Clamming season is upon us once again with the negative tides of last weekend. Due to the emergency order, I half expected that Polly Creek would be seeing a sudden influx of visitors due to the lack of restrictions and the exhilarating experience of clam digging in this area. Although I have had some pretty frightening experiences out there, had I known that it was slow I probably would have made arrangements to go.
For unknown reasons, an abundance study conducted in February discovered that mature razor clam populations were down 80% from averages dated from 1991 to 2012 in the East Cook Inlet Area. This bodes very badly for the normal clamming population that frequents Clam Gulch. This is an extremely popular location, seeing many small aircraft and ATVs during the typical April and May low tide season. Generally speaking this crowd will not make the journey across the inlet to the Polly Creek area for the reasons that I have outlined below.
Western Cook Inlet is a different story altogether. Polly Creek is a difficult location to reach, only accessible via aircraft or small boat. The mud flats that are near the beach are virtually horizontal. This means that even the smallest vertical movement of water causes long stretches of horizontal reach. This is greatly exaggerated by the extreme Alaskan tides. These tides have resulted in a few deaths, which is particularly unnerving for me because I happened to be there on the day that five commercial clammers perished. All of that being said, the risk of danger is relatively low and the adventure is high and that is one of the reasons that I do enjoy this trip.
This is a true to life Alaskan adventure. There are basically two routes to get there coming from Anchorage or Mat Su by air, which is my preferred mode of transportation. From Anchorage, one can travel south over Turnagain Arm and follow the coast to Nikiski before crossing Prince William Sound. You should be gaining altitude by at least a few thousand feet above ground level before crossing because the distance over water is about 5 miles and that is a cold swim. Alternatively, one can depart from Merrill Field or Lake Hood, cross over to Point Mackenzie and after clearing Ted Stevens airspace follow the coast down to Polly Creek. This is by far the longer yet safer route.
Landing on the beach or mud flats is another adventure in and of itself. While not being any salty-dog high hour pilot, I do walk away from every flight knowing that I have learned something new. Back in the trip that my accompanying pictures detail, I still had smaller tires on my trusty Cessna 170A but since then I have learned that the flats can be deceivingly soft and that big tires are better suited for Alaska's environment. Anyone familiar with Alaska for a long time can repeat one of many tales concerning danger on the mud flats. Silty mud prevalent in Southcentral Alaska has a tendency to very very slowly suck in anyone or anything that sits resting in one spot for too long. I witnessed this event a few years ago with a 172 that got stuck, albeit temporarily. We managed to get it's main wheels out of the mud with a little bit of effort and a few of us pushing. It is not a major problem, and probably doesn't happen often but it certainly left a mark in my memory to double check the firmness of where I land when I am out on the flats. It also pushed me along in the idea to get bigger tires on my airplane.
For the actual harvesting of Razor Clams, I have seen many people use clamming guns and shovels both. Razor Clams burrow very quickly, and I prefer using a clam gun for this reason. They are very quick little creatures, and when digging with a shovel one must move very quickly. They rest only a few inches down and can be seen by little holes in the surface of the mud, but as soon as they sense the ground being disturbed and can get down about 24 inches or more with an astounding ease.
Cooking the clams is very easy if you have practice and patience. Cooking them too long, however, will make them very tough and chewy. The idea is to fry them for only about 30 seconds per side. I like to bread them and season with tobasco or other hot sauce and fry them in a vegetable oil. They go very well with a side of biscuits and a sweet vegetable like corn.
It is unfortunate that the clam population is suffering on the east side of the inlet. I hope that we do not overcompensate by overharvesting on the west side as well, but if you do have the opportunity to get out and get a few it really is an exciting trip!
Image credits for first row: