When I visit a new place, my curiosity draws me to the unusual. As if I am asking, “What is wrong with this picture?” I look around to check out my surroundings. This particular day, Ed and I ended up in Winchester Bay, an Oregon Coastal town with an active recreational fishing harbor. At the fish cleaning station, Ed engaged some Sunday sportsmen about their day’s catch. I averted my eyes from the gutting and filleting. That’s when I noticed it. I gave Ed’s jacket sleeve a tug, my signal to him that the fish cleaning station had no appeal to me and I was about to satisfy my own interests elsewhere. “It’s just a pile of oyster shells,” I heard one of the fishermen say who had heard me wonder aloud asking no one in particular, “What is that?” I had already walked away. The closer I got, the bigger the pile appeared. I guessed it to be at least 15 feet high. It was, in fact, a mountain of oyster shells.
Ed caught up to me. He found the peculiar stack of shells intriguing too.
The shells, we learned, belonged to Umpqua Aquaculture, Inc., a business occupying the two story building next to the pile. We wandered inside. Pint and quart sized containers of fresh oysters set in a refrigerated case. A counter sign offered oyster shooters at $6.50 each. Shelves held rows of frying batter, cocktail sauces, and souvenirs of lighthouses painted on what else but oyster shells.
We found a TV playing a continuous loop of a video. The short video was better than a tour guide. It explained how Umpqua Aquaculture propagates and nurtures oysters in a protected triangle of the harbor. They use a technique of suspending oysters on ropes so they never lay in the muck at the bottom of the sea. The narrator claimed this technique gives the oysters a better taste. When the oysters reach maturity, they are harvested and processed in a sterile room – the room behind us with a glass viewing window. Workers check the oysters in this room and make decisions about their processing. Some oysters remain in the shells to be shipped to markets. Others are shelled and sold on the premises or packaged for other retail sites. That explained the mountain of shells! Now, we needed to check out the oysters.
JP, short for Jean Pierre, greeted us from behind the glass window of the oyster processing room. When he came around to the counter, he smiled a shy greeting from beneath his bushy dark mustache. He pulled three oysters of assorted size from the cooler of crushed ice – small, medium and large. Even though his fingers looks big and clumsy in the neon orange rubber gloves, JP’s hands worked like a surgeons’ as he wedged the sharp knife point between the crack of the oyster shell and pried it open. He lifted the soft oyster meat free then set it gently back of the half shell. He told us he could open hundreds in an hour just as we’d seen him do for us with these three in a quick minute.
Ed didn’t wait for coaxing. He dabbed some cocktail sauce on the platter and dug in. “These are the best oysters I have ever had,” Ed said in testimony as he downed the third oyster shooter.
Later that afternoon, curious again, I climbed a rock jetty to get a better look at a section of beach called Salmon Harbor. To the south, a wide sandy beach and the Pacific Ocean stretched to the horizon. Turning north, I found the triangle of Umpqua Aquaculture’s oyster farm. A protective boundary of rocks broke the waves on its outer perimeter. Inside the triangle, the water lay calm. Pelicans and seagulls claimed solitary perches on the floating drums that held the rope suspended oysters. A boat anchored there set ready to hoist the matured oysters out of the water. Oysters that would eventually be shooters and shells that would add to the peculiar mountain of shells.
October 19, 2008
Umpqua Aquaculture, Inc.
723 Ork Rock Road
Winchester Bay, OR 97467