A crystalline style protrudes from the digestive tract of a clam harvested from a beach near Ninilchik in May. The crystalline style helps the razor clam digest diatoms and other food as it spins in the gut and releases digestive enzymes.
Photo by Patrice Kohl
In the six-plus months I have lived in Alaska, no other prey has made my heart pound and left me pan-ting for breath like the clam. When I tell friends in Wisconsin about chasing the swift invertebrate I sometimes receive a confused response.
“Did you say chasing rams?” they might say.
But no, it is the sneaky, fleet-footed razor clam of which I speak.
Last weekend and early this week marked one of just two low tide series that will treat lucky clammers to opportunities to harvest the succulent, fair flesh of this rascally creature.
It was with the long low tide that rolled the ocean back from the peninsula’s beaches in May with which I first fully embraced clamming.
It was Memorial Day morning and travelers streamed north on the Sterling Highway, leaving Ninilchik and a weekend of salmon fishing behind them. I and two friends, Greg and Daryl, drove past in the opposite direction, determined to squeeze one more day of harvesting out of the long weekend.
When we reached our destination, however, we stepped onto the seashore rather than the riverbank and armed ourselves with shovels, rather than rods and reels.
We chose a somewhat random location along the Sterling Highway between Ninilchik and Clam Gulch and turned toward shore. Almost immediately we found small dimples scattered over the muddy shore. But they were not the telltale clam dimples we thought they were. Beneath almost every one of these dimples we found either a marine worm or nothing but mud and sand.
After I had dug nearly an hour, my holes had yielded plenty of worms but only one clam. And as the tide slowly turned to reclaim the shore, doubt had started to set in.
I had begun to think I should have saved the worms I had been digging, so that I could at least make worm chowder when I got home.
But at that point Greg and Daryl stopped wandering lethargically and began digging and plunging furiously into the muddy shore. Daryl looked up at me from the muddy mess at his feet and waved excitedly, signaling me to pick up the pace.
I plodded though the mud as quickly as I could until I was just a couple of body lengths away. I paused to survey the ground near my feet and found what I was looking for. Under a quarter inch of water and less than a foot to my right an oblong hole greeted me like small smile. This is no worm hole, I thought,and eagerly turned to crouch over the smiling hole and rip into it with my shovel.
With two fast strokes I carved a hole into the mud and sand below it. Mud and water rushed downward, but before the hole could refill itself I spotted my prey. A small white siphon protruded from the mud and sand, and I quickly drove my gloved hand into the hole to grasp it.
With the tip of my prey pinched between my index finger and thumb, I pulled as hard as I could, but my prey pulled back equally hard. I realized I needed a better grip to pull my prize free and slowly inched my fingers down its siphon until I had a hold of its shell. It continued to pull and I squeezed harder, breaking the end of its fragile shell. Even with the end of its shell shattered between my fingers, however, the clam still held fast. Cautiously I inched my fingers even further down the length of the clam, careful not to let my grip loosen enough for it to escape in the process.
I felt the shell continue to crack beneath my fingertips until I stopped about halfway down its length and with a yank pulled the clam free from its refuge in the mud and sand.
The siphon and the body of the razor clam glisten on a cutting board in the sun after the foot and internal organs were removed.
Photo by Patrice Kohl
Triumphantly I stood, covered up to my chest in gray mud and held my prize up in the sun. I looked over to Greg and Daryl, and noticed they were surrounded by the many holes they had dug. Each hole was only a pace or two from the next and were linked by a chain of footprints.
I looked down again at the mud around at my feet and suddenly noticed more smiling holes. Not the small dimples that misled our shovels down worm burrows. These were big enough to stick a pencil into. And they were everywhere, at least three in every square foot of mud. A clammer’s dream.
I quickly resumed my pursuit, digging one hole after another, sometimes without moving my feet.
After about 30 or 40 minutes of digging, diving and tugging on clams, it was with disappointment that we realized we were nearing our 60-clam bag limits.
We decided to call it a day, loaded three heavy buckets into the back of my rig and drove to Kasilof to clean our bounty at Daryl’s aunt and uncle’s house.
Daryl’s uncle blanched the clams in boiling water to loosen their flesh from the pearly interior of their shells. Meanwhile Daryl, Greg and I unzipped each soft jiggly clam body with a knife and stretched its flesh open like the wings of a butterfly to reveal the internal organs.
As we removed gills, intestine and stomachs I kept finding these unusual clear rods. The rods didn’t appear to attach to anything but emerged from each of the stomachs I removed. No one seemed to know what the rod was so I called Nicky Szarzi, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game management biologist, a couple of days later to find out. Szarzi identified it as a crystalline style, and with a little additional research I learned that the crystalline style helps the clam digest diatoms and other food as it spins in the gut and releases digestive enzymes.
More than a handful of clammers think the fun ends at the beach. But I dig clam cleaning almost as much as I do clam hunting. It’s sort of like a biology lesson and visit to the bar all rolled into one. Except instead of chatting over beers and shelling peanuts, everyone chats over buckets of guts and shells clams.
A second series of low June tides will provide more clamming opportunities from June 24 to 27.
Patrice Kohl is a reporter at the Clarion.
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