Got Geoduck? An Epic Clam Dig On The Olympic Peninsula

geoduck clamIt’s a drizzly late March morning at Hood Canal, a fjord-like arm of Washington State’s Puget Sound two hours west of Seattle. The air is briny and pungent. Douglas-fir trees and fog-shrouded inlets dot the shoreline. Bald eagles soar overhead while dozens of harbor seals bob in the water.

Armed with a shovel, a hand trowel and a five-gallon bucket, I’m attired in hip waders and neoprene. I slosh through the shallow water — stumbling over oyster shells, tufts of eel grass and starfish — searching for telltale, two-inch, oval holes in the sand from which the tip of a mollusk siphon may protrude (a visual cue known as a “show”).

The elusive creature I seek is Panopea generosa (a Latin name that will seem far more hilarious when you check out the gallery below), the geoduck clam. At first glance, the geoduck is unarguably, hideously, phallic — there’s no polite way…ahem….around it.

Possessed of a leathery neck, or siphon, that stretches up to three feet in length, the world’s largest burrowing clam tends to freak Americans out. In Asia, it’s revered as a delicacy and aphrodisiac, yet it’s native to the waters of the Pacific Northwestern U.S.

[Photo credits: Langdon Cook]

%Gallery-151127%geoduck clamI, too, found geoduck disturbing, until I moved to Seattle, and found a small pile of it on my plate while dining at Spring Hill, award-winning chef Mark Fuller’s restaurant (recently rechristened Ma’ono). Dressed with a tart lemon peel relish, the meat was slightly sweet and briny, with a subtle, satisfying crunch. Fuller loves geoduck for its ease of preparation, and “mild, clean flavor and snappy texture.” He prefers to serve it raw, with some citrus, olive oil and a bit of coarse sea salt. The “king” clam is also used as sashimi, sautéed or hot-smoked.

Seattle forager, author (Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21th Century Forager, Skipstone Press), food blogger, and back-to-the-land Renaissance man Langdon Cook prefers geoduck in an Asian-inspired ceviche, marinated with lime juice, a touch of fish sauce and brown sugar, and diced red onion, Serrano chile and shredded, green (unripe) papaya or mango.

Since I love tracing food to its source, I asked Lang to take me ‘duck hunting. After catching the ferry to Bainbridge Island, we drove to the eastern side of the Olympic Peninsula; Hood Canal has a number of state parks with wild geoduck. While not seasonal, March is when mandatory harvest licenses are issued; you can obtain them here through the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. Low tides in July and August are ideal for geoduck harvest, because it stays light late, and the weather is at its best.

At Dosewallips Tide Flat (part of a lovely state park), we discovered the water higher than anticipated, but fortunately, we had Taylor Shellfish Farms manager John Adams to provide his considerable expertise. Instead of digging in sand, we’d be shoveling against the clock in heavy, sticky substrate. Despite this setback and even in drizzling rain, the aesthetics were spellbinding.
geoduck clam
When I finally spotted a show, after much difficulty and with the help of my geoduck-senseis, we laboriously dug a three-foot-deep pit adjacent to the clam in the gloppy, shell-laden substrate. Since it was my story, I had the glory of actually winnowing the recalcitrant little bastard out of its burrow.

Immersed to the shoulder, sodden and stinking of tidal effluence, I finally manage to extract the clam. I triumphantly fist-pumped my three-pound prize in the air, while its leathery siphon drooped to the side like a dehydrated tongue. We capped off the day by collecting a bucket of littleneck clams from the beach, and then Lang took me to his home in Seattle for a tutorial on removing the “gut ball” from a geoduck. Unsurprisingly, gut ball soup is also a delicacy in Asia, but I can safely say this particular food trend won’t be catching on in mainstream America. You can quote me on that.

I went home with my siphon (I generously left Lang with the shell and gut ball; he did, after all, do most of the digging), and made sashimi. You know what? It tasted damn good. So did the clam linguine that followed.

Puget Sound’s Taylor Shellfish, a fifth-generation, sustainable mariculture farm, is the world’s largest producer of farmed geoduck. They’re sold live at Taylor’s retail shop in Capitol Hill in Seattle or online, $24.95 per pound (minimum two pounds). To order, click here. The site also features a video on how to clean and prepare geoduck.

In winter, Seattle is mine again.

November, December, Seattle. Typically, it’s raining and the temperatures hover around 40ºF. The sky is a dull, even gray that mutes all light and color. It’s miserable, by most measures, not cold enough to snow, but too cold to enjoy being outside without performance attire. Perhaps it’s the worst at the bus stop; cars roll by throwing water and wind, there is not enough protection in those shallow three sided shelters.

