Knowing that Bainbridge Island inhabitants once fed themselves solely from local sources, Kathleen Alcalá set out to explore the food history of the Pacific Northwest island she calls home. Along the way, she discovered that Native and immigrant food traditions offer examples of how we might feed ourselves while being wise stewards of the local environment.
In this excerpt, a friend takes her out to dig a very special type of clam—the wild geoduck.
Neil threw himself full-length on the sand, reached into the muddy hole, and grabbed the geoduck by the neck. I was sure he would make me pull up the next one.
One winter, Neil Johannsen and Hilary Hilscher, our next-door neighbors, had invited my husband and me over to celebrate the New Year. Like most events on the island, this was a potluck. They served an amazing clam chowder that Neil had made. It turned out to be geoduck chowder, with lots of pepper. The flavor was richer than regular clam chowder, meatier, a perfect antidote to our dark, damp winters. When Neil sat down, I complimented him on the soup.
“Doesn’t this make you want to go out and hunt for food?” he asked.
“No…” I answered. Was this a trick question?
“Don’t you just want to go out and hunt and fish and gather, to stalk your prey and bring it home?”
“Not really,” I answered carefully. “After all, we live next door to you. Why should I hunt and gather when you do such a good job of it?”
We even got the occasional chard or zucchini from their garden. This did not satisfy Neil. He got up and went across the room, where I heard him ask my husband the same question. And my husband gave him, more or less, the same answer. I’m sure he did not hear our earlier exchange.
But many people, it seems, do feel this way. As [Gary] Nabhan says in Coming Home to Eat, “there is something primordial about the pursuit of these foods and medicines in their natural habitats. It is an elixir for the soul, this drinking in of forest and marshland.”
The geoduck (pronounced gooeyduck) is the hardest local clam to dig. It has a long, thick neck and, using its foot, can dig its shell 3 to 5 feet deep into the sand and extend its siphon up to the surface. I had seen them dug once before, during a low tide at Golden Gardens Park in Seattle. The digger shoveled as quickly as he could, getting in the hole as he went, until he was completely covered in mud, sand, and slimy seaweed. Somehow, I didn’t think this was going to happen to me. But when Neil invited me out on a geoduck expedition, I took a towel just in case. Mostly, I just hoped that it didn’t rain.
All year, Neil had bragged about the special place where he found geoduck, someplace no one else dug. He made a mystery of it, but said he was willing to share it with me. Foraging and harvesting wild foods are a big deal around here, so I decided to take him up on the offer.
When I e-mailed the day before to see what time to meet, he seemed reluctant, although he had already instructed me to go to Walmart and get a shellfish license. Instead, I went online and bought a license for shellfish and seaweed for $12. It was good for 10 days. There are all these rules around harvesting crabs and shellfish in Washington state, and a lot of disputes about who owns the rights to the tidelands and their products. The principal players are the state and federal governments, Indian tribes, and private landowners. In the case of geoducks, there are high-stakes commercial interests as well. I guessed that Neil’s secret geoduck stash was on public land, if I needed a license. I was right, sort of.
Neil loaded a spade and a bucket and two pairs of waterproof gloves into his Ford Explorer. He ate a muffin and drank coffee as he drove. It turned out, I was familiar with this park, which was a typical Northwest shore: a long steep trail through deep woods that broke out onto the open beach. Because you can’t really see ahead, the end of the forest trail is always a surprise. You feel as though you are in the middle of the woods, then you are standing and blinking at the open sky.
Neil grew up on a farm in Petaluma, California, the fourth generation on that land. His parents, he said as we drove, were commercial farmers, raising poultry and other livestock, as well as growing most of their vegetables. Neil also had a friend whose father owned a small plane, and used to take them 35 miles out to the coast near Point Reyes, to harvest shellfish. This is where he learned to stalk and hunt the elusive clams.
We were looking for three kinds of clams that day: the geoduck, the Nuttall’s cockle, and the horse clam. The forest ranger in Neil—he’s a retired director of the Alaska State Parks—kicked in and he assured me that by the end of the morning, I would be able to identify all three. We parked and got out of the car. Neil put on waterproof pants and a bright orange jacket. He and Hilary have a sailboat, and they always look to me as though they are going sailing.
“Let’s see. It’s around here somewhere,” he said, veering left down the road. I led Neil in the other direction, where the trailhead was clearly marked. It turned out he had not visited this spot in over a year. The chowder served at New Year’s had been made from clams he had harvested and frozen earlier. A weathered sign warned against harvesting butter clams because of PSP, or paralytic shellfish poison. The beaches are almost always closed, said Neil, to the harvest of butter clams, which concentrate toxins from phytoplankton and reach toxic levels faster than other shellfish. Entire villages in Alaska had been wiped out by PSP, Neil said.
Recently, toxic algae blooms severely curtailed the Dungeness crab season in California. This was due to a persistent weather condition, “the blob,” that has kept the waters just off the coast unusually warm in recent years. As climate change speeds up, we will probably have more and more of these weather events.
