HARPSWELL, Maine — Tucked between two of Harpswell’s three peninsulas, ice-bound Quahog Bay doesn’t often change during February’s deep freeze, save for the ebb and flow of the tide.
But Wednesday morning, Mike Bernier Sr.’s chain saw sends echoes throughout the cove, kicking back saltwater slush as it cuts swiftly through eight inches of ice.
Digging a tide for clams is rugged work in the warm summer months, but adding icy wind and single-digit temperatures makes the task brutal.
Nathan Reno sticks an eight-foot steel bar into a table-sized chunk, cracking it into fragments. He then steps swiftly off before it splinters and falls into the icy water. Then Reno “flips” the ice, revealing thick, blue-gray mud chock full of clams.
Shellfish harvesters cut the ice at high tide to prevent their chain saws from getting stuck in the mud, Bernier Sr. said. Then they flip the ice so that at low tide, the mud is ready for digging.
After closing Quahog Bay to clammers for about eight years, the Department of Marine Resources on Friday reopened the eastern portion of the bay to shellfish harvesting after an updated shoreline survey and remediation of a pollution water source showed improved water quality, a DMR notice states.
For Harpswell harvesters, that good news couldn’t have come at a better time.
Before the bay reopened, Bernier Sr. was working light construction. But when the flats opened, he pulled on his waders, packed up his sled and headed out on the ice.
“Believe it or not, it beats shoveling roofs,” he says.
When he’s not digging, Mike Bernier Jr. does “this and that,” selling firewood and landscaping, or selling minnows — which he catches by cutting holes in the ice.
“I punched a few (time) clocks and I definitely know what I’m not missing,” he says Wednesday as his rake claws the mud. “If nothing else, I always know I can run down here and dig a tide.”
Walter Moody Jr. has been out on Quahog Bay for the past six days, digging through the icy mud as Dustin Bisson breaks up the ice just ahead of him.
“It’s really good,” Moody says of clam-laden flats that yield bountiful harvests with every passing tide. “Some people have gotten as much as six to eight bushels.”
At the end of the day, Moody will haul his sled over the ice and up an embankment to his truck, lugging the bushels of clams that make his day’s work worthwhile.
“I dug four hours yesterday and got five bushel,” he says. “It’s not very often you get digging like this.”
Pretty soon, if the warmer temperatures hold, the saltwater ice will melt, Bernier Jr. says, “and then we’ll be able to get around to places up high that we can’t get to with a saw.”
Then the tides will likely wash the large chunks of ice out to sea and free up even more of the mud for digging.
On the other side of the cove, Warren Graybill and Warren Graybill Jr. have cut ice about 20 feet square by 2 p.m. Wednesday and begin to sink their rakes.
“It seems we’re spending a lot more time cutting than digging the last couple of days,” Graybill Jr. says.
The payoff, however, is clear when Bernier Jr., sinks his rake into the mud and pulls it back to reveal nearly a dozen clams, their long necks squirting salt water.
“Look at that,” he says, happy as a clam.