Out of My Element: Clam Apocalypse

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(Top) The blue skies above Long Beach didn’t necessarily equal a bounty of razor clams. (Left) Amanda Wickstrom and new champion, Hannah Rinner (Wickstrom), came through for the family. (Middle) This outfit yielded a grand-total of zero clams. (Right) Kyle Rinner scored the first clam of the weekend.

The last time I had sunk my razor clam shovel into the sand was 13 years ago and I left the beach at Ocean Shores a champion. No matter how hard they tried, my family members were unable to keep up with my torrid pace of digging and I would pull my 15th and final clam out of the sand in less than 45 minutes time. With the clam digging crown secure in my possession, I spent the rest of my time informing my group that they were now digging for nothing better than second place.

It was the sort of moment that I proudly held onto for the next 13 years. In that time, I remained undefeated, unchallenged and untested. I figured that if I don’t actually return to the beach with shovel in hand, then my reign as the family clam digging champion would never come to an end.

A few months ago, I got a text from my niece Hannah. She had targeted a clam dig for April down in Long Beach. For a moment, I entertained the thought of ignoring the text, as well as any others that had to do with the subject matter of clam digging. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to defend my title.

Instead, I couldn’t say no to my wonderful niece. I knew she would pester me to no end for the next three months, so I might as well throw in the towel and agree to the camping and digging adventure.

As is customary, I didn’t go about looking for my clam digging gear until a couple days before we were to leave Tacoma. After having moved a few times in the last 13 years, I came to the conclusion that all of my gear had been either lost, stolen and/or borrowed. I had nothing.

So, I found myself the night before in the cavernous environs of the Bass Pro Shop on Hosmer. The place looked deserted. A few tumbleweeds accompanied me around the store as I tried to track down the gear that I was looking for. While I found much of it, the price tags were rather scary. I was going to have to move on to another store, but first, I needed to get a clam license.

As I approached the licensing area, the tumbleweeds and crickets gave way to a line of folks a good 15-strong. These were my people. If something isn’t worth doing at the last minute, then it’s not worth doing at all. These people understood this mantra.

It was the sort of wait that reminded one of time spent at the Department of Motor Vehicles. At one point, I was almost sure the line was going in reverse. My incredible reservoir of patience won out and I finally walked out with clam license in hand.

I then headed to Walmart to pick up the goods I was looking for. After 30 minutes, I had scored all the needed items and headed home for some shuteye to prepare for the trip to the coast in the morning.

When my niece and her husband Kyle picked me up, their new 80-pound Doberman, Derby, planted a few unwanted kisses on my neck and ears, as well as adding a nice couple of scratches on my arm as he tried to jump into the front seat, presumably onto my lap.

For a brief moment, my mind began hatching a quick exit strategy from the truck, but then the wheels began moving and there was no turning back.

Further on down the road, I noticed Hannah sniffling and coughing. I asked if she had a cold. She responded that it was some allergies, and maybe a little cold that she got from her youngsters in the kindergarten class she teaches.

For another brief moment, I took a quick look at the speedometer and quickly gauged whether I could pull off a ditch and barrel roll out the passenger door. After a snappy calculation, I figured that I’d probably hurt myself more than the cold that I was now sure to catch. I was stuck.

After a roundabout lunch in Astoria, we descended upon our camping spot in Long Beach. My sister Kerrie and her husband Dennis would be spending a couple nights in their camper, while our trio would drop anchor in a tent, along with the aforementioned teenage monster dog.

It was a rough night of sleep. Derby decided that he would play the part of roving sentry for the better part of the duration, waking us all up constantly. It also rained pretty good, and I was sure that a few of the wind gusts were bound to flip our tent over. In no time, the sun had popped up and it was time to grab some grub and get our gear together.

Despite the rough night, I was still feeling confident about defending my clam digging title.

As I unwrapped the hip-waders that I had purchased the night before, I noticed that I had made a serious error. What I held in my hands was a set of waders made for standing in a river, while casting a rod. They were definitely not made for stomping around the beach and wading into crashing waves.

Right then and there, I knew I was going to be getting wet. I’ll be honest, my confidence took a little hit right there, but I regrouped and told myself that we’d overcome this.

