And, fittingly, it’s Salish for “dig deep.”
I’m laying facedown on the beach with my right arm thrust shoulder-deep into a hole in the sand. Two other guys—burly dudes, men’s men—are also splayed on their bellies, right arms reaching into the hole. Somewhere down there our fingers entwine in gritty, groping knots. A fourth guy stands above us, using a shovel to hold back wet sand as it collapses over our arms and hands. All four of us are yelling into the hole.
“Goddammit, it’s way down in there!”
“I can feel the tip!”
“I got my hand around it; it’s really big!”
“No, that’s my wrist!”
“It’s wiggling! It’s wiggling!”
These are the sorts of exclamations that come out when you’re digging for geoduck, the big-game animal of native Northwest shellfish. The scene out here on the tidal flats of Harstine Island in the South Puget Sound would be funny if the stakes weren’t so high. The four of us—me, Dan Bugge, owner of Matt’s at the Market; Shane Ryan, chef at Matt’s; and Jeff Bledsoe, manager of Pike Place Market’s City Fish—are hunting for our dinner.
Yes, an immobile mollusk with no brain or central nervous system is getting the better of four able-bodied and determined humans. But the geoduck is adapted to its environment in a way that suggests either a divine plan or evolutionary absurdity. When it’s a few months old, the baby geoduck wiggles its way into the sand of the intertidal zone, and there it stays its entire life, which could extend into triple digits: Legend says the oldest geoduck dug from the Sound was 150 years old. Ensconced three feet underground, filtering nutrients from seawater like a suggestively shaped pool pump, wrapped in a protective limestone shell, the ’duck has no natural predators. Except us.
Lugging shovels, buckets and state-mandated permits, we range across the beach under looming grey skies, seeking the telltale spurt of brine from the exposed end of the geoduck siphon. This bit, the only part visible aboveground, resembles a fleshy nostril.
We spot 20-some spurts and dig 20-some shoulder-deep holes. Over the course of five hours and three six-packs, we bag two geoducks, both around 2.5 lbs. Not a bad haul, Ryan says. Properly prepped, it’s enough to feed us all, and at the current rate of $30/lb., would cost close to $100 store-bought.
At Matt’s the following night, Ryan cooks us a lavish geoduck feast. Part of the belly, the soft body inside the shell, he’s chopped small, panko-breaded and deep-fried. The rest he’s turned into creamy, dilly, geoduck chowder. The foot-long siphons he sliced thin and served raw, marinated in lime juice, scallions and Thai peppers—basically geoduck ceviche. The raw ‘duck is crisp like a cucumber and mildly sweet like a clam. I also detect a subtle note of retribution, but that’s probably just me.
Baby geoducks, ready to plant.
Photo by Nate Watters