Adventurous oyster growers: Having a delicious time since the 1850s
Story by MATT WINTERS • Photos by DAMIAN MULINIX
Ivan Doig, master imaginer of the Pacific Northwest, has been attracted to Willapa Bay time and again, sensing here an intersection between history and drama. His first book, “Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America,” told of the first efforts by whites to build lives around the delicious riches of the bay. We’re indebted to 19th century diarist James Swan for what we know of these adventures, which Doig drolly suggests “amounted more to an episode of prolonged beachcombing than a serious effort at enterprise.”
“I have prowled the Washington coastline where Swan plopped ashore at the end of 1852, and a misted, spongy, oozeful kind of place it is. On the western rim of bay what appears from a distance to be a line of white-gabled houses proves to be the foaming surf of the Pacific. The salt water reaches hungrily in through this entrance and in a momentous splatter of inlets and fingers, the bay lying stretched from north to south for 25 miles and nearly 10 across its greatest width, mingled with the inflow of half a dozen sizable rivers and who knows how many creeks and seeps. This mix yields a maximum of tan marshes and grey, muddy tideflats, 27 of these Shoalwater sloughs having been granted names by mapmakers and almost as many more not thought worth the effort. Yet around its eastern extent the squishy bay surprises a visitor with sudden firm timber-topped cliffs about a hundred feet high. Banks of a sandy clay, Swan once characterized them, intermingled with strata of shells and remains of ancient forest-trees that for ages have been buried.
“All in all,” Doig continues, “a vast estuarine pudding in a clay bowl. One of the few ascertainable advances since Swan’s time has been the amendment of the big shallow bay’s name from Shoalwater to the less embarrassing Willapa.”
Most visitors today aren’t likely to understand Doig’s pudding analogy except during a very low tide, when parts of the bay look like an enormous recently drained mud puddle. For a first-hand experience of Willapa pudding, you’ll need to hitch a ride on an oyster dredge and try to walk on the portions of it abandoned to mud shrimp. In pursuit of microscopic menu items, these alien-looking shrimp churn the bottom into a quicksand-like muck that seems to extend downward to the center of the earth. In fact, the more industrious oystering carried on today might be all that keeps the entire bay from turning into this pudding.
Meanwhile, the political activism of oystermen has kept the shoreline mostly free of Puget Sound-like development. After three years on the bay, Swan carried away with him a lifelong affection for its pioneer oystermen, whom Doig describes as a “boozy bunch who did as much roistering as oystering.” Larking around one July 4th, they accidentally set off a raging forest fire that kept burning until the winter rains arrived.
Nowadays, no more boozy or sober than any of the rest of us, oyster growers are evangelists for clean water and wise watershed stewardship. This has been spurred by generations of struggle, starting with an industrial near-death experience a century ago when over-exploitation and environmental degradation nearly spelled extinction for the native Olympia oysters on which the business was founded. An initial attempt to shock the business back to life with transplanted eastern oysters also faltered, before at last a native Japanese variety was discovered to be ideally suited to the bay. Called Pacific oysters on the Northwest’s outer coast, these are the backbone of Washington state’s thriving shellfish industry, which accounts for a quarter of all U.S. production and around $108 million a year in sales. (Pacific oysters, too, are now threatened, as carbon dioxide emissions are absorbed by seawater, making it very slightly more acidic and impacting shell formation.)
Partly because of protective attitudes, partly because of being out here on the far left edge of the continent, Willapa Bay and its oyster culture have an air of mystery. This isn’t a marketing ploy or affectation, but a genuine sensation of a place that completely occupies its very own time. It’s not that oystermen and women shun outsiders — at least not exactly — but they are an intensely busy and passionate tribe that would just as soon be left alone. They are somewhat more likely to drink up the bay’s silvery light with their eyes than drink the rye whiskey of Swan’s time. Oyster growing and savoring the light are activities ill-suited to crowds.
So, aside from being a famous author or gobbling Willapa oysters and steamer clams at fine restaurants in Pacific and Clatsop counties, how does a visitor get a sense of the real life of the bay? The answer used to be a variation on the old advice, “Ya gotta know somebody who knows somebody.” In other words, ask around and maybe someone would take mercy and invite you along for an unforgettable day on the bay. But this takes time and diplomatic finesse in short supply in modern life.
