Digging for Ducks

Thursday, May 30, 3013
9:56 P.M.

Hey folks, it’s been awhile. Busy would be an understatement. But I have a bit of free time tonight before my next midterm, and I wouldn’t want to be skimping on my duty to provide you with safe* forecasts to plan your days around.

But seeing as watching the models right now is about as exciting as watching a sliced apple oxidize, I’m not going to provide you with any forecasts today. Remember how I said I was going to go geoducking over Memorial Day weekend? Well, on Sunday, geoducking I went, and with the help of my brother, my parents, two friends, and the geoducks, we were unearth some from the deep.

First, let me introduce my ‘primary’ crew. My kid brother, Henry Phillips, is in the yellow, my personal 70’s transplant Mikko Johnson is in the red, and my favorite internationally-known soccer star Jannel Banks is in the blue. I am a mix of yellow, red, and blue; my shorts are yellow with navy blue flowers, and my body is in the process of getting sunburnt. More about that later.

First, let me describe the typical process through which a recreational geoduck team gets their clams. First, a person on the team finds a geoduck siphon sticking above the sand. I’ve already dug up most of the geoducks on beaches around the sound, so they usually make a circle around the geoduck to remember where it is and immediately call the rest of their team over.

After this, they center a massive tube around the hole and start unearthing the sand inside the tube while gradually pushing the tube down. This tube is used to prevent the sides of the hole they did from collapsing inward, as geoducks bury themselves anywhere from 2 to as much as 5 1/2 feet (I know this from personal experience) under the sand. When I say massive, I mean massive, these tubes generally range from 3-5 feet in length and 1-2 feet in diameter. They are not available in stores – they are welded from scratch and are usually constructed of aluminum.

As the team continues to remove sand from the inside of the tube, they gradually push the tube down into the sand to continue their excavation process. The problem is that there is a massive amount of friction that prevents the tube from easily further penetrating the sand (not to mention that there are often stray clam shells embedded in it). It’s here where the “team” part really comes into play.

Teams will adopt certain strategies to push the tube further downward into the sand. The most common one is to simply have a person jump on a piece of wood that is laid over the top of the tube. I’ve seen some pretty creative ways though… with one particularly large tube that had handles embedded in it, the people placed a long, long board through it and jumped periodically on either end so that the tube was oscillating upward and downward in a sinusoidal motion. This method was actually pretty effective and impressive, but it obviously required a lot of people, a lot of materials, and a lot of work to get one clam.

Now, for the Phillips – approved method of getting geoducks.

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When we first got interested in geoducking, we did not have a giant tube. So we went down to the local hardware store (Sebo’s, for those of you who frequent Whidbey Island) and bought a 24-inch-long stovepipe. There were different sizes, but we ended up getting ones that were 6 and 8 inches in diameter; this was our first attempt at getting geoducks, and we wanted to see which diameter would work best. This stovepipe was thin and flimsy, but it was all we had, so we thought we’d give geoducking a shot.

Since our pipe was so small, we could just use our hands to did out the sand. However, as time went on, we discovered that we could use a ‘clam gun,’ which is a tube with a handle and a hole for air that uses suction to pull sand out of the ground. These tubes are commonly used for razor clams but are never used for any other clams… at least outside of the Phillips family. The diameter of the clam gun is smaller than the diameter of the tube, so it fits right in.

Just like the ‘veterans’ who are supposedly better than us, we’d find the geoduck siphon and center the tube over it. Since our tube has such a small diameter, it is important to get the tube directly over the clam and perpendicular to the surface of the sand. As Mikko would say, you want to visualize the tube as a vector that is orthogonal to the x-y tidal plane such that the dot product of this vector and any vector on the plane would be zero. Mikko’s an aeronautical engineering major, so he knows his stuff. At least I hope he does… I don’t want to crash in an aircraft that he engineered.

Pushing this tube down is relatively easy compared to pushing down those big tubes that the others use. You can usually do it with just your hands. Since this tube/stovepipe is so thin, it has very sharp edges, so I usually place my sandals on top of the tube and push down on my sandals. There is much less friction here, so the tube can go down pretty easily provided there are not clamshells that are blocking its path. There usually are, so it’s pretty common to take the tube out, remove the shell, and then put the tube back in before any sand falls into the hole.

You keep pushing and pushing the tube downward until you feel the neck of the clam, and then you go further until you can feel the body of the clam. You can’t just pull these clams out by only grabbing their neck… they have a much ‘foot’ that tends to keep the clam anchored in the sand. It’s unlawful to possess just the neck of a geoduck, so if you accidentally rip off the neck doing this, you may encounter consequences. I’ve done this a couple times, and although I avoided the penitentiary, I felt horrible. It’s a common mistake, but an avoidable one if you just use your brain.

Pushing the tube down below the ground. The older man is my father.

Our tube is not perfect… far from it. It is bent at the ends due to hitting clam shells in the sand (although this can be straightened out with pliers). The bigger issue is that the tube is nowhere near long enough… nearly all geoducks bury themselves deeper than 24 inches. This means that we have to push the tube beneath the sand and dig on the outside of the tube in order to get the geoduck. I usually have to push the tube 8-12 inches under the sand, but there have been times when I’ve pushed it deeper. In fact, I’ve pushed it so deep that I’ve unintentionally buried the tube on two occasions. It’s incredibly frustrating. Thankfully, these tubes are cheap… ten bucks.

Here, the tube is buried a good 18 inches under the sand, and we were not able to recover it as water and sand started to fill in the hole. I’m using the clam gun to try and remove sand from the inside of the tube to lessen the friction that holds it in place, but I was unable to. My brother is pulling on my arm because I was in an awkward position that made it hard for me to apply that much energy into pulling the clam gun out of the sand.

Even with all its flaws, this method has proven to be much more expedient at getting geoducks than the method others use with giant cylinders and wooden rectangles. I’m able to get geoducks solo without too much of a problem. People see me with the clam gun and assume I don’t know what I’m doing, but after I pull geoducks from the sand like I’m trick-or-treating in the middle of the summer, some other geoduckers come and talk to me and ask me to teach them my method.

Why don’t I have my shirt on? Well, I always start with my shirt on, but it often very quickly gets soaking wet, so I take it off. I haven’t put sunscreen on beforehand during these occasions when I take it off, and I’ve gotten sunburnt. I didn’t think it would be that bad this time because of the cloudy sky and rain showers, but I was wrong. I didn’t peel, but it’s five days later and still sensitive to the touch.

We ended up getting four geoducks and several horse clams that Jannel dug up with her bare hands (very, very impressive!). I wanted to get more and fulfill our limit, but my mom stopped me… and for good reason. Four geoducks is plenty. We made some delicious clam chowder, gave some away, and froze some to eat another day. We had an absolute blast. If you need any advice on any sort of clamming, contact me, and if you’d like to tag along to our next trip, let me know. I’d love to have you.
 
Charlie

*In no respect shall Mr. Phillips incur any liability for any damages, including, but limited to, direct, indirect, special, or consequential damages arising out of, resulting from, or any way connected to the use of his forecasts. Taking these posts too seriously could result in serious injury or death, so it’s generally best to not read them at all.

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