Island Clam Digging

Tales of Vashon


John had pitched a 12×12 foot tent in the front yard, between his house and the road.  It was a Covid 19 tent in that it only had two sides with a bamboo mat floor and a three-foot kerosene heater to cut the chill.  John’s tent provided lots of Covid ventilation-protection so Diane was able to teach Spanish to the neighbor’s children.   On this particular cold afternoon, the three of us were drinking 19 year old homemade elderberry wine, discussing possible stories and waiting for the visit with Jupiter and her moons and the colorful rings surrounding Saturn, which hadn’t been this close since the year 1200.

Years ago, I had given John and Diane a bottle of my homemade wine for Christmas and the red and green ribbons remained tied to the neck of the bottle which was of questionable taste at its inception but had improved slightly in both taste and color over 19 years of aging.    As the afternoon wore on, we switched to a bottle of red from the Vashon Winery and the story ideas improved slightly.

The speed with which the tide comes in at the Dungeness Spit, near Sequim can force a person to abandon their hunt for Dungeness crab and run for higher ground, carefully avoiding the soft mud holes where getting stuck can be dangerous.  Unlike me, John grew up on Rolling Bay on the East side of Bainbridge Island and remembers running from a fast moving tide as a child.

“Maybe tides were not all that fast but at that time we had short legs and as small children.. a strong  diversive   tendency , at odds with the clam digging  task at hand.  .. To dally around in zigzag patterns.. Looking at various items revealed at low tide.. paying little or no attention to either the time of day or the actual state of the tide or weather.  I do remember running with surprised alarm! With my sister … clam buckets and shovels in hand as the tide roiled around our ankles and we thought we would be caught in the tide. In our defense later to our mother, we had stopped to examine some mysterious dead marine life. We thought we would be drowned but were saved by our mother yelling at us from the dock, ‘Hurry up.. Dinner is ready! ‘ Our little feet flew faster to escape the tide and the muck as it was a Sunday roast beef and mashed potato dinner with blackberry pie and cream for dessert.. Incentive enough in those days. We hurried up and were saved from drowning.  Both of us were forgiven of our tardy trespasses since we actually brought back some butter clams.”

For us kids, foraging for food was like having a garden, though not nearly as civilized.  Don’t put a shell-cracked clam in the bucket, because they won’t live to gorge themselves on corn meal, to get rid of the sand in their stomachs.  The clams in the bucket were happiest when their squirting soaked the kitchen floor, where Mom had forgotten to tell us kids to put the newspapers down.  The clams made a rustling sound in the bucket as they shifted around, opening their shells to gulp another teaspoon of saltwater to digest the food and spit out the sand that gathered in the bottom of the bucket.

Our best clamming was right in front of the homestead in inner Quartermaster Harbor or in front of the Portage store on outer Tramp Harbor, where our Grandfather, Papa Jim was the World Champion clam digger for several years in a row and we have the gold colored cup to prove it.  The contest was sponsored by the Vashon Island Sportsman’s Club.  Everybody else used shovels or hay forks in their hunt for the elusive butter clam or little neck as another scrumptious clam was called.  They flocked to the tide line, looking for the small holes in the sand that might indicate clams or maybe just a sand worm, the holes being quite similar, but not our Grandfather, who used a cultivator with 10 or 12 inch tines, raking the gravel, above the mud and near the driftwood.  Papa Jim always got more clams in less time than anyone else and it seems to me from the point of hindsight that he had explored the beach for the best digging in the weeks before the contest.  We knew Papa Jim as a “winner,” his having been a middle-weight west coast boxing champion in the early 1900’s.

Grandma Ada was down the beach on the Tramp Harbor side when the tide was coming in.  She wore a red-colored kerchief and baggy pants that were rolled up and yelling in Danish for us kids to come quickly.  Grandma was the last child of her Danish parents, her Mother didn’t speak English and she signed with an “x.”  Grandma Ada broke into Danish when she got excited, holding onto the neck of a 5 pound goeduck, her having stopped the giant clam from digging its way to safety.  We started heaving sand away from where she had a hold of its neck, while the tide tried to fill our hole with water.  The geoduck’s neck can stretch to three or four feet, so we had to work fast to free the clam from the sand.  The meat from a goeduck this big can make chowder to feed 10 people and Grandma had 23 grandchildren mostly at Portage where her Father had settled on 350 acres in the early 1900’s stretching to the KIRO towers and down to Luana Beach.

We once had a “butter clam” feast at Cove and Kit Bradley and I bet on how many clams we could eat and stopped at thirty-five fresh butter clams.  It was a good day of foraging.