Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Clamming: It's The Maine Thing

As a result of my successful lobstering adventure two weeks ago, I've been challenged to try my hand at clamming in the coastal Maine mud flats. I accepted that challenge and waited for the date, time and location to be set.  These Maine roughens think this old gal will crumple under hard work.  They do not know me. 
View of the bays and the Atlantic Ocean from atop Caterpillar Hill
And so, last Sunday Wayne and I drove to Blue Hill where we met Errol and Lori. The four of us drove on to Stonington, where we'd meet Donnie, Gleason and Tim for the clamming excursion.  Along the way, we crossed Caterpillar Hill where the view of coastal Main is spectacular.  The land closest to the road grows blueberries. Errol and Lori pointed out several bays, islands, towns where they grew up and the point in the far distance where the water became the Atlantic Ocean.

Several winding roads later, we arrived at Donnie and Gina's home. Gina is working today and we've learned that Gleason's wife Barbara is not feeling well (though I think she's faking it).  There will be seven of us to go clamming.

I'll be apprenticing with Donnie, master clammer

At Donnie's, I was introduced to the tools of the clamming trade.  The wooden basket used for gathering  clams is called a hod. A trowel may be used for digging the clams from the mud.  The hod in the picture below has a clam measure attached to check the size of clams to be sure they are legal.  What my friends didn't tell me at that time, is that the hod below would not be the one I'd use.  Mine would be larger, therefore heavier. And instead of the small trowel in this photo -- I'd get a heavier, short handled, four pronged, rake-like apparatus to use for digging.

As I've mentioned in earlier posts from Maine, Donnie is a lobsterman by trade. It's all he's ever done an he is quite good at it and well known in these parts.  His Stonington home reflects his love of coastal Maine and his interest in lobstering. On his property, old lobster traps are stacked seven foot high while lengths of old tied rope and lobster marking buoys are piled in great heaps. I was fascinated by all this stuff. 

Errol gives a good look at the traps that Donnie has available for sale.

But low time was near and it was time to move on to clamming. Errol and Lori in their truck and Wayne and I in our car, followed Donnie, Gleason and Tim down winding roads and switchbacks into the most difficult places to reach the "secret clamming spot" Donnie would share with us.  We were deep into coastal Maine when the asphalt ended and the road narrowed to one lane with just enough space for a pick-up truck to maneuver without scraping the roadside tree limbs.  I expected to see a moose or a bear, but didn't.

This is not where we clammed.
From where we left the vehicles, we'd hike another quarter mile through the woods, then into the high grass along the shore before we even reached the mud of the clamming flats.
Errol leads Lori, Wayne and me through the grass and into the mud
Low tide in any body of water is stinky and ugly, as far as I'm concerned. But the ugly low tide is required for clamming and somehow this was a pretty setting and I didn't notice the usual bad smell.

A scene likely to never be witnessed again: Wayne in tall rubber boots.
Tall rubber boots are an absolute necessity for clamming. Errol loaned a pair of his rubbers to Wayne and I used a pair of Lori's that were very comfortable I must say. What I didn't know when I accepted the loan of her boots was that Lori would go out into the mud in her flip-flops and I felt terrible wearing her boots while her brand new pedicure was being ruined in the mud.  She insisted she would not have worn her rubbers because she had no intention of clamming.  I still felt terrible.

Left to right: Gleason, Tim, Errol and Donnie.
And so we did reach our destination in the mud of what appears to be a shallow bay. Donnie, Gleason and Tim are already bent over digging clams.  Wayne and I were probably pretty noticeably careful as  we're not sure how we'll manage in the soft, soggy mud. 

One of my first digs.

There's just simply no way to not get muddy when one is clamming so I didn't attempt to stay clean though I did secretly hope that I wouldn't find myself flat on my rear or my face in the icky stuff.  I brought my rubber palmed gloves and that proved to be a really good thing. Even with them, I'd be cleaning the black mud from around my fingernails for the next two days.

Some of my first clams.

Lori in flip-flops watching to see if I can stand after being squatted so long.
One touch to my shoulder and I would have been flat on my back in the pool of muddy water. 

Errol has a full hod of clams
Gleason and his son Tim clammed with us today.  I didn't realize until after the fact that today was Tim's first time clamming too.  Tim is sightless and has been most of his life. He is a fiercely independent young man and is not held captive by lack of vision. He attended regular high school here in Maine and will go away to college next month. Wayne and I were impressed by his ability to maneuver, unaided, through the rocky mud flats today. 