I am a California girl by birth. My childhood was spent up in a new suburb on the edge of an agricultural region that is now sprawling housing developments and shopping malls. But it used to be cornfields and fruit trees; the not quite relentless daylight was ideal for sunshine crops. During my junior and senior years at San Jose State University, I went swimming most days Afterward, I dried myself in the sun on the concrete pool deck. I rode my bike year round, sometimes climbing the coastal range before rolling back down into the fog banks of the San Gregorio coast. I have limited memory of California winter. There was — is — more sunshine in California than in Seattle. This is a fact.

In summer, Seattle is a hub for cruise ships heading to Alaska in summer. We’re a foodie destination and even though grunge is dead, we still get pilgrims seeking out the Crocodile and Sub Pop records — those who have done their homework know where to find the Black Hole Sun and the Sound Garden. Throngs of people choke the entrance to the flagship Starbuck’s. They block traffic at First and Pike as they photograph themselves with the neon over the entrance of Pike Place Market. Seattle is nothing short of stunning in summer, an ecotopia on the edge of Puget Sound. The long hours of daylight, the weather that is never too hot, the easiness of this city in the northwest corner of the US makes for an irresistibly appealing place to be — for three months out of the year.Making peace with Seattle’s winter does not come easy to me, even with over a decade of residency in the Emerald City, as one marketing campaign branded us. The darkness wears on me. A morning person, I have trouble getting out of bed, trouble staying up late. I own a “happy light” — one of those high wattage devices that’s supposed to help with Seasonal Affected Disorder. I now understand the value of a sun-break vacation, something I never even considered when I lived in California. My wardrobe is replete with Goretex and polar fleece and stocky footwear suitable for navigating puddles. And I have the cliched Seattle-ite’s relationship with coffee.

Still, there’s something slow and quiet about this city in winter, something cozy and inclusive about Seattle. When the cruise ships move to ports south, Pike Place Market opens up and is easy to walk through. The tone of the market vendors shifts, the “Where are you from?” conversation takes a completely different turn when the answer is “Here. I’m from here.” There’s a camaraderie, a “We’re all in this together” sort of feeling as we shake out our damp coats and shed the rain from our wooly sweaters.

Mid-morning at Alki Beach, in Pioneer Coffee, there are no strays from the water taxi, it’s just us locals. If it’s dry, we sit on the concrete steps of the beach promenade, watching the ferries slide back and forth between Bainbridge Island and Bremerton and downtown. Evenings, we sparkle in candlelight. We reflect our weird northwest brand of outdoorsy bookishness in glasses that hold bourbon cocktails, whiskey. We plan our escape while wrapped in the cognitive dissonance of being in this city that we love. Places that were promoted in Sunset Magazine and the AAA Journeys west coast edition belong to us again.

This last weekend, the husband and I joined a friend at the Seattle Art Museum to see Luminous, a stunning selection of work from the museum’s Asian collection. First we ate passable Mexican food in an nearly empty restaurant on the Harbor Steps, a stair climb that runs from First Avenue down to the waterfront. In summertime, the top of the steps is a popular spot for protestors and I have photos of my family standing in the fountain. On the Sunday, the wind flew up the slope from the Sound, hurling sharp rain into our faces.

After spending a few hours in the museum — where we did not have to jostle for space in order to view the artwork, we went back out to a nearby coffee bar. A football game was on the television but the volume was turned all the way down. Instead of sports commentators, we got Death Cab for Cutie as our soundtrack. We lolled for an hour, more, maybe, over mochas, mine with cinnamon and black pepper. We unraveled things, as people do in cafes. Where to go next (us, Vancouver, my friend to China for work), the user interface on a popular new video game, the mediocre writing on this season’s The Simpsons.

The rain had stopped. We walked back to the car, a block away, past a bundled up couple who were clearly not from Seattle in their stylish wool overcoats and scarves. “Chicago,” I said out loud — my husband had spotted them too. They looked cold but they were smiling, he had her arm tucked in his. “They’re lucky,” I thought. “They are seeing my city at its very best.” The late afternoon sky had turned the color of ripe mango and fire and the blue of a baroque palace ceiling. To the south, there was a tower of black clouds, another storm front coming in. I was irrationally pleased about this. I knew what would happen. The Chicago visitors would go back to their hotel. I would tuck into a bowl of pho at my favorite local place and the city, Seattle, would be all mine once again.

Photos courtesy of the author by UJ Sommer and Pam Mandel.

Sea kayaking off Washington’s Whidbey Island: easy Labor Day getaway

Another bald eagle. Yawn.
I had just completed a tranquil, one-hour paddle from Whidbey Island’s Dugualla Bay, to Hope Island State Park. This dollop of land is a 106-acre marine camping park, reachable only by boat. It boasts a hiking trail and just four stunning, primitive, beachfront sites hidden amongst ferns and old-growth Douglas-fir forest. As we approached the island, my guide, Simon, and I watched six eagles alight on the tops of the tallest firs. Maneuvering our kayak almost beneath one of them, we then spent the better part of an hour entranced by the giant bird of prey. Meanwhile, a curious harbor seal bobbed and dipped around us.

