May 15, 2005  | Pacific Northwest Magazine

Shell Games: With old ways and new ideas, Willapa Bay's oystermen face a shifting future

By Lisa Heyamoto

THIS IS THE WAY it has always been: Les and Dan Driscoll, father and son, 69 and 44, will pull on their rubber hip boots and set off into the nearly moonless night.

As Willapa Bay slowly shrinks with the tide, the two will begin the long hike away from the dinner lights shining on shore, through the crackling Spartina grass, over first spongy then muddy ground and, finally, into the black water itself.

Thigh-deep, they will follow the receding tide out a mile or more to the small barge they'd left out when the waters were higher. They will reach it just as the mudflats surrounding them are fully exposed.

"It's not something very many people get to experience," Dan says. "To walk on the bottom of the sea."

Oysters are everywhere, a field of jagged speed bumps — so many that Les reminds everyone not to step on their fragile bills. Twice. The Driscolls sell their oysters live and in the shell. It's a picky market where only the best-lookers are bought, and each underfoot crunch is clearly driving him nuts.

The small team at Oysterville Sea Farms will have about three hours until the water chases them back to shore. Meantime, the bushel baskets come out as each man bends double and begins shoveling in oysters with two gloved hands, ignoring the bone-deep cold and leaky boots, shedding layers of clothing as they begin to sweat, hauling their brimming baskets out of the mud and onto the barge, trying to make as big a dent in their plot of ground as time will allow.

Very likely, this is the way it will always be.

In the 150 years that farmers like the Driscolls have been harvesting oysters from Willapa's waters, the way things are done has changed little. The best techniques are the old ones — a guy in the mud on one end, a guy with a shucking knife on the other — and no machine has been able to beat what one man can do by hand. The biggest industrial innovation, oystermen like to say, was the switch from sail to engine.

Still, some things are changing in this remote corner of Washington state. The oyster industry is in transition, and Willapa Bay farmers have experienced more change in the past few years than they've seen in decades.

"The industry is definitely in flux," says Jon Rowley, a shellfish marketing consultant. "I think there's a lot of excitement in the air when it comes to the oyster business."

From the handful of companies farming the bay more than a century ago to the estimated 350 independent growers in Willapa today, the bay has always been an essential contributor to the oyster industry. Though the shellfish are pulled from bays and inlets all the way from Alaska to the Baja Peninsula, Willapa is thought to be the largest farmed shellfish producer in the U.S., having provided, along with neighboring Grays Harbor, around 42 million pounds of oysters in 2003 at a value of $32 million, according to the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association.

As they've always done, the farmers are tinkering with ways to stay on their feet while the industry landscape shifts — rolling with a changing market and dipping into other shellfish such as clams and geoducks to stay afloat. It's an oysterman's best defense against fickle nature and an even more fickle market.

While things settle, the Driscolls will be out in the mud like they always are, hard workers in hip boots, reaping their crop from the generous bay.

***

WHEN DAN DRISCOLL started Oysterville Sea Farms out of the cannery building he inherited from his dad in the early '90s, Willapa was still largely a meat market. The oysters were drawn from the bay, sent to a processing plant and shucked for their contents, where they would end up in a jar in a refrigerator somewhere.

But shortly after he took over, things began to change, and in the past five years, the market has flipped. People don't want pre-shucked oysters anymore. They want them in their natural packaging, in the shell, live.

Some farmers think the reason is a generational thing: Today's home cooks don't really know what to do with a jar of oysters. Or it could be that we got fancy. Oyster bars came into vogue, and white-tablecloth restaurants started presenting them on a bed of ice and making them a luxury. More likely, it was the corresponding boom in the Asian market, which went looking to Washington for the large, fresh oysters that were so in demand.

Driscoll, however, was always in on the trend, mostly because that's how he likes them best. His business isn't big; selling much of his product retail out of his historic cannery in Oysterville, he's barely a pin prick on the industry map. Still, his preference gave him a head start on the changing market.