As we made our way down the trail, brushed by person-sized ferns and sheltered by firs and hemlocks 100 feet tall or higher, Neil told me that he and Hilary had retired to Bainbridge Island a couple of years before they bought the house next to ours. They realized that their home on the north end of the island was too large and too remote, so they sold it and moved into town.
Hilary worked for the Washington State Audubon Society at the time and they travel to places like Mexico and Costa Rica on birding expeditions. In retirement, Neil has taken more responsibility for their meals, keeping a kitchen garden and collecting runoff from the carport to water it. When a winter wren spoke up, Neil explained that its name had been changed to Pacific wren, the name winter wren staying with a bird in the East that had been differentiated from it by genus. He planned to continue calling the bird a winter wren.
I was happy to find that the trail had been improved since I visited a couple of years earlier, when I scrambled down the rocks of a small stream to make my way to the beach. I didn’t relish doing this while carrying a shovel. Only the last part of the trail was steep, stepping down about 15 feet to beach level. Upon climbing over a large, fallen log at the end of the trail, we could see the handlike prints of raccoons on the sand, and a couple of places where they had dug. This far back from the tide line, it was probably worms or insects they had been looking for.
We walked toward the receding tide, facing a Marine facility across the water at Keyport that tests missiles, Neil said. North a little and much closer, breaking up the dense green trees, was the Indian casino at Suquamish, across the bridge that ties us to the rest of the Kitsap Peninsula.
Washington state has few smooth, sand beaches. This is one of them, with a gradual slope going west, and a substantial tide flat that invites marine life to dig in. As we walked out of the woods and closer to the water, the sand took on a rippled surface that held small pockets of brackish water. When seaweed appeared, we began to search for clams. It was still an hour before low tide. I had remembered to check the newspaper for the timing of low tide. Life in the Northwest is so dependent on the tides that checkout stands at grocery stores have booklets with the tide charts for sale, along with gum and other “point-of- purchase” items. The optimum level for digging geoducks is at least a minus-1.5 tide; today was a minus-1.1, which meant the clams would be close to the water’s edge even at the lowest point.
Neil paused at what appeared to be a small pile of gravel on the surface of the sand. Bending over, he pinched it, and a small stream of water shot upward before the protuberance slowly withdrew. This was the siphon of a geoduck, and Neil was pleased to find it. He wanted to wait until low tide before making any serious investment in digging. We picked up a couple of the Nuttall’s cockles, which are prized for their ease in harvesting, since they hardly bury their shells, but provide plenty of meat. He also picked up a couple of long, dark-red oval shells that resembled mussel shells, but that he said came from some other type of clam.
We wandered north along the shore, crossing the outlets of small streams that drain the cliffs above, into an area that fronts on large, expensive houses. Two men in their 60s or 70s emerged onto one of the docks, and one called “Good morning!” Neil answered him, but I don’t think he heard. I wondered if they considered this their property.
A long history of litigation simmers in this state over the ownership of these lands. It has been settled that private land ends at the midpoint between high tide and low tide, and that Native Americans have the right to harvest shellfish on all the tideland properties. The latter right was spelled out in treaties, but never enforced. It took a landmark federal court decision in 1974, United States v. Washington, and years of litigation to re-establish it.
Still, on Bainbridge, private owners of adjacent lands go out of their way to hide public beach accesses designated by the city, even gating and padlocking them and posting “No Trespassing” signs. The end of the dock was well above and away from the low tide, so the two men had to drag their small, inflatable dinghy to the water. Again, the first man called “Good morning!” a little more belligerently, and I answered him. He was making sure we knew he had seen us. I realized why Neil made sure we had licenses, in case we were confronted by people like this.
In Oregon and California, no one owns the beaches, although I’m sure people use similar tactics. The two paddled out to a small sailboat anchored offshore and sailed away. Finally Neil found a geoduck he liked. I’m not sure what he was gauging, probably size, depth, and distance from the tide line, but how he could tell the first two from the surface, I didn’t know. Starting a couple of feet from the spout, he began to dig rapidly, circling the clam as he threw sand behind himself. The clam spouted water and withdrew its siphon farther into the sand as more and more of the neck was exposed. The first time I had watched this, I thought the clam was digging itself farther into the sand, and would get away. Not true, Neil said later. The clam is not going anywhere. The need for haste is because the hole immediately begins to fill with water, and then collapses.
When the hole was over 3 feet deep, he set his shovel aside and threw himself full-length upon the sand, reached down into the excavation, and grabbed the geoduck by the neck. The trick is to extract both the neck and the shell. If you sever the neck, you cannot legally keep it. Otherwise, it would be too easy to cut off the necks and leave the maimed geoducks to die deep in the sand. Pulling mightily, Neil was able to bring up the shell. The neck was about a foot long, and the shell, brown and roughly oval, about 6 inches.
Commercially farmed in parts of Puget Sound, the geoduck is a valuable animal. Highly prized for its tasty meat, it can sell for over $100 a pound in the Tokyo fish market. Seattle’s own sushi houses serve the pale, slightly yellow flesh sliced in overlapping ovals that can be picked up with chopsticks, dipped in sauce, and nibbled. The geoduck is richer than most clams, and shellfish lovers are quickly won over by the taste. Rather than digging each clam up, commercial growers use giant vacuums to suck up the clams. I’m sure this is tough on the habitat.