At 45 miles in length, rural Whidbey is the longest island in the lower 48 (Long Island having been ruled a peninsula). It’s just 30 miles from Seattle, making it an easy, economical, uncrowded alternative to the San Juan’s farther north (although Anacortes, on Fidalgo Island, off Whidbey’s northern tip, is the ferry dock for San Juan-bound visitors). Whidbey juts into Puget Sound like a bent, bony finger, its western coast also accessible from Pt. Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula. Whidbey is one of the oldest agricultural regions in Washington state, and family farms, farm stands, and mariculture operations are still prolific on the island, although it’s also become a haven for artists. The only real-world distraction on Whidbey is the Naval Air Station in Oak Harbor, at the island’s northern tip.
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Getting there from Seattle is a snap, whether you drive or take a boat, although you should note that ferry schedules change seasonally. You can shoot up I-5, and head west on Highway 20, over the famed Deception Pass Bridge, or take the ferry from Mukilteo, as I did. A 20-minute ride landed me in Clinton, on Southern Whidbey.

From Clinton, I headed up the road to the artist colony of Langley to meet up with Simon, who guides for Seattle’s Evergreen Escapes, a sustainable adventure travel company. Like most of the island communities, Langley is a haven for creative types, and while summer and fall weekends and festivals bring in tourists, island life is easygoing and relaxed (the best time of year to visit, weather-wise, is September/October). A “whale bell” sits in a town park overlooking the waters of Saratoga Passage, to signal passing orcas and gray whales. If you’ve got an extra day on your itinerary, the newly-expanded Boatyard Inn is right on the water down at the Marina. Styled after an old cannery, the 12 charming, spacious units boast modern amenities, and decks and windows that offer unbeatable views of the Sound and snow-capped Cascades.

I only had part of an afternoon and one night for my trip, and so left the details to the folks at Evergreen. (FYI, there is also Whidbey Island Kayaking Company, which specializes in custom and short paddles, and whale watching trips (which begin in mid-March). It’s also possible to rent boats and equipment, provided you have a certificate from a certified instructor, or demonstrate proficiency at time of rental. A great resource for Washington tide charts can be found here.

I’ve done a fair amount of paddling, but didn’t know how to read tides, which is why I asked for a guide to accompany me. I prefer to be in my own boat, but due to time constraint, we decided a tandem was best, for easier on- and off-loading. We made the scenic, 40-minute drive north to Dugualla Bay, passing farmland and forest. Simon was knowledgeable, capable, and cheerful, and his tide tutorial during our paddle gave me the confidence to plan a return trip, sans guide. It’s an easy, straightforward paddle to Hope Island, but the scenery and wildlife are so amazing, we took our time. After we tore ourselves away from the bald eagles, we paddled to the take-out, only to discover six more landing in the trees near the campsites.

The roomy sites are elevated above the beach. There’s a rustic but well-maintained outhouse up an overgrown path, and rudimentary fire pits, and that’s it. The only thing marring the experience are the distant smokestacks near the port town of Anacortes, and the odd jet from the Naval Air Station streaking overhead. These are mere blips, however, because Hope Island is just so damn beautiful and peaceful. The other two sites were empty, and aside from a few trails through the overgrowth, there’s not much to do except read, daydream, watch the sunset (at 10pm in high summer), and stargaze. Do be sure to bring rain gear and a waterproof tent. Although sunny skies prevailed during our paddle, it started pouring in the middle of dinner (and didn’t stop until the early morning hours), necessitating the hasty set-up of a tarp.

As for dinner, Simon made an admirable stir-fry, followed by the ultimate in pie- a purchase from Greenbank Farm’s shop. Located en route to Dugualla Bay, it was once the biggest loganberry farm in the world. You know what makes for a really kick-ass pre-paddling breakfast? Leftover loganberry pie.

Early the next morning, rainstorm over, we put in and paddled half an hour to our take-out at Coronet Bay State Park’s boat launch. In front of us loomed Deception Pass Bridge, an architectual triumph that has helped make this area Washington’s most-visited state park. The pass connects the Strait of Juan de Fuca with Skagit Bay; at high tide, the waters rushing into this narrow passage get pretty hairy, so again, check tide charts if on your own.