"I would like to see people appreciate oysters for what they are," he says.

It was different for Fritz and Ken Wiegardt.

Fourth- and fifth-generation Willapa oystermen, the two are the latest owners of the Jolly Roger processing plant and Wiegardt and Sons oyster farm, passed down from father to son for 135 years.

Used to be, the Wiegardts would produce about 90 percent shucked product to 10 percent shell. Now, it's about half and half.

Supermarket demand for shucked oysters is basically dying, says Ken Wiegardt, 31. "We're starting to see a shift toward restaurants."

For the Wiegardts, the switch has been a trial. It's more expensive and difficult to ship shell oysters, which are heavy, unwieldy and, if that weren't enough, alive. The Wiegardts can take up to four days to get the shucked product from bay to box. With whole oysters, it must be done in one.

Different market trends make things tricky, too: Americans want a small oyster, the Chinese want big.

"And what do you do with what's in between?" Wiegardt wonders. "There really isn't a market for it."

Add in the fact that it takes a different growing method to produce a single, lovely oyster of the right size and shape than it does to grow a lumpy clump of them that no one but the shuckers will ever see. The farmers are experimenting with so-called cultchless growth methods, testing ways to prevent the shells from clinging together as they mature.

That's where the hatcheries come in, which can produce not only single oysters, but other species as well. Hatcheries have given stability to an industry where so much had traditionally been left to chance, and their increased use is another part of the change in oystering.

Nearly all of the Wiegardts' oysters start their lives in 1,400-liter tanks under 1,000-watt lightbulbs, feeding on lab-produced algae for a month until, at about the size of a freckle, they're transferred to the pool-sized tanks on the bay's shore.

These little guys are grown on salvaged old shells, which is why there are great, heaping piles of them behind the buildings and in the parking lots of every farm along the Long Beach Peninsula.

Some farmers, like Driscoll, use what is called natural set, sprinkling their tideland with shells and hoping the oyster larvae manages to attach. If it rains too much, the altered salinity of the water could kill the baby oysters. If it's too windy, the larvae could be swept out to sea. If it's too hot, the warm water would be fatal.

"Natural set is just too unpredictable," Wiegardt says. "With the hatchery, we don't have to depend on Mother Nature as much."

Once the baby oysters, called spat, are dropped in the bay, they're left to grow for about a year. After that, the farmer picks them up from the bottom of the bay and transfers them to another oyster bed, where they're left to fatten or grow even larger.

A crop of oysters can be moved as many as four times in the standard six years it takes them to mature. Much more akin to ranching than farming, the process allows the oysters to get different nutrients at the right stage in life, and the variety lends a better flavor once they're ready to be eaten.

"They go through a lot of hardships," Driscoll says. "I think that gives them a more complex taste."

Though hatcheries give farmers more control over their volatile product, there are trade-offs: A hatchery oyster is more fragile and takes longer to grow.

"But hey," says Wiegardt, "a fragile oyster is better than no oyster."

***

THE WATERS OF Willapa Bay have been kind to those who labored here. But the farmers have not always returned the favor. Around the turn of the 20th century, what was then called Shoalwater Bay became barren after overharvesting wiped out the native oyster species.

Called Shoalies by those in the know, but better known as Olympia oysters, the breed was thriving naturally in the bay when San Franciscans, riding the high tide of the Gold Rush, discovered that Willapa could supply a skyrocketing demand. Their boats headed north, and companies started popping up around the bay, loading the small, coppery oysters onto ship decks by the shovelful.

"Willapa wasn't being farmed," says Rowley. "It was being plundered."

By around 1900, the bay was bare. Farmers tried to grow other species, but none was able to survive. People had all but given up when a lawyer-turned-farmer named Gerard Mogan began quietly experimenting with a Japanese species called the Pacific oyster.

The Pacific was the one that stuck. Hardy, and considerably larger than its predecessors, it thrived on the nutrients Willapa provided. When farmers talk about a Willapa oyster now, they're talking about a Pacific. And when they talk about the bay, it's with no small amount of pride. Willapa is widely considered the most pristine estuary in the country, and oyster farmers say they are a big part of the reason.

