|Digging up a Quahog|
Captain Jimmy is an old waterman who gave up the long hot days of clamming and crabbing to shuttle people in search of a "local experience" back and forth along the bay marshes. A good natured fellow with leathery skin and an obscenely thick southern accent, Jimmy seems to jump right out of the pages of some old Bay novel. No doubt filled with knowledge of navigating and working the surrounding waters, he seems to reserve a polite contempt for us outsiders. In regard to clamming, he could fill these pages much more than I, but to quote him would be an exercise in futility. My group and I are still trying to figure out what the hell he was saying about the anchor.
He has coasted us close to a barren, muddy flat that rises clear out of the water and after a brief misunderstanding about the best location and method of dropping anchor, we descend from the boat and begin making our way across the mudflat. As I wander aimlessly across the flat, I am struck by the amount of life surrounding me. Littered across the entire flat are tiny whelks about the size of marbles. Upon closer inspection I find that many of them are slowly moving about, dragging themselves along by tiny translucent tubes. Along the rim of the flat where the water begins to deepen I see schools of tiny fish darting here and there attempting to outmaneuver the seagulls searching for lunch. More than once I begin digging into a small hole expecting my first clam, only to pull out a black, tubular worm of some kind.
I eventually did find my first clam, ten altogether, and although I felt proud of my success my greater enjoyment came from exploring all the alien life I found on the mudflat that day. Curtis Badger reflected in Salt Tide that “Clamming is a good exercise in observing life on a mudflat, because it encourages you to slow down, bend over, and pay attention.” I’ve spent every summer since I was a young boy all over the Chesapeake, and I must have passed by dozens, if not hundreds, of mudflats like this one. But I would have never been able to fully appreciate the tiny little ecosystem it supported until I was able to “slow down, bend over, and pay attention.”
I glance back in the direction of the boat occasionally to see Captain Jimmy casually leaning against the railing of the boat, waiting patiently with hands clasped in front of him. I wonder if he sees what we see when he looks across the mudflat. Surely, he knows every inch of the bay and every creature within it, but I wonder if he still views it with the same wonder we have discovered. Perhaps that is why locals like him often have a slightly patronizing view of tourists and visitors. Nothing unkind, as I’m sure his strong sense of southern decency and manners would temper his opinions. But more like the way a parent tolerates a child’s clumsy wonder and excitement at discovering something new.
A flash of lightening in the distance snaps me out of my reverie, and I see Jimmy moving about the boat. By the time my group and I make our way back, Captain Jimmy is already prepared to get underway, but not before he makes sure we don’t track the dark mud onto his deck. He recognizes the impending storm which is about to overtake us, but doesn’t seem to be as apprehensive as we are. I suppose that is what makes him a waterman.
By Jim Mason