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Diggin' it!

Memorial Day pries open start of summer clamming

Posted: Sunday, May 27, 2001

In the land where salmon is king and halibut break the scales, there are razor clams. These long-necked beauties have dug their way into the hearts and up to the tables of locals and left an impression on those who visit the shores of Cook Inlet.

"We have a fair amount of visitors ask about clam digging," said Ricky Gease, of the Kenai Visitors and Convention Bureau. "Sometimes they have no clue that you actually go clamming on a low tide and we have to explain that to them. A little bit of local knowledge goes a long way."

Gease, who grew up in Wisconsin, said his wife, Bunny Swan, knows the perfect way to cook clams.

"She puts them through a blender and makes patties out of them," he said. "They're really tasty."

 

A small dimple in the sand betrays the clam digging below.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Kim Mariman, of the Soldotna Visitor Information Center, said, "We have everything there is to know about clams here."

And it's a good thing, too

"Visitors ask about clam tides, how to clean clams, how to cook them and where to go clamming, Mariman said. "We tell them where to get their supplies and even tell them how to dig for clams. Some have never even heard of clamming, so we kind of show them what to do."

The visitor center has a life-sized photo of the world's record king salmon -- caught by Les Anderson and weighing in at 97.25 pounds -- for visitors to be photographed with, but they don't have the world's record razor clam.

 

An eagle watches the Bailey and Gielarowski families as they dig clams on the beach at Clam Gulch during a favorable tide earlier this month.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

However, John Cook, owner of Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof, said the public is welcome to stop by and see the 1.5 pound monster clam dug by the lodge's original owner, Nick Cekkin, some 20-years ago.

"It's 8-inches long," Cook said. "For the first seven or eight years we owned the lodge, we offered $500 to anyone who could bring in a bigger clam, but it's never been done."

If Cook's clam is the largest, then Rich Anderson of Hoquiam, Wash., has it tied. Anderson has his 8-inch trophy clam preserved in a jar as proof.

Digging clams in the Pacific Northwest since he was 5, Anderson and his wife, Linda, first came to the Kenai Peninsula in 1995, and "fell in love with the area." The couple have since purchased property on Funny River Road and plan to put in a well and septic system after they arrive July 6.

 

A bucket of clams sits on the beach.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

With more than 40 years of clamming experience, Ander-son sees a big difference between digging clams on the Kenai and in Washington.

"Down here the limit is 15 to a person and the seasons are short," Anderson said from his Hoquiam home. "Down here there are thousands and thousands of people who come to dig clams. We've really overdug them. There aren't as many diggers in Alaska, and the clams are a lot bigger."

In 2000, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reduced the legal limit of razor clams a person can dig on the Kenai Peninsula in a day from 60 to 45.

"I think it's a neat thing that it changed," Anderson said.

Butch Leman, a lifelong Ninilchik resident, also has been digging clams since he was a kid. Over the years, he's perfected his skill, using a shovel.

"I take the first spade full from three or four inches away from the clam hole," Leman said. "If I see the clam neck going down, I take another half a scoop and attempt to gently press the shovel tip against the clam and it kind of stuns it and stops it. It takes a real soft touch so you don't crack the shell. I don't go for the deep clams because there's so many to pick from. I just let them dig to China and come back another day."

Leman has worried about the growing number of people harvesting clams on the peninsula.

"My concerns have been met somewhat in that Ninilchik Native Descendants and other people lobbied to have the 60-clam limit reduced to 45," said Leman of efforts by NND, an organization to which he belongs.

But it isn't just the limit that bothers him.

"It would behoove the state to try to contain the traffic on Memorial Day weekend or any weekend during the summer. (Residents) can't get to the places where we would normally go because of all the other traffic and lack of parking space.

"If you're going to promote something like clamming, which I think the state does, you have to have some sort of infrastructure in place. The fact that you have these big land yachts -- motor homes -- so locals can't get down to the beach seems ironic."

In spite of frustrations, Leman said untrained clam diggers offer some humorous moments.

"My Uncle Joe saw a guy digging a clam hole and whether the guy got the clam or not, no one knew," Leman said. "But when the guy got done, he filled every hole back up. Maybe he was a precursor of the tree-hugger element of the early 1960s. I thought it was pretty funny."

Leman's favorite time to dig clams guarantees he has the beach practically to himself.