"We've been the bay's protectors for at least the last 50 years," says Les Driscoll's brother, Dick Sheldon, 70. "That's our lifeblood out there."

It's true the quality of an oyster depends on nothing so much as the quality of the water it's grown in.

But the oystermen chafe at being lumped in with the irresponsible farmers of Willapa's past. Most still pick oysters by hand rather than scoop them up with a dredging boat; they're careful to reseed their tideland when the picking is done, and they get red-faced at evidence of poor septic planning and the slowly increasing development along the peninsula.

"The difference between us and a farmer is, a week after we leave, you'll never know we were there," Sheldon says.

Surly environmentalists though they may be, the farmers are also businessmen. Always. Washington is the only state that allows state-owned tideland to be purchased for shellfish farming, and the watery plots the farmers tend are often their own.

"If we jeopardize the water quality, we're out of business," says Brian Sheldon, Dick's son. "If people own the grounds, people are gonna take care of them."

But most farmers don't own wide swaths of land. Their holdings are more piecemeal — 10 acres here, 50 acres there — the better to ranch the oysters from bed to bed.

In the high tide of a gray afternoon, the evidence is everywhere. Slim hemlock boughs reach up out of the water as markers throughout the bay. Pieces of PVC pipe tied with faded fabric are staked like homestead flags in the muck beneath the rippling water, so each farmer will know where his field ends and another begins.

But all are affected by what they say is the biggest problem facing Willapa oyster farmers today.

"The least of their worries is the market," says Morris Barker, marine resource manager with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. "The real issue is with invasive species."

The most problematic pest is the ghost shrimp, a small, translucent creature that burrows beneath the bay floor in a constant search for food. Like a mole in a field, it tunnels, churning the ground until whole areas of tideflat are reduced to loose sediment. For oysters, this means a slow, sinking death into the maw of the mud.

Willapa's population of ghost shrimp has exploded in the past several years. Farmers have been using the insecticide Carbaryl to control the problem since the early 1960s, but a recent battle over using it in the bay resulted in an agreement with the Washington Toxics Coalition to phase it out by 2012.

Oystermen are not at all pleased about this. They feel picked on, overridden because they didn't have the money to fight the thing to the top. Faced with a nearing cutoff date and no alternate plan, they worry for the future of the industry.

"The industry is really having to scramble to figure out what we can do to resolve this," says Bill Taylor, whose family owns Taylor Shellfish Farms, the largest shellfish company on the West Coast. Most oystermen don't see a real problem with the chemical, and they're not above a selective use of Willapa's famous selling point to bolster their position.

"Willapa Bay is the cleanest estuary in the U.S., and we've been using Carbaryl for 40 years," Brian Sheldon says. "I mean, where's the beef?"

The Sheldons are particularly fierce defenders against the bay's invasive species, and say they're considered troublemakers for their efforts to solve things a different way. Take, for instance, their attempt to control Spartina grass, which creeps out from the shoreline and invades the tideflats.

The state Department of Natural Resources has been working on the issue for nearly 10 years, and has seen progress in the last two by working with the growers, said Wendy Brown, invasive-species program manager.

The Sheldons, however, wanted to go their own way. Amateur inventors, they have a vast barn full of rusty contraptions created to cut back the grass in a way that doesn't harm the bay. Dick Sheldon says the state wouldn't let him use them — a permitting issue — and continues to distrust their efforts.

"You could make a story as long as the Bible on this type of crap," he says. "I could have saved the state (a lot of money) if they'd just left me alone."

***

BEING LEFT ALONE is what many oyster farmers want most. Head down, work hard: That's the way they like to do it. Because when they look up, not everyone can agree on what's in front of them.

Practically all of them will admit they think their way of doing things is best, and they quickly disagree on everything from the direction the industry should take to the way an oyster should be grown.

