Ever bottom out on a beach at 5am? The yowl of metal and plastic ripping underneath the car, in a location where you’re only supposed to be hitting sand? It happens on our predawn drive up Washington’s endless Long Beach, crossing a stream that has carved a small sand canyon into the beach. The jolt is so strong that our dashboard hula-dancer ornament—sporting a ukulele and Barack Obama’s face—bobs violently at the hips long after we stop.
We’re ripping up our Subaru hatchback in the dark for one reason: It’s clam time, and we are on the hunt. Razors are free for the taking with a $9.70 clamming license on sporadic days from October to May, as determined by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife by balancing marine toxins, population numbers, and tribal harvests. The hunting hordes descend when the tide is lowest, even if it’s before dawn; the clams hardly stand a chance.
In the pitch black, we must train headlamps at the sand to spot clam show, the pea-size hole that signifies a burrowing mollusk. Creatures bigger than three inches are fair game, called recruits (though the clams probably don’t consider it volunteering). The last bit of lingo you need: A clam gun isn’t quite as exciting as it sounds. Most cheap versions are a section of PVC pipe you thrust down into the beach to extract a pillar of sand and, with luck, a clam. Hugged by their olive oblong shells, the captured clams pulse and writhe; repeat until you are the Teddy Roosevelt of razor clams, laden with your limit of kill.
Locals, easily victorious with their aluminum clam guns and surgical sand-sucking precision, will point out show to clumsy newbies. After an hour or two, the sands of Long Beach are speckled with discarded piles of sand, as though a fleet of moles had decided to take a playful beach vacation.
What to do with a busted car and our limit of razor clams? The sleepy Long Beach peninsula may be mostly salt-cured rental houses and ice cream parlor lines, but its community is strong. Locals advertise clam-cleaning services on hand-lettered signs on their front lawns. We hand our bounty to a woman who removes the sharp shells and hands us back plastic baggies of slippery slivers of meat. Meanwhile, we pop into an auto parts store where employees and fellow customers peer at the undercarriage of the Subaru and help secure the car’s ripped pieces of protective automotive plastic with black twist ties.
Back home, there will be clam ceviche, clam chowder, clam fritters. Here on the Long Beach peninsula, the rest of the day is a slow wander up the pillaged beach. This seaside has never been much for sunbathing; here staunch winds fuel the annual Washington State International Kite Festival. Tourists have flocked here since the Clamshell Railroad hauled beachgoers up and down the 28-mile peninsula in the nineteenth century, but now a central two-lane highway clogs with cars inching to the northern tip, where residential streets give way to the gentle trails of Ledbetter State Park.
There are few other hunts one can or should embark upon as a total newbie. As we pull away from Long Beach, our hula ornament happily sways as the highway traces the marshy calm of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge. We carry only a few pounds of fresh-caught meat in our cooler, but it’s somehow worth the sand in our boots and the damage to the car. Victories aren’t hard to come by on Long Beach—except perhaps for the clams.