"There's a few of us that like to dig during the winter at night whenever it's not real cold or there isn't a north wind blowing," said Leman, who has shared the experience with his children.

"It's not that bad to get down there and dig by Coleman lantern. Sometimes you see the northern lights or a bright blanket of stars. And you're the only one down there. And you wonder if there's anyone else in the world digging clams at that moment."

If the adventure of digging and the enjoyment of eating clams are the highlights, cleaning them is the flip side. But not for Marianne Murto of Ninilchik or the crew at the Clam Shell Lodge in Clam Gulch.

"I've been cleaning clams for other people for about nine years," said Murto, who was born in Homer, grew up in Anchor Point and moved to Ninilchik in 1973.

"I do roughly 20 to 30 limits a day during the clam tides that hit twice a month from May through August."

Murto said the secret to cleaning is "consistency and enjoying your work."

What is there to enjoy about having your hands in water for hours while you clip and rinse?

"The product you get afterward," she said. "It's pretty awesome and all those people are pleased by the time they dig the clams and I clean and package them. It's awfully rewarding. It's one of the great resources here that we shouldn't take for granted. We should really appreciate that we can still do this."

Murto agreed with Leman that digging clams at night can be an adventure, though always fun.

"One time I got bogged down in the mud and had to take off my rubber boot," Murto said. "My clamming partner was a couple of miles up the beach, had the lantern and there wasn't any moon. I kind of panicked. I had to leave my boot behind, but I got my foot out. You have to watch out when the tide's coming in."

Rose Moorefield, 15-year owner of the Clam Shell Lodge, tries to make it easier for first-timers.

"We take people down to the beach, show them how to dig, how to clean and how to cook. Our vehicle will take from four to six people at a time."

She is exploring the possibility of putting together a video that will help novice diggers understand the process.

"A lot of people from the East Coast haven't had any experience with digging clams," Moorefield said. "But to our visitors from Washington or Oregon, it's no big thing. They know what they're doing."

State regulations require a sport fishing license to dig razor clams. The cost is $15 for residents and ranges from $10 to $100 for nonresidents, depending on the number of days the license will be used. There's no rush, since the season stretches over the entire year.

The how, where and when of razor clam digging can be found in a publication distributed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Copies can be picked up at any Fish and Game office or found on the World Wide Web at www.sf.adfg.state.ak.us/Region2/html/pdfpubs/clams.pdf.

Razor clams range from south of the Kenai River to the tip of the Homer Spit, according to Nicky Szarzi, the lower Cook Inlet area biologist for the Fish and Game Sport Fish Division. The biggest ones are found from Ninilchik south.

"The water coming out of glacially fed rivers is flowing down the inlet and meeting clearer waters that are coming north from around the end of the peninsula," Szarzi said. "They meet at Ninilchik. The sun penetrates the water when the water is clear, so you have more primary product production, material that is the base of the food chain."

Szarzi said clams live approximately 13 years, but estimated the one on display at Tustumena Lodge to be an ancient 18 years old.

"You look at the rings on their shells, just like the rings on a tree or fish scale," Szarzi said. "In the winter, they don't grow very much and lay down shell material more slowly. The dark area associated with the shell's ridge is counted as a winter period. However, sometimes you get false rings because they also occur when the clam is stressed by environment or jabbed by a shovel."

Studies done in the Clam Gulch area in 1999 revealed approximately 16 million harvestable clams, or clams 4 inches in length.

In 1998, testing done on Ninilchik beaches reflected razor clam populations of approximately 900,000. Szarzi said the numbers fluctuate, depending on environmental conditions.

"When clams spawn each year, the young clams aren't always successful at settling onto the beach in the right location to grow into adults, or the current may be a little warmer or there may be storms during the period that they're settling out of the water column onto the beach. So you generally see that reflected in their numbers, which will be low and then climb. It kind of cycles like that," said Szarzi, who did her master's thesis at the Juneau Center for Fisheries and Ocean Sciences on the distribution and abundance of the Pacific razor clam on east side Cook Inlet beaches.

"In Ninilchik right now we are between peaks. The harvest is fairly high, so the exploitation rate -- percent of clams harvested -- is fairly high and there's not really much literature on what good or bad exploitation rates are and not a lot of information about the effect of harvests on clam populations. We are watching it to make sure that we're not getting over exploited in Ninilchik."

