Standing waist-deep in the Atlantic searching for belly buttons in the sand isn’t how I envisioned spending a summer’s day. Then again, I never thought I’d be throwing back giant bar clams for breakfast, either. But that’s the thing about being in PEI and going clam digging. You have to be open about how to best reap the bounty of the sea.
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PEI Clam Digging
Eve, my nine-year-old daughter and I are visiting PEI, and are about to embark on an adventurous half-day clam digging expedition on the island’s southern shores. We think the best way to experience local culture is through our stomachs.
When you’re on an Atlantic Canadian island, might as well do as those in PEI do and dig for your dinner (or breakfast, as the case may be). As a kid, I used to go clam digging near Moncton, New Brunswick, but that seems like a lifetime ago.
Clamming in PEI
The day of our clamming in PEI adventure, we awake to grey clouds hanging low on the horizon. They’ve brought with them the occasional shower, but once we spot Tranquility Cove’s dry covered boat, we put aside our fears of braving the elements like Cold Water Cowboys.
Any apprehension we may have felt before stepping on board (did I mention Eve hates boat rides?) are quashed once we’re under the command of Skipper Perry. This dude is the clamming master in all of PEI and quite possibly the Maritimes.
Tranquility Cove Adventures
The man behind Tranquility Cove Adventures is a third generation fisherman with 30-years of seafaring experience under his wetsuit. Skipper Perry is the real deal. Not only is he a contender for being the friendliest guy in the Maritimes (which is saying something, when everybody is super friendly out here), his twinkling blue eyes and Maritime-cum-Irish accent would make anybody melt, not just middle aged mothers.
After stepping onto Tranquility Cove Adventures’ boat, we settle into padded wicker furniture and chug out of the harbour, past ice cream coloured summer homes and long stretches of desolate beach. After half an hour we shimmy into wetsuits, water socks and snorkel masks provided by the crew. Soon after that, we reach our destination – Cardigan Bay.
Before plunging waist-deep into the ocean, we’re handed what the crew calls a hack, but looks to me like a garden rake. There are jelly fish floating about, but if you steer clear of them, they’ll likely steer clear of you.
Ever the gentlemen, Perry scoops jellys out of the sea with his bare hands and flings them to the side for us women and children. The gents are on their own.
Belly Buttons in the Sand
“What we’re looking for is belly buttons in the sand,” instructs Perry in his delicious lilt. Once we spot these markers, we’re to rake the soft sand and if we feel something hard beneath the surface, put a bit of muscle into it and hopefully land a hefty-sized bar clam.
It gets a bit confusing for landlubbers like me, when it becomes apparent we shouldn’t waste our effort on perfectly round belly buttons. Symmetrical spheres are the mark of razor clams. “You won’t catch the razors,” Perry warns. “They’ll dig right down. You want a gentle, imperfect imprint in the sand.”
I rake away, but after several attempts have come up with nothing, so I switch into journalist mode.
Me: Hey Perry, because razor clams are so popular, do you ever dig specifically for them?
Perry: What? They are? No! They’re a pain for us to get. People out West want those?
Me: Oh, yeah. And not just in Alberta, they’re in lots of Canada’s top restaurants.
Perry shakes his head and mutters something I’m quite sure isn’t a compliment to those who pay top dollar for razors at such establishments.
Me: This hack thing, do you use it only for digging clams?
Perry: No, lass. It’s also good for pulling up weeds in the garden.
Best Things to Do in PEI
Plunging my beet red face into the ocean, I get down to business. This has to be one of the best, most fun things to do in PEI, I think to myself.
A ha, spotted one! It takes two or three strong pulls before I uncover what feels like a rock. Little did I know, pulling a mollusk out of the ocean floor is immensely gratifying.
Perry patiently helps Eve spot the indentations in the sand, but I didn’t need to worry about her. She’s cleaned house – or ocean as the case may be, netting double the number of clams as me.
“She’s a natural, she is. I expect to see her out here helping me in a few years,” exclaims Perry. Eve blushes and looks proud, though does her best not to show it.
Bar Clams PEI
After an hour of foraging, we have enough bar clams to fill a large steamer pot. Satisfied with our spoils, we wade onto a deserted island, where the crew has set out a spread for our clam roast against the dramatic red sandstone cliffs of PEI.
Though it’s only 10 a.m., it’s the perfect time for a clam bake. Who knew clamming could be such a ravenous activity? The bar clams are thrown into a large pot of boiling sea water. After approximately 18-minutes, the shells hinge open, releasing their own juices and the pot is taken off the propane burner.
We’re ready to dive in, but you can’t just throw back a clam as you would an oyster. First we learn how to pop off the membrane and pull out its innards.
Once we’re left with the scallop and tongue, we dip these meaty morsels into the warm clam juice they were boiled in. Our clams are savoury and buttery, not at all briny and we gorge ourselves to the point of bursting.
PEI With Kids
There’s still enough time for exploring and Eve wastes no time beach combing, netting periwinkles, sampling fresh off the rock dulse and gleefully plunging sticks into the fattest of jellyfish. In case I wasn’t convinced before, I now know for sure, PEI is one of the best spots in Canada to travel to in summer with kids.
Then it’s back on the boat for the return journey, as the crew haul in lobster and crab traps for an interactive fishing lesson for the kids (and adults).
We cruise past Panmure Island Provincial Park, where the island’s most famous lighthouse (the one you see on all the P.E.I. postcards) stands guard. It’s near there we spot seals bobbing in the water and a pair of eagles soaring in sky.
“This area is good for storytelling, it’s not always about the fishing,” admits Perry. He’s right. Even if we didn’t get up close and personal with the diverse marine life, this trip still would’ve been worth it. Doesn’t everyone yearn to dig for belly buttons on their vacation?
Good to know when visiting PEI
- Clamming season runs each year from May to November
- Tranquility Cove Adventures runs clamming and other seafaring excursions from June to October. For more information visit: www.tcapei.com
- Children aged 10 years and up are welcome
- You can score 100 clams per person per day without a license
- Both WestJet and Air Canada offer connecting flights to Charlottetown from every major Canadian city. Direct flights can be had through cities like Toronto, Fredericton and Halifax.
Have you ever gone clamming? Would you like to?