Though several associations are meant to deal with local and regional issues in the business, there is no state oyster commission like there is for other high-profile Washington crops, such as the apple. Some have tried to unite the farmers under an agricultural commission in the name of marketing, but the farmers have resisted.

Bill Dewey, of the regional association, said that, like anything, you have a few doing the work for many.

"They just go about their business and hope the issues don't come back to bite them," he says, adding that fewer than a dozen of the hundreds of farmers in Willapa have more than 25 employees. "When you're just getting by, you've got to pay attention to No. 1."

And though growers don't like the idea of a commission, many feel their oyster could use the PR.

Though the bay's fruits enjoy a fine reputation in water-quality circles, the average consumer won't necessarily know that the oyster they're eating came from Willapa. The current trend is to focus more on the species, such as Pacific, Olympia or Kumamoto, than on its origin.

But Taylor says he is beginning to see a shift as oyster bars strive to feature a more specialized product.

"It's kind of like your wines," he says. "You have your species of grape but you also have the region, and you're starting to see more of that regional aspect with oysters."

That's the kind of thinking Dan Driscoll can get behind.

Though the Long Beach peninsula is still home to many farms, Driscoll is the last oysterman in Oysterville, once the hub of industry activity in that first and foolish boom. Now, it's a nearly-deserted, one-street town near the tip of the peninsula, given over to preservation efforts and summer homes. "I feel compelled to be here," Driscoll says. "I think it would be really sad for a town called Oysterville not to have any oyster farmers in it."

His cannery, nearly 80 years old, is a preservation-in-process perched on the edge of the bay, half slumped over with age, half lovingly restored. He lives alone in a modest house a hundred yards away. "Sitting up here is like watching the world breathe," he says from his kitchen window overlooking the bay. He'll go back out to the beds tomorrow night, rustle up whatever high-school kids are looking for work, pick another grip of oysters to sell in the shell. And when he's done, he'll head back up to his house, maybe have a cocoa and Crown Royale and wait for his industry to settle into its latest self, watching the world breathe from his kitchen window.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


Winter 2013 | Etude: A Literary Nonfiction Journal

The Way of the Mountain Man

By Lisa Heyamoto         

It’s dawn. George Passon pushes aside the buffalo hide that has kept him warm through the cold mountain night. He dresses swiftly, donning a loincloth and the buckskin leggings he has tanned to a velvety nap before unhooking his Native American war shirt from the soot-stained teepee wall. He pulls it over his head, pausing to admire the beading and fringe.

As the sun climbs higher in the cold, spring sky, he uses a shard of flint and a knuckle of steel to start his morning fire. He cooks his breakfast over its smoldering coals, scraping fire-crisp potatoes and curls of fatty bacon into the cherry wood bowl he finished carving last week. He’ll wash up later, he decides. It’s time to check out the camp.

Stooping through the teepee door, he emerges to a growing village of canvas lean-tos scattered unevenly beneath 100-foot trees, their fire rings sending smoke signals toward the cloudless sky. Clusters of men wearing beaver fur hats are savoring tin cups of thin coffee as they conclude their morning repast. They carry rifles in their hands and holstered tomahawks on their hips.

Many are already assembled beneath the pre-Civil War American flag that marks the center of camp, where the blacksmith’s forge is heating up and the trader is hawking his well-worn wares.

George takes in the scene with a sense of satisfaction. It’s as close as it gets to period-perfect.

If only it weren’t for the port-a-potties.

They are unwelcome sentries in these rich, dappled woods, and George sighs every time they catch his keen eye.  They didn’t have port-a-potties in 1840, and he doesn’t see why they need them now.

***

Whether something did or did not exist before 1840 is of great concern to those assembled here in the shadow of Mt. Hood. The early 19th century was the era of the Mountain Men, the trappers and traders who once roamed these woods in pursuit of adventure and their fortune in beaver pelts.

