I love Canada. At my old bookstore job I used to work regularly with Canadian publishers, who came down to Seattle each season to present their latest frontlist books. We’d go out to some nice restaurants on the publisher’s dime, and I can say unequivocally that those Canadians put me under the table each time. The next day they’d be chipper as ever at the day-long meeting while I felt like slapping a cold t-bone across my face. My Canadian friends mountain bike over teeter-totter logs suspended a dozen feet above the ground, surf the icy waters of Vancouver Island’s west coast, and ski like bandits on a getaway run.
I just wish I could get up there more often, if only to let some of that Canadian gnarliness rub off on me and my kids. Happily, in recent years a tradition has sprung up among four Seattle families who share a waterside cabin for the better part of a week each summer in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia. There’s an outhouse and a well with a hand-pump. A variety of mismatched camp stoves function as the kitchen. Everyone agrees that to update a single feature would be sacrilege. In the U.S. it’s getting harder to find such rustic accommodations; not so in Canada.
The real magic of this setup is watching our nine American kids do without their accustomed gewgaws and explore the natural environment. Games of tag and sardines go on among the old-growth Douglas-firs. Hide-and-seek in head-high salal bushes is a real challenge. They build “fairy houses” on the property and keep eyes peeled for the legendary Island Trolls. But it’s the water that’s most tempting.
This year the older kids showed a surprising interest in catching their own food. They dug clams for hours, used a dropnet to gather bait, fished for bottomfish, and set a crab trap. They even ate oyster po’ boys. In a “Lord of the Flies” moment that might freak out some parents, one little girl—a few days shy of starting kindergarten—caught a kelp greenling from shore, using a clam she had dug up for bait. All the other kids clamored ’round, each one administering a blow to the head to do it in. We grilled the greenling that night and they all ate of it with gusto under the stars. Rockfish and flounder landed on the menu as well, as did three species of clam: mahogany, littleneck, and horse. The adults had to hide batches of steamed clams just to have a few to eat.
I don’t own a boat and rarely have access to one, so one of the real treats is taking an ancient battle-scarred Whaler out to the bottomfish grounds, where it’s virtually impossible to get skunked. Every kid caught a fish, bouncing weights along the bottom and using clams for bait. Sometimes you get more than you bargain for; one of the flounders came up half-eaten and it’s not uncommon to haul in the occasional dogfish. Sadly, as in much of the Northwest, the salmon runs have been badly depleted and we don’t even make the effort of time and gas to look for the remaining few.
The Myth of the “R” Month
Spend any time harvesting oysters and you’re bound to hear the old saw about “R” months, that you should avoid oysters in any month without the letter “R”: May, June, July, August—the summer season, effectively.
Now it may be true that in earlier days without reliable refrigeration and fast transportation, the warm months were the most likely to see fish spoilage. Similarly, the warm months are when we usually get the algae blooms that can cause red tides, which were less closely monitored in the past. Neither of these issues should obtain now.
The only other factor is the oyster spawn. When the water is warm enough, oysters undergo a physiological change in preparation for spawning, with their organs largely given over to the task of reproduction, resulting in a milky, somewhat mushy meat (see above). It is during this stage that many oyster lovers spurn their cherished bivalve. But wait. The milky substance is not the result of any sort of toxin or sickness. Most of it can be washed away simply enough by running the oyster under tap water. While I don’t slurp down oysters raw at this time, I can think of no reason to not batter them in egg, flour, and cornmeal and fry them up for po’ boys. The half-pints didn’t seem to mind either.
Go Make Your Clam Bed
Probably more time was spent digging clams than any other activity. We used big shovels and small shovels, spades and scratchers. The kids dug trenches deep enough to hide in. Native littlenecks lay just a few inches beneath the surface, but butter clams (which we only used for bait) secreted themselves well below the littlnecks—and horse clams, also known as gapers, were deeper yet. Higher up the beach the kids discovered mahogany clams, a silky smooth clam with a lustrous brown shell that is delicious steamed and dipped in butter. The gapers got cut up for chowder.
Collecting bait is often more fun for kids than the actual hooking and catching of fish. Heck, I feel pretty much the same way about it sometimes—which is why filming these two kids going at it with the dropnet was such pure pleasure. It hurt my knees just to watch them squat down on their haunches so effortlessly for minutes at a time. I was reminded of more innocent summers in the distant past, of catching frogs and building bike jumps with my neighbor Sarah Sulger, the complications of adolescence and adulthood still years away. Watching this scene unfold, only a short bit captured here, might have been the highlight of my trip.
And then it was time to go home, to get back to work and prepare for the school year. While waiting for the first of two ferries to shuttle us back to the mainland, we found a monstrous patch of Himalayan blackberries and picked until the last car had debarked before running back to our vehicles for loading. I’ll post the result of that quick pick in a future post: blackberry crisp.
I hope everyone had a tremendous Labor Day Weekend!