Jenifer Hilburn, center front, and her merry band of clam diggers. From left: Rachel Harris, Sam Harrison, Andrew Fraser and Corbin Gleason. Photos, above and below, by Kathryn Henderson.
How do you separate the gung-ho students from the merely adventurous during a field trip to the Georgia coast?
You offer to take them on a sunset clam dig, in a marsh full of alligators – and the even more dreaded no-see-‘em gnats. Out of nine students on a recent trip to St. Catherines Island, only three hardy souls accepted the challenge.
“I stepped in the mud and I was immediately up to my crotch – and I’m six-foot-two,” says Andrew Fraser, a graduating senior, majoring in environmental studies. To keep from completely disappearing in the muck, “you had to kind of lean over and try to spread out your weight, like snowshoes,” he explains.
They used a noodling technique to gather the clams. “We put our hands into dark, muddy water and felt around,” Fraser says. “If you felt something rough, you knew it was an oyster. But if it was smooth and rounded, it was a clam and you pulled it out.”
Corbin Gleason, a sophomore from Oxford College, swatted at gnats with his hands, resulting in a mud beard that not only looked dashing, but blocked insects. Mud has its uses: It was the only bug protection available to the Guale Native Americans who once inhabited the island.
When the mud sucked the rubber boots off the feet of St. Catherines naturalist Rachel Harris, the students launched a valiant search-and-rescue mission. “All three of us were shoulder deep in the mud, trying to get her boots out,” says Sam Harrison, a graduating senior in environmental studies. “It was hard, but fun. I feel like anyone who has lost touch with their inner child and playing in the mud should go clam digging.”
The sun was long gone by the time they harvested a bucketful of the finest quahog clams. “The marsh is filtered out by all the land around it, and it’s blocked off from the outside world, so no pollutants can get inside it,” Harrison says. (St. Catherines is a privately owned island, and access to it is restricted.)
St. Catherines ornithologist Jenifer Hilburn led the expedition, and gave the students a cooking lesson. She sautéed the clams with olive oil, garlic, chives, cherry tomatoes and a little white wine, and served them over pasta.
“They were amazing, the best clams I’ve ever had,” Harrison says.
“They were delicious, so fresh and pure,” Fraser agrees. “There really is no better way to eat a clam than to harvest one and eat it right afterwards.”
The joint field trip was organized by paleontologist Anthony Martin from Emory environmental studies and geologist Stephen Henderson from Oxford College.
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