Tread lightly where the clam lies

ON THE BAY

Digging: The Atlantic's coastal bays are nirvana for the hard-shelled creatures, and for those who hunt them.

August 16, 2002|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

HOG ISLAND, Va. -- A cool, dry, northwest breeze moderates the August sun, and a blue sky with fluffy clouds vaults green-golden, sea-smelling marshes that roll to the horizons.

We're happy as clams out here.

And the clams out here are happy, indeed, according to our little expedition's host, Curtis J. Badger.

Badger, a naturalist and historian of the Virginia Eastern Shore's Atlantic seaside, has written a delightful little book called Clams -- How to Find, Catch and Cook Them (Stackpole Books, $7.95).

At 68 pages, it's a small classic of nature writing, which is to say it not only tells all that most of us need to know about clams, it also puts them in proper context.

The context is Badger's happy foraging grounds, some hundred miles of Atlantic beaches, bays and marshes that remain as close to unspoiled wilderness as you get in the mid-Atlantic region.

Their condition is a tribute to the Nature Conservancy, which has preserved 45,000 acres of island and adjacent mainland -- a tribute also to the ever-shifting nature of this storm-tossed landscape, which has daunted numerous attempts at development over the centuries.

If the Chesapeake was mecca for the oyster, the Atlantic coastal bays are nirvana for mercenaria mercenaria, the hard-shelled clam, or quahog.

Here is the right combination of tidal currents, food-rich marshes, clean salty water and bottom sediments firm enough to support the clams so they can stick their siphons up to feed, but soft enough to let them burrow deep (up to a foot) when predators such as blue crabs or rays threaten.

We're the predators today on the tidal flat Badger has chosen along the backside of Hog Island. The couple of hours around low tide, when the flat is uncovered by sea water, are our window for finding clams.

Armed with two-tined clam picks, shaped somewhat like a garden cultivator, we'll be "signing" today, our host announces. This means looking for tiny holes in the surface of the tide flat made by the clams' sticking their twin siphons up to suck in food and expel waste.

The problem is, lots and lots of things make tiny holes in a tidal flat -- bird beaks and talons, burrowing crabs, tube worms, periwinkle snails. There must be a million holes per acre, and my first dozen excavations with the clam pick prove most of them are not clam sign.

With a little tutelage from Badger -- real clam sign looks more like a wedge-shaped slit or an old-fashioned keyhole -- I'm in business.

Rake a few inches deep, and bingo -- a grate of steel on shell, and up they come -- sometimes a big, old chowder clam, 4 inches across and maybe 30 years old; other times the smaller littlenecks and cherrystones, perfect size for steaming.

Signing is only one way to clam, says Bill Sterling, a local newsman and Virginia Shore native who is with us. Sterling likes to "tread" clams, working in knee-deep water with his bare feet.

An accomplished treader, he says, can use one foot to unbury the clam and work it up the opposite leg to the surface, then grab it and place it in a wire clam basket that is floated behind in the center of an old inner tube. Badger recounts how old-timers here used to make flannel slippers to wear treading.

As our clam baskets fill, I notice Marcus Killmon, who piloted our boat to Hog, has dug more clams than anyone, working in a space of no more than a few square meters.

Even where there is no keyhole sign, Killmon traces infinitesimal splatter marks on the sandy flat, like those left by delicate raindrops. They are made where the clam has expelled water from its siphon. Where the drops terminate, Killmon digs, coming up with two and three clams at a time.

So we dig in the tide flat, and take time out from bending to discern the hidey-holes of clams to ease our backs and look up at the clouds and passing seabirds -- look down, look up, feeling lucky and content to be connected to both heaven and mud.

We've got clamming time left before the tide covers the flat again, but Badger beckons us join him on a leisurely beach walk to the ocean side of Hog, just to see what we can see.

This is also why his book resonates so well. He understands there is a higher purpose to clams:

" ... [W]ild places like these barrier islands, bays and salt marshes make it possible for clams to thrive, and the clams give us an excuse to get out there."

If you never plan to dig a clam, buy this book. It's wonderful reading, and worth getting for the recipes: Cedar Island chowder, Folly Creek clam pie, clams scalloped, sauteed over pasta -- and raw, so fresh that "I can feel his heartbeat on my tongue," as a local enthusiast put it.

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