Low tides prove fruitful for hardy Clam Gulch clammers

Posted: Thursday, May 17, 2001

CLAM GULCH (AP) -- Shovel in hand, blue wagon in tow, Kim Sterling prowled the edge of the Cook Inlet surf on Tuesday.

Behind him came the helpers -- 5-year-old son Micah in his red snow suit and 5-year-old nephew Christian Taylor in the yellow parka.

When the May sun peaked from behind the clouds, the beach almost felt warm. But when it hid, the wind that drove foot-high waves onto the sand made itself felt.

Sterling paid the wind little heed, the boys even less so. Sometimes they helped push the metal, four-wheeled wagon. Sometimes they jumped and played in the tide pools.

Sometimes they even looked for the dimples in the sand that drew Sterling to an usually submerged landscape exposed by a minus-3.8-foot tide.

Straight across the sands from the towering twin rocks that guard the access road down from the popular Clam Gulch State Recreation Area, Sterling was near the epicenter of the most heavily dug razor clam beach in Alaska.

Any distance to the north or south, fewer clammers probably meant better clamming. But Sterling was somewhat constrained by his entourage.

''I really can't do a whole lot of traveling, draggin' these two guys and a cart with me,'' he said. ''It's more for the experience. I figured there's nothing more they'd like to do than dig in the mud.''

Sterling had come prepared as much for the kids as the clams. The wagon, along with a bucket to hold the catch, contained extra clothes, extra mittens, food, and a Thermos.

''I've got some hot water to rinse their hands if they get cold,'' Sterling said. ''You never know what the weather is going to do.''

The clammer from the nearby community of Sterling, just north of Soldotna, had discovered the luxury of hot water while working as a commercial salmon fishermen in Cook Inlet. Cold-numbed hands, he noted, can be brought back to life quickly with a quick rinse in hot water.

More than once on Tuesday, the kids took advantage of this, but Sterling did not.

He was so busy wrestling clams out of the sand that his hands never really had a chance to get cold. He might not have been in the clam-digging hot spot, but he found plenty of dimples and dug quickly toward the daily bag limit of 45 clams.

All this despite the expected parental detours.''Hey dad, here's a hole,'' Micah said.

''You wanna dig it?'' Sterling said.

Micah looked on expectantly.

''Here you go,'' Sterling said, handing over the shovel.

Micah grabbed it and attacked the sand.

''Keep diggin','' Sterling said.

Micah came up with an old, empty clam shell, but no clam. Suffice to say that while clam digging is easier than fishing, it's not quite so simple that a 5-year-old can master it.

Maybe a 6-year-old. And certainly an adult, no matter how long they may have been away from the beach.

''Funny,'' Sterling said, ''I haven't been down here in 10 or 12 years.''

Good weather, the low tide and the simple chance to get out and play with the kids lured him. A day that started slow proved fruitful.

In the first hour before the tide bottomed out, Sterling found three clams, and the kids started getting bored.

''Daddy, how about if we find one more clam,'' Micah said.

''That wouldn't make much of a meal buddy,'' Sterling said. ''One for me, one for you, one for your mom.''

Fortunately, as the tide went farther and farther out into the Inlet, exposing more and more beach, the digging improved. Youthful boredom was quickly replaced by the business of duty. The kids busily picked up the clams Sterling harvested and ferried them to the bucket in the wagon.

With the serious business of clamming finally under way, Christian tried to keep track of success. He put his head in the bucket and counted.

''Now, we've got one, two, three, four, five, six, seven,'' he said.

That didn't last long. Soon there was such a pile the kids couldn't begin to count the clams, and they were too busy running back and forth between Sterling and the bucket.

He would find a dimple. Dig a couple quick scoops of sand 3 or 4 inches from it on the ocean side. Then get down on his blue knee-pads, and dig around in the up-beach side of the hole searching for the clam.

Sometimes there were surprises. On several occasions, Sterling came up with sandlances that had burrowed into the beach.

The kids liked these small, snakelike fish even better than clams.

''Let's keep him,'' Micah said.

''It's a swordfish,'' Christian said.

Sterling smiled and went about his work. Hey, the kids were happy. The outing was proving not only productive, but fun for everyone, including the digger.

He smiled when he stuck his hand in a hole and got in a wrestling match with a clam using its muscular foot to try to push itself deeper into the beach. There was a struggle. The man emerged a victor, but some of the clams refused to give up.

Several of those he tossed on top of the beach were already halfway to digging their way back beneath the sand before the kids arrived to cart them off to the dinner bucket.

''Grab him,'' Sterling said. ''Let's keep him. Put him in the bucket.''

The clams came quick when Sterling got into a patch of sand infested with dimples. Here there was not only the occasional mark of a clam, but clusters of them and even spouts of water shooting above the sand as clams digging deeper shot material out their siphons.

No longer did Sterling need to walk the beach looking for places to dig. Down on all fours, he skittered around on hands and knee pads in his coveralls, looking a lot like a big old bear and digging with equal enthusiasm.

By the time the tide finally turned, the group had enough clams in the bucket to call it quits. Sterling turned the trailer and the boys toward the bluff and started the trek across the long, exposed stretch of sand to the car.

On down the beach, though, dozens of others were still at it. The crowd stretched as far as the eye could see in either direction, groups of two or three here, a dozen or more there.

Seventy-two-year-old Walter Spooner from Nikiski, who dug with the efficiency of a cagey veteran, said he just wanted to beat the Anchorage crowds to the beach. They come in droves, as they have for decades, on the first weekend of May with a good minus tide.

This year that won't happen until May 26-27, but Spooner was out early anyway. He wanted to get his clams.

He had the digging down to a science. He found a patch of beach heavy with dimples and filled his bucket in less than 30 minutes.

It was as simple as digging out two shovels full of dirt, reaching into the hole left by the dig, and grabbing the clam on the up-beach side. Or at least Spooner made it look that easy.

''I came up here in 1967, been clammin' ever since,'' he said.

Thirty-four years of experience makes it a lot easier. First timers will have more trouble, but even then it's not hard:

Head out onto the beach about an hour before low tide.

Hike down close to the surf line and look for a dime- to nickel-size dimple in the sand.

Take a clam shovel (on sale at most sporting goods stores), and dig out a couple shovels full of sand parallel to the surf, 4 to 6 inches on the surf side of the dimple.

Now, reach into the hole and dig around with your hand in the soupy sand on the uphill side of the hole. The clam should be there. Ideally, you want to come at it from below as it digs down to get away.

Sometimes you have to be fast.

''When (the sand) gets real soupy,'' Sterling said, ''they can dig real fast.''

Catching up is the only challenge in this game.


(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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