Clamming – Changing Tides

When I stepped outside this morning and smelled the cool air mixed with the mist off the Willamette, I knew we’d arrived, made it through another dismal Northwest winter. The feel of it took me back to the Southern Coast of New Jersey, where I worked as a commercial clammer in the middle seventies. The first thing I’d do each morning then, was to climb the stairs to an outside deck where I could catch a look at the bay, to see if there were any whitecaps visible, a sign that the wind was blowing hard and that working the bottom might be difficult that day. But as March rolled into April, the morning air would become softer, almost sweet. It was on those days that I felt filled with a quiet joy, a contentment that I’ve rarely felt since. The day on the water, working alone and working hard, stretched in front of me with a welcoming nod. I felt connected, without knowing exactly to what or why or even caring about giving it words. It was enough to be, to drink my coffee and walk on down to the boat. I hadn’t discovered meditation back then, but if I had I might have noted that how I felt was the state that those who meditate aspire to reach. But maybe if I had known, it would have ruined the whole thing.                      

The object of clamming was to catch as many clams as possible in any given day, then haul them back, sorted by size into burlap bags, and drop them off at the clam buyer’s shed. Two hundred clams to a bag; five full bags made for a good day’s pay. Five cents per clam was the going rate,  but it could vary( mostly down) depending on the market.  Each bag weighed well over a hundred pounds, but I didn’t worry about that. It felt good to sling the heavy sacks off the deck of the boat onto the dock. By the time I drove my flat-bottomed wooden work boat back to where I kept it moored in the bay, unloaded my equipment, and walked  up 11th street to our little cottage, I was physically exhausted, but not beaten down. My back might ache, I might have cramps in my hands, but my head was clear. I was never too tired to take a late evening stroll on the beach with my wife and our baby daughter.

A word about catching clams. Maybe harvesting is the more accurate word, but what I heard around the docks was “catching.” I didn’t argue. There are two basic methods for East Coast clamming: treading and raking. (There’s also tonging, but only a few old-timers still did that.) In treading, the clammer jumps over the side of the boat, wearing a wet suit, into shallow water (three or four feet deep) and treads backward along the bay bottom feeling for clams with his feet (I’d say his or her feet, but frankly I never came across a female clammer). When he feels one, a hard ridge in the muck, he dives down and picks it up. Some clammers have developed a technique of working the clam out of the mud and up their leg, so that they don’t have to dive each time. I found it easier and quicker to dive. Repeat this process over a thousand times a day and you’ve got a fairly decent catch and a head full of salt water.            

Raking is the method we switched over to once the water became too cold for treading. Even a wetsuit will only keep you so warm. The rake is used to pull along the bay bottom from the side of the boat. It has a head that’s about four feet across and long sharp teeth that sluice through the mud. Kind of a monster rake, the handle extends to over twelve feet in length. It takes a strong back to work that baby through the muck all day as the boat drifts through the shallows. Sometimes you can go hours pulling up nothing but mud, shells, and molting crabs; but then there are the times you find yourself over a rich bed. An experienced bayman can tell he’s on it, by the ticki-tick-tick of the rake teeth as they slide over the clam shells. On board the clammer smiles, grunts, and digs the rake even deeper. With a final heave, he pulls the rake head to the gunwales, shakes it a few times in the water to wash away the mud, and pulls his rake head full of dark cherrystones on to the deck. Nothing feels better.            

I had to give up clamming in 1976 when we moved to Seattle. My wife was tired of Long Beach Island, New Jersey, its cold winters and isolation. In many ways the life of a bayman had not changed for hundreds of years. Except for the outboard motors, the rhythms were the same. We lived by the tides and the seasons. One long day after the next. It wasn’t what Cathy had signed up for. She needed friends and a social life, wanted a place where people talked about things other than the next storm or when the bay would ice over. We had college friends in the Pacific Northwest. They told us it was lovely, that housing was cheap, that cool people were moving there in droves. I tried to hold out, tried to build a case for life on this six mile long island.  I couldn’t imagine selling my boat; I had just invested in a replacement motor, a spanking new 25 horsepower Johnson. But eventually I gave in. Seattle would be better for the children and C. was now pregnant with our second. I couldn’t be selfish, is what I thought. I feel trapped, is what I thought. Goddamn it all, is what I thought. I’ll tell you, I miss that boat to this day and think about it more often than seems natural.                 

In Seattle, I put my education to use and found work as a high school teacher. It was a good job, paid enough to support our family of four, and allowed us to buy a nice old house in the Wallingford neighborhood. But somehow over the years my life became more complicated. Teaching and writing did not provide the same sense of being at one with the seasons and the tides. I no longer felt like my own man. Everybody had a piece of me now – students, administrators, parents. Though more secure, pension and health insurance in place, I ended up feeling tense and worried.  The work life of a high school English teacher separated me from the throb of life by the sea, where the only imperative was to keep an eye on the horizon. And while the feeling at the end of a day on the bay was one of completion and exhausted satisfaction, the satisfactions, such as they were, of teaching were more nebulous. Who ever knew if you were doing the job correctly? It sometimes felt like steering without a tiller. Where were weall headed and how would we know when we arrived?                  

But there was no going back to the life of a clammer. That vocation was long behind me and, for the most part, had died away in my absence. It had been dying even back when I worked the bay. Near the end of my stay, more and more areas of Barnegat Bay and Little Egg Harbor were being closed to shellfishing because of pollution and the scarily named "Red Tide." My brother, who still lives in New Jersey, tells me that maybe a dozen old-timers still make a iving raking clams there. What’re you going to do? Time passes and spring brings sweet reminders on the winds of what once was: the ability to get up in the morning and go out on the water and earn a living with hard work and an untroubled soul.

Robert Freedman is a native (West) Philadelphian who now live in Portland, OR. Clamming — Changing Tide explains how her got there. After teaching at West Philadelphia High School, he and his wife and baby daughter escaped to Long Beach Island, where he became a commercial clammer on Barnegat Bay. He used to say, “I was the only clammer on the bay with a masters degree from Harvard, until I ran into a guy who showed me his doctorate.” He loved what he did in New Jersey, and misses that life to this day.

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