Helen and I descended a slope where everything grew but houses. That land was destined to be part of the sea as it curled onto the beach, rolling like a player piano scroll upon which each cottonwood, thimbleberry and foxglove might trigger a single note when it hit the sand and washed away.
The tide neared its lowest point.
“See the tubes?” Helen asked me.
I saw clusters of black circles, like soaked Cheerios floating in murky dregs. Upon closer inspection, I saw each was a cylinder, five inches in diameter, of plastic mesh shoved into the sand. In the center of most cylinders, was another, organic tube. A heavy footstep or brush of a finger would send that one shooting below the surface.
“If it feels rough,” Helen said, “It’s a horse clam, not a geoduck, and we don’t want those.”
Instantly, I hated horse clams. But, it was hard for me to tell the difference from glimpsing an inch of siphon for a half a second. Helen could tell, though. And so could Frank.
Frank puttered to where Helen and I stood in ankle-deep water among the eel grass, crabs and sculpins, where the sand collars of moon snails tumbled next to mounds of sand dollars layered like wafers atop a great gray pudding. Frank’s aluminum dingy heldmilk crates, rubber bands, bamboo skewers, a generator, Powerade, sandwiches and, The Stinger.
Knuckles of gray clouds bullied away the weak sunshine as Frank ignited the generator to send seawater flooding through a long blue hose. The water squeezed into The Stinger, a small-diameter PVC pipe at the hose’s mouth, and jettisoned six feet outward. The hunt was on.
Frank offers in-flight snacks and friendly service on trans-continental Delta flights most days. I imagine his uniform is crisp. I imagine he is the only one of his crew who peers down at the blue-black ripple of the sea miles below and knows where to find pieces of its ancient heart.
In part, he knows because he planted them there. For fifteen years, Frank has sowed geoduck “seeds,” which are clam babies hardly larger than grains of rice. The larvae mature in cylindrical “nets” on a portion of a beach along the Hood Canal. They are ready to harvest in five years after they grow to about two and a half pounds.
Left alone, geoducks (pronounced "gooey-ducks") can weigh in at more than 8 pounds and live to 168 years, according to information posted on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website. The clam’s name has Nisqually Indian origins and means, “dig deep.” The first geoducks existed long before those native people, however, some 500 million years ago. Today, they can be found on the western coast of North America from Newport, Calif., to Kodiak, Alaska, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s website. But, only the sands of Puget Sound and Hood Canal contain “abundant populations,” according to Washington Fish and Wildlife.
On a Monday on the 11 o‘clock tide, Frank wore a wetsuit, gloves, and a Seattle U basketball cap as he flopped down into the muck and drove the blast of The Stinger into a hole Helen had marked with one of the bamboo skewers. His arm disappeared as his hand followed the quickly retracting 3-foot siphon of a geoduck. Within seconds, he pried the animal from the depths, careful not to crack its shell or harm its flesh.
My first look at a geoduck inspired shock. I’d never seen a creature like it and everything about it stood in stark contrast to its surroundings. The geoduck was enormous, a glut of white and rosy meat bursting from a shell that served to protect only a fifth of its body. It was a 1950s gelatin dessert infused with cream and peach puree, or a slice of a woman’s blushing cheek torn from a Renaissance painting. That was was what the body of the clam looked like, at least. The thick, long siphon, or neck, as you may have heard, only calls one thing to mind.
Helen and I rushed to keep up with Frank as he unearthed geoduck after geoduck. We collected nets and skewers and scooped up his catch. We all began to breath harder, our gasps and grunts accompanied the drone of the generator and the bickering of gulls. Each clam needed a rubber band wrapped around its shell to help keep it clamped against its oversized innards.
We filled six crates with ‘ducks in three hours. I found it odd to think the following day, those rare and expensive delicacies would delight foodies in Shanghai. But, there are far fewer lovers of the clam in the local markets, even though its mild, salty-sweet flavor and tender-crisp texture seems to capture the spring breezes of the Salish Sea.
At the end of a two-day harvest, I worked up the nerve to ask Frank if I could have a go at clam catching. He handed me The Stinger as I bellied up to a potential ‘duck hole. I aimed the jet stream with my right hand and reached in with my left. My fingertips explored the sand and crept past shards of broken shells as the blast tunneled a hole longer than the length of my arm into the beach.
My imagination filled with images of sea creatures fleeing my grasp and of monsters wanting to take a bite. Then, I felt something. A muscular siphon—rough like beard stubble—and a large shell. I’d nabbed a healthy horse clam and I tossed it to the gulls. But the thrill of the hunt satisfied nonetheless. Frank and Helen would return in two weeks for another harvest, I would return to sailmaking. The geoducks, at least those whose markers had been buried or lost, would continue to age into a future we humans would never live to see.
To Clean a Geoduck