Friday, December 30, 2005

Weather watch

Wind gusts from the south at 20 to 30 mph hit us last night and the nearly non-stop rain continued. This makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning – it's dark and the constant pitter-patter of rain lulls me to sleep. When I finally got up and took a shower, I opened the bathroom window and was greeted by a sideways wall of cold rain. Burrrr!

Still, I've got it easy. I slip on my rain clothes, grab a medium black coffee from Sutter's Mudd and go about my business. The wind and rain just add a little adventure to the day and some interesting photo opportunities. For example, the other day I walked the dog down to the banks of the Mad River and stood a couple feet away. The river was cresting its banks and washing chunks of McKinleyville downstream. Giant logs and tree trunks whipped by us. There's something mesmerizing about a churning river, and not just to me. There was a small crowd that came and went that day, walking down and gawking at the rising river. It was better entertainment than anything on TV.

Some complain about this kind of weather, but a lot of folks love it, even though they might not admit it.

But the guys who've got it rough are the Public Works, Caltrans and law enforcement crews who are working day and night to keep the roads open and to keep people from accidently killing themselves. Based on what I hear on the scanner, there are stranded motorists, landslides, downed trees, flooded ditches. homes filled with water and downed power lines. In addition, there's the regular stuff – wife beaters, suicidal subjects, nutcases, thieves, etc. They never take a vacation or give law enforcement a break to deal with natural disasters.

As of this evening, the Redwood Curtain has descended on Humboldt County. Highway 101 is closed at Confusion Hill. State Route 299 is closed between Arcata and Willow Creek due to a landslide. Earlier today Highway 101 was closed south of Crescent City due to downed trees across the roadway. That means that for a time today we were trapped in Humboldt. No exit, no entrance. I may still be that way. Information is sporadic, despite the best efforts of all involved.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Speed control update

Apparently one of my neighbors does not appreciate by "Ho! Ho! Ho! Slow down" sign. Last Friday it was moved away from the road. So I dragged it back. The next day it was removed again. I dragged it back. The next day it was laying on its side near my mailbox, wet and slightly damaged. Fortunately, it doesn't matter. Mother Nature has intervened with day after day of incessant rain, creating massive potholes on the road. Until the rain stops and the potholes dry out, everyone will be forced to drive slow.

Lawn Art

Here's some interesting art for sale on the south end of Crescent City. I like the giant head.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Lady Luck – Come All Ye Faithful

One of the few times when I truly feel the power of faith is when I’m gambling. Not before I gamble, or after I gamble, but during the actual act of gambling.

That’s when I become a True Believer in Lady Luck. When I have a lottery ticket, I BELIEVE I’m going to win, and I’m disappointed when I lose. It depresses me, as if I actually had a chance. Because of this, I stopped buying lottery tickets.

When I put money in a slot machine, I BELIEVE that I’m going to hit the jackpot. I usually don’t, but sometimes I do.

A horse, especially the long shot, is going to beat the odds and I’ll walk away with a nice wad of cash. I usually don’t, but sometimes I do.

I have faith, even though when I step back my logical mind tells me that gambling is a bad investment – at least most of the time.

Fortunately I have a personality trait that trumps my faith in Lady Luck – I’m cheap. So I don’t gamble very much.

A couple times a year we gamble at the local casino and make it a social occasion. Once a year we go to the horse races when they come to the county fair. I have a lot of faith when betting on mules, because my sloppy methodology is probably as good as any other method. Mules don’t follow rigid rules. (I respect them for that.)

Once a week I visit the local casino for business purposes. When I do so, I gamble whatever change I have in my pocket, or whatever quarters are rolling around on my car’s floor. That means I usually gamble $1 to $3.

Today I walked in the casino with exactly $1.25 in quarters. I found a 25 cent slot machine and deposited three quarters. I always bet the maximum (75 cents, or whatever I have left in my pocket) because that’s the only way that you can win the BIG jackpot. I pulled the lever and lost.

Then I put in the remaining 50 cents, pulled the lever and won $10! For a moment I was logical and grabbed a bucket to cash out.

That’s when I was overcome with faith. Hallelujah! Lady Luck was in the house!

I started hitting the “maximum bet” button and the wheels turned and turned as I watched my $10 in credits nearly disappear. But each time the wheels turned, it looked as if I was SOOOOOO close to winning.