Tim (L) and his dad, Gleason
A brief rest resulted in a mud smudge on the seat of my pants.
Can't sweat the small stuff though.

Notice that the old woman (myself) does not wimp out for long.
A full hod and I'm finished!
(In more ways than one)

Leaving the area where we clammed, we passed more picturesque low-tide scenery. We're headed back to Donnie and Gina's where we'll steam the clams and have them for suppah (that's supper for all us " non-Mainers").

Donnie and Gina have a grand porch that's like an outside living room, complete with a huge table for eating, a grill for cooking and a hammock at one end.  There's also a mounted deer and a moose -- the later of which comes with a great story that can only be told by Donnie. It is hilarious -- and yes, he killed the dear.  It was his first.

Donnie and Gina's porch.
The moose is currently being used as a hanging rack.
I took a good bit of ridicule over the photo below.  Donnie saw me tossing a few "dead" clams into my hod during the dig. It's hard to tell them apart, after all. I fully expected I'd collected a fair amount of dirt, but a good laugh was had (at my expense, of course) when Donnie found this one in the steam pot.  Not pictured is the clam-shaped stone I'd also collect. Gleason found it.  Oh the grief.

A dirt-filled clam shell.

Clams, clam broth and melted butter. 
Real clammers drink wine straight from the bottle, right Wayne?
After a nice recovery from clamming and suppah (supper) of hot dogs, hamburgers and steamed clams it came our time to go. All the leftover steamed clams were presented to me with instruction to "make clam chow-dah" later. I have Lori's clam chowder recipe from three years ago so I will freeze the clam meat and make the chowder.

The ride home was especially nice as we had our second Bald Eagle sighting in the past few days. Naturally, we didn't get a picture but it was a real beauty!

Another fun-filled experience with simply fabulous people here in Maine.  We'll certainly never forget these days (unless we become even more senile)... Special "thank you" to all who went to your "workplace" on your only day off.  Wayne and I look forward to the remainder of our time here but can never imagine how we'll ever repay so many for so much they've done to enhance our Maine experience.

Monday, August 19, 2013

10 Step Recipe For Successful Lobstah Feast (Maine Style)

  1. Combine several lobstermen and retirees in campground.
  2. Mix strong drinks and spread evenly among lobstermen and retirees.
  3. Unload a bunch of large coolers and cookers from truck bed (carry all to feast location).
  4. Stand around steam pots, exaggerate weights of lobstah.
  5. Consume drinks while watching lobstah steampots. 
  6. Mix well with laughter and slaps on backs. Sprinkle heavily with compliments to one another.
  7. Devour lobstah, belch and retire to campfire.
  8. Tell several lies around the campfire, allowing lobstah to digest. 
  9. Fall asleep in lounge chair; awake abruptly to rain in the face after midnight.
  10. Repeat as desired.
For best results use at least two lobstermen for each retiree. 
Note: Real Lobstermen only wear shirts with buttons for special occasions.

Add wives to control overheating and as needed, dogs for cleaning up spills.

Unruly wives should be kept to a pen by themselves.

To avoid overexertion, retiree loads should be limited to empty pots
Younger, stronger lobstermen are better suited for carrying heavy coolers of lobstah.
This is where the "exaggeration" part is important. A few outrageous lies thrown in here add flavor.

Lobstah pot

It's a good practice to allow retiree to feel for "steam" from lobstah pot.
It may be a good idea to have a wife on standby to throw melted butter on retirees or lobstermen if necessary.

Use wives generously when heating oil for clam frying.
Retirees and lobstermen alike overindulge in lobstah eating.

Good lobstermen always have a surprise trophy crab to spring during the lobstah feast

Retirees should always be allowed to make the biggest messes during a lobstah feast
Thanks again to Lori and Errol, Gleason and Barbara, Donnie and Gina.  What wonderful memories we have to share. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Next Bucket List Item: Lobstering: Check!

