Every summer, my wife, son, and I pay a visit to our friend Elena and her daughters, who rent a house in Orient, on the North Fork of Long Island.
The idea in going there, apparently, is to relax. To do nothing. It’s beautiful, it’s wonderful, and... I kind of dread it, because I am not good at this. At all. I’m a restless sort. My need to move and do tends to contaminate the tranquility, and I hate to kill a (lazy) buzz.
I need a goal. A project. Something beach-y to keep my occupied, and this year, I decided my project would be clamming. Growing up in Florida, I learned two things: (1) there's nothing in the world better than seafood you've pulled from the water yourself, and (2) half a day on a fishing boat will get me sunburn and seasickness with far more certainty than it will get me fish. Clams, they don’t swim away. Clamming was the perfect answer, I thought. Relaxing, yet productive, undeniably beach-y, and with the promise of pristine seafood at the end.
Having never clammed before, a bit of research was in order. I searched Twitter and hit paydirt immediately: Alec Baldwin, Long Island native, apparent guru of all things, was just then guiding actress Ali Wentworth in the finer points of the art:
AlecBaldwin: @AliEWentworth ..jam a peach basket in an inflated inner tube. Tie one end of the rope to the tube. One to you...Wearing crappy old Converse sneakers, muck for clams. Then say, "Right foot!" or "Left foot!"...to indicate which foot your kids should retrieve the clam from under. This was my dad's method.
I had no innertube, no peach basket, and was three sons short of a full Baldwin. But I did have crappy Converse sneakers and a generally reliable knowledge of right and left.
My first morning on the island, I went to Preston’s Marine Supply and bought a $40 clam rake; 12 talon-shaped tines at the mouth of a foot wide basket, attached to a long steel pole (the tines are spaced to let baby clams or “seeds” pass through.) I was pointed to the area around nearby Dam Pond as my best bet, and so returned to the house to round up my ersatz Baldwins for some “relaxation”.
We set off driving in search of a good clamming spot, trying to discern which was township water, requiring a $50 license, and which was state water, open to all comers. From the causeway, we saw people in what looked like a small lagoon. One group was casting a net angling for crabs and fish, and another was clamming, armed with a shovel, a rake and ziplock bags. Hoping we were legal, or at least for safety in numbers, we decided this would be our spot, too.
We clambered down from the roadside, over a crushed chain link fence and a few boulders strategically placed to maximize inconvenience to the muddy flats below. Setting our bags on the shore, we waded into the water. The low tide had exposed a small shell-scattered rise in the pond bed, and the water was waist-high in parts, at knee deep at its most merciful. Walking around in water halfway up your body, it turns out, is almost the exact definition of a slog.
We picked a spot and set to work. My sneakers could tell me nothing about what lay below; it all felt like rocks and sand to me. The kids took brief turns at the rake before declaring it too much work, and set to happily lolling about in the shallows, clams be damned.
The Baldwin boys never showed such indolence, I’m sure.
My wife and I alternated with the rake, dragging it through the sucking mud. This was not fishing, it was gardening; it was raking potatoes. All too often, after hoisting the rake out of the muck, I felt like Charlie Brown peering into his Halloween sack; reporting a mournful, “I got a rock.” After half an hour of pulling sand, we had about a dozen and a half Quahogs between us. The veneer of relaxation, already worn perilously thin, was eroding quickly. How many clams do you need for a pot of chowder, again?
Looking to the shore, we saw a gentleman in blue waving at us. We smiled and waved back. Wait, no, he was waving us in, a Bay Constable for the township of Southold. Stumbling towards him with our rake and milk crate (we couldn’t find a peach basket), the Constable smiled and asked how the water was today. He didn’t want to keep us from our clamming, but could we show him our permit for a moment, just to, you know, make sure we had our paperwork in order? Reflexively, I checked my soggy pockets for a permit I clearly didn’t have. Our lagoon was a pond. His pond. The Bay Constable would have to confiscate our clams and return them to [the] Dam[n] Pond, which he did in several long, arcing throws.
He and I headed back up to the causeway so he could write me a ticket for taking clams without a town permit. We fell into easy conversation, considering the circumstances, and after telling me about his years spent clamming for a living in his teens and 20s, he left me with a small parting gift: a recommendation of a nearby (legal) spot just off the road in Orient Harbor.
The next morning, I set out for the harbor alone. The rocky shore was studded with washed up jelly fish, maroon and ruffled like wilted chrysanthemums. Ready for a rematch, I waded in, and quickly found myself submerged to the ribs. I had a $40 rake, a court summons, and quite possibly soon, a jellyfish sting. I was raking rocks underwater for a food very cheaply bought. I was Captain Ahab in a soggy madras shirt.
Marine life was dense here though, and with several gunards watching from a safe distance, my luck started to shift. At first it was only the occasional whelk or comically agitated crab. Then a clam came up in my basket. Next pull, two. Then a few more. I began to imagine them grouped like a seam of ore beneath the ground. I'd pick a spot and work it, trying different depths and directions. I’d fill the pockets of my cargo shorts, empty them into the cloth bag I kept at the shore, and return to the water. The cycle was much like the addictive loop one finds one’s self in while playing Angry Birds. It’s futile, frustrating, and glaringly pointless until, by dint of dumb luck, success comes your way. Whether it’s a cleared level, or a clam in your basket, the time slips by, small victories mounting.
Two hours later, I returned to the house, my cooler weighted with seven dozen clams. It wasn't yet noon, and I was happily exhausted. Soon, I'd have to start thinking about dinner. For now though, while the kids played inside, I sat alone in the backyard, popped open a half dozen sweet, briny Cherrystones and a beer. And with the help of a Baldwin and a Bay Constable, I could, for a minute anyway, relax.