Posted by: Michelle Mitton | August 18, 2008

Ninilchik Clams, Down and Dirty

Camping in Ninilchik, AlaskaThis weekend I spent eight hours in the car with my kids, eight hours filled with provocative conversation such as:

“Dad, if you could be the author of any book in the world which book would it be?”

“The Bible.”



“So what’s that song you’re singing?”

“It’s my theme song.”

“You have a theme song? I want a theme song–make one up for me!”

“Supporting characters don’t have theme songs.”

It was our last camping trip before the kids start school on Wednesday and after a wet weekend of protecting my vital organs from the mosquitoes and getting so muddy I’m still finding dirt in personal places I’m ready to turn my children over to the public education system and vote all the teachers a pay raise.

Camping in Ninilchik, AlaskaFriday afternoon we drove four hours south to Clam Gulch. I’d been begging Andrew all summer to go clam digging and since me begging to do something outdoorsy happens only once in a marriage he decided he’d better humor me. But going to Clam Gulch was our first mistake because after traveling that far only to find pouring rain it wasn’t as if we could turn around and say, “No good, we’re going home.” We had to tough it out.

So we drove a little farther to Ninilchik and lucky for us I spotted a covered picnic area we could use to park our tent (it’s so big it has stadium seating) out of the rain. I should say lucky for the kids because after four hours on the road if we’d been stuck inside a wet tent I think I might have reverted to ferrel instincts and attacked my young. It was coming.

Lillian in Clam Gulch, AlaskaAs it was we made a decent go of things, trying to light a wet fire and make it through the night dry, until I discovered that I’d forgot most of our breakfast in the refrigerator back at home, leaving us to survive on Spam and eggless pancakes. Yes, you read that right–Spam. It was either Spam or charred mosquito kabobs because regardless of the rain the bugs were so bad I left weighing five pounds less than before thanks to the loss of blood.

We happily supplemented our Spamfest with soggy boxes of Cracker Jacks which the kids suggested would make a fine cold cereal if only there were milk to seal the deal. So besides a cramped car ride, pouring rain, lack of food and mosquitoes so big they scream when you smack them the final piece of our perfect weekend was a sign on the outhouse door warning us of recent bear sightings in the area (after all the bear attacks we’ve had in Anchorage this summer we’re all a bit jumpy). I was begging to get voted off that island.

By the time we packed things up in the morning we were wondering if we should even attempt any clamming but the rain made things smell so wonderful and we still had plenty of time left so we decided to push on. I mean we were really at the bottom of the curve and figured it pretty much couldn’t get any worse.

Ninilchik, AlaskaSo we drove next door to Ninilchik (ni-NIL-chick) where the low tide 9-11 am was supposed to be prime time for Alaskan razor clams. As a divine manifestation that we had chosen wisely the rain cleared up when we pulled into town. Well, it’s not really a town, more of a village. Okay maybe not a village but a small settlement? Maybe. On a good day if you’re really optimistic and count the dog houses. But whatever you call it it was really lovely there along the Ninilchik River emptying into the sea.

As soon as we were out of the car and had our boots on it was as if all of the bad luck melted away. One deep breath told me I was at the ocean–funny how it smells the same everywhere–and it was as if it made everything better. We grabbed our bucket and shovels and headed out onto the silty beach without a clue what to do.

Clam Air Hole in Ninilchik, AlaskaAs soon as we got out there we met up with this amazing clamming duo. The man, wearing a t-shirt that said “Shot Drinker” across the shoulders and a pair of yellow rain pants, was running the clam gun like he was used to pulling up five yards of concrete with his bare hands and the woman in her matching yellow rain gear would get down on her perfectly manicured hands to dig the critters out of the mud (you’ll have to see the video footage at the end to get the full effect).

I was completely fascinated by them and would have been happy just to watch them all day and they were friendly enough to answer our questions. Apparently we were looking for a clam hole like you see here–about the size of a dime and just a dimple in the silt. Once you find your hole you either plunge in your clam gun to suction out a hole before sticking your arm in up to the shoulder to dig around in the mud for a creature that doesn’t taste that good anyway or you work like mad sweat to dig out a hole with your flimsy clam shovel only to find that the clam is long gone.

Clam Digging in Ninilchik, AlaskaI think their way is a little more efficient. They had a whole bucket of clams to back up their World Master Clammer title and I was completely in awe. We followed them around for a while and they were so patient with us, answering questions and encouraging us to get our hands in there.

At least we gave the Deadliest Catch couple their chuckle for the day since we city folk didn’t have a clue how to catch a clam and were reluctant to get our hands dirty. They finally pulled one up and gave it to Spencer in a “Here little boy, here’s a clam for you” gesture which was not lost on us.

We spent the next hour trying desperately to catch one for ourselves, there were plenty of clam dimples around but we just couldn’t get to them quick enough before they took off, thumbing their little noses at us in mockery.

Clam Digging in Ninilchik, AlaskaSo we roamed the beach with our empty bucket, shovels and Pity Clam digging every dimple we could find until the tide forced us back. Eventually we found someone who said they’d be willing to give our clam a good home to save me having to put it out of its misery and we wandered farther up the beach where I added some excellent pieces to my beach glass collection. Oh and David found a maggoty fish head that he begged to take home.

We learned later that the clams at Clam Gulch are smaller and nearer the surface than the clams in Ninilchik and we realized we probably should have started out with the farm league rather than jumping directly into the majors. Next time we’ll try out Clam Gulch instead–maybe even stay at Clam Gulch Lodge which I’ve heard such good things about and would love to try–though I can’t say that we didn’t have a fun time digging up the beach anyway. Despite the rain and mud, the bugs and the bears at least I can say I’ve been clam digging. Lucky they don’t call it clam “catching” because I’d still be waiting for that one.

Anyway, you can check out more of my photos from the trip at Flickr and here’s a video with our clamming friends in action. The dialog is so silly and goofy it gives you an idea of what it’s like to hang around us–we’re much classier in person I promise you.

Sponsored by Sweet Retreat Kids–for fun kids decor. Fun spaces are memorable places.

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