Happy as a clam digger

Posted: Monday, June 29, 2009

It is a pity that the clams are more likely to be poisonous to humans in the summer, because - as anyone who has spent much time with toddlers knows - digging for treasure in the ground is a deep and primal joy.

Kate Golden / Juneau Empire
Kate Golden / Juneau Empire

Rich Mattson, however, clams year-round. He has an excuse; he needs to feed the creatures in the aquariums at Douglas Island Pink and Chum's Macaulay Visitor Center. The creatures span from tiny crabs to the giant wolf eel, and some of them are rather partial to fresh clams.

On a windy, rainy Friday, Mattson took advantage of a particularly low tide. He brought DIPAC's beat-up old Boston Whaler. It looks like it's made of Styrofoam, but it's a trusty old skiff, and it jumped and pounded on the waves as it scooted across the sea.

Just a few minutes away was one of his "secret" beaches, not far from Auke Bay. He avoids popular clam-digging spots and rotates through the beaches he uses to avoid overexploiting them.

It turns out that clam-digging is simply a matter of channeling one's inner toddler. The beach is sand and gravel with water shooting out of it at random intervals from unpredictable spots. You stare at a spot to ascertain a cluster of spouts, or evidence that you'll hit Clam City. You kneel and dig, throwing the rocks aside, quickly, before the opaque gray water fills in.

It took perhaps a half-hour to fill three six-gallon buckets so full of fat butterclams that fishermen at Statter Harbor later would eye them enviously. Mattson took only the bigger clams, including at least one gaper twice as big as the others with a siphon that stuck out of its shell like a homely nose. Most end up as crab chow, but he'll save a few for the live tanks. It turns out people who don't want to touch icky sea cucumbers are OK with touching clams.

This was one of his all-time best clam digs, he said.

Mattson pointed out that "happy as a clam" really ought to be "happy as a clam at high tide," considering what a bad time of it these guys had at low tide. He's an efficient clam-digger, collecting five times as much as the novice tagging along. He's been doing it for five or six decades.

Mattson piled up the cockles, littlenecks and other clams that were too small for the bucket and buried them when he was done. This extreme version of "leave no trace" is his approach even down the food chain to a polychaete worm, which had been pulled out and placed on a rock so its leglike appendages and slimy undulations could be admired. He put it back under its rock. It's avoid gratuitous harm, rather than do no harm.

But this was an aquarium exhibit-gathering expedition as much as a foraging one. Mattson moved on for rocky reefs less dominated by clams.

Locals are used to seeing the shoreline shape-shift with the tides, but Friday's tide was extremely low. Rocks that would ordinarily jut out of the water festooned with mussels, perhaps revealing a bit of brown kelp, now exposed a whole stratum of that kelp so far uphill it seemed impossible water could ever get up that high. Below it, a line of kelp-free gray rocks interspersed with broken clamshells was the new interface between land and water. Another childlike pleasure: tugging at rocks to see what's below.

It's best not to go out looking for anything in particular. The charm of low tide is the surprises. Mattson collected some worms that were white sacks of liquid guts with an orange, tulip-shaped mouth at one end. He got some thumb-size, Creamsicle-colored sea cucumbers that like to grab food with an orange tentacle, stick said tentacle into the mouth-hole and lick it clean, despite lacking a tongue. He collected purple dogwinkle snails and a six-armed sea star. In fact, he is partial to sea stars, which come in all different colors, but he already had more of them than he needs.

As the tide started to come up again he drew in the anchor, put the boat in low gear, and laid on his belly over the bow peering into the water as the boat wandered along the rocky shore as if on autopilot.

Mattson, now a spry 62, grew up in Juneau. As a small fry he helped his fisheries biologist father conduct chum salmon field experiments near Ketchikan. According to the son, the father passed on deskbound promotions in the National Marine Fisheries Service so he could keep working in the field.

Mattson figures he's made of similar stuff, spending his day poking under rocks and finding new creatures. The best part, he said on the way back, with his mustache and nose covered with mud, is getting to share all this with the children who visit the aquarium.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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