Very close. Almost there. One more and I could win. Half an inch higher and the jackpot is mine.

The credits dwindled and I was close to losing $10. I began to wonder whether I should have cashed out.

Then it hit again and I was up $10! This time I did the smart thing – I cashed out. $10 worth of quarters filled my bucket and I reached for them and stood up and got ready to leave.

Before walking away, I decided to drop another 75 cents in the machine – it was a lucky machine, perhaps inhabited by a deity that was friendly to me, or at least sympathetic. I lost, again. Then another 75 cents. Nothing.

I decided it was all or nothing – I would sacrifice my credits to the gambling gods. I sat down and starting dumping my winnings back into the machine. My bucket was now nearly empty and I began to getting that nagging feeling that I had really blown it.

I had won $10, lost $10 and then had been miraculously given a second chance to walk away when I won the second $10. Instead, I was squandering it. I began to feel like a dumb ass.

Then, something happened. I hit a combination of characters that made the machine beep and my credits inched upward to $20. Wow! But there was more. One of the characters promised a “free spin,” or something like that, so the machine spun again and there was another jackpot. Then it spun again. Another jackpot. And another. And another.

The machine was beeping and my credits climbed.

Lady Luck – my sweet, satisfying mistress – had turned $1.25 into $60. I hit the “cash out” button and watched the bucket fill with quarters. The cashier converted the quarters into three crisp $20 bills.

The cashier is located in the back of the casino, so you have to weave your way through a maze of slot machines and card tables to find the exit.

Oh, the temptation.

If five quarters can be transformed into three Andrew Jacksons, imagine what could be done with $60. Maybe I could sell the business and buy a small island in the South Pacific.

I made it to the door, left the casino and did a little Christmas shopping.

Ho! Ho! Ho! Slow down

Last night I made a Christmas tree-shaped sign that reads "Ho! Ho! Ho! Slow down". I attached it to a pole and put it out on the road. Today I watched two separate motorists drive by and slow down to read the sign. I haven't noticed any speeders. I may get a reputation as the "crazy sign guy," but bringing "intrigue" to the road seems to be slowing the traffic!! Next week: Balloons.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Speed control with uncertainty and intrigue

My latest challenge is extremely difficult and there’s a high likelihood that I will fail. I would probably have a better chance of successfully free climbing Mount Everest without oxygen or underpants.

My mission: to get drivers to slow down on my road.

In all the years I’ve lived on this street, I’ve never had to deal with speeders; the neighbors took care of them.

The folks across the street would stand on their front lawn and yell at drivers to “SLOW THE HELL DOWN, DAMMIT!” There were ugly, in-your-face confrontations. The speeders responded with shouts of “fuck you” and middle fingers were flashed.

But my neighbors were tenacious and, in the end, they prevailed. Sadly, our neighborhood leader died last year.

Ever since, the speeding problem has escalated. I tried to ignore it as long as I could, hoping that someone else would step up to the plate.

That hasn’t happened.

Then a week and a half ago I returned home to discover that while I was at work a neighborhood cat was run over and killed. We don’t know who owned the cat. The neighbors buried it in my yard.

It was killed in broad daylight, most likely by a speeder. The speed limit is 10 mph. When you’re going that slow, either an animal will have time to get out of the way, or you’ll have time to stop.

But there’s more at stake here than cats. There’s money. It’s a private, gravel road which we pay to maintain. The speeders cause more damage, which means more money out of our pocketbooks.

There’s also the “safety for children” factor and the “pleasant” factor.

So how do you get drivers to slow down on a road?

The first order of business was to hastily paint two signs the day the cat died.

One sign reads “SLOW DOWN!” and is painted with red letters. I nailed it to a power pole near the entrance to our dead-end road. I did this at night and the paint was still wet. It must have dripped a little at night, because now it looks like it was painted with human blood. It has a “Devil’s Rejects” quality about it that may also discourage strangers from driving down our road out of fear that they may be attacked by hillbilly cannibals (which they might.)

The other sign is temporary and has since been taken down. It was about 2 ft. wide and 4 ft. tall and scrawled with red paint. It read “NEIGHBORS: Please SLOW DOWN! A neighborhood cat was killed by a speeder on 12/9.”

I also wrote a letter which was placed in every mailbox on the street.

In the days that followed, the traffic seemed to slow. Last week, a neighbor called with good news: She watched the traffic all day and the cars were going slower!

Mission accomplished? No. Far from it. The slow down was temporary. By last weekend, the speeders were back, going two, three or four times the limit. There are fewer speeders, but speeders none the less.

So we decided to reassess the situation. Who is speeding and why?

Most neighbors are courteous. They just needed a gentle reminder.

But then there are the assholes – the ones who don’t care about their fellow neighbors. Being that some of them look like they were recently released from San Quentin, I’m not about to confront them directly.

So now I’m operating on a different traffic control theory which I once heard discussed in an interview somewhere. I don’t recall the source, but I recall the basic idea.

Traffic, the theory goes, will slow down based on two factors – uncertainty and intrigue.

If you’re uncertain about what lies ahead and what’s around you, you slow down. If there’s something intriguing nearby, you slow down.

For example, when tourists are tearing down Highway 101, they often speed, but when there’s a paving project and all the lines and markers are removed from the freeway, they slow down. They can’t tell if they’re driving in their own lane. They don’t know whether there’s a flagman up ahead. That’s uncertainty.

When they spot a herd of Roosevelt elk they nearly slam on their brakes. If they round a bend and there’s a spectacular ocean view, they slow down. If there’s a nasty wreck and ambulance personnel are crowded around an injured driver, they slow down. That’s intrigue.

If I can bring uncertainty and intrigue to my road, drivers will slow down. Even the assholes will slow down – not because they’re courteous, but because there are psychological forces at work which are making them unconsciously slow down.

Uncertainty is difficult to bring to my road, but intrigue is something that we can deliver.

Ideally, I’d like to bring in a rabid grizzly bear, a midget on a unicycle, or maybe the “Grinder Girl” from Letterman and place them in front of my house. Until then, we’re going to try some simpler ideas.

The first went up last night. It’s a blue garbage can with a long stick coming out of it. On the top of the stick is a small sign that reads “SLOW.” I placed the can halfway out in the road.

The theory is that as motorists approach the can, they experience a mix of uncertainty and intrigue. They’re uncertain what the crumbling can is doing on the roadway, and they’re intrigued enough to wonder what the small sign on top says. So they slow down and take a gander.

As the days pass, the can will no longer serve its purpose because everyone will know what it is. Uncertainty and intrigue will disappear.

So the can will be removed and a new sign will go up in a different location. Maybe it will say something like “Ho! Ho! Ho! Slow down!” I may even sacrifice a couple tree ornaments, or slap a little garland on it. The speeding motorists will wonder “What’s that?” and slow down to take a look.

After that, we’ll do something with balloons. Maybe I’ll make a scarecrow. A potted plant could find its way out onto the road. Or an old chair.

Things will come and things will go, and if the theory works some of the speeders will slow down.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Weather Report

The weather's been nasty for the last several days. The ocean is churning and there's a hazardous surf advisory. The photo above was taken from Highway 101 near Wilson Creek in Del Norte County on Monday morning. Some big trees came down early this morning in McKinleyville and knocked out power across a large portion of town. Fortunately, our house is on a different grid.

Saturday, December 17, 2005


One of the problems encountered when crabbing was instability when I pulled the crab trap out of the water. There are all sorts of possible solutions. I could build an outrigger or attach floats to the trap itself. But then I thought of a simple idea – a stick connected to two bleach bottles. Somehow it would have to be connected to the deck of the kayak. Perhaps it could be out of the water and lashed to the deck until needed, then quickly connected. Would the bottles provide enough buoyancy?

Friday, December 16, 2005

Elk in watercolors

This is a photo I was messing around with awhile back in Photoshop. There's a "watercolor" filter which transforms photos into something resembling a watercolor painting. Then I went one step too far and increased the intensity of the colors. It's a little too much, but still interesting to me.

Crab Quest Part III: Crabbing under a full moon

My crab mentor gave me excellent advice. He instructed me on what bait to use, where to drop my trap and when to go. He also mentioned something about “bait cups” and offered to help me make one.

I turned down the offer because I thought I had a bait cup, even though I didn’t.

As Donald Rumsfeld once said, “...there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

That pretty much summed up what I knew, or didn’t know, about bait cups. All I knew was that I had a small cage filled with bait. It looked like a bait cup, but it wasn’t. Or was it?

