The tide book may have progressively smaller fish beside minus tides with increasingly larger numbers, but my mind translates the fish to razor clams.Those big tides are when Cook Inlet sucks in its stomach and uncovers dimpled sandbars, telltale signs meaning, with a little elbow grease, there's something fresh and tasty just below the surface.
In the photo collections of my and other original Ninilchik families are images of parents and grandparents smiling over buckets of clams. Their good-old-day stories are peppered with tales of who could dig the fastest, the numbers changing depending on who does the telling.
As teenagers, my dad and uncles spent summers on the inlet's west shore digging clams commercially. Pay depended on how fast they spotted the dimples, expertly placed their shovels and feverishly clawed their way through the gritty sand to halt the sharp-shelled clams' amazingly rapid descent.
During especially cruel winters, when food in Ninilchik became scarce and hungry children went to bed with growling stomachs, the low tides were a godsend. Villagers would endure bitterly cold wind, maneuver around chunks of ice and use lanterns to light their search for the fresh, sweet meat.
My own childhood memories of clam digging are resurrected by photos, too. One little black-and-white snapshot shows me at about age 4 or 5, smiling into the camera. My coat's buttoned up to my chin, a warm hat covers my ears, the cold wind blowing across the beach is second to the treasure in my bucket.
The first big tides of spring were an opportunity for the Methodist Church in Ninilchik to invite the village of my younger years to a clam fry. We're not talking dainty, bite-sized strips of clams. We're talking plate-filling steaks. An entire clam cleaned, dipped in batter and fried to perfection. So tender, it would practically melt in your mouth.
Later in the summer, during the period of time my family operated a fish trap about three miles north of the mouth of Ninilchik River, we'd deliver our fish to the Beaver, a tender that would come down the inlet from one of the canneries near Kenai. If anyone knew how to make clam chowder, it was Hugh Boyd, the Beaver's cook. We considered it a red-letter day when Hugh would send a jar of his thick, creamy chowder to shore for us to enjoy at our camp.
While I don't remember my family's table ever being bare of food, I do remember bitterly cold winter nights, the whisper of waves in the darkness, the hiss of a lantern and the joy of finding clams.More recent family photos show my daughters as young girls, squatting with my dad next to the day's razor clam harvest. Even more recently are images of my grandchildren, leaning on shovels, their pant legs covered in mud, following in the footsteps of generations before them, bringing home the hard-won food of Cook Inlet.
It's been a few years since my dad, who turns 95 today, has dug clams, but his appetite for them hasn't diminished. Every summer one of the campground hosts in Ninilchik has faithfully dug and given bags of clams to Dad. Leaving them uncleaned means Dad still has a role to play in the process. Once Dad's done his part, the clams are handed to me for cooking.As Dad's eyesight has diminished with age, so have his cleaning abilities. Just because he hands me a bag of clams doesn't mean they're ready to put in chowder.
So, I spend hours standing at the sink, cutting away the overlooked pieces of clams not meant for eating, stripping off slime not appropriate for any recipe and washing away remaining grains of sand. I complain under my breath that he can't do a better job.And I swear I'm never going to think about, dig, clean, cook, eat another clam.
I can finally say, and find it freeing to admit, that I do not like digging for clams. I don't like wallowing around in the mud and sand and I don't like the hours it takes to clean them. Every tried-and-true shortcut others swear makes for easier, less messy cleaning has failed to work to my satisfaction.And by the time I've submitted myself to all that unpleasantness, I sure as heck don't like cooking, much less eating them. Period.
Then I see those minus tides in the tide book and I imagine generations of my family sitting around the table, my grandparents next to my grandchildren. In front of us, a steaming pot filled with a thick chowder of clams harvested from Cook Inlet sandbars.
Like the tug of the tide, it's hard to resist. See you on the beach.