Coastal Maine is beautiful and we're enjoying nice weather although there are more rainy days this year than when were were here in August 2010. We're having a great time.
In the previous post, I introduced some of the Down East characters with whom we've become friends.  Two of them are full-time commercial lobstermen: Donnie and Errol. And these guys aren't novices. It's all Donnie's ever done and Errol's been at it a long time too, having learned the business from his father-in-law.
Wayne and I asked lots of questions about lobstering and clamming. Frankly, I'm quite intrigued by these Down East Maine occupations. I've snorkeled off the coasts of Florida and seen I've lobster there, but lobstering in Maine just seems like something from a reality TV show. So after about a hundred questions, Errol suggested Wayne and I might want to go out for an hour or two one day next week.  I though he'd never ask and, of course, I accepted without hesitation. Poor Wayne probably didn't have one bit of interest, but agreed enthusiastically.  How I love that man!
One of the great view stops along the way from Ellsworth to East Blue Hill.
I think this scene is near Contention Cove on Maine Highway 172
Our rendezvous point with Errol was at East Blue Hill where he'd bring his 35' Mitchell lobster boat to the dock for us. Maddie and her friend, whose father is also a lobsterman, will be with him. We'll run about a dozen traps. Errol says they've not been in the water long enough to be full since he last ran them, but he thinks we'll get to see enough lobster to learn how they're harvested.  We'll be in an area known as Morgan Bay. 

Lobster traps stacked on shore at Morgan Bay
Errol operates his lobstering business with help: his father works with him three days a week but his daughter, Maddie (for whom all three of his boats have been named) is his right arm. She was helping him back in 2010, when she was still just a little girl. All summer, the two of them strike out well before daylight and run dozens of traps. No matter what the question, if it's about lobster, Maddie knows the answer. Today we'll get to see Maddie at work lobstering.

Miss Maddie III coming to pick us up at the dock.

Capt. Errol, at the helm of Miss Maddie III.
He continues patiently answering my many questions.
Once we'd gotten away from the dock a bit, Maddie and Allison donned their rubber overalls, boots and gloves. Then they set about preparing bait bags.  They talked constantly as they worked.  They weren't told what to do. They knew what to do and they did it.

Preparing the herring bait bags.
Maddie on the left, Allison on the right.
Errol showed each step to Wayne and me and reminded us that after the first few traps, we could certainly expect to see how repetitious the lobstering business is.  Traps are hauled out of the water, lobster removed, checked for sex, if the females have eggs (and if their tails are notched), and they are measured for acceptable length. Those that weren't returned to the water would are put into the shallow box where they'd be banded and then boxed.  I knew immediately that I'd want to learn to band them.  Stiff fines are imposed for taking lobster that don't meet the criteria, so I don't want to be in any decision-making process, but once Errol claims them, I'll be ready to do the banding!

Introduction to the tools of the trade.
This one bands the lobstah claws.
I learned the small lobster are the quickest and are most likely to do the pinching.  The really large ones are more lethargic and less likely to get 'cha!

This is the tool used for measuring the lobstah
And so the traps began coming up. Errol has a large electric pulley to assist but once the trap comes out of the water, it has to be hoisted onto the boat railing where it's opened and the lobster are retrieved.  Because the pulley can be dangerous, Errol does that part. Amazingly, Maddie and Allison both take the traps from there and retrieve the lobster, tossing out the old bait, putting in the new bait and then turn around to begin measuring and checking the lobster on the table.

Bringing up the lobstah traps.  Allison on the left, Maddie on the right.
This one is called "the school bus" because it's real big and yellow.
After all the unqualified lobster are returned, the "keepers" are banded and put into crates that are then stacked on the back of the boat until the end of the day when they're taken to the lobster buyer. 

Maddie and Allison help me get started in lobster banding and show me a few tips to make the process go smoother.  I was as slow as Christmas but enjoyed applying every rubber band!
My first attempt at "banding" the claws.
Maddie takes it from here.

Hoisting up another large trap.

Lobstah that are too small go back into the water. So do those that are too large, like this guy.
Take a look at that claw behind Errol's left arm! 
Finally Errol pulled a nice female out of the trap that was loaded with eggs!  Having never actually seen such a sight, I first thought she had some horrible fungus growing on her underside. In fact, she has thousands of black eggs stuck all over her torso.

This "soon to be" momma lobstah has about a zillion black eggs all over her underside.
She goes right back into the water to keep the production line going.
You can see the notch in the second section of her tail.
We'd been on the water running the traps for an hour or two and making great progress when Errol, being the thoughtful gentleman he is, asked if the motion of the boat was bothering me. Funny thing, I hadn't thought about the rocking motion of the boat 'till he uttered those words.  Immediately, the rocking made me aware, then sick, of the movement.  My lobstering career is ended.