Try to allow yourself at least enough time to walk the bridge and take in the view. You can also camp at Deception Pass State Park, which has miles of shoreline. If nothing else, grab some post-paddle clam chowder and souvenir smoked salmon to go from Seabolt’s Smokehouse in Oak Harbor; a fitting island-style end to a weekend on Whidbey. For more information on the islands, click go the Whidbey and Camano Islands vistors center website.

Woman begins canoe trip from Seattle to San Diego

Margo Pellagrino describes herself as “a stay-at-home mom who doesn’t do a very good job at staying home.” That seems an apt description considering she has just set off on a epic canoe trip that will see her paddling from Seattle to San Diego over the next couple of months, while raising awareness about the health of the world’s oceans.

Margo started her journey on July 3rd, and over the past few days she has paddled across Puget Sound, down the Juan De Fuca Strait, and out into the Pacific Ocean. From there, she’ll turn south, with the intention of paddling her outrigger canoe all the way to San Diego, a distance of more than 2500 miles. Along the way, she’ll make planned stops in a number of cities and towns, where she hopes to spread the word about the importance of the oceans to the overall health of the planet, and how we can all do small things on a day-to-day basis that will help protect them.

This isn’t the first long distance paddle for Margo. Back in 2007 she made the journey from Miami, Florida to Camden, Maine, a distance of over 2000 miles, by canoe. She followed up that adventure in 2008 with another journey, this time along the Gulf Coast, going from Miami to New Orleans. Those trips helped to reinforce her love of the oceans, and her desire to help raise awareness about how their health can effect the rest of the planet.

You can follow Margo’s progress by reading her latest entries to her blog and tracking her via GPS. She’ll be making regular updates along the way, sharing her adventure, and message, with the rest of us.

[Photo credit: Margo Pellagrino]

Galley Gossip: Seattle – places to stay & things to do (with a 13 year-old boy)

Are you familiar with downtown Seattle? My 13 year-old son and I are going there for 5 nights in late August. What do you think is the coolest downtown hotel? We are looking at Hotel 100 and The W but can’t decide. We are open to all suggestions as well as any other hints you may have – Carole

I’m not sure what the “coolest” hotel in Seattle is, but I do know I’ve always wanted to stay at The Inn At The Market ever since my mother, who is also a flight attendant, told me about the place after having stayed there a few years ago. When I asked her if she thought it might be a nice hotel for a mother-son team, she said, “Well….the rooms are a little old lady-ish, but nice and clean.”

Old lady-ish? That doesn’t sound good. And something tells me this is not what a thirteen year-old boy has in mind when he’s on summer vacation. So I asked my mother to elaborate.

“I think the thing that may have made it seem old lady-ish was the flowered comforter,” she said.

That’s easy enough to fix. Just pull it off the bed and throw it on the floor! (Trust me, you don’t want to use that thing anyway.)

My mother also had this to say, “The view out the window of the Puget Sound was incredible. From the hotel we could look right down on the market. I literally stepped out the door, turned to the right, and within a few steps I was at Pike’s Market (pictured below). The hotel has an outside patio area where you can sit and watch the sun go down at dusk. Off in the distance you can see the ferry lights. It’s beautiful. “

I don’t know about you, Carole, but location, for me, is everything, regardless of a floral comforter! And I can’t think of a better place to be in Seattle than right next to Pike’s Market. Yeah, it’s touristy, but so what! I love that place. All flight attendants do. It’s always a big part of our layover routine.

If you’re determined to keep it cool, a few people I know suggested these hotels:

Hotel Max & Hotel 100: “Both are hip and cool,” said Shannon

Sheraton : “For best location, rooftop pool, and Chihuly glass throughout,” said Scott Laird. (I can second that!)

Hotel Andra: “It’s quite nice – and Lola (one of Tom Douglass’ restaurants) is on the 1st floor. Mmmm!” said Geraldine

The Edgewater: “It’s right on Puget Sound, amazing views, walk to aquarium and Pike’s Place,” said Allison Carter.

As for things to do with your son, take him on the underground tour of downtown Seattle or have the hotel arrange a tour of the Boeing plant. Take the ferry to Bainbridge Island and have lunch. The scenery on the ride over is just breathtaking. Ride the monorail to the Space Needle. Or just walk around. There are so many things to do and see. A pilot on my last trip went hiking. I’m not sure where, exactly, but I bet the hotel can direct you if you’re interested. There’s a little red trolley you can hop on and off for a quick tour of the city. This might be a good way to familiarize yourself on your first day. Of course you can’t leave Seattle without eating clam chowder out of a bread bowl at Anthony’s. Again, touristy, but I do it on every single layover!

Check out my other Seattle post about Seattle- it’s all about kids, trains, and food!

As well as these other Gadling posts…

10 places to eat in Seattle

Budget Vacations from Seattle: Puget Sound and San Juan Islands

Budget Vacations from Seattle: Bainbridge Island