The first hints of magenta had barely appeared in the eastern sky Thursday as Jim Northrup maneuvered his pickup truck onto the hard sand beach near Grayland.
At exactly 5 a.m., two hours before low tide, the 77-year-old Centralia man turned on a head lamp and stiffly ambled toward the surf in search of the razor clams he’s dug for seven decades.
Northrup was intent on a fried clam dinner, but that would come later. Now, surrounded by the sound of the ocean and the voices of chirping shorebirds, he took in the solitude of the coastal darkness.
“I like to get out here before the crowds come,” he said.
With a full moon and the Big Dipper still visible, Northrup’s prey had just concluded their dinner. Razor clams are filter-feeding mollusk that extend their necks, called siphons, to the surface on the outgoing tide. That leaves a dimpled circular depression in the sand, known to clammers as “a show.”
Even with eyesight that isn’t what it use to be, Northrup is expert at spotting the telltale sign. Within 30 minutes, he had his limit of 15 clams.
“I look for a big dimple,” he said. “The bigger the dimple, the bigger the clam.”
Ready for breakfast, Northrup walked back to his truck and toward a steadily increasing stream of headlights piercing the dawn. Soon the beach would be overrun with bleary-eyed clammers. Carrying clam shovels and guns, they were continuing a Northwest tradition that brings a critical financial infusion of cash to the state’s remote coastal communities.
The good news for clammers this year is that four out of five areas in the 58 miles of razor clam habitat the state Department of Fish & Wildlife manages are doing extremely well, with the best densities seen in 16 years at Twin Harbor and Mocrocks.
That’s meant a near record number of openers, said Dan Ayers, coastal shellfish manager for the agency, and has given the phrase “happy as a clam” new meaning for area merchants.
Recreational clamming pumps more than $22 million a year into the coastal economy with labor income adding $13.3 million for residents and a small commercial fishery, according to a 2009 report by the University of Washington and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
That’s been good news for Gary and Diane Johnson.
Four years ago, they were reeling from the bad economy. Diane, who had worked for years in early childhood education, lost her job because of state budget cuts. Gary, owner of a grocery store in Silverdale, gave up competing with the big box stores.
They sought refuge and a second chance in remote Grayland in Grays Harbor County.
They bought the Ocean Spray Beach Resort and invested upwards of $200,000 and countless hours in do-it-yourself renovation of the historic collection of 10 cottages. Some of the units housed commercial razor clam diggers in the early 1900s and others sheltered soldiers stationed on the coast during World War II.
When the couple bought the place four years ago, “it was ready for the bulldozer,” Gary Johnson said. Plywood was showing, windows had to be replaced and all the interiors needed to be redone.
“I joke we had 20-year comp shingles put on 50 years ago,” he said.
On a recent night, a wailing siren alerting volunteer firefighters jolted the resort’s guests out of their sleep. Johnson hardly notices the noise now but his ears perk up to the sound of early-morning traffic traveling down the beach access road past his resort.
“The clamming is critical to us, especially during the off-season,” he said, estimating the openers bring a bump in revenue of 50 percent over normal.
Ocean Shores and Long Beach also are capitalizing on the clamming bonanza.
The Ocean Shores Razor Clam Festival and Seafood Extravaganza was held in March and the Long Beach Razor Clam Festival, complete with a chowder taste-off, Clam Festival Court, entertainment and music, will be today and Sunday after more than a 50-year hiatus.
The excitement over clam digs – scheduled through Tuesday at Twin Harbors, Long Beach, Mocrocks and Copalis – goes beyond the business community, said Ayers, the state shellfish manager, who grew up in Aberdeen.
“I was that little guy who was booted out of bed at 5 in the morning, loaded up in the ’57 Chevy to go clamming with Dad,” he said. “It’s a real social part of our community.”
Ayers hopes to continue the family tradition with his kids and future grandchildren, but trouble may be looming. The state’s coastal waters and other marine environments around the world are being affected by ocean acidification.
That happens as the oceans absorb more and more carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. The chemical change makes sea water more acidic, reducing the calcium mollusks need to form their shells.
Acidification has been linked to mass die-offs of commercially raised oyster larvae in Washington State. It also is being studied as a potential threat to mussels and their ability to stay attached to rocks in the surf of the state’s rough intertidal zones.
Recent research in Atlantic coastal estuaries of Maine has linked acidification to the deaths of clam larva and to the thinning of their shells. Reading a news account of the research gave Ayers cause for concern.
Locally, razor clams haven’t been affected significantly “but it would be foolish to think that change isn’t coming,” said Ayers, who watched as families dug for clams near Grayland beach. “I worry about whether my grandkids are going to be able to enjoy digging razor clams.”
But now, right before spawning season, the clams are thick with fat, prompting Ayers to offer up a recipe.
“I don’t like them with too much breading, so I lightly flour my clams and cook them in hot olive oil on the deck,” he said. “My kids like them crunchier, but be careful, you don’t have to cook them very long.”
Dean Koepfler: 253-597-8636