The Clam Poacher

by Dave Larson

In 1978, I moved to Maine and found work for a while as a pipefitter/welder in the marine trades on Mt Desert island. I thought being a hippie boatbuilder seemed like a good role for me, a notion that I was quickly disabused of, but I had some fun experiences in the two years I spent there.

In my first job, at Southwest Boat in Southwest Harbor, Maine, they made me foreman of the pipe crew because I could read, I could read blueprints, and I wasn’t egregiously drunk on a regular basis. We performed service and repair on boats large and small. Not long after I started, the company assigned a fellow to be my assistant.

Dave was a quintessential yankee character: tall and lanky, always wearing grimy green mechanic’s overalls, a simple watch cap, and sported an Ahab beard, which was a ring of beard around his lower jaw. He lived on an island nearby, and came to work in all weather in his beat-up 12 foot shallow-draft aluminum skiff, on which he had mounted a ridiculously large outboard motor. He knew the coastline around Mt Desert Island in great detail. He was a reliable worker, and always seemed to have fresh shellfish on the skiff. But he occasionally disappeared for a while, usually when the Maine clam wardens arrived.

Dave was a famous clam poacher; he dug clams wherever and whenever he wanted, unencumbered by clamming licenses or permits. Folks thought of him as a local hero, a clamming Robin Hood who thumbed his nose at laws, permits, and gummint in general.

The clam wardens were always on his tail, but whenever he saw the wardens coming across the ocean, he’d fire up that big engine and race off over the shallows, knowing that the wardens’ boat couldn’t follow him in shallow waters. He followed the tide schedules and dug for those tasty bivalves on mud flats that always afforded him an escape route. He’d been at this activity for many years. And, if by chance the wardens cornered him in some cove, he’d simply dump the catch over the side, since the clam wardens couldn’t prove anything unless he was in possession of illegal catch.

Everyone on Mt Desert Island knew Dave was the greatest clam poacher. And, all the clam wardens knew it too. And, he and they regularly socialised and rubbed elbows around town, in the way of small towns everywhere. There was no animosity between him and the authorities; it was a mutually beneficial symbiosis that they’d worked out. The clam wardens needed someone to chase in their expensive boats; otherwise, they’d have to sit at a desk or do their jobs from a car. Dave the clam poacher justified their budgets and provided the rationale for the wardens’ cruising around on the ocean, which is, ultimately, the ideal life for people who live on the coast of Maine.

One day while digging on a remote mud flat, Dave saw the wardens cruise into view from a distance, so he jumped into the skiff, took off at high speed towards a shallow reef that, with his great knowledge of tides and coastline, he assumed he could just run over. But he apparently miscalculated the tide and water depth. Its reported that the wardens saw the little aluminum skiff suddenly go airborne, clam rakes and poacher flying in the air, and it came down right on top of the perpetrator. The wardens were horrified, but managed to rescue their nemesis, who’d suffered several broken bones, and was nearly drowned.

The clam wardens hauled our hero to Southwest Harbor at highest speed, where other clam wardens were waiting with an ambulance. The wardens handled the legendary clam poacher with the greatest care, and raced at top speed to Bangor, where Dave lingered in a near-death state for a week. Clam wardens all over the coast of Maine took up a donation for the notorious clam bandit. He eventually recovered, and, after returning to the Island, used that donation money to equip himself with a new beat-up shallow-draft aluminum skiff, with an even larger ridiculously big motor on the back. And, thus, our hero Dave the clam poacher was restored, and the clam wardens were saved from desk jobs, and the local poaching dynamic resumed as before, with both poacher and wardens playing cat-and-mouse with each other out on the ocean, everyone having a great time on boats.

And that’s the story of the clam poacher.