Dennis Chan, post supervisor in Soldotna for the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Protection Division, also is helping make sure that doesn't happen.

"We've got patrols that are checking how many clams people are digging," Chan said. "If people are caught with more than the limit, it's a $50 fine and $2 for each clam over the limit. We do a 4-wheel patrol up and down the beach and also check people as they come off the beach."

Chan said that several citations already have been issued this season.

Another concern is safety.

"We have picked up people who got stranded out there," said Chan, referring to quickly changing conditions created by the inlet's fast moving tides.

"People need to have a good idea of what the tide is doing, their location and where the high spots are, because they can get into an area that gets surrounded by water and not be able to get back to the beach.

"A lot of people from out of state come from areas where they don't have as great of a tide or water that moves so fast, so they really need to be aware of it. Stop in and talk to us and get an idea of how fast these tides move. Be aware of where you are. Don't get so involved in digging that you forget these things."

Razor clams on the inlet's west side propelled Jerry Cartee's air taxi business into the clam processing industry in 1981.

"We were hauling clams for a guy who wasn't making it in the business," Cartee said. "So we just kind of brought him into our organization. We had the runway and the airplanes and it was just kind of a niche that was good for us."

Cartee said the business, Pacific Alaska Shellfish Inc., is now a division of The Pacific Seafood Group of Portland, Ore., the largest seafood distributor on the West Coast.

He anticipates his crew of 26 harvesters will harvest 368,000 pounds of razor clams during a 70-day period this summer.

"They'll be busy," Cartee said, but not as busy as last year when they harvested 374,000 clams.

The crew stays at a camp in the Polly Creek and Crescent River area, a 15-mile stretch of razor clam territory that has been certified for commercial digging by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

The clams are flown daily to the processing plant in Nikiski.

During the 2000 season, 2,500 pounds of Cartee's clams stayed in Alaska. The remainder went to Washington and Oregon.

"The market has traditionally been in the Pacific Northwest," said Cartee, who is originally from Anacortes, Wash.

With that many clams, what is his favorite way to eat them?

"Well, I grew up on clams," he said. "Not to say that I don't like them, but I got my fill as a kid. It's certainly a great product, but I'm like an electrician that strings up his own lights with extension cords because he's sick of doing electrical stuff. When I was a kid, we had plenty of clams."

From dip to tacos, clams can be cooked up a number of ways.

For recipes, see page C-2.

In the land where salmon is king and halibut break the scales, there are razor clams. These long-necked beauties have dug their way into the hearts and up to the tables of locals and left an impression on those who visit the shores of Cook Inlet.

"We have a fair amount of visitors ask about clam digging," said Ricky Gease, of the Kenai Visitors and Convention Bureau. "Sometimes they have no clue that you actually go clamming on a low tide and we have to explain that to them. A little bit of local knowledge goes a long way."

Gease, who grew up in Wisconsin, said his wife, Bunny Swan, knows the perfect way to cook clams.

"She puts them through a blender and makes patties out of them," he said. "They're really tasty."

Kim Mariman, of the Soldotna Visitor Information Center, said, "We have everything there is to know about clams here."

And it's a good thing, too

"Visitors ask about clam tides, how to clean clams, how to cook them and where to go clamming, Mariman said. "We tell them where to get their supplies and even tell them how to dig for clams. Some have never even heard of clamming, so we kind of show them what to do."

The visitor center has a life-sized photo of the world's record king salmon -- caught by Les Anderson and weighing in at 97.25 pounds -- for visitors to be photographed with, but they don't have the world's record razor clam.

However, John Cook, owner of Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof, said the public is welcome to stop by and see the 1.5 pound monster clam dug by the lodge's original owner, Nick Cekkin, some 20-years ago.

"It's 8-inches long," Cook said. "For the first seven or eight years we owned the lodge, we offered $500 to anyone who could bring in a bigger clam, but it's never been done."

If Cook's clam is the largest, then Rich Anderson of Hoquiam, Wash., has it tied. Anderson has his 8-inch trophy clam preserved in a jar as proof.

Digging clams in the Pacific Northwest since he was 5, Anderson and his wife, Linda, first came to the Kenai Peninsula in 1995, and "fell in love with the area." The couple have since purchased property on Funny River Road and plan to put in a well and septic system after they arrive July 6.