On Dec. 6 I woke up, did some chores, made the 10-minute drive to Trinidad, launched my kayak and dropped my crab trap. It was quick and uneventful. Within an hour, I was back to work filling racks with newspapers, returning phone calls and going about my daily routine.

Later that afternoon I returned to Trinidad to retrieve my trap. Everything was going smooth. A porpoise swam by me. I located the buoy marking my trap and pulled it up with great anticipation. I was disappointed to discover I had caught a single, tiny starfish. There was no crab and my bait was gone.

Two words came to me: Bait and cup. I wasn’t sure what a bait cup was, but I knew I needed one.

So it was back to the expert, who explained that a bait cup is a container with small holes that holds your bait. He suggested an empty plastic peanut butter jar with small 1/4-inch holes drilled in it. The container would be suspended from the top of the inside of the crab trap. The small cage, from which my squid escaped, should be reserved for larger bait, like old chicken pieces.

So I took his advice and returned a week later on Dec. 13. Once again, I set my pot in the early afternoon with plans to return a couple hours later.

Unfortunately, there was more work to do that day then I expected. Two separate newspaper racks were jammed and required some serious TLC. Such is the glamorous life of a small-town newspaper publisher. After the racks were repaired, I raced home and connected my trailer and kayak to the car. The sun was already setting and I didn’t relish the idea of kayaking on the ocean at night. When I think of nighttime and the ocean, the opening scene of “Jaws” comes to mind.

When I arrived, several other crabbers were coming and going and the sun was casting an orange glow on the beach. To the east a full moon was rising.

I literally ran down with the kayak in tow to the surf. I wanted to paddle out, get my trap and return before it was dark.

I paddled fast and located my trap just yards from the red buoy south of Prisoner Rock.

As I pulled it up, it felt heavier than usual. As it neared the surface, I noticed things crawling around inside. There were eight Dungeness crabs inside, and almost all of them looked to be legal size.

This is when I noticed a problem. The trap was heavy and while I was able to pull it to the surface, I was unable to lift it onto the kayak. This wouldn’t have been a problem in a regular boat – I’m capable of lifting the weight. But in a kayak, a sudden thrust could result in the boat capsizing. I struggled with the trap and eventually found a solution – I flipped the entire trap upside down and let it land on top of the kayak. Explaining the physics of this maneuver and why it worked would probably require a diagram and some mathematical equations. Suffice it to say, I got the job done, but it was uncomfortable. Had there been any more crabs in the trap, it would have been a questionable maneuver.

I tossed one small crab back because it was undersized. For good luck, I tossed a legal size crab back in the ocean. That left me with six big Dungeness crabs.

By the time I returned to the beach, it was dark except for the light of the full moon overhead. I placed to crabs in the sealed rear compartment of my kayak and returned home – victorious.

For the next several days, we dined on crab – crab with butter, crab with cocktail sauce, crab sandwiches and crab cakes. And, sometimes, just plain crab. Delicious.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Crabbing grounds

Crab Quest Part II: High seas and a whale

I could not have picked a worse day than Dec. 1 to go crabbing. It was drizzling, cold, breezy and the seas were rough.

When I arrived in Trinidad, the beach was empty – a highly unusual occurrence for the beginning of the sport crabbing season. It was just me and the gulls. If I was smart, I would have aborted the mission, gone home and curled up with the latest edition of the Weekly World News. But I had some free time that afternoon and I was determined to catch some crabs.

I unloaded the kayak and dragged it toward the surf. On a calm day, the surf in the protected cove where you launch is only a few inches tall. But on this day, it ranged from 1 to 2 feet. That may not sound like much, but when you’re sitting in a kayak with the cockpit opening a mere six inches above the waterline, it doesn’t take much to get wet and turn a boat sideways.

That problem could have be alleviated with a spray skirt, but I had too many ropes coming in and out of the cockpit to properly secure the skirt, so I was exposed to the elements. As I paddled out and hit the surf, a wave broke over the bow, washed across the deck and flowed into the kayak. My ass was sitting in a puddle of 50 degree sea water.

Further out beyond the cove I experienced the swells – rising and falling, rising and falling. It was a potential vomitorium. Atop some of the swells were small white caps. They weren’t breaking, but they looked like they could.

Being all alone on the ocean with these big swells and choppy seas I felt uneasy, to say the least.

