Pre-College Programs

October 18, 2017

Digging Deep

— By Courtney Coelho

Rhode Island quahogger Jody King visits BELL: Rhode Island to teach students about the industry he loves and the lessons life has taught him.

Environmental Leadership Lab Rhode Island - Narragansett Bay

BELL: Rhode Island students put their new quahogging skills to the test, digging along Narragansett Bay's sandy shores for hardshell clams.

At the shore of Mount Hope Bay, behind Brown’s Haffenreffer Estate in Bristol, more than thirty Brown Environmental Leadership Lab students are on a quest for clams. They yell out as they pull one bivalve after the next out of the sand on this sunny Tuesday morning, but quahogger Jody King’s voice booms above them all.

“Here’s one!” he calls out enthusiastically.

Environmental Leadership Lab Rhode Island - Narragansett Bay

Rhode Island quahogger Jody King shows students his tried and true techniques for digging clams.

Despite his audible presence, and his more than six-foot frame, he’s hard to spot bent down among a throng of high-school age students. They watch intently as he rakes through the muck with both hands.

“Watch out!” he warns as he sends muddy sand flying up behind him.

For the past 15 years, King has been a regular presence at almost every BELL: RI session, visiting for a day to teach students about the work he’s done for decades and the industry and ecosystem he’s so passionate about.

Environmental Leadership Lab Rhode Island - Narragansett Bay

For 15 years, King has visited BELL RI to teach students about his industry and share life lessons.

The day always starts with quahogging. It’s a hands-on way for the students to learn about King’s livelihood and understand what it takes to put the bivalves on local menus daily.

Environmental Leadership Lab Rhode Island - Narragansett Bay

One group of students huddles together over a small hole they've dug in the sand, passing around the clam they've just discovered.

At the end of the day, the students will have the opportunity to cook and eat their catch and on this day, they are all, King included, working hard to make sure there will be plenty for the feast.

“Walk away from everyone, turn around when you are tired and walk half that distance again and that’s how you’re gonna find clams,” King explains.

Most of the students stick to the shore to search for their catch, while others are waist-deep in the water, using rakes to haul up the shellfish one at a time. As they’re unearthed, they’re placed in red mesh bags scattered along the rocks. Program facilitators show the students how to use a metal gauge to measure each clam and ensure every one is of legal size before it goes into a bag.

Environmental Leadership Lab Rhode Island - Narragansett Bay

Students search along the rocky coastline for sea life, spotting crabs, conchs and many other native creatures.

Clams aren’t the only creatures being found and each discovery is an opportunity to learn something about the local ecosystem.

Program director Lauren Watka holds up a spider crab one student finds, proclaiming it one of the biggest she’s ever seen.

“Who knows why his legs are so long?” she asks before explaining how they help the crabs navigate the tall marsh grasses along the coast.

Environmental Leadership Lab Rhode Island - Narragansett Bay

Spider crabs were among the day's finds. Program director Lauren Watka shows how the creatures use their long legs to navigate marsh grasses, even if a few legs are missing.

Another student pulls up a massive snail latched onto a clam. Holding it up, Watka talks about the different methods animals use to get at the meat inside the tightly closed shells.

Meanwhile, King is showing students some of his tried-and-true shellfishing methods.

“Smack a rock, find a clam,” King instructs, as he takes a rock and slaps it down against another while looking for the telltale squirt that indicates a clam is below.

Everyone works quickly to beat the incoming tide and before long those red mesh bags are heavy with hard shells and it’s time to head back up to the Haffenreffer lodge for the second part of King’s program.

Environmental Leadership Lab Rhode Island - Narragansett Bay

King brought along rakes to make for easier digging. Once unearthed, clams were loaded into red mesh bags and brought back up to the BELL RI lodge.

Students take seats on the lodge deck and the lawn below as King holds up a bag filled with empty quahog shells.

“My clam-puter,” he proclaims. Each shell has a question on it about shellfishing and King instructs the students to pass the bag around and read out loud what’s on their shell.

The questions cover everything from Narragansett Bay water quality, to the age when clams reach legal size (7 years), to local shellfishing laws and regulations, including legislation King has personally helped pass.

The students listen intently. It’s hard not to pay attention as King, his passion palpable, shares story after story of his life on the water. At one point he holds up his hands so the awestruck students can see the callouses that only years of hauling hundreds of pounds of clams could create. King’s talk winds down but the day is not over. He came with a truck full of shellfish - oysters, mussels, lobsters, littlenecks and more - and will be cooking it all, along with the morning’s catch, with the students for dinner tonight.

Environmental Leadership Lab Rhode Island - Narragansett Bay

King talks about Rhode Island's shellfishing industry and answers questions about water quality and a quahog's life span.

But first, the students have work to do. As they scurry around inside the lodge, some of them cleaning, some of them reading, three notebooks that King has brought sit on the table. Inside, the pages are filled with notes written by former BELL students at the end of their own day-long visit from King:

“Few people do what they love and express themselves so vividly.”

“Thank you for teaching me about the amazing industry of my state.”

“I didn’t realize the importance of finding something I truly cared about until you spoke to us.”

There are pages and pages of comments just like these, all of them tangible expressions of the impact King’s visits have had on students over the years.

Still, if you ask King, it’s hard to tell who is benefiting more from his visits.

When not on the table of the BELL: RI lodge, those notebooks stay in King’s truck, and he pulls them out to read when he has downtime during plow season. They’re a bright spot on those cold winter days, King says.

“I look forward to this all year and I’m so glad Brown found me and asked me to do this all those years ago.”

Environmental Leadership Lab Rhode Island - Narragansett Bay

After all their hard work, the students were rewarded with an end-of-day feast: lobsters, oysters and littlenecks that King brought with him and cooked for dinner. Some helped King prep the lobsters.

Later in the day, King asks for volunteers to help prepare dinner and hands shoot up immediately. King follows classic New England recipes, most of which he learned from his father. The students eagerly gather around the outdoor prep area, chopping fresh herbs, cleaning the fish, and mixing ingredients as King demonstrates each step. After about an hour of teamwork, the food is ready and its time to eat.

Environmental Leadership Lab Rhode Island - Narragansett Bay

Others cleaned shellfish and loaded them into pans to cook.

Students line up to fill their plates with oysters, clams and other delicacies. A tip from Jody sends several of them digging through a pan of baked shellfish to find chunks of buttery lobster. Some students are trying many things for the first time and marveling at how much better it all tastes than they imagined, while others dig right in with a familiarity that makes it clear they've eaten such food before. But for everyone it's a unique opportunity to enjoy the fruits of the day's labor and sample the gifts Rhode Island's waters have to offer.

Environmental Leadership Lab Rhode Island - Narragansett Bay

King showed students how to make many of his father's favorite shellfish recipes, including clams casino, a Rhode Island classic.

Brown Environmental Leadership Lab: Rhode Island will run three sessions for Summer 2018. Subscribe to our email list to be the first to know when the application goes live for Summer 2018.