With more than 40 years of clamming experience, Ander-son sees a big difference between digging clams on the Kenai and in Washington.

"Down here the limit is 15 to a person and the seasons are short," Anderson said from his Hoquiam home. "Down here there are thousands and thousands of people who come to dig clams. We've really overdug them. There aren't as many diggers in Alaska, and the clams are a lot bigger."

In 2000, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reduced the legal limit of razor clams a person can dig on the Kenai Peninsula in a day from 60 to 45.

"I think it's a neat thing that it changed," Anderson said.

Butch Leman, a lifelong Ninilchik resident, also has been digging clams since he was a kid. Over the years, he's perfected his skill, using a shovel.

"I take the first spade full from three or four inches away from the clam hole," Leman said. "If I see the clam neck going down, I take another half a scoop and attempt to gently press the shovel tip against the clam and it kind of stuns it and stops it. It takes a real soft touch so you don't crack the shell. I don't go for the deep clams because there's so many to pick from. I just let them dig to China and come back another day."

Leman has worried about the growing number of people harvesting clams on the peninsula.

"My concerns have been met somewhat in that Ninilchik Native Descendants and other people lobbied to have the 60-clam limit reduced to 45," said Leman of efforts by NND, an organization to which he belongs.

But it isn't just the limit that bothers him.

"It would behoove the state to try to contain the traffic on Memorial Day weekend or any weekend during the summer. (Residents) can't get to the places where we would normally go because of all the other traffic and lack of parking space.

"If you're going to promote something like clamming, which I think the state does, you have to have some sort of infrastructure in place. The fact that you have these big land yachts -- motor homes -- so locals can't get down to the beach seems ironic."

In spite of frustrations, Leman said untrained clam diggers offer some humorous moments.

"My Uncle Joe saw a guy digging a clam hole and whether the guy got the clam or not, no one knew," Leman said. "But when the guy got done, he filled every hole back up. Maybe he was a precursor of the tree-hugger element of the early 1960s. I thought it was pretty funny."

Leman's favorite time to dig clams guarantees he has the beach practically to himself.

"There's a few of us that like to dig during the winter at night whenever it's not real cold or there isn't a north wind blowing," said Leman, who has shared the experience with his children.

"It's not that bad to get down there and dig by Coleman lantern. Sometimes you see the northern lights or a bright blanket of stars. And you're the only one down there. And you wonder if there's anyone else in the world digging clams at that moment."

If the adventure of digging and the enjoyment of eating clams are the highlights, cleaning them is the flip side. But not for Marianne Murto of Ninilchik or the crew at the Clam Shell Lodge in Clam Gulch.

"I've been cleaning clams for other people for about nine years," said Murto, who was born in Homer, grew up in Anchor Point and moved to Ninilchik in 1973.

"I do roughly 20 to 30 limits a day during the clam tides that hit twice a month from May through August."

Murto said the secret to cleaning is "consistency and enjoying your work."

What is there to enjoy about having your hands in water for hours while you clip and rinse?

"The product you get afterward," she said. "It's pretty awesome and all those people are pleased by the time they dig the clams and I clean and package them. It's awfully rewarding. It's one of the great resources here that we shouldn't take for granted. We should really appreciate that we can still do this."

Murto agreed with Leman that digging clams at night can be an adventure, though always fun.

"One time I got bogged down in the mud and had to take off my rubber boot," Murto said. "My clamming partner was a couple of miles up the beach, had the lantern and there wasn't any moon. I kind of panicked. I had to leave my boot behind, but I got my foot out. You have to watch out when the tide's coming in."

Rose Moorefield, 15-year owner of the Clam Shell Lodge, tries to make it easier for first-timers.

"We take people down to the beach, show them how to dig, how to clean and how to cook. Our vehicle will take from four to six people at a time."

She is exploring the possibility of putting together a video that will help novice diggers understand the process.

"A lot of people from the East Coast haven't had any experience with digging clams," Moorefield said. "But to our visitors from Washington or Oregon, it's no big thing. They know what they're doing."

State regulations require a sport fishing license to dig razor clams. The cost is $15 for residents and ranges from $10 to $100 for nonresidents, depending on the number of days the license will be used. There's no rush, since the season stretches over the entire year.

The how, where and when of razor clam digging can be found in a publication distributed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Copies can be picked up at any Fish and Game office or found on the World Wide Web at www.sf.adfg.state.ak.us/Region2/html/pdfpubs/clams.pdf.

