Monday, August 18, 2008

Ninilchik Clams, Down and Dirty

Camping in Ninilchik, AlaskaThis weekend I spent eight hours in the car with my kids, eight hours filled with provocative conversation such as:

"Dad, if you could be the author of any book in the world which book would it be?"

"The Bible."

"Huh?"

or

"So what's that song you're singing?"

"It's my theme song."

"You have a theme song? I want a theme song--make one up for me!"

"Supporting characters don't have theme songs."

It was our last camping trip before the kids start school on Wednesday and after a wet weekend of protecting my vital organs from the mosquitoes and getting so muddy I'm still finding dirt in personal places I'm ready to turn my children over to the public education system and vote all the teachers a pay raise.

Camping in Ninilchik, AlaskaFriday afternoon we drove four hours south to Clam Gulch. I'd been begging Andrew all summer to go clam digging and since me begging to do something outdoorsy happens only once in a marriage he decided he'd better humor me. But going to Clam Gulch was our first mistake because after traveling that far only to find pouring rain it wasn't as if we could turn around and say, "No good, we're going home." We had to tough it out.

So we drove a little farther to Ninilchik and lucky for us I spotted a covered picnic area we could use to park our tent (it's so big it has stadium seating) out of the rain. I should say lucky for the kids because after four hours on the road if we'd been stuck inside a wet tent I think I might have reverted to ferrel instincts and attacked my young. It was coming.

Lillian in Clam Gulch, AlaskaAs it was we made a decent go of things, trying to light a wet fire and make it through the night dry, until I discovered that I'd forgot most of our breakfast in the refrigerator back at home, leaving us to survive on Spam and eggless pancakes. Yes, you read that right--Spam. It was either Spam or charred mosquito kabobs because regardless of the rain the bugs were so bad I left weighing five pounds less than before thanks to the loss of blood.

We happily supplemented our Spamfest with soggy boxes of Cracker Jacks which the kids suggested would make a fine cold cereal if only there were milk to seal the deal. So besides a cramped car ride, pouring rain, lack of food and mosquitoes so big they scream when you smack them the final piece of our perfect weekend was a sign on the outhouse door warning us of recent bear sightings in the area (after all the bear attacks we've had in Anchorage this summer we're all a bit jumpy). I was begging to get voted off that island.

By the time we packed things up in the morning we were wondering if we should even attempt any clamming but the rain made things smell so wonderful and we still had plenty of time left so we decided to push on. I mean we were really at the bottom of the curve and figured it pretty much couldn't get any worse.

Ninilchik, AlaskaSo we drove next door to Ninilchik (ni-NIL-chick) where the low tide 9-11 am was supposed to be prime time for Alaskan razor clams. As a divine manifestation that we had chosen wisely the rain cleared up when we pulled into town. Well, it's not really a town, more of a village. Okay maybe not a village but a small settlement? Maybe. On a good day if you're really optimistic and count the dog houses. But whatever you call it it was really lovely there along the Ninilchik River emptying into the sea.

As soon as we were out of the car and had our boots on it was as if all of the bad luck melted away. One deep breath told me I was at the ocean--funny how it smells the same everywhere--and it was as if it made everything better. We grabbed our bucket and shovels and headed out onto the silty beach without a clue what to do.

Clam Air Hole in Ninilchik, AlaskaAs soon as we got out there we met up with this amazing clamming duo. The man, wearing a t-shirt that said "Shot Drinker" across the shoulders and a pair of yellow rain pants, was running the clam gun like he was used to pulling up five yards of concrete with his bare hands and the woman in her matching yellow rain gear would get down on her perfectly manicured hands to dig the critters out of the mud (you'll have to see the video footage at the end to get the full effect).

I was completely fascinated by them and would have been happy just to watch them all day and they were friendly enough to answer our questions. Apparently we were looking for a clam hole like you see here--about the size of a dime and just a dimple in the silt. Once you find your hole you either plunge in your clam gun to suction out a hole before sticking your arm in up to the shoulder to dig around in the mud for a creature that doesn't taste that good anyway or you work like mad sweat to dig out a hole with your flimsy clam shovel only to find that the clam is long gone.

