on in winter. I guess it's the same for me, too. Clamming's just something that gets you out and about on nice days."

And what a nice day it was. The sapphire blue skies were clear, and the sun's warm rays had heated the surf-swept beaches to a comfortable 60 degrees. The backdrop of snow-capped Mount Redoubt and Mount Iliamna across Cook Inlet were as picturesque as an Ansel Adams photograph.

Sena watched Jeremiah for a few minutes, wiped away the beads of sweat from his forehead that was starting to turn frankfurter pink under the midday sun, then got back to work with his shovel.

Sena was one of the early-bird clammers who had come to Clam Gulch in the middle of the week during the big minus tides earlier this month. He was hoping to beat the crowds, but a few hundred other people had the same idea, as well.

The coastline in both directions was crowded with diggers in rubber waders using clam guns, shovels and bare hands, all hoping to take home their limit of clams.

"I wanted to get down here before the tourists start showing up and the pickings get slim," said Dean Hatch of Kenai, down on all fours and elbow deep in the dark sand.

 

Butter clams, such as these harvested at China Poot Bay, have a generous daily bag limit of 700.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

"I like to come in May when it's just locals. It's a fun way to break in summer with the family. I mean, hell, where else you gonna do this? I'm outside and doing something," he said.

Like most people out that day, Hatch was after his daily bag limit of razors.

"I always take what we need and then leave the rest," he said.

Hatch likes to get enough clams to freeze some. That way, as the weather turns cool in October and November, he's got a key ingredient to one of his favorite meals.

 

On the south shore of Kachemak Bay, butter and littleneck clams can be located by looking for these squirts, instead of dimples in the sand.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

"There's nothing better than a hot bowl of chowder after a cold winter day," Hatch said.

Not far from where he was digging, Shawn Warren of Kenai was enjoying digging clams for the first time.

"This is great. There's nothing like looking hard, seeing a dimple, going for it and digging up a big one," she said.

Like Hatch, Warren also was using her hands to find the buried mollusks. However, unlike her male counterparts who had palms that were thick and course, Warren had the hands of a lady right down to the gold jewelry on her wrists and inch-long acrylic nails on her finger tips.

"It's hard work. I started in rubber gloves and tore right through them. I kept digging, though. I can dig with the best of them. I'm proof that women don't have to let their nails stop them from clam digging," she said, wiggling her fingers to show how good her manicure still looked.

Waxing and waning

A few hours later the tide turned and came in as fast as it had gone out. It washed over the thousands of holes that had left the beach looking more like a shelled battle field than a fun family destination. People began to retreat to their campsites up the beach or up the hill.

Anyone who has ever clammed knows the digging is easy compared with the cleaning. Many people got started on that task by washing clams in a nearby stream, and then shucking them from their shells and into plastic Ziplock baggies.

For others, it was time to have fun. They headed to the tailgates of their pickup trucks to open a few beers, swap stories and take it easy for a few hours. Some were taking a break before driving back to Anchorage, while others were just waiting out the next tide cycle.

"Clamming makes me thirsty," said Chris Smith or Soldotna after taking a long pull from a cold beer sweating with condensation.

He threw another log on a campfire that already was going strong, passed out another round of drinks for his friends, then took a seat in a lawn chair made comfortable by years of use.

"Clamming's not really about the clams," Smith said. "It's about all the stuff the goes along with it. I'm not saying I don't come hoping to take home a bucket full, but it's more about hanging out with friends you haven't seen all winter and drinking and socializing with them."

A few camps away, Rob Martin and Chad Lamson, both from Girdwood, were in their second day of a three-day trip of outdoor activities.

"We always try to make a camping trip this time of year. We have three long days of early king fishing and clamming. There's something about digging in the mud I just like. It's a real kick," Martin said.

It doesn't hurt that he also enjoys eating clams in just about every way imaginable.

"I like them sliced, diced, baked, fried, steamed and, of course, I like fresh clams the best," he said pointing to the large simmering pot belching clam-scented steam.

Protecting the fishery

With so many clam diggers from near and far, state regulatory agencies were monitoring the beach to ensure everyone was abiding by the shellfish regulations. It's a tough task this early in the year and soon will be even tougher, considering there can be thousands of people scattered along the coastline from Kasilof to Homer during the big minus tides of summer.

"We'll maintain a presence during all the clam tides this season," said Lt. Steve Bear, a trooper with the Alaska Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement in Soldotna. "Our job is to protect the resource so that it's there for future generations, and we just ask people to remember to respect the fishery."