Recovery from motion sickness is easy when you sit on the boat's stern and look at the shoreline. 
As the tide began to become a concern, Errol returned Maddie, Allison, Wayne and me to the dock at East Blue Hill and he took the boat to it's mooring. That's when I noticed a squatty little lighthouse behind the dock.  Yes, it must be photographed and it's name must be known:  It's the McHeard Cove Lighthouse.

I hadn't noticed the squatty little lighthouse here at Morgan Bay when we arrived.
But now, McHeard Cove Lighthouse must become part of my photo collection of lighthouses.

Errol took Miss Maddie III to her mooring and returned in the skiff.
Thank you Errol and Maddie for interrupting your "real" lobstering work to take us out with you today. Thanks also to Allison, for letting me watch and experience a bit of what you do all summer with your own dad on his boat.  Thanks to Lori, Errol's wife / Maddie's mom for keeping Lexie and Ozzie at their home all afternoon while we were out on the boat. 

Come  the next Saturday, yet another Lobstah Feast was enjoyed and I had a whole new appreciation for my meal. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Goin' Down East

The term Down East refers to an area along the coast of Maine south a-ways from the Canadian border.  Sailors refer to "Down East" as the ports east of Boston as recalled by those who felt the wind at their backs as they sailed here. They were sailing downwind, so it seemed reasonable that they were "down" east. Naturally therefore, as they returned to Boston, they'd be headed upwind. I'm told that's why many Mainers speak of going "up to Boston" even though, in fact, Boston is south of Maine's southernmost state line.  Ah ha.... another history lesson.

Geographically speaking though, I'm told the towns of Bucksport, Lubec, Calais, Eastport, Machias, Bar Harbor, Blue Hill and Ellsworth are "Downeast".  That's where we are at this point in time.

We're rendezvousing with friends we met here in August 2010. The late summer weather is generally mild in these parts and we look forward to seeing familiar faces, so here we shall stop for awhile.  We arrived on a Thursday and by Saturday night we found ourselves enjoying another fabulous "Lobstah Feast".

The group of friends here were met at Shady Oaks Campground near Bucksport. One of the couples bought a campground here in Ellsworth and the other couples joined him here last year. Because we have dogs (didn't in 2010) we can't camp at Shady Oaks.

It was great to re-connect with Errol, his wife Lori, their daughter, Maddie and her best friend, Allison. They're all true "Down East-a's" and genuine "lobstah" people who do not pronounce "R's".  (More 'bout that later.)
L to R: Lori, Errol, Maddie, Allison and Donnie (photobomber)
Another family is Gleason, his wife, Barbara and their son, Tim. They introduced us to "whoopie pies"... ah joy!
Gleason, Barbara and their son, Tim.
But the main character in the crowd of Down Easters would have to be Donnie, another lobsterman. His wife, Gina is not pictured here. Donnie and Gina serve as hosts at nearly all the gatherings. I don't think Donnie has ever pronounced an "R"....

Donnie holding lobstah; Errol in the background.
For a dinner crowd of a dozen people this night there are at least three dozen Maine lobster, thirty pounds of steamed clams and six pounds of smoked fish. If I exaggerate the numbers here, it's not by much. Everything's cooked outside in huge pots over gas burners.  Clean-up is easy; use the garden hose.
Errol with a bowl of hot steamed clams, Donnie and Wayne (in the "Butter Me Up" lobstah bib).
A feast for the eyes!

Steamed clams. Fresh today!
Three years ago, Lori and Errol taught me the to eat lobstah the "Maine way"... that is to find all the best pieces easily with the least amount of mess.  I don't have the "mess" part under complete control.
Lori and I playing with our dinner.

Maddie (left) and Allison (right) are constant companions.
Neither is of legal driving age yet but both can work lobster traps like any man twice their size and age!
More on that subject in the next post.
Surprisingly, I hadn't forgotten all my "lobstah eating pointas" yet and with a few reminders, I was on my way into my second crustacean.
What can't be seen in this picture is that lobster water is running down my arms and into my lap.
Lori's bib is embroidered "You Crack Me Up!"
What I did forget from three years ago was that you should absolutely "never, ever sit on the low side of the picnic table" while eating lobstah.  All the water runs into your lap if you're on the low side of the table.