Last Sunday, I went clam farming. All year long I had wanted to go out and work with my fellow teacher Kelly on his clam farm. It seemed that every time I would plan to go, some family event would pull me away. Last week, as we stood under cloudless blue skies, Kelly mentioned that he had to put a new crop of clams in on the weekend. Naturally, I invited myself one more time. I went home and told the family...do NOT plan for me to be around on Sunday afternoon. I'm going clam farming come hell or high water. (OK, remember that last part...)
So it was, I found myself driving the JEEP out to Cedar Key through sheets of rain and a buffeting wind. The clear blue skies of the past 3 months had vanished under the approach of Tropical Storm Alberto. As I crossed the first bridge leading into Cedar Key, I could clearly see whitecaps on the sheltered bayou waters. It was also clear that the tide, which should have been falling, was being held in by strong onshore winds from Alberto. That was bad. We would need a low tide for laying out the clam belts. It didn't look good.
I arrived at Kelly's Dad's house around 4:00pm and we set to work loading a specially modified, 19 foot Carolina Skiff with clam belts. A clam belt is made up of a series of clam bags that are linked together with zip ties to form a "belt of bags". Each clam bag is about 3 feet by 4 feet and is made of nylon mesh. Into each clam bag go hundreds of young clams. Each clam belt is anywhere from 20 to 30 feet long , depending on the number of bags it contains. Attached at intervals are foot long sections of PVC pipe that serve as the stakes to stake the clam belt to the seafloor. The clambelts are rolled for transport.
Each clam farmer leases a section of the shallow seafloor about a mile offshore of Cedar Key. A clam farmer like Kelly might have a million or more clams quietly growing on his or her 2 acre lease.
Our job on this stormy evening was to put about 160,000 clams down on the lease that Kelly, his Dad, and his brother in law manage.
Kelly had set these clams on the lease 3 months earlier when they were a few millimeters across and known as "clam seed". The clam farmers purchase "seed" from breeders and then place them on the lease for a few months until they grow to about the size of a quarter. At that point, they are known as "grow outs" and are pulled from the lease and divided up into larger bags. These are the bags that form the clam belts. Once in the larger bags, they are returned to the lease site to grow to market size.
Kelly had pulled these clams on Saturday and spent all weekend counting and separating them into the larger grow out bags. The clams can be out of the water for a day or so if kept cool, but time was up and these clams needed to get into the water.
That is why we could not wait for better weather. It was a case of going now or losing the crop.
A few minutes after loading the boat, we were zooming across the marsh under the steady eye of Kelly's dad...Let's call him Mr. B.
Almost 60 years as a commercial fisherman in these waters has given Mr. B. an uncanny sense of the location of every mudflat and oyster bar waiting to rip the bottom out a boat. He took us on a back of the marsh route to give us a little more shelter from the wind whipped waves that awaited us out in the open Gulf.
It was a beautiful thing. We flew a few feet from sandbars so shallow that birds were standing at the edge. There were no channel markers in this backcountry marsh, just subtle clues that Mr. B. could read...probably without even thinking about it.
Eventually, we had to enter the stormy open Gulf to reach the lease. When we left the shelter of the spartina grass, the Gulf pounded us. The boat was loaded with 12 clam belts, 3 men , and assorted gear, so we really got smacked by the oncoming waves. Plus, we were in a Carolina Skiff. I own one and they are rough, tough, wet boats...but they don't sink. This is a good thing.
Kelly commented on that unsinkable aspect,remarking that it was a good thing we were in such a boat, as we slammed into wave after wave, the spray coming into our faces in sheets. His dad responded, "Yeah, that's what they said about that old Titanic boat and it sank a long way down."
All around us were squalls and rain. Off in the distance, a forest of white PVC pipes sticking out of the Gulf marked the many leases of the Cedar Key clam farmers. They all looked alike to me, but Mr. B. and Kelly wove us between the posts until they found the PVC pipes that marked the boundaries of their lease.
We anchored the boat and Kelly stuck a long piece of PVC over the side to check the depth. About 7 feet, too deep to work yet. We need to be able to stand to do what we have come to do. We will have to wait for the tide to drop. By now it is about 5 pm.
As the boat bounced and fought the anchor line, Kelly explained that we will be rolling out each clambelt and staking it to the bottom by driving the one foot PVC pipe stakes into the mud. We will be doing this underwater, in almost zero visibility. "You'll have to work by feel, you won't be able to see anything."
Kelly looks around at the circling storms and says, "Dad, this is really bad."
Mr. B. agrees, "This is the worst weather we've ever tried to put clams down in"
I think about what that means. This man has a lifetime of experience out here.
There is some discussion as to whether we should just put the bags over and tie them together as a temporary hold.Later, after the storms had passed, they would have to be planted. It's risky though. The coming tropical storm could wash them away, plus, stacked in a pile, they would be more obvious to clam rustlers. Yes, there are low lifes who will rustle clams off a lease.
Kelly knows his regular job work schedule and the tropical storm make just tieing the clams off a difficult choice. He really wants to get these clams staked down for good this evening. We decide to go for it.
At about 6:00 pm, Kelly and I strap on stingray proof boots...kind of like snake boots, but made to be wet. We don our masks and weight belts, and go over the side. Mr. B. stays on board and manhandles clambelts to the gunwale where we can grab them and pull them into the water with us. He's over 70, just had surgery, and is strong as an ox.
The water is about 5 feet deep and the color of a mocha latte. Kelly locates the spot where we will begin and dives down to stake the end of the first clambelt. He surfaces, goes over the process one more time, and now it's time for me to earn my ticket.
I take a breath and dive down to the bottom. I am wearing a pair of white gloves and I can't see them until they are about 6 inches in front of my mask. On the bottom, I feel along the edge of the clam belt until I find a stake. I grab it and push it into the muddy bottom. Feel again. There's another stake, I push it in hard and then it's time to breathe. Up to the surface. Get a breath. Dive down, feel, push stakes, surface. Over and over again.
When we finish staking the first belt, Mr. B. tells us it took 20 minutes. We have to pick up the pace, there's no way we can finish before dark at that rate.
The second belt takes the same amount of time, as does the third. Then, a combination of a tide that is finally beginning to fall and my growing experience speeds up our progress. We do belt after belt and Mr. B. calls out our times from the bouncing boat..." 15 minutes on that one...12 minutes that time....7 minutes!" We begin to think we can get them all staked and accomplish the mission after all. Still, it is now after 8:00 pm and the sun has dropped below the squally clouds scudding to the west and threatens to disappear beneath the horizon. We are a well oiled machine now and the last few belts take 6 minutes each.
At 8:40 pm, I surface for the last time. All the clambelts are secured to the Gulf bottom. We did it.
We clamber back on board the skiff and weigh anchor. Kelly hands me a Gatorade which tastes like heaven. The sun has set and Mr. B. impresses me one more time this evening by flying the now lighter boat back through a low tide marsh in the dark.
Back at Mr. B's place, Kelly thanks me for the help, I thank him for the experience, and we say goodnight. The drive home through the dark woods is a bit soggy, but I am elated...and tired.
At home, I shower and fall asleep as my head hits the pillow...
...happy as a clam.