By Coco McCabe
I live on the Ipswich River, a thoroughfare for clammers making their way out to the mudflats. I can hear the whine of the engines on their small boats before they chug into view, one or two clammers per vessel, hunched against the cold. Often, they pass by at dawn, and just as often at dusk: Their lives depend on the ebb and flow of the tides.
Low tide is when they work—digging hard in the sticky black mud regardless of sleet, snow, wind, bugs, or brutal heat. Clamming is not for softies, of body or mind. It requires physical endurance and psychological self-discipline.
Here, in Ipswich, Mass., clamming is one of the oldest economic enterprises, bestowing the community with its well-earned nickname, Clamtown. Its bivalves are famous across the country.
At a time when so many jobs are becoming automated, shipped to other countries, or swallowed by monopolies, clamming remains one of the few types of work individuals with drive and an independent spirit can still find: There are no degrees required and no bosses to report to.
This collection of photos is a celebration of Ipswich clammers, a mostly unseen corps of workers whose grit I deeply admire.
To catch as much of the low tide as possible, clammers often gear up before dawn so they can reach the flats at daylight and dig until the water returns a few hours later.
As a storm breaks, light washes the road clammers take out to the mudflats, and the marsh, in its wildness, seems to beckon. As hard as clamming is, the beauty and quietness of the landscape is a salve for many.
A thin layer of ice crackles across the marsh leading to the clam flats.
Some clammers pull plastic sleds behind them as they trudge across the frozen marsh to reach these flats. They use the sleds to haul their harvests home.
A clammer makes his way across a mudflat puddled with water left by the receding tide.
Clammer Brenda Turner fights the wind and snow on a typical winter day. No matter the weather, clammers have to endure all of it to make their livings. Some clammers say what’s even harder to take than the wet cold are the voracious midgies on a hot summer day. Nothing keeps the swarms from attacking.
Clamming can be a solitary pursuit, and plenty of clammers like it that way. But help from a best friend is always welcome.
Hip boots, like the ones Ed Ogiba is wearing, are essential for wading across waterlogged flats and into deep, sticky mud.
Keeping a sharp eye for signs of razor clams, Jason Moon moves swiftly along the banks of a muddy channel, racing the tide to dig as many as he can.
Though clammers wear rubber gloves and work up a sweat under their layers when they dig in the winter, extremities still get cold. After hours of digging, Jeffrey Thomas rubs his hands to warm them.
Each time he fills the basket, Steve Hemeon empties the clams into mesh sacks that he soaks in the water to wash the mud away.
With the incoming tide having covered the flats and set his boat afloat, Steve Hemeon heads for home with his harvest.
Clammer George Taylor wraps up a wet and snowy day of digging.
Brad McGowan sloshes through the frigid Ipswich River, lugging his day’s harvest from his boat to his truck.
At the town wharf in Ipswich, clammers gather to sell their harvests to Red’s Best, a Boston-based seafood buyer that sends a truck as the tide turns. Chris Brown waits to get his clams weighed.
Some Ipswich clammers deliver their harvests to Carl W. Savage Seafoods, Inc. in Rowley, Mass., where teams of shuckers, like Ipswich resident Richard Hazen, remove the meat from the shells.
Shucked and ready for sale, a tub of clams doesn’t look particularly appetizing. But dipped in batter and fried, the clams become a delicacy savored by hordes of tourists—and locals.
A favorite seafood destination, Ipswich’s Clambox, with its signature architecture, lures fried-clam lovers from around the country.