I paddled as far out as my nerves would allow. The recommended crabbing grounds are further out, but I decided to play it safe. If something went wrong, I wanted to be able swim to shore. I dropped my chicken-baited crab trap adjacent to a nearby ocean rock and then raced back to the safety of dry land.

Despite the conditions, it was spectacular. The ocean was churning and smashing against the rocks. A heavy mist hung in the air and seals were busily swimming back and forth in the harbor.

I roamed the beach, time slipped away and my thoughts wandered. What was it like when the Yurok’s had this beach to themselves? When this was a whaling station, what did the town smell like?

I was jolted back into reality upon the realization that it was time to head back out. I noticed something – I was either getting smaller, or the waves were getting bigger.

Conditions were going from bad to worse. It was time to get smart, get my crab trap, and cut my losses. Time was of the essence.

I jumped in the kayak and paddled as fast as I could out to my trap. The waves were noticeably larger and choppier. I remembered the old adage “never turn your back to the sea” and tried to keep the kayak facing due west as I raised the trap, but to no avail. The wind and the waves pushed me in the opposite direction as I brought the empty trap up and began the task of tieing it down on the front of the kayak. It was tedious and nerve-racking work. The waves threatened to flip the kayak as I teetered from side to side, my cold wet fingers struggling to tie the trap down.

When I was nearly done securing the trap, I looked up to see several seals staring in my direction. Seals are curious beings and it’s not uncommon for them to investigate when fools like me enter their territory. But they were exceptionally curious and wouldn’t stop gawking.

And that’s when it happened.

There was a sudden blast of air and water, with a simultaneous crying/moaning sound right behind me. I couldn’t quite make it out, but in my peripheral vision I witnessed a geyser of water shooting into the air and something dipping under the water about five feet behind my boat. A whale!

I grabbed the paddle and dug deep into the water as the kayak cut through the water like a knife. Small breakers lay ahead – small by ocean standards, but tall for a fellow sitting in a small, plastic bucket.

As I was about to make landfall, a breaker pushed the kayak sideways and I suddenly lost control. I was now turned over nearly 90 degrees with my torso facing the waves and water pouring in the boat. The crab trap fell overboard and was being dragged in the white foam while various empty water bottles and my binoculars spilled out of the boat.

Fortunately I was in only a couple feet of water. I was soaked below the neck, but my hat stayed dry. I wiggled out, staggered around and began to collect my gear, tossing it up on the beach beyond the wave slope.

I was cold and wet, but unscathed. My gear was intact and I learned a few things.

First, don’t go out when it’s this rough. It can be dangerous, although frankly I was careful and didn’t go out too far. My incident in the surf was chilly and potentially embarrassing, but I was never in any danger. I sought the advice of an expert afterward who told me that crabs lay low in rough seas and are difficult to catch. So, for all of these reasons, wait until the seas are calm before crabbing.

Second, I learned that chicken is not the bait of choice. Squid is a better bait, although it wouldn’t hurt to have both.

As I drove home with the car heater on full blast I began plotting my next excursion.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Roosevelt elk

This Roosevelt elk was grazing on the side of the road near Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park a couple weeks ago. This photo was taken from inside the car without a zoom lense.

Big Lagoon

This was the view on a recent morning looking east at Big Lagoon.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

This photo, from an Oregon State University website, is completely superfluous, unless you've never seen a crab before. I just posted it here to make my blog pretty.

Crab Quest Part 1: The idea

There’s an easy way and a hard way to tackle a new project.

The easy way is to surround yourself with knowledgeable people who can share their skills and show you, step by step, how to get the job done.

The hard way is to be bullheaded and plow forward, woefully ignorant, and learn through a series of mistakes and small disasters, only consulting the experts afterward to determine what went wrong.

The hard way is the method I’m most familiar with and I’m pursuing in my quest for Dungeness crabs in the waters here on the North Coast of California.


I don’t recall exactly when it happened, but earlier this year I saw something that sparked my interest in crabbing.

I was cruising around Trinidad Bay in my sea kayak when I observed a lone individual in a pickup drive up to the beach and quickly launch a small aluminum boat filled with a couple crab pots. He jumped in the boat and roared off into the ocean, disappearing in the fog bank. About five or ten minutes later he returned – minus the crab pots – loaded his boat onto the trailer and sped off.

I didn’t think much about it at the time, but later it got me pondering – the individual I saw single handedly set his crab pots in about 15 minutes. It would probably take him about the same amount of time to retrieve the pots and his catch.

