At dawn on northern Oregon’s Sunset Beach, the sky is a murky gray. And even though it’s summer, there’s a briny chill in the air. At first glance, the long stretch of beach is desolate — a seemingly endless spit of damp sand sculpted into undulating ripples by the currents, with shallow pockets of water snaking through it all. But as we get closer to the waterline, we realize that we’re not alone. The dots on the horizon have morphed into a small collection of hunters. Armed with shovels, buckets, waders and nets, we’ve all gathered for a popular ritual along the Oregon coast. Burrowed deep beneath our feet are razor clams. And we’re here to find them.
With its dramatic windswept beaches and craggy green hills, the Oregon coast is an attraction for its beauty alone. But it’s also fertile ground for clam lovers: The more than 360 miles of public coastline in the state are speckled with beaches and bays filled with clams that range from tiny cockles and lavender-hued native littlenecks to sometimes fist-size butter and gaper clams, the latter named for the gaps in their shells.
Oregon’s northern beaches are especially plump with razor clams, according to Mitch Vance, a biologist and shellfish project leader with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The flatness of the strands in the north makes them a particularly attractive habitat for the species.
As a lover of steamed clams, I’ve long nursed a romantic vision of the water-to-table experience of digging up my own and sampling them. Since we’ve never been clamming before, my husband, Mike, and I face a steep learning curve. But the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Web site — where you can also get the required shellfish hunting license — proves to be a handy resource. As does “Oregon Razor Clams: The Complete Guide to Digging Razor Clams in Oregon” by William Lackner, a book that contains a wealth of pictures — including informative close-ups of a clam’s “show” (the pencil-eraser-size hole indicating where a clam is buried in the sand), along with advice and recipes.
Armed with this knowledge — as well as galoshes, a bucket and a small camping spade — we hit Sunset Beach near Astoria shortly after 7 a.m. on a day when the coast is experiencing a “minus tide,” a level lower than the average low-tide mark of a beach.
It turns out that no amount of staring at magnified photos of sandy shows has prepared us for this day. At first, we aren’t quite sure what to do. Although there are people whom we could ask, there’s barely any chatter; with the prospect of delicious buttery razor clams in the near future, the air is thick with concentration. And so we take our cues from the others and start slowly pacing, staring at the sand in search of telltale holes or doughnut-shaped indentations indicating that a clam has stuck its neck out and then retracted it.
After 20 minutes of squinting, we’ve come up empty. As we look around, it’s clear that we’re not as well equipped as we’d thought. Clam-diggers all around us wield long sturdy shovels that inspire us with size envy. One man proudly shows us his clam gun, a several-foot-long tubular contraption designed to burrow a few feet down and rapidly suck sand out so that you can more quickly get at the clam.
“It’s a tough day,” says Phil Lott, a 39-year-old engineer out with his two sons and their cousins, as he flashes his small pail, which contains just two clams. Suddenly, though, Lott springs into action. Spotting a show, he shovels as quickly as he can, then kneels and sticks his hand into the hole. He frantically digs out fistfuls of wet sand, then reaches in all the way up to his elbow. After a few seconds, he starts smiling. His hand emerges from the sand holding a beautiful razor clam. Just in time, too. The tide’s beginning to creep in.
The next morning holds greater promise. State biologist Vance has invited me along on his rounds of the beaches and bays in Newport. When I arrive, he takes a look at my spade and says, “You can leave that behind.” Instead, he hands me a long shovel and a state-issued booklet that notes the low-tide times for every day of the year.
Just before 7 a.m., even though a light rain is coming down, South Beach and Agate Beach are filled with clammers. Some have been there since 5 or 5:30. After peeling off his hip waders, Chuck Bergman shows us the spoils of two hours of clamming, emptying the plastic half-gallon milk container strapped to his belt and counting out six clams. Given how long he’s spent on the drizzly beach, I’m a little surprised.
“Six clams in two hours. Is it worth it for you?” I ask. Bergman laughs. “It’s a sport,” says the retired deputy sheriff from Siletz. “I go hunting, too. I’ve only gotten one elk. I say I probably spent 35 years chasing it.”
Out on Agate Beach, Vance instructs me to pace slowly behind him as he periodically thumps the sand with his shovel. Sometimes, he says, clams respond to the vibrations, immediately retracting their necks and creating a show. After a short while, Vance gets lucky. A show inspires him to start shoveling, creating a two-foot hole in a flash, all the while explaining to me that it’s generally best to dig your hole a few inches to the right or left of a show to minimize the chances of crushing the clam.
Then he’s down on his knees, hand in the hole, feeling around a bit before pulling out a razor. As he pops it into his bucket, I try not to feel disappointed that he hasn’t offered it to me, since my own bucket is empty — and, it seems, highly likely to remain that way.