It was a solitary life, but even the lone wolf misses its pack. Starting around 1819, fur companies would hold yearly gatherings for their employees to re-connect and re-supply, to trade furs and tall tales in the company of their peers. They called them “Rendezvous,” and nearly 200 years later, the tradition continues.

George is one of thousands of people across the U.S. and Canada who re-create that wild and wistful way of life, driving deep into the labyrinth of the American West to trade day jobs and cell phones for a renewed communion with the past.

Something happens, they say, when you’re out there like that – you stop chasing the day and slow down for the moment. You eat when you’re hungry and sleep when you’re tired, and start doing things the hard way and appreciating them more. The tension gives way on life’s tightly coiled spring, and you suddenly remember that there is joy in simplicity.

* * *

George is not yet in Mountain Man mode as he steers his four-door pickup onto a lonely spar off Oregon Highway 216. He follows a rough-paved road until it fades to dirt, negotiates a field of shark-toothed rocks and pulls into the future site of the Powell Valley Rendezvous. He’s an entire week early for the three-day event. 

He cuts the engine beside a gap-toothed fire ring. George has set up camp here before, and knows just the spot to pitch his 20-foot teepee. If he isn’t hurried along by an impending storm or an impatient wife, he’s been known to set it up in 15 minutes. But now, in his late 60s, he likes to take his time.

He and Margaret used to head out here every year, until their son’s Boy Scout involvement started eating up the weekends. But now that Elijah is grown and George is retired, the Passons have renewed their commitment to re-living the past. Margaret will join him later this week. For now, George is out here on his own.

He started Rendezvous-ing back in 1977 after reading a newspaper article about black powder riflemen dressing the part and heading into the woods. It was the first he had heard about the original Mountain Men, how they survived in the wilderness and lived by their wits. He thought it sounded like something he’d like to try. He woke up on the third day of his first Rendezvous with a moonshine hangover and a new religion.

Those were his bachelor days, when he would drink homemade apple booze and bang on his Indian drum late into the night. Back then, he was happy to fall asleep on a bed of pine needles.

Setting up his teepee is hard work, but George prides himself on being small but tough. He drew upon these characteristics when choosing his Rendezvous persona, who goes by the name of “Crazy George.” Though most re-enactors portray the classic Mountain Man in calico work shirts, wide brimmed hats and homemade moccasins, any character from the age is fair game. Many emulate buckskin-clad frontiersman in the vein of Daniel Boone, or a bit of a city slicker in a waistcoat and vest. To stay true to the era, women like Margaret are limited to playing Native American spouses, but even then, the choices are many.

With George’s battering ram body and rascally mien, a classic French voyageur was a natural fit. Like him, they were short and sturdy, with the strength and stubbornness to canoe their way through the untamed northeast. He plays the part to perfection at organized re-enactions, overlooking nothing but one critical detail – voyageurs tended to be clean-shaven. George can’t imagine parting with his nine-inch beard and the mustache he’s trying to grow long enough to braid. There’s a limit to how far he’ll go, even for the sake of historical accuracy.

He begins to unload its 23-foot lodge poles from his truck, which he has color-coded for ease of assembly. Each must be raised and lashed in a complicated game of reverse Pick-up Sticks before converging in an arrangement specific to the Blackfoot Indian tribe. By time he’s done, George’s lodge will be the jewel of the camp.

Already, old friends are emerging from the woods in ones and twos to admire his work. Many have Rendezvous’d beside George for more than three decades, or attended the Indian Sign Language class he taught every Tuesday for 17 years. A few have come from the other side of camp, where they will enjoy the weekend’s events from the comfort of their RVs.

Here in the “primitive” quarters, there is a well-enforced ban on these so-called “tin teepees” and anything else that smacks of modernity. All traces of the 21st century must be gone by time the camp horn blows, but even now, George allows himself very few concessions to comfort. He’ll chill his rations in a cooler and use a stepladder on occasion, but he can’t shake the fact that it feels like cheating.

