Out Our Back Door By Tom Baake
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Low Tides Will Reveal More Beaches to Enjoy
By Tom Baake
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Clam-diggers bear down on their quarry on the flats south of the Charleston Bridge.

You can’t go far on any given weekend this time of year without encountering fairs, festivals, special events or some kind of fun in our South Coast communities. Add in graduations and end-of-school-year activities and the calendar fills up quickly.

This weekend is no exception, with happenings everywhere from mountain towns to bayside villages. Or make your own adventure: how about a clam-digging expedition during one of this month’s many very low or minus tides?

As for the organized activities, there’s more information elsewhere in this edition. For example, the mountain town just mentioned is of course Powers, which is having their annual townwide garage sale this Saturday, June 9. And the bayside village is Empire, site of this Saturday’s annual Clamboree and Glass Art Festival.

Other action this Saturday includes the official unveiling of the Winchester Mountain Bike Trail system between Coos Bay and Bandon, with guided rides throughout the day and other fun afterwards. Get details at www.bikewhiskeyrun.com.

Meantime, the remarkable number of low and minus tides this month is an invitation to another popular pastime. Indeed, clamming on the shorelines of the Coos Bay Estuary can be rewarding and fun, if not sometimes messy. But with dinner in the offing, I’m willing to get a little wet and muddy. It’s also satisfying because you rarely get “skunked.”

Perhaps the first thing to learn is that each kind of clam has several different names, depending, I guess, on where you are. The exception is the cockle, which blessedly has just the one name and is easily recognizable as it resembles a little version of the old Shell gas station symbol.

There are other varieties of clams found in local waters and many options for gear.

For example, when gathering cockles, which live on the topmost layer of sand and mud, a rake is most effective. Simply step out into the water about six to eight inches deep and start raking. You’ll feel when the tines grab one. Cockles can also be found just up from the waterline, in which case they’re among several varieties of clams that reveal their presence by spouting a little jet of water called a “show.” Gotcha!

Coos Bay’s most notable clams are the gaper or horseneck or Empire. Cream-colored and oblong, they’re among the largest clams, growing as much as 8 inches in length. They’re named for their distinctive siphon (or “neck”) that seems outlandishly large. The siphon can be partially retracted, although never pulled in fully.

For these guys, a shovel is required, as they burrow down two or three feet. A long-bladed shovel is obviously an advantage. Gapers also send up a tell-tale squirt, at which point you should start digging, using care not to damage the shell.

The best way to find them, however, is to find a small hole, about an inch in diameter, and stick your pinky finger in it. If you feel movement, that’s the clam’s siphon moving away quickly. Be quick yourself and dig carefully around before the clam burrows away. You must keep any that you inadvertently crush.

 There’s also a native littleneck clam. A lot of peoples’ favorite bay clam is the Martha Washington or butter clam or quahog. Perhaps the most delectable and elusive are razor clams, found only on ocean beaches. They’re mostly a North Coast thing although people get them in a few fiercely-guarded secret places here on the South Coast. Razors also reveal themselves with a “show.” If you spot one, dig like mad, because they burrow fast. Other people use tubular “clam gun” siphon devices.

As usual, there’s more information on-line, as well as YouTube videos demonstrating techniques. Cleaning clams to eat is another story, as there are parts you’ll definitely want to discard.

A yearly shellfish license is required; $10 for Oregon residents and $28 for non-residents. The season’s open all year, although closures are sometimes required because of naturally-occurring toxic algae blooms. By the way, no oyster collecting is allowed. The beds are the property of commercial growers who’ve planted the oysters there.

Okay then, where to clam? While there’s accessible bayshore off Empire Blvd. between Empire and Charleston, the easiest place is right in Charleston. From the bridge during any low tide, walk south on the flats and you should get results. With luck, the clams will be waiting there for you, waiting to give you a show!

(Shopper columnist Tom Baake is author of regional guidebooks.)

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