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The Compleat Geoducker

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by MARK ST.J. COUHIG
Sequim Gazette

I say crawfish, you think Louisiana. I say lobsta, you think Maine.

 

But when you hear the word geoduck, do you immediately recognize our peninsula?

 

After all, these magnificent creatures should be a source of pride to all of us who are privileged to share this, their home and native land.

 

Perhaps our lack of pride is simply due to our lack of knowledge of the shy, mysterious and butt-ugly geoduck. Perhaps if we learn more about these creatures — if we can see beyond their reputation as the Earth’s largest sentient boogers — we can begin to understand just how privileged we are to share this place with them.

 

Let’s explore the lore and legend of this fabled creature, including several brand new legends I made up just for this article. We’ll also examine the science behind the geoduck, including a heretofore unconsidered but highly possible genetic connection between our native mollusks and Willie Nelson.

 

Think of this as an all-in-one guide, an opportunity to learn everything that needs learning about geoducks and much, much more.

All things bright and beautiful

Let’s begin with a simple question: Just how ugly are geoducks?

 

Many scientists now contend that geoducks are so ugly that jokes about mama geoducks aren’t in fact funny and further, no geoduck takes offense.

 

Fortunately, unlike certain other species — Kardashians come to mind — geoducks have enough sense to know they have no business appearing in public, so they simply bury themselves early on and stay there. While secreted deep in the sand, they extend up their snout (also called the “siphon,” “neck” or “naughty bits”) and squirt water out of it.

 

And they do it an awfully long time. In fact geoducks are both the largest and the longest-living burrowing clams in the world. Their century-long lifespan gives them time to really pack on the mass, with most eventually weighing in at two to three pounds, though some have been found up to 15 pounds.

 

The name geoduck, which is pronounced “gooeyduck,” comes from a Nisqually Indian word meaning “dig deep,” and refers to the cost of the tasty beasts when ordered in a Japanese restaurant, which is where a great many of them end up.

 

In a remarkable moment of truth-telling, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife says on its website that, “Like climbing Mount Rainier, digging a geoduck is often considered a rite of passage for Washingtonians — and many people will tell you it’s nearly as difficult.”

 

Given the difficulty, it took no little while for me to determine the sport’s appeal when recently I accompanied several experienced geoduckers on an expedition. We started out very early on a brilliantly sunny day from John Wayne Marina, gliding in our small boats over water that was as smooth as a Louisiana politician, though considerably less oily.

 

Moments later I heard the unmistakable “fint” of the first of the day’s cans of Pabst being accessed and it all began to make sense.

 

But more hours would pass before I would fully understand the appeal of this most manly of sports.

In the meantime, much of the day between that first “fint” and the last guffaw was spent in brutally hard manual labor.

 

This is true not least because Fish and Wildlife dictates geoducks can be harvested only with “a hand-operated instrument” — better known to you and me as a “shovel.”

 

When choosing your hand-operated instrument you should buy the best one available because (and yes, I know how ridiculous this sounds) some people are so fond of geoducking they actually end up wearing out a shovel — the metal end — in the pursuit thereof.

 

There is one other hand-operated instrument that is absolutely necessary for geoducking: a large-circumference metal or PVC tube that is driven down into the sand, trapping the geoduck from making a hasty retreat and keeping the sand you remove with your other hand-operated instrument from falling back in.

 

As the geoduck hunter digs ever deeper into the sand, he is required to climb into the tube head-first
in order to provide photo opportunities for his friends.

All creatures great and small

Nothing could be easier than finding geoducks, which as you may recall from lesson one spend their entire lives squirting water from their snout.

 

When a very low tide occurs (these rare events usually occur during daylight hours only from mid-April to mid-August), the geoducks and their buddies, the horse clams and the butter clams, all can be found by scanning newly exposed beach for their various sprays, which can leave one of these temporary islands alive with jets of water sparkling in the sunlight.

 

The butter clams, which have the good sense to ingest lots of red tide and therefore are often off limits for being eaten, release a small spray.

 

The horse clams and geoducks can be identified by what is known in urological circles as an unobstructed flow.

 

The only remaining job is to distinguish the horse clams from the geoducks. This is done by examining the end of the exposed snout. A geoduck has a smooth pink and grey naughty bit, while the horse clam’s is wrinkled, gray and whiskered, which wildlife biologists explain is why they are often mistaken for Willie Nelson.

 

A quick look at their tax records should clear up any confusion.

 

The daily limit, unchanged for over 50 years, is three geoducks per person “and they must be the first three you dig.” Unfortunately, on occasion, and despite the geoducker’s best efforts and intentions, the geoduck doesn’t come up in one piece. The hunters I was with were sanguine about the fact. As my friend Fred Williams, a poet at heart, noted, “The tore up ones eat just as good.”

 

On the day of our expedition, the geoduck were numerous: All aboard bagged their limit. As the tide again began to swallow our little island the hunters gathered for a final beer and to discuss the day’s adventures.

 

It was then I learned the final secret appeal of geoducking, one you will not likely find elsewhere, unless you happen to look at the photos stuck to refrigerators across the peninsula.

 

For it’s in this quiet time each geoducker takes a moment to arrange his largest geoduck catch strategically for a photo that utilizes to the greatest degree possible the geoduck’s startling resemblance to what is called in polite society a man’s package, only oversized.

 

The lads, they are greatly amused.

 

Reach Mark Couhig at mcouhig@sequimgazette.com.

 

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