If I could somehow copy his method, I could squeeze crabbing into a normal workday – dropping pots in the morning and retrieving them in the afternoon, all the while maintaining my work schedule without missing a beat. Then, in the evening, we could enjoy fresh crab, all free-of-charge and courtesy of Mother Nature.

Catching crabs wouldn’t be a social affair or a leisurely expedition. It would be a quick harvest, like stopping at the local market on the way home from work to pick up dinner, but without the cash register. It was pure genius.

All I needed to do was pluck these delicacies off the ocean floor. How hard could that be?


Ideally, I would like to have a 20,000-square-foot steel building filled with a variety of boats and related equipment to meet all my maritime needs – small and large sailboats, rowboats, canoes, kayaks, speed boats, hover craft, dories, paddle wheel boats, Zodiacs, torpedo boats, barges, submarines, destroyers, and, of course, a small tug boat.

And in the case of crabbing, I would like to start with a 26-foot aluminum boat with duel outboards, center console, GPS, depth finder, electric winch and a few Victoria’s Secret models to serve as deckhands.

But I’m of modest means and my garage is small, so that setup will have to wait. Here’s what I have for crabbing:

• A 14.5-foot Perception Carolina sea kayak with rudder. The boat is basically an elongated Clorox Bleach bottle with room for one person. Even if I had a Victoria’s Secret model volunteer to be a deckhand, we wouldn’t both be able to squeeze into the cockpit (Although we would certainly try.) The kayak is sturdy, lightweight, nearly maintenance free and can be dragged over rocks. It moves quickly through the water and there’s no engine to breakdown and cause headaches.

• Due to the laws of physics, my crab pot needed to be lightweight – something that could be raised from the kayak without flipping me over. I purchased a lightweight “crab trap” from Murphy’s Market in Trinidad for $29. It’s a square trap and measures a little more than 2’x2’ There are little doors on each side that swing open and allow crabs to crawl inside, but close behind them. This traps the crabs inside. The entire contraption breaks down flat for easy transporting. By the way, Murphy’s has a nice selection of crabbing and clamming gear and the guys in the butcher shop are very helpful.

• I purchased 100 feet of nylon rope at McKinleyville Ace Hardware and I found an old float in my garage. The nice thing about Ace Hardware rope is that it comes with a velcro strap that holds it all together. Those straps come in handy for holding the crab trap on a kayak, although I still use some rope to make sure it’s secure.

• I purchased a “crab gauge” for $1.49 that is used make sure the crabs I catch are legal to keep. It’s tied to a rope.

• In the event that I actually catch some crabs, I have a blue canvas bag to put them in.

• I have a pocket knife that is wickedly sharp.

• I’ve got all sorts of little ropes to tie all this junk onto my kayak.

• I have a lifejacket which I wear religiously whenever in the water. I’ll spare you the safety lecture and just say this: I’ve written my fair share of stories about people – some of whom I personally knew – who died in the water but would have survived with a simple lifejacket.

• I have a valid California fishing license pinned to my fancy, over-priced Pantagonia stocking cap, which makes me look clownish and silly, but keeps me warm.

So with all this equipment, and appropriate attire, I was ready to go crabbing.
(Coming soon: Jack goes crabbing and gets wet and wild with a whale.)

Das Boot

This is similar to my kayak, except this one is a newer version. I've also customized mine in several ways. First, there are little pieces of rope and string tied to it – some of which serve a function, others of which are mysterious relics from past expeditions. There are also little pieces of seaweed, bait and mud stuck to the hull. Inside the cockpit are empty water bottles, candy wrappers, a whistle, rusted binoculars and a water-logged newspaper.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A razor clam. (Photo from the Washington Department of Fish & Game website.)