Clam Digging in Ninilchik, AlaskaI think their way is a little more efficient. They had a whole bucket of clams to back up their World Master Clammer title and I was completely in awe. We followed them around for a while and they were so patient with us, answering questions and encouraging us to get our hands in there.

At least we gave the Deadliest Catch couple their chuckle for the day since we city folk didn't have a clue how to catch a clam and were reluctant to get our hands dirty. They finally pulled one up and gave it to Spencer in a "Here little boy, here's a clam for you" gesture which was not lost on us.

We spent the next hour trying desperately to catch one for ourselves, there were plenty of clam dimples around but we just couldn't get to them quick enough before they took off, thumbing their little noses at us in mockery.

Clam Digging in Ninilchik, AlaskaSo we roamed the beach with our empty bucket, shovels and Pity Clam digging every dimple we could find until the tide forced us back. Eventually we found someone who said they'd be willing to give our clam a good home to save me having to put it out of its misery and we wandered farther up the beach where I added some excellent pieces to my beach glass collection. Oh and David found a maggoty fish head that he begged to take home.

We learned later that the clams at Clam Gulch are smaller and nearer the surface than the clams in Ninilchik and we realized we probably should have started out with the farm league rather than jumping directly into the majors. Next time we'll try out Clam Gulch instead--maybe even stay at Clam Gulch Lodge which I've heard such good things about and would love to try--though I can't say that we didn't have a fun time digging up the beach anyway. Despite the rain and mud, the bugs and the bears at least I can say I've been clam digging. Lucky they don't call it clam "catching" because I'd still be waiting for that one.

Anyway, you can check out more of my photos from the trip at Flickr and here's a video with our clamming friends in action. The dialog is so silly and goofy it gives you an idea of what it's like to hang around us--we're much classier in person I promise you.



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34 comments:

angie said...

Oh no about the rain, but it looks like an amazing adventure.......bet you have crazy amounts of laundry. I had no idea clam digging was so complex. I sort of thought you just had to scoop them up with a little shovel. :)

~TAMY 3 Sides of Crazy~ said...

Thanks Michelle for that clam Olympics - it put a smile on my face. Sounds like you had a great adventure despite... and Andrew got a great upper body workout with all the hole digging.

Summer said...

That looks like tons of fun. I would be loving the mud and rain and getting dirty. As for eating my catch though? NEVER!

springtreeroad said...

ha! if i had to dig clams for dinner, my family would go hungry. ;)

looks like a fun time. except for the rain/camping part. :(

G's Cottage said...

Oh yes your clam adventure entertaining the experts sounds as humbling as the first time we erected a heavy canvass lodge tent at the state park. We noticies all the tenters around us turned their chairs around to watch the "show."

And after reading "The Animal Dialogues" I get your point about mosquitoes. I could not imagine a place as cold as Alaska having skeeters that could do in either the Ohio variety or the Jersey Dive-bombers I'm met.

chelle said...

Wow, what an amazing experience! Clam digging! Too cool!

Maddy said...

I had no idea that the climate and landscape of Dorset was so similar!

I'm sure that cockles and clams are very closely related.
Cheers

Karen said...

Can I even tell you how much I hated clamming as a kid? I only lived about 40 miles from Ninilchik and every summer we'd clam at the extreme low tide - I always dreaded going because I didn't like the taste of clams. lol

Thanks for evoking the "fun" memories. Good to see Alaska is still rainy and wet. (and you were smart to pitch that tent under the pavillion!)

Jennifer said...

That looks like an awful lot of work for not much food. But at least you made a memory!

Killlashandra said...

You had fun right? I wouldn't worry too much about the pity clam digging, I used to watch people do that when I lived in Seattle and visited the peninsula for a day trip. It just didn't look like something I was going to figure out in hurry. Glad the rain cleared up too!

Miriam said...

