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Clamming 101

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(I have the coolest job)

By Kellie Parkin

 While preparing for my first-ever CLAMerica experience, gathering material for the Beacon’s Special Section and learning all I could about clamming, I realized how little I really knew about the industry that encompasses so much of this community of islands.

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I immediately went in search of a clam farmer who would teach me. Just my luck, the first clammer I approached happened to mention that he would be out on the water the very next morning – on a Saturday.

Embarrassed, I admitted that I knew nothing about clamming. He politely tried to make me feel better. Before he could say too much, though, I excitedly asked if I could come along for the ride in an effort to ditch my ignorance of clamming.

And to my utter surprise he agreed without hesitation.

I have the coolest job. Seriously. One moment I’m setting forest fires (under the guidance of rangers at the CK National Wildlife Refuge, of course), the next I’m learning about storm surge flood waters and emergency management, and before I can practically realize it, I’m going clamming.

Bright and early the next morning I met Captain Shawn Stephenson, owner of Southern Cross Sea Farms, and Daniel Rone for my first-ever clam farming lesson.

Boy was I in for a treat. Ten days later I can still feel the new muscles in my arms – muscles that I didn’t even know I possessed before that day. Who knows, maybe they’ll heal one day and I’ll be buff. But I’m getting ahead of myself – I should start at the beginning.

While I was at the service station near my house buying the largest coffee available, Captain Shawn and Daniel, apparently much more chipper at such an awful hour, were at Southern Cross getting the orders for the day and loading up supplies.

It was around 6:30 a.m. and I was still waking up as I took my much-needed coffee and other goods to the counter. I hadn’t been paying much attention and as Carmen handed my debit card back to me she said, “This must be your lucky day - $7.77.”

Oh no! I thought. Not $7.77! A favorite Billie Letts book flashed through my mind where sevens forebode less than desirable events, and I wanted Carmen to take back what she had said. How could she jinx my first-ever clamming lesson?

I really don’t put any stock into numerology, but I have great fun playing around with it. I love numbers, but that’s a whole other column.

Still, I decided to pretend that the $7.77 never happened, although I did keep the receipt.

Out on the boat I opted for my flip-flops over my waders. Before long though, I tossed those inside the dry box, too. I found that my bare feet had more traction in the boat. Besides, we were out at high tide and high seas – I was soaked – and much more comfortable in just my feet.

Soon Captain Shawn noticed my lack of footwear and let out a loud chuckle, slapping Daniel on the shoulder. “Look – she’s a natural Cedar Key clammer.”

Guess that’s one test passed, I thought.

My camera goes with me everywhere, and I was thrilled at the opportunity to photograph clamming in the raw. But out on the beautiful ocean with the waves and the wind crashing down on me I was hit with a dilemma. I wanted to photograph the experience, and I wanted to experience the experience.

I took a few more photos and grabbed the gloves.

Shawn and Dan went easy on me. It was my first time after all. I was the designated clam bag washer. I cleaned each bag using a large hose that pumped water straight from the Gulf. (Okay, maybe it is something that anybody could do. But it was nice doing that job – something that even a landlubber like me could contribute.)

I figured it was simply my lack of time spent out on the open waters – but my balance was unusually wobbly, even for boats. I’m really not all that graceful on land, now that I think of it. I steadied myself against a conveniently placed pole at the back of the boat – for fear that I might be flung overboard should I move too much (or turn my head too quickly). The strategy proved quite useful. I was determined to remain at my post and complete my job so I ignored the occasional wave of light-headedness that attempted to creep up and spill out.

I was so relieved to finally hear the captain say that the waters were extra choppy. It wasn’t normal. Maybe I wasn’t such a light weight after all. But then he said the next fateful statement: “Maybe bringing Kellie was bad luck.” He said it with a smile of course, but my thoughts went back to Carmen and her stupid $7.77 theory.

Right about that same time we heard a large thunder clap. The choppy waters had brought a nice large thunderstorm with them – and it was headed straight for us. “Did Kellie bring that thunderstorm with her today?” one of them asked. “Maybe she is bad luck,” they joked. I wasn’t amused. Maybe the numbers did hold sway.

We moved more quickly for a while – not that it was all that snail-paced to begin with – but then we saw it. A beautiful Cedar Key rainbow arching over the clam leases.

When it became evident that the storm was focused on the town and left us alone, Daniel and Captain Shawn decided that I wasn’t such bad luck after all. They even went so far as to say maybe I was the reason the storm did leave us alone.

I’m sure Carmen would like to think so.

After what seemed like countless bags were collected, we hauled our cache back to the processing plant where I helped sort more than two dozen bushels of clams into a tumbler.

I’m pretty sure it is to some combination of the water hose and the tumbler that I owe these new svelte arms of mine.

I know it was just one five-hour day, but it opened my eyes to just how hard working ocean farmers are. And just how citified I am.

As a servant of truth I must bashfully confess that the motion sickness did eventually catch up with me later that evening. I managed to hold it off all day, but apparently it was determined to surface. In waves.

I still think I have the coolest job.

Thank you Shawn and Daniel for teaching a fish out of water a lesson in clamming.