Sunday, July 13, 2008

Clamming At Polly Creek

Out in the Aleutian Mountains, where the waters of Polly Creek flow from Redoubt Volcano into a bay, joined by the glacial meltwater off the Tuxedni Glacier, low tide pulls back a long way across tidal flats, revealing running ridges of sandbars. Once a month, by the pull of the moon on the earth, the tide is especially low. Astronomers call these "neap tides". Folks round here are much more practical; we call them clamming tides.

The red and white supercub ahead had picked a sandbar a mile out from shore and already landed as we came around - with the angle of the sun on wet sand, it looked like he'd gone in the water. But the tide book assured us he wasn't wrecked, as well as the presence of two small figures getting out. From further out in the bay, we saw two boats - commercial clammers - heading over quickly. Up here, lone folks get checked on to make sure they're not landing for engine trouble - when the tide comes in, it comes in at four feet an hour, and the cold water can and does kill. We set up for a nice long approach, taking every advantage of the nearly thousand feet of sandbar and lack of any obstacle nearby. As we came in, the boats peeled back out to the business of making money, satified that we were there intentionally, or at least the first guy was getting checked on.

The wet sand looked flat from altitude, but up close, it was covered in thousands of inch-high ridges, and landing on it was like landing on hard, rough concrete. As we went over a low spot, the tires flung muddy sand and glacial silt up with corrosive seawater onto the wings and struts, and I silently thanked the heavens that we were going straight to a place where we could hose down both aircraft well after this. Then we were stopped - on a sandbar this wide, no need to even turn around first - and getting out into the salt sea air, handing out buckets and shovels. Undeneath that sand (just don't dig where a tailwheel's going to drop in) there were thousands of razor clams, waiting to get into the buckets and become food.

Three hours later, as we were getting exhausted, and the buckets were nearly full, I frowned at the latest hole in hard-packed sand. "Water level's risen in these holes."

"It has?" My digger (my arms were too sore now to wield the shovel, so he dug and I pulled the clam out as it tried to escape) looked at me, then around at a sandbar that looked like it had been swarmed by giant gophers, for all the holes dug.

"Water's coming up behind J's plane, too." I added, kneeling on the sand because I was too tired to get up. About three hundred feet down out of the thousand feet of sandbar, a curving crescent of water was now shining in between the ridges of sand over half the runway.

J's father nodded, then, and called out to the other two. "All right! tide's coming back in! A dozen more, and we're out of here!" He looked back down where the weight and vibration from my body had disturbed the sand, and saw two dimples where clams had sensed me and tried to move away. "There's two right here."

A dozen might have been ambitious; the water comes back in at four feet an hour on a clamming tide, and the sandbar was at most six inches above the retreating sea. As the other plane had two guys in better shape than me, they got everything packed and away first, taking off quickly; we were slower, and threw up a little spray as we roared into the sky. I sat back beside a very cold bucket of clams, reached forward and shifted J's gun barrel so my left knee could rest against the seat, and curled my bare toes around the rudder pegs. Cabin heat, bless the man, flowed back to me, while the window was expertly cracked to keep him cool. All in all, a great day - even though hours of cleaning clams after thoroughly rinsing the aircraft lay ahead.