Fortunately, in the last year, an easier answer has come along in the form of Keith Cox, a descendant of the publisher of a locally acclaimed newspaper, the Ilwaco Tribune. Cox is a Hollywood professional, crewing on “The Hobbit” movies and more recently working on behind-the-scenes documentary content for Universal Studios’ new film, “Unbroken,” produced and directed by Angelina Jolie. His visual expertise and grasp of storytelling led to an extraordinary documentary on Willapa, “Oyster Farming in a Changing World.”
It’s received nationwide praise. In her entertaining Oyster Stew blog, blog.harborislandoyster.com, North Carolina oyster writer and connoisseur Kim Wilt said, “Keith gets it. He gets the heart. He gets the grit. He gets the determination. Most importantly, he gets the pure joy of oyster farmers. He lets the oystermen and women tell their own stories: ‘The work is hard. The hours are long. But the life it makes for you is unequaled,’ says one. Says another, ‘It’s a life I chose.’ How many of us can really say that?” (A generous part of Cox’s Willapa portrait is available online at vimeo.com/77769466, and the complete package can be purchased at stonypix.com.)
Cox’s pedigree in Pacific County journalism and history granted him exceptional access to the bay, its people and wildlife. Here is some of what he learned:
You’ve spent countless hours documenting Willapa’s oyster industry. Are there any scenes that particularly stand out for you as epitomizing life on the bay?
There are several scenes that play out in my mind. Sun shining, on a boat, drifting across the bay as the tide is at or near its highest, with an expansive view upon the horizon entirely surrounded by nature, with a slight breeze creating an almost calming ripple across the water, every sound heard is of the natural world, other than the mechanics of the boat we are standing on. As the farmer works their way back and forth across their bed of oysters, picking up a load that will be hauled off to a processing plant, the work is monotonous and can be tiresome just like any job, but there is definitely a gratifying feeling, and gratefulness by all on the boat that you feel like you are truly experiencing the world at its best.
Now add dark clouds, 40-mile-per-hour winds, rain terrorizing the bay, and the farmer has to do the same job, where just trying to keep the boat on track across their beds fighting against the wind is a task in itself. Maybe the perks don’t feel as rewarding, but yet somehow it still feels more satisfying than sitting behind a desk in an office. There is not one farmer who did not share that same sentiment with me as we discussed their work on the bay.
In contrast to the seemingly enchanting vision of drifting across the bay as if on a joy ride as described above, I have to say I gained tremendous admiration for the farmers and workers alike, when I experienced them hand-picking oysters at low tide. Bent over for basically two to three hours depending on the length of the tide run, making their way across the sandy or often soft muddy substrate of the bay, picking up oysters and putting them in big metal baskets, which will be picked up by boats later at high tide. It’s hard work, there is no question about it, and then add in the same weather conditions described above, and even add complete darkness into the mix, as this job is also achieved at times in the middle of the night (as they work with head lamps), and any envy seems to fade.
I have to say, standing on an oyster bed in the middle of the bay, in pitch black at 3 a.m., knowing you are surrounded by miles of water all around you with only the sounds of nature, can provide an almost eerie feeling. And then when you realize in a couple hours as the tide comes back in filling up the estuary the exact spot you are standing will have so much water it can be 10 to 15 feet high — it’s almost mesmerizing really.
What are some places where a casual visitor can best observe oystering activities, such as dredges at work or guys out in the beds? Or is it possible to glean anything about oystering from a vantage point onshore?
I will say, one of the things that brings me great joy with the oyster documentary project is people can now watch things that would otherwise not be possible, unless they jumped on a boat, or went out on the oyster beds with the oystermen. Since much of the work happens miles off shore, it can be difficult to observe. However, as I have described to many folks interested, once you know what the boats are doing out on the bay, when you see them from your vantage point on the shore, you can easily imagine with greater detail what they are up to out there.
To catch a glimpse of oystering with your own eyes, I would have to say stopping by any of the processing plants is probably the best opportunity. The Port of Peninsula in Nahcotta is probably the best shoreline vantage point, especially on seeing the boats coming in to unload oysters at the Jolly Roger processing plant, and at times you can see boats working out and around Long Island. The other benefit here is in the summer months you can also stop by the Interpretive Center, which is a wonderful resource to learn more about the industry.
Otherwise, the boat basin in Bay Center and the Coast Seafoods Processing Plant in South Bend can be very active with oystering activity.