An hour later, I was at the water’s edge on the beach. There were scores of clam diggers in the vicinity and something was really off with the situation. I didn’t see anyone digging. There were no clams in the nets on peoples’ waists and the glazed-over looks from the lot brought to mind a scene from “The Walking Dead.” We were in trouble. There were no clams on this stretch of beach.

We hopped in the truck and headed for another spot. It was a carbon copy of what we had just left. While no one else in my party had bagged a clam, it was the only bright spot out of the current situation. My boots were full of sand and water, and my clam bag was empty and mocking me. My title was certainly in jeopardy.

One more hop into the truck and down the beach landed us on what I was sure would be the prime location. Instead, it was nothing but more zombies and no clam holes to be found. Apparently, there was at least one angel in the vicinity, because Kyle somehow pulled up one clam with his “clam gun.”

It would be the only clam of the day for our group. We left the beach a little dejected, but still filled with hope that the following day’s dig would bring the clam bounty that we were expecting.

I don’t use clam guns. My father sneered at them decades ago and it stuck with me. He felt all they accomplished was smashing clams, and that a shovel offered much more control over the situation. Of course he was right, at the time. However, something was just different about these beaches down at Long Beach. The usual clam action we would see up around Westport and Ocean Shores was nothing like what we were finding in Long Beach. No stomping would make the clams show.

We spent the rest of the day downtown for Long Beach’s Razor Clam Festival. It was packed to the gills around town with clam diggers who were also pretty much skunked earlier in the day. Believe me, the tall tales tend to turn into honest retellings after a couple of cold ones at the beer garden. Quite a few folks were generally astonished at what went down on the beach earlier.

The temperature dipped under 40 degrees that night and it was difficult to fall asleep, as I was half-worried that I might not wake up from the hypothermia. It didn’t help that some campers down the way were watching Star Wars loudly in their trailer or tent. I kept hearing Darth Vader’s voice yammering away. After a while, I realized that there was no scene in Star Wars that had this much continuous speaking from Vader. Sitting up on my mat, both of my ears suddenly came into play. What I thought to be Darth Vader, was actually hundreds, if not thousands, of frogs croaking away all around us.

Apparently this clam situation had me just about ready to lose my mind.

Morning came and I was still alive. My confidence had taken a shot to the midsection, but I was still determined to turn this thing around.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a true case of déjà vu. The next two stops on our clam digging tour de force would have me questioning my sanity. The zombies were still wandering around the shoreline. Their bags were empty. Things were looking bleak.

Dennis had bagged one clam with his shovel. He smashed it up a little bit, but it was still salvageable. This is what we had to show for ourselves. Meanwhile, the dogs barked and had a great time. I was not amused.

Our final stop on the beach proved to be different. The zombies were still hovering around, but they were also joined by diggers with clams in the bags. I’m pretty sure that I even saw a few smiles here and there. There seemed to be a new hope in the air.

In a flash, Hannah pulled a quality clam up with her gun. In no time, my nephew’s wife Amanda had pulled one out as well. Meanwhile, I saw no clam holes. Whatever they were seeing, it just wasn’t registering with my eyeballs. I felt blind and lost. To add injury to insult, I was hit by a two-foot rogue wave that not only filled up my boots, but also had me confident that I had torn my right Achilles tendon. I immediately thought that this is how Richard Sherman must have felt when he was felled last season by the same injury.

Hannah would go on to bag eight clams, while Amanda scored four for herself. Dennis and I were shutout. We were also the only two souls on the beach with a shovel in our hands. The clam guns were the toast of the town down in Long Beach, and we were ill-equipped to bounce back before the day’s dig was up.

Hannah loves to win, which made it even more difficult to mentally hand over my championship belt to her. It was hard to swallow the defeat. Getting skunked over two days of digging and now hobbling around with a burning, achy foot really hit me in the deep feels.

When we rolled back into Tacoma later that evening, I was now hitting the accelerator on the new cold that Hannah had passed on to me. Taking my crown just wasn’t good enough for the girl. I still love her and am proud that she stepped up for the family and scored a few clams.

This fall we will move back up to the beaches around Ocean Shores, and I will exact my revenge upon the clam gods, while snatching that crown back from my niece.

It’s good to have worthwhile goals.

Editor’s note: This story is dedicated to the outdoor humorist Patrick McManus, who passed away on April 11. His yarns often brought me tears of laughter. The world of humor has been lessened by his passing.

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