Razor clams range from south of the Kenai River to the tip of the Homer Spit, according to Nicky Szarzi, the lower Cook Inlet area biologist for the Fish and Game Sport Fish Division. The biggest ones are found from Ninilchik south.

"The water coming out of glacially fed rivers is flowing down the inlet and meeting clearer waters that are coming north from around the end of the peninsula," Szarzi said. "They meet at Ninilchik. The sun penetrates the water when the water is clear, so you have more primary product production, material that is the base of the food chain."

Szarzi said clams live approximately 13 years, but estimated the one on display at Tustumena Lodge to be an ancient 18 years old.

"You look at the rings on their shells, just like the rings on a tree or fish scale," Szarzi said. "In the winter, they don't grow very much and lay down shell material more slowly. The dark area associated with the shell's ridge is counted as a winter period. However, sometimes you get false rings because they also occur when the clam is stressed by environment or jabbed by a shovel."

Studies done in the Clam Gulch area in 1999 revealed approximately 16 million harvestable clams, or clams 4 inches in length.

In 1998, testing done on Ninilchik beaches reflected razor clam populations of approximately 900,000. Szarzi said the numbers fluctuate, depending on environmental conditions.

"When clams spawn each year, the young clams aren't always successful at settling onto the beach in the right location to grow into adults, or the current may be a little warmer or there may be storms during the period that they're settling out of the water column onto the beach. So you generally see that reflected in their numbers, which will be low and then climb. It kind of cycles like that," said Szarzi, who did her master's thesis at the Juneau Center for Fisheries and Ocean Sciences on the distribution and abundance of the Pacific razor clam on east side Cook Inlet beaches.

"In Ninilchik right now we are between peaks. The harvest is fairly high, so the exploitation rate -- percent of clams harvested -- is fairly high and there's not really much literature on what good or bad exploitation rates are and not a lot of information about the effect of harvests on clam populations. We are watching it to make sure that we're not getting over exploited in Ninilchik."

Dennis Chan, post supervisor in Soldotna for the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Protection Division, also is helping make sure that doesn't happen.

"We've got patrols that are checking how many clams people are digging," Chan said. "If people are caught with more than the limit, it's a $50 fine and $2 for each clam over the limit. We do a 4-wheel patrol up and down the beach and also check people as they come off the beach."

Chan said that several citations already have been issued this season.

Another concern is safety.

"We have picked up people who got stranded out there," said Chan, referring to quickly changing conditions created by the inlet's fast moving tides.

"People need to have a good idea of what the tide is doing, their location and where the high spots are, because they can get into an area that gets surrounded by water and not be able to get back to the beach.

"A lot of people from out of state come from areas where they don't have as great of a tide or water that moves so fast, so they really need to be aware of it. Stop in and talk to us and get an idea of how fast these tides move. Be aware of where you are. Don't get so involved in digging that you forget these things."

Razor clams on the inlet's west side propelled Jerry Cartee's air taxi business into the clam processing industry in 1981.

"We were hauling clams for a guy who wasn't making it in the business," Cartee said. "So we just kind of brought him into our organization. We had the runway and the airplanes and it was just kind of a niche that was good for us."

Cartee said the business, Pacific Alaska Shellfish Inc., is now a division of The Pacific Seafood Group of Portland, Ore., the largest seafood distributor on the West Coast.

He anticipates his crew of 26 harvesters will harvest 368,000 pounds of razor clams during a 70-day period this summer.

"They'll be busy," Cartee said, but not as busy as last year when they harvested 374,000 clams.

The crew stays at a camp in the Polly Creek and Crescent River area, a 15-mile stretch of razor clam territory that has been certified for commercial digging by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

The clams are flown daily to the processing plant in Nikiski.

During the 2000 season, 2,500 pounds of Cartee's clams stayed in Alaska. The remainder went to Washington and Oregon.

"The market has traditionally been in the Pacific Northwest," said Cartee, who is originally from Anacortes, Wash.

With that many clams, what is his favorite way to eat them?

"Well, I grew up on clams," he said. "Not to say that I don't like them, but I got my fill as a kid. It's certainly a great product, but I'm like an electrician that strings up his own lights with extension cords because he's sick of doing electrical stuff. When I was a kid, we had plenty of clams."



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