But Vance lets me have the next show he spots. I have, by this point, dug fruitlessly after spying a few myself. When I ask whether this might be because I’m digging too slowly, he says, nicely, “Well, maybe.” And so with this show, I’m determined to dig as fast as I can.
Vance starts urging me to put my hand into the hole once it’s deep enough. He can tell that I’m terrified at the thought. Slowly, I inch my hand in, afraid to feel around too much. Razor clams, after all, are so named because of the sharp part of their shells. So after a while, I go at it with a shovel instead, using my foot to apply greater pressure and dig deeper. I can tell that Vance is disappointed. Then we hear a crack. I’ve hit the clam all right — and broken its shell, killing it.
As we examine the clam, I start to feel remorse. I wonder how terrified it must have been as this massive being wrenched it out of its natural habitat. “Did it die a terrible death because I broke its shell?” I ask, holding my clam in shock.
Vance thinks for a moment. “Well, not more terrible than the death it was probably going to experience anyway,” he says. He also manages not to laugh when I ask if the clam felt pain. “Well,” he says, “I’m not too up on the neuroscience of clams, I’m afraid.”
Vance has one more stop to make — Yaquina Bay, which is a vast expanse of semi-firm sludge this morning, thanks to the minus tides. Vance instructs me to don the chest-high waders he’s borrowed for me. Good thing, too, as certain parts of the bay are like quicksand. (He ends up having to spend a good five minutes hauling me out of a spot where I sink in past my ankles and can’t move either foot.)
There’s up to about an inch of water in some parts of the bay, which makes clamming easier if you have a shrimp gun — like a clam gun, but smaller. Using the shrimp gun, Vance sucks out tubes of sludge before reaching in to haul out giant gapers and butter clams. His bucket is heavy within a matter of minutes.
Once again, I’m nervous about sticking my hand into the holes I’ve dug. But I’m determined to leave with at least one — living — clam. And so I plunge my hand in, cringing at the stringy worms that twine around my fingers as I grab fistfuls of mud, slinging it out of the hole. Feeling around, my fingers hit something hard. Something overtakes me; I scrape faster and faster until finally my fingers close around a hockey puck-sized shell. Hauling it up, I almost scream. Vance simply beams.
After that, I am a woman possessed. When Vance spots a show, I start madly digging, not even caring when worms get caught in my fingernails. When Vance notes that cockles are often easier to find because they’re usually closest to the surface, I’m instantly on my knees, frantically clawing through the mud, hoping to feel a shell. When Vance points out a plank where mussels are growing in abundance, I jump right in, plucking out the suckers.
My haul, in the end, comprises three gapers, four butter clams, six small bent-nose macomas, a mussel and one native littleneck with a beautiful purply shell. I’m so triumphant on the way back to the car that I don’t even wince when I spy a dog relieving itself in one of the many pools where I’ve just knelt and buried my hands.
The moment we get to dry land, Vance pours the contents of his bucket into mine. There are limits to the number of clams each person can harvest in a day, he explains, and it’s against the rules to share your haul with a friend — until you’re completely done. When I protest, he says, “I’m not cleaning them. You enjoy them.”
And our lesson is over.
Vance, it turns out, is wise not to bother with cleaning and cooking the clams. Our friends Victor Panichkul and Charles Price, avid clammers and writers of the food blog the Taste of Oregon, have offered to help me cook up my haul in their Salem kitchen. I don’t have time to let the clams sit overnight in water, as many cooks do, so that they purge their grit; we have to get cooking. So the first thing Charles does is pour some cornmeal into my bucket. “We’re feeding them,” he explains, which also causes them to expel some of the grit. When I peer in a few minutes later, some of the cornmeal has already disappeared.
Then comes the hard part. Putting on thick gloves, Victor grabs a knife and starts opening the clams. Each one takes considerable effort. “They’re really fighting,” he says, holding my hands as I try one. He’s right. The more I try to jam my knife in, the more it clamps its shell shut.
After having spent a whole day with these clams quietly dormant in the bucket in the back seat of our car, I’m suddenly gripped with guilt at ending their lives this way. But with a crack, the deed is done. Victor instructs me to grab another knife, cut out the clam’s stomach contents and slice the meat into pieces for clam chowder. I try to ignore the fact that the clam is still gently moving as I start slicing.
The chowder we make — full of bacon, garlic, potatoes and creamy whole milk — is delicious, of course. And it’s the first meal that I feel I’ve truly earned: I went on a hunt, and these were my spoils.
Tan is a New York-based food writer and author of the memoir “A Tiger in the Kitchen.”