It was just over two months ago that Kevin and I took last season’s last trip out to the oysters. We had taken in almost all the equipment, and the last job was consolidating the 10,000 almost-legal oysters into densely packed trays, pushed deep into the ground.
We take our equipment in because ice in Barnstable Harbor destroys everything in its path. We leave 10,000 almost-legal oysters out because we have 10,000 almost-legal oysters, and taking a chance on a spring season is worth the risk. Worst case, we lose the oysters and the trays. The oysters probably wouldn’t survive winter in the cooler anyway.
Last year was a warm winter, and no ice formed in the harbor. We came back to intact trays and live oysters. This year, well, you know what this year was like. While we were in Texas, we watched the weather and pictured huge floes of ice sweeping our oysters out to their comfortable retirement in Portugal. We were sure we’d come back to a farm wiped clean.
So sure that we postponed going out to check. Knowing wouldn’t help, and it was still cold when we came back from Texas. We waited.
And then we talked to our friend Florence. Florence also grows oysters, and serves them at her Hyannis restaurant, The Naked Oyster. Whenever we have something to celebrate, we like to have dinner there, and we went last week for my birthday (and to toast my nomination for a James Beard award – my Washington Post column is a semi-finalist).
Florence was on duty (as usual), and we got a chance to catch up. She’d left considerably more equipment out over the winter, and reported that 90% of it was intact. Intact! There was hope.
This past weekend, we went out.
You know how you go on vacation – even a very long vacation – and, when you come home, it feels like you never left? That’s how it felt. Kevin loaded the boat with trays, and off we went. Our boat routines – putting in and taking out – have become so familiar as to be automatic. Kevin backs the boat in. I undo the strap and make sure the engine is all the way up while Kevin unhooks the winch. He pushes the boat off, I catch it. He parks the truck, I start the motor. We used to switch roles every now and then, just to mix it up, but we’d always get something wrong. Now I do my job, and he does his. Over and over. Ah, the glamour of farming!
Our friends Don and Tanya had gone with us on the buttoning-up trip in January, and Don came along to help us unbutton. We drove out, fingers crossed.
The first trip out in the spring (I use the term loosely) is a bit of a nail-biter. The sands in the harbor shift over the winter, and the route inevitably changes a little. There were a couple of spots where sandbars bulged in new places, but the light was good and we could see the shallow spots clearly.
By “we,” of course, I mean “Kevin.” Although Don and I could see them, too, it didn’t matter because we weren’t the ones driving the boat. The job of navigating through a mostly unmarked harbor, filled with sandbars, at low tide isn’t an easy one. And it’s complicated by the fact that you have to go full speed ahead, because of this thing called planing.
Many boats are designed so that, at speed, they are essentially lifted to the surface of the water. At rest, the boat sits in the water, displacing its weight. Then, as you gather speed, the bow rises as the engine digs in. Eventually, the boat is lifted, and the bow comes back down – the boat planes off. A boat like ours – a flat-bottomed 17-foot Carolina skiff – drafts only inches when it’s planed off. There are spots in the harbor where we can get through on plane, but not if we go slowly (barging, we call it). So damn the torpedoes!
It doesn’t always work perfectly. We do sometimes run aground, and we have the mangled prop to prove it. But Kevin’s gotten very good at navigation, and we got out with only a little scrape or two.
Lo and behold, there they were. The trays were right where we left them, the oysters still in them.
We didn’t get off scot-free. Some of the oysters died – we’re estimating 20% — and we expect that more will die before temperatures warm and they start feeding again. But it looks like we’ll have enough for a spring season.
We’d crammed as many oysters as would fit in each tray, so they wouldn’t get jostled around, and the trays had sunk and gotten a lot of mud in them. We lifted each tray out of the muck (and by “we,” I mean “Kevin and Don,” because a tray full of oysters and muck is, I’m sorry to report, too heavy for me) so the tide would wash away some of the mud. The next day, Kevin and I went out by ourselves, set up a line of trays, and divided each of the jam-packed trays into three, so the oysters will have some elbow room and access to nutrients when warmer waters start bringing those nutrients in.
And that *will* happen, I know. But it’s a little hard to imagine, seeing as we’re expecting as much of a foot of snow to fall in the next 24 hours.
In my admittedly limited experience of farming, what keeps it interesting is that no two years are the same. The weather is different, the seed is different. There’s a barnacle set or there isn’t. We can be wiped out by disease (it hasn’t happened yet, but it will), or we can have a bumper crop (it has happened, but we know not to expect it). It is with cautious optimism, and some excitement, that we wait to see how the year unfolds.