Encountering Clams: An Experience of Ancient Knowledge and Present Subsistance

It was a crisp but sunny morning in early March. I was in Waglisla (Bella Bella), Heiltsuk Territory, in British Columbia, standing on the bay in front of my house, when J and two fellow diggers picked me up in a tiny fishing punt. I was dressed in a pair of tights, jeans and my waterproof pants, multiple layers of long sleeves and my (fairly) waterproof hiking boots—it can get really cold on the open punts, I was told, so better to dress warm! Off we went, a little south of Old Towns, on the shore of Danny Island.

Clam digging is wholly dependent on the rhythms of the shore. Beds are exposed when the tide is low, which is itself related to the patterns of the moon. Lowest tides often happen to be in the middle of the night, especially during a full moon. Today, luckily, the tide was low enough at midday to dig. We headed towards an area on the beach that seemed innocuous. Only as we approached did I see the rocky landscape of the shoreline. Our expert guide, J, started unloading the tools of the trade for the four of us: pitchforks and bags the size of large onion sacks. The rest of us crawled out of the punt after him. J had already started to ram his fork purposefully into the beach. “Oh yeah, there are a lot of clams here,” he exclaimed. “One of you can start digging here.” Three steps further, and he rammed the fork into the beach again. “Oh yes, here too. Saskia, you can dig around here.” He repeated this procedure once more until all the three of us were digging away in the gravel. He explained that we should always look for the bigger rocks and try to dig around them. This is where the large clams are. Then he went down to the waterline and started digging himself.

I slowly tried my best with the pitch fork. I barely knew what butter clams looked like, let alone how to harvest them. Learning was an exercise in finding the balance between force and feeling. After the first few attempts, I became aware of the danger of cracking the solid yet fragile shells. My back became sore and my hands cold from the bending and picking in the freezing ocean water. Not a promising start—especially since I wanted to do this right.

In sojourning out onto the shores of Heiltsuk territory in search of clams, I was participating in a tradition thousands of years in the making. First Nations on the Pacific North Coast have used clams as a food source for millennia. As one of the only accessible fresh food sources, clams sustained even large communities over the winter. These communities purposefully created and maintained clam gardens to increase the productivity of the clam population, constructing rock walls at the low tide line along the edges of bays or inlets to transform naturally sloping beaches or rocky shorelines into level beach terraces. The clam also occupies an important place in Heiltsuk culture; that clams are said to have supernatural powers and close relations with the people that live with and around them—underlined by their ablity to transform into humans—a feature depicted in the beautiful transformation mask carved by a well-known Heiltsik artist, Captain Richard Carpenter. 

My own experience digging into the rocky and heavy sand of Danny Island was thus not only an exercise (literally) in learning about the life of butter clams in this particular area. It was a window into the history of this place and region so different from where I grew up. It showed me the interconnectedness of humans and other-than-human species far beyond what language could describe.

As of 2016, this life-sustaining connection is at risk. In 2016, a tug boat ran aground and sank after the watchperson fell asleep, spilling 110,000 liters of diesel fuel, lubricants, and other pollutants into Gale Pass—right next to one of the Heiltsuk Nation’s most vital and productive clam gardens. This spot served as a harvesting area for many commercial clam diggers from the Heiltsuk Nation who depended on it for their annual income. The oil spill contaminated the area for an indefinite period of time—not only disrupting that close relationship but also causing existential challenges to the families of commercial clam diggers.

Trailer for the documentary on the Nathan E. Steward Oil Spill, Raven People Rising.

As I dug along, it became clear to me what a laborious and demanding job clam digging really was—and how much specialized local knowledge it required. I clearly underperformed; I had a hard time finding good spots apart from the first one that was shown to me—even though the beach was full of clams. My humbling experience was evidence to me of how much expertise this practice requires (not to speak of the physical strength) and how superficial my understanding of it was from this singular experience. At the same time however, I had the chance to get an idea of the cultural and economic importance of this ancient practice, a practice under pressure after this single oil spill, and facing still futher future risks from new pipeline projects. Through my own experience, I gained a new perspective on the ecosystems at stake and reasoning behind political demands to stop tanker traffic along the coast, like Bill C-48.

Even though it took me a lot longer than the others to fill my sacks, we ended up gathering a fair amount of clams before the tide came rushing back in, pouring its water into my boots. We hauled our harvest ashore, and spent the next two days cleaning the clams and giving them to elders in the community. But that is a story for another article.