Funny, all the years I lived in Alaska, we never went clamming...but I think it's because all we had were the little ones on our beaches, and I didn't like eating clam anyway!

Thanks for the video...I lived off a beach not unlike that one when I was a kid...I could smell the ocean when I watched the video! :-)

Shannon said...

What a fun family adventure!

karen said...

I hope you're not that much classier in person - you sound like a bunch that'd be fun to hang out with! I'm not a big fan of clams but it sure looks like you had fun trying to catch some.

Doll Clothes Gal said...

Sounds like a fun time - and fulfilling after so much work.

Mary@notbefore7 said...

Oh my goodness...at least you kept your sense of humor through parts of it! That is truly what family memories are made of :)

Abby said...

Oh the conversation about the theme song was great! How clever is that kid? I bet he/she has a FUN personality!

Mandy said...

You had me laughing when you said you were ready for the kids to go back to school and give the teachers a pay raise! I always feel that way after a road trip too!

Munchkins and Music said...

I haven't done this yet this summer. It is a lot more muddy than I remember it though!
Your kids crack me up by they way! I love the questions they asked in the car!

Sucharita Sarkar said...

What a lovely name for a place! Near Calcutta in India, we visited a seaside place called BAKKHALI, where the sand is full of red crabs which disappear into similar silt-dimples. So fast are they that it never crossed our mind to dig them out, we were happy enough to chase them IN their holes.
And you are right about the sameness of the salty, fish-y sea-smell everywhere.

Geekwif said...

Well, no one can say you didn't try, that's for sure. I'd give you an A for effort.

The Rocky theme song was classic. I'm sure your husband loved having a soundtrack. :)

Earthmama said...

Oh wow, what an adventure!! I had no idea getting clams could be such an ordeal!

jeanie said...

Oh my - I had just read a post regarding Monty Python and there you were living the dream!!

Damselfly said...

This is great! When you're kids are older, they'll remember eating soggy Crackerjacks for breakfast and that maggoty fish head.

Janet said...

I don't know, I think it's pretty classy to show your kids how to tough out unexpected obstacles and have a good time anyway. Just sayin'.

One Mom said...

Had no idea that digging clams was such a challenging endeavor...good thing you had some spam to eat. And weren't you smart to stay behind the camera :)

blueviolet said...

That is just the coolest thing!

Tanya said...

We went to Clam Gulch a couple of years ago for the negative tide (?)and camped right on the beach. When the tide came in it licked the front of our tires as we were backed up against the cliff. It was really fun but we didn't do any clamming. We went with friends. And it didn't rain! We haven't done any camping this year and now summer is over. :( Well, we can look forward to a wet fair can't we?

dandelionmama said...

I used to go clamming with my family when I was a girl on the northern California coast- they must be different clams than you have in Alaska!

We used to get buckets and buckets of them- even as a little girl I would just dig in the sand with my hands. I'll have to ask my dad what kind of clams they were- or if we were just reallylucky.

Flea said...

Oh that looks like so much fun! Next time go bear hunting, though. I'm betting you'll have more success. :)

Julie N said...

Oh Michelle - this brings back so many memories! I used to go clamming as a kid as well...can't remember if we went to Ninilchik or somewhere else, but I do remember it was a lot of work. Little buggers were fast! :)

John and Laura said...

We live right by a great clamming spot--maybe I'll have to go try it out. Of course, I wouldn't eat it, but it would be fun to try it out.

Loralee Choate said...

I could watch that video all day. I know that sounds odd, but I have always wanted to go clam digging. Although, dude...WHAT a lot of work.

(Fun, though)

luckyzmom said...

Brought back fond memories of clam digging when I was a kid. Always seemed to be wet and cold. Thanks for sharing your family experience.

Margie said...

When I first saw the picture with your tent under "cover" I was thinking that is what we need here in SE Alaska (I was even saying so the other day) I was so jealous that you got covered camping and picnicking areas up north! But after reading realized you just got lucky. Isn't it a great idea though, who do we submit it to?! Even though you didn't get any clams you've made some more fun memories!