How about wildlife on or around the bay — mostly birds, I suppose? Any standout experiences in terms of wildlife-watching during your time on Willapa?
Whether on land or out on the water, watching the wildlife around the bay was always a highlight, and there was no lack of activity, that is for sure. The Willapa estuary is a remarkable place on Earth, and its diverse ecosystem can be witnessed at nearly all times. During my time documenting the oystering lifestyle on the bay, I encountered many, many, many various birds, including snipes, ducks, geese, herons, hawks, eagles, but also saw various fish, seals, crabs and other sea creatures, as well as deer, elk, rabbits, raccoons, beavers, even a porcupine and fox. It’s always a joy to watch birds dive bombing the water to pick up fish, or flocks of geese honking as they move across the skyline especially at sunrise or as the sun sets, but also to just watch a herd of elk peacefully grazing along a shoreline.
How have oyster growers and workers responded to your documentary efforts? Are they dazzled by the attention or mystified by it? Do they get why outsiders would be interested in what they do.
The majority of the oystermen I followed around had absolutely no interest in being “movie stars,” but they opened up to me with the interest in having the industry captured, so that others could better understand what they do. Most folks don’t realize that oysters are actually farmed, not just fished, in Willapa Bay. There is a misconception that because oysters naturally grow in estuaries, that the oystermen come along, find a patch of oysters, harvest them and make the big bucks — how hard can that be? There are estuaries all around the world where that is true — well, all except the making big bucks part — but that is not the case for Willapa Bay. These growers own the tidelands, which is unique in the U.S. to Washington state, so they are actually planting oyster seed, cultivating them, moving them to different tidelands (farm fields) for better growth, then harvesting them after two to four years in hopes of a successful return.
It is true that they rely on Mother Nature to feed these animals over the years, which also means their success is heavily dependent on a healthy environment. I think most growers would agree it’s about 2 percent good farming practices and 98 percent relying on Mother Nature for the success of their farms. Something good or bad floats into the estuary, and it has an effect on the health of all that rely on that water for survival. For all these reasons, I feel the oyster growers were interested in sharing their stories, so outsiders to the industry can better understand the amount of work, effort and care that they invest into their livelihoods.
After the growers and workers began to see the documentaries being created, the most common response is a surprise at how much they’ve learned about their own industry. Not in facts and figures, but in seeing the variety of ways in which other growers do things. It’s a thorough tour of the industry, so for workers who never step foot inside a processing plant because they are always out on the water or mud, or vice versa, it gives them a glimpse into aspects they don’t see. Also getting a chance to see the approach of your neighboring farmer gets you thinking about your own processes.
Although oystermen are extremely independent and mostly keep to themselves and their ways, in some small ways the response has felt as if the project united the growers, by showing how they are all connected. And for folks outside the industry, even those who spent their entire lives in the area, are shocked with how much they learn and how much work is involved in growing oysters. And now whenever someone stops the growers on the street or sees them in a store, and says “Hey, I saw you in those documentaries,” most would agree they don’t mind getting a small taste of what it must feel like to be “movie stars.” But really it’s just been a fun way for them to connect with the community.
Ironically, you’re not the world’s biggest fan of oysters as a menu item. Do you have other favorite local seafood items and/or restaurants?
I grew up eating and truly savoring locally caught crab, various fish and crawdads, all of which we would catch ourselves but also picked up from local fisherman. But unfortunately I am not the best resource for where to dine locally for fresh seafood. Some people who know how much of a passion project this was for me, spending more than four years of my life invested in the project, are shocked to hear I don’t eat oysters, but for me this project was about the history, the people and the fascinating industry.
If you were having a brief conversation with someone at a party and wanted to summarize why you feel such a passion for this subject, what would you say?
As the cocktails and hors d’oeuvres are served, no doubt including platters of fried, steamed and even smoked Willapa Bay oysters, which make their way around the room, I would not and do not hesitate to share my pride about the oyster documentary project and what it showcases. The conversation nearly always leads to some form of a discussion about the environmental concerns of the world’s waters, because that’s the only thing that seems to be discussed in the news regarding oysters.
But for me, oysters are about the people, the oystermen themselves, and the extensive processes that continue to nurture and cultivate these bivalves, as well as an appreciation for the history of the industry. I believe the more people understand about the industry, and the hard work invested in its survival, in addition to the care the growers have for the environment in which they depend, the more the community can appreciate the triumphs and challenges when they hear about the industry in the news.