Clamming at Clam Beach

A guinea pig in search of clams.
That’s basically what I was May 27, 2005, participating in a pilot project of Open Beaches and Trails, a McKinleyville-based group that lobbies to maintain public access to public lands. The organization also aims to educate the public about responsible beach use and the activities that can be enjoyed in the sand and the surf.
Dennis Mayo of Open Beaches informed me Thursday that I would be the guinea pig for his group’s education program – this time an impromptu lesson on how to catch clams. Mayo put me in contact with veteran fisherman and clammer Aaron Libow, who offered to teach me everything I needed to know about clamming and distill into a single lesson what took him over a decade to learn.
Having never clammed before, I needed all the help and advice I could get.
Outfitted with hip waders, a bag to hold the clams, a standard shovel with a round head and a valid California fishing license, I arrived at Libow’s McKinleyville home early Friday morning. We loaded into his four-wheeler and hit the road.
Our destination: Clam Beach, obviously.
The timing of the lesson could not have been more perfect. Throughout the week there were minus low tides, exposing a variety of sandbars and stretches of the beach where the indigenous razor clams reside.
Minus low tides, Libow explained, are essential for a successful clamming expedition.
Also important are calm seas. The clams reside in the surf zone and when there are heavy seas they hunker down to protect themselves and are not visible. Fortunately, at the end of the week the sea was smooth and glassy – perfect for clamming.
The Department of Fish & Game allows clamming either north or south of Strawberry Creek on alternating years. This year (2005), clamming is allowed on the north end. Next year (2006) it will be limited to the south end.
At the beach that morning there were at least two dozen people clamming, with the largest concentration in the Little River Beach area to the north. Some swear that this area is the most productive, but Libow said clams can be found up and down Clam Beach.
It’s just a matter of having the right tides and the right conditions. But, Libow warned, clamming has a lot in common with fishing. Sometimes you catch your limit, sometimes you catch none. It doesn’t hurt to have a little luck on your side.
To the uninitiated, clamming techniques can appear strange, if not downright silly.
You hold the neck of a shovel with the handle pointed down and tap, or pound, the sand. While doing so, you look for a small hole or dimple to appear nearby. If you don’t see one, you keep moving on, taping every few feet as you scour the beach with your head down in search of the elusive bivalve.
It also helps to stomp your feet. Several times during the lesson Libow stomped as he walked in a circle. With a little marching music it would have been a one-man parade. But the stomping wasn’t for my amusement. Within moments, small holes would appear indicating the presence of clams. And that’s when the action began.
Once a hole is spotted, the next step is to dig. A shovel blade is pushed straight down into the sand at least six inches or more away from the hole. Then the handle is gently pulled back to break the suction of the sand. You drop to your knees, reach under the shovel and start feeling around for the clam, which will try to escape by quickly digging its way back down vertically. The shovel is removed and, depending on where the clam is, you have to dig with your hands as quickly as possible. Clams are surprisingly fast and can be strong enough to pull themselves out of your hand if you don’t have a firm grip.
As the hunt for clams began Friday, we tapped along the beach, but to no avail. There were no holes. No clams. But we weren’t alone. Glancing up and down the beach it was clear that everyone was standing or walking, but nobody was on their knees – a clear sign that clams are not being caught.
We shuffled along tapping and tapping, sometimes in the shallow surf, sometimes on dry sand. The process takes total concentration. Your eyes are trained in a small area around your shovel looking for a hole to appear. Some holes are large and obvious, while others are mere dimples. If you’re thinking about something else or daydreaming, you could easily miss a hole.
When I spotted by first hole, I wasn’t sure if I should even dig. It didn’t look like much of anything. But I followed the directions just as I had been told. The shovel was inserted and gently pulled back. I reached down under the shovel, dug around and latched on to something that felt like a shell. I pulled my hand out and I was gripping a small, brownish-colored razor clam! It was the first catch of the day and a real confidence builder.
As the tide receded, the tapping, stomping and digging continued. Sometimes clams would be caught one after another. Then there would be a lull with extended period of tapping. But within a few hours all of us in the area had reached our legal limit of 20 clams each.
Later, back at Libow’s house, the clams were shucked and cleaned. This is an important part of the process, being that portions of the clams may contain paralytic shellfish poisoning toxin.
Libow said the part of the clam to be concerned about are the brownish gills. Those are removed along with the guts.
The Humboldt County Health Department advises that only the white meat should be eaten. The dark parts, according to the department, could contain the toxin.
Later than evening, the cleaned clams were quickly sauteed in garlic butter and served atop a pile of fettuccine. It was good eating.
Thanks to Open Beaches and Libow for the clamming lesson. I hope to see them out there during the next minus tide.

Thumping for clams at Clam Beach

Photo tweaked to protect the innocent.

Monday, December 05, 2005

To learn more about clamming....

The State of Washington may have different regulations than we do here in California, so be careful with the information in the following website from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. The site includes excellent information and graphics on how to catch and clean clams.

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