He retrieves a mass of fabric from the back of his truck. It is the teepee’s exterior – the canvas skin to the lodge pole bones. He ties it to a pole, raises it in a one-man Iwo Jima and maypoles it around the teepee’s skeleton, using the stepladder to lace it closed with thin wooden pegs.

This teepee was the product of Margaret’s skilled needle. Between the two of them, the Passons have made nearly every item of their Mountain Man gear, and everything else was the product of a trade or the spoils of a shooting competition.

George loves that every object has a specific use and a story behind it. This knife? He used it to survive when he was literally naked in the wilderness on what Mountain Men call a Colter’s Run, a week-long test of male metal.

That buffalo horn? He traded for it from a guy who thought it was useless. George knew better, and transformed it into a gunpowder horn.

And those lodge poles? George was given a special permit to cut them from the shores of Olallie Lake. He spent days peeling, sanding and waterproofing them before tying them together with elaborate knots he learned with his son.

George’s own parents didn’t want him to know how to work with his hands. His father was a second-generation Polish immigrant, a farmer who wanted his children to be raised in the city. For him, success meant having the luxury to buy what you needed.

But George was a born woodsman.  At 12 he had fashioned himself a bow and arrow, and by 15 was using it to hunt small game. He eventually moved out West and became a carpenter, taking the lay off at the end of each job so he could head into the woods and Rendezvous all summer. 

George steps back to survey his work. His hands are dirty and his jeans are soaked with pitch, but the teepee looks good- not too bad for being out of practice. When Margaret arrives, she’ll deck its walls with a cherished collection of museum-quality curios from what she likes to call her “pretty box,” transforming a glorified tent into a hub of the camp.

He and Margaret met at a Rendezvous nearly 25 years ago. They were married in a pre-1840 ceremony on the banks of the Columbia River - she in a beaded dress, he in his buckskins – using an old-time Bible held by an old-time preacher and reciting old-time vows. Margaret wasn’t crazy about all that nonsense about obeying her husband, but she agreed to say the words in keeping with the period. A few years later, Margaret became a legend by showing up at a Rendezvous 8-and-a-half months pregnant.

Those, like many of the stories of George’s life, are told through the painted pictograms on the patched teepee walls. The bear is his symbol, small but strong. The Morningstar is Margaret, who meant a new beginning. And prints of Elijah’s baby feet chase each other across the canvas hem, a reminder of time and how fast it goes by.

As twilight descends, George lights a small fire, taking care to use thin logs to prevent the wood from smoking. He ignites his clay pipe, leans back in his hand woven chair and settles in for a solitary night.

* * *

The clang of a tin bell marks the start of the day. The jeans and sweatshirts from the night before have been swapped for period-appropriate attire, the last of the trucks are now parked down the road, and all hallmarks of modernity have been stowed out of sight. The year is now 1840. Let the Rendezvous begin.

Bill Hunt, known to his fellow Mountain Men as White Elk, gathers everyone together to go over the rules for the shooting competition. There are 22 possible points for hitting targets on the shooting trail, with one additional point awarded to those dressed in period-perfect attire. Bill is the Segundo – the second-in-command to the head of the camp. The title is pronounced without a hint of a Spanish accent. 

George still isn’t sure if he’ll shoot to compete. His eyesight has been slipping, and it’s getting hard to see the targets. But he can still toss a tomahawk end-over-end; can still sink it into the center of any target he seeks. There’s plenty out here for an old guy like him – let the young bucks like Elijah chase the glory.  

George drifts toward the trading post, knowing he already has everything he needs. He examines the leather bags, the tinderboxes and the black powder bullets, finally settling on a Green River knife to give as a gift. He’ll go shooting with friends later on in the morning, but for now, the solace of his teepee awaits.

He turns, and heads back toward his camp when a man in full buckskins pauses in his path, appraising George with a well-trained eye. He lingers on his war shirt and his long-handled spear before delivering his unsolicited verdict.

“This here is all fine,” he tells George with nod.

George smiles at the man, and continues on his way.

 

* Please note: This article was accepted for publication but not printed because the journal was shuttered shortly thereafter