Troopers stationed at the top of Per Osmar's Way stopped vehicles leaving the beach and checked all clammers for valid sportfishing licenses. They also counted clams to ensure that bag limits had not been exceeded.

Brooke Selmer of Anchorage was one of the people stopped. He had a heaping cooler of razors in the rear of his hatchback sedan, and Trooper Travis Hedlund thought it best to count them.

 

Far back in China Poot Bay, a group of colorful starfish, wait for the incoming tide in a small pool of water, while further up the beach a small crowd of clam diggers rake in their haul.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

"I'm a shell collector," Selmer told the trooper. In the shell collecting business, razor clam shells can be a highly prized commodity.

"You look for the ones with the thickest shells. You clean them up and dry them out and they'll transform to the most brilliant, bright green shell on the outside with a lilac white on the inside. On eBay they can sell for as much as $5 apiece," Selmer said.

As interesting as this information was, it wasn't the focal point of Hedlund's questions to Selmer. The trooper was more interested in how Selmer got the clams, rather than what he was going to do with them.

Selmer explained he had clammed consecutive days, camped overnight in between and had accumulated 115 clams over the two days of digging five clams under his possession limit of two daily bag limits of 60 clams per day.

The trooper counted every clam, found Selmer was telling the truth and moved on to inspect the next vehicle in line.

A different venue

It was a busy scene at Clam Gulch, and although some people enjoy the crowds of people and pop-up campers, trailers and full-size RVs as far as the eye can see, it's definitely not for everyone.

Passing by all the hubbub, they keep heading south on the Sterling Highway past Clam Gulch, Ninilchik and all the rest. They drive all the way to where the road nearly ends on the Homer Spit and from there take a boat to the south side of Kachemak Bay in pursuit of shellfish.

Here Mount Augustine juts up from the horizon. Sea otters are abundant and often are spotted floating on their backs while tap-tap-tapping away at shellfish by holding a rock in their tiny forepaws.

Much like the more northern beaches, gulls abound, particularly for those that pass nearby the aptly named Gull Island. However, the bay also is home to numerous murres, puffins and other shorebirds, and these species frequently are seen on the ride across the water.

 

Photo by Joseph Robertia

Travis Hedlund, a trooper with the Alaska Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement in Soldotna, checks to make sure Brooke Selmer has not exceeded his possession limit for razor clams while on his way out of Clam Gulch. Troopers maintain a presence during all the clams tides of the season, from Kasilof to Homer.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

"The sea life here is just amazing. I've probably seen at least 1,000 starfish. There was just blankets of them in all different colors red, pink purple every shade you could imagine," said Tyler Cameron of Kasilof while taking a break from clamming a quiet stretch of beach, tucked far back in China Poot Bay. In addition to the clam harvest, the natural beauty of the location is a big plus for him.

Further down the beach, Donnie Shaw of Anchorage was out with several friends, but unlike most people who had shown up on their own boat, Shaw's party had come across with one of the charter services out of Homer.

"The price of the drop-off service is a fair trade for the clams you get, especially when you take into consideration how expensive a dozen clams are when ordering them in a restaurant," Shaw said.

Less than 40 people were on the beach that morning a bit crowded for China Poot, but a real contrast to the combat clamming of the northern beaches.

"I'm not a big fan of fighting crowds, so I love that there are few people," said Erica Roberts from Seattle. In town visiting family in Homer, she thought clamming would be a great way to spend the day.

"This is my first time clamming. I don't even like clams, really. I just think it's a fun thing to do outdoors with loved ones on an amazing day like this," she said.

The clams on the south side of the bay are different than the razors found further north. In China Poot, it's the thick, white-shelled butter clams that average 3 to 5 inches long, and their smaller cousins the Pacific littleneck clams that are more brownish, have distinct vertical ridges and only get about 2 inches long, that rule the beaches.

These clams are a little different to locate, as well. As opposed to the tell-tale dimples in the sand for razors, butters and littlenecks frequently squirt tiny streams of water up from beneath the sand, making it easy to find them, even from a distance. Also, these two species are dug using rakes rather than shovels or hands.

Despite being a first-timer digger, Roberts wasn't haven't much trouble finding either of the two types of bivalves.

"It's pretty easy. At first any clam would do, but now I'm having fun with the challenge of going just for the steamers," said Roberts, referring to the colloquial name for littlenecks.

Within a few hours, she had managed to dig up two full buckets of clams for herself and her family. A lot of clams, but well within the legal limits of 700 butter clams and 1,000 littlenecks clams that can be taken daily with a shellfish harvest permit.

"The bag limits are very generous. It would take my family 20 years to eat that many clams," Roberts said.



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