Geoducks are also a favorite seafood display at the Pike Place Market in Seattle, a major tourist destination. The young, almost always male fishmongers throw fish at each other and sometimes pull an especially vicious-looking fish, like a monkfish, across the display table by a string to scare children. The geoducks are often surrounded by tittering teenage girls, or their mothers, because of their resemblance to a human penis. In the bucket, they just looked like really sad clams.
Neil was visibly tired from the effort. I filled in the hole, mostly for aesthetic reasons. Later I learned that doing so is required, although the tide would soon even out the beach. Other clams live alongside the geoducks, and leaving the holes unfilled damages them. Neil remarked that the Native Americans say that the clams offer themselves to us, that they give of themselves for us to eat—yet they are so hard to dig. Well, I said, they are available to us, even if they don’t like it. There is a saying around here, “When the tide is out, the table is set.”
When we found the next geoduck, I dug part of the hole, but it was too close to the water, and the sand began to collapse as we dug. Each geoduck seemed to be surrounded by lots of big, tough butter clam shells, mostly empty, that made it difficult to dig. The combination of silt, sand, and water created a slurry as heavy as wet cement. I could barely lift each small shovelful. I realized why Neil had tired after digging the first hole so quickly.
A third dig also resulted in failure, so we began to wander back the way we had come. Neil showed me a different kind of siphon, delicate and liplike compared to that of the geoduck. It belonged to a horse clam. Although horse clams are large, they do not bury themselves as deeply, and this one was easier to retrieve than the geoduck. Horse clams also make good eating, but are not as prized as geoducks. They are tougher, less delicate in flavor than geoducks, and some diggers keep them solely as bait for crab traps.
By the time we were back near the park, Neil was talking to the clams as we examined each siphon. Another of my rules about food is that people talking to their food, or naming it, leads to trouble. Nancy and Bob Fortner bought a turkey chick to raise for Thanksgiving several years ago, and named her Turkey Girl. She roosted with the laying hens and was the first to call out to them each morning. When the day came to slaughter her, they couldn’t do it, and had to give her away to grace someone else’s table. By then, said Nancy, the turkey hen was eating too much anyway.
Neil noted the neat holes drilled in many of the white butter clam shells littering the beach. These were made by radula, the small, circular saws that the giant moon snails and razor clams, both predators, use to gain entry into other shellfish. They then suck the other shellfish out of their shells. I looked back and saw that a seagull was feasting at one of the holes we had dug, eating the damaged butter clams left behind. Finally, Neil noticed a geoduck that had several inches of neck sticking out. On the chance that it was not buried as deeply as the others, he began to dig. Sure enough, the clam, a young geoduck, came up easily. I walked out into the shallows and rinsed it, as Neil had done with the others. The long neck was rough like a callused hand. It was rigid when I picked it up, but seemed to relax as I carried it. Otherwise, there was no movement. I could not tell if it was dead or alive.
By now, Neil was dripping sweat. He walked up and down the beach trying to catch his breath. I could see why he had been reluctant at the last minute to go clamming: It’s a lot of work. Neil had been too polite to make me lie down on the wet sand and pull out a clam. It was a perfect morning for being on a Northwest beach—overcast, but no wind or rain. For once, I felt just right outdoors.
We examined a few more spouts, but most of the remaining clams were located in heavy, wet sand that would have been difficult to dig. Neil was considering names for each clam we looked at, and it was time to leave. We had about six large shellfish, and I was perfectly happy. I hoped to create something like Neil’s chowder from earlier that year. His mother, he said, used to grind the clams, mix the meat with sweet onions, and fry them as patties. Once the clams are rinsed, he said, you remove most of the shell and plunge them in boiling water for a few minutes. Then you trim off the end of the siphon and strip back the rough skin.
At home, we showed off the shellfish assortment on the lawn to my husband and another neighbor. We hosed them off along with Neil’s jacket and my boots. Then Neil said he would take the clams home and clean them. A couple of hours later, he returned, showered and in clean clothes, with 4 pounds of ground clam meat in a bowl. He had decided that the mussel-like shellfish probably were a type of mussel, maybe an invasive species, and left them out of the mix until he could identify them. They turned out to be the northern horse mussel, Modiolus modiolus—edible, but mostly used as bait. The ground geoduck meat was white and almost fluffy. I gave him back at least a pound to use before he and Hilary left for an extended sailing trip up the east side of Vancouver Island. The rest became chowder in my kitchen. Some of it went into my freezer, awaiting the New Year.
This excerpt from The Deepest Roots (paperback edition 2019) by Kathleen Alcalá appears by permission of University of Washington Press.
Kathleen Alcalá is the author of a collection of essays, The Desert Remembers My Name: On Family and Writing; three novels, including Treasures in Heaven; and a collection of short stories. She lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington.