Northwest Travel

Washington's Willapa Bay is heaven for shellfish lovers

By John Gottberg Anderson / For The Bulletin

OYSTERVILLE, Wash. — “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.”

Three centuries have passed since British satirist Jonathan Swift penned those words, yet the phrase seems timeless. As with beets and Brussels sprouts, the eating of oysters inspires no indecisiveness. Diners either love them or they don’t.

I’m in the former category. I can’t get enough of the briny mollusk. Give me oysters raw or cooked — on the half shell, poached in milk, baked with cheese and spinach, roasted over an open campfire — and you’ll put a smile on my face.

I believe Pacific Northwest oysters are the best in the world. The pure, cold, relatively unpolluted water found in the fjord-like fingers of Puget Sound’s Hood Canal, among Canada’s Gulf Islands and in Oregon’s Yaquina Bay can reasonably assure that this region’s shellfish — clams and mussels as well as oysters — are full of flavor and free of illness-causing bacteria.

And based on the scores of oysters that I’ve consumed over the years, there are none better than those harvested from tide-flushed Willapa Bay.

A broad estuary covering 79,000 acres (about 120 square miles) in southwestern Washington, Willapa Bay is 25 miles long but is no more than 65 feet at its deepest point. With a tidal surge of six to 10 feet, it surrenders more than 50 percent of its brackish waters twice daily to mud flats, making it ideal for oysters.

In fact, Willapa Bay is one of the five most productive oyster-growing areas in the world. More than 23 percent of all U.S. oysters — close to 5 million pounds, according to the Pacific County Economic Development Council — come from this estuary each year.

So what better place to go searching for the ultimate Pacific Northwest oyster than on the shores of Willapa Bay, in Oysterville?

Oysterville oysters

The hamlet of Oysterville — it can’t even be termed a village — is one of the most isolated enclaves on the Pacific coast.

Founded in 1854 on the Long Beach Peninsula, on the northwest shore of Willapa Bay, it is located near the end of a road that dead-ends 20 miles from Ilwaco, at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Several hundred settlers made their homes here through the 1870s. They shipped bushels of small native oysters on schooners to San Francisco, where wealthy miners traded gold for the tiny treasures. But by the 1880s, lacking a convenient rail connection, the population was dwindling. By 1920 most homes had been abandoned.

Most, but not all.

“When you live in a ghost town, it’s hard to imagine how things were,” said 50-year-old Dan Driscoll, who lives alone in his quiet home, one of a handful of modern Oysterville residents.

Driscoll’s mother was once a student at the one-room schoolhouse. His father grew up in nearby Ocean Park, and Driscoll spent every summer of his youth traveling from the family’s Seattle home to their property in Oysterville.

He remembers when Oysterville was designated a National Historic District in 1976. Nine homes built between 1863 and 1878 were specifically acknowledged, along with the 1892 Oysterville Church, the 1907 schoolhouse and the 1919 Oysterville Store&Post Office. Walking-tour maps are dispensed today at the little church, even though no formal services have been held there since the 1930s.

That was about the time three partners built the Northern Oyster Co. at First and Clark Streets, anything but a busy intersection. The ramshackle buildings survive on a low rise above the Willapa mud flats. Operated as a cannery until 1967, they are today the Oysterville Sea Farms, the last oyster business in Oysterville.

Sometime after the cannery closed, the buildings came into the possession of Dan Driscoll’s parents. “For most of my lifetime, they were the barn without the farm,” Driscoll mused.

The “farm” came after the senior Driscolls gave the property to their son. “It was hard to know at the time if it was a liability or an asset,” Dan confessed. But having already purchased 10 acres of Willapa Bay tideland — Washington is the only state in which tidal property can be privatized — he decided to find out.

“I wanted to save the buildings,” said the 21st-century oyster farmer. “I had to find a business to support that.”

After opening Oysterville Sea Farms in 1991, Driscoll gradually expanded his tideland holdings to about 200 acres. He established Willabay, a company that markets not only oysters and clams, but also produces cereals, cookies, cranberry confections and specialty wine; Oyster Blanc is a blend produced specially for Willabay by Washington’s Mount Baker Vineyards.

As I spoke with Driscoll, he kept busy shucking fresh oysters. And as he shucked, we ate. We ate small Kumamoto oysters, large Pacific oysters and sizes in between, straight from the shell with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon.

“The only place to get an Oysterville oyster is in Oysterville,” Driscoll said. “Most Willapa Bay oysters are shipped out of here, but my oysters we do not ship at all.”

Driscoll left a promising career in the music industry in Los Angeles when he settled in Oysterville. He still writes and records music locally, and his pride and joy hangs on the wall, a guitar autographed by the great Les Paul.

“Keep pickin’,” reads the signature. “I assumed he meant oysters,” Driscoll joked.

A shellfish lesson

A larger commercial oyster-farming operation is based on a wharf at Nahcotta, four miles south of Oysterville. From this vantage point, visitors could once look out onto Willapa Bay and see tiny oyster stations built on pilings in the offshore mud, work places and shelters for oyster crews and homes for some of their families.

These stations are long gone. But the volunteer-staffed Willapa Bay Interpretive Center has recreated one of these small oyster stations on the south side of this wharf. Normally open only on summer weekends, the local port authority may be persuaded to unlock the doors by special request at other times.

Though small, this center is a fine place to study this unique mollusk. A seven-minute film (a new one is in preparation) provides an introduction. Historical photographs, descriptive text, working models and knowledgeable docents all contribute to the discovery experience.

The native Willapa Bay oyster, I learned, was so depleted in numbers by 19th-century harvesting that an East Coast bivalve, the larger Virginia oyster, was introduced in the 1880s. The two species were farmed together in the bay until 1919, when disease destroyed the population.

Beginning in the early 1920s, Pacific oysters were introduced from Japan. Around the time World War II began, they started rapidly reproducing in a manner that allowed the Willapa Bay oyster industry to revive. A great many mollusks were frozen and shipped to American troops overseas.

Although their numbers have again waned, they remain a major crop. Modern farmers typically start with oyster larvae, which may be purchased from a hatchery. One million larvae cost more than $100 but weigh only a little over half an ounce.

These are seeded in the spring on old shells and planted on the tide flats, either directly on the mud, upon nylon mesh bags packed with seed shell, on trays suspended in the water on platforms, or on highly visible “longlines” hung between poles set in the bay. The piles of seed shell are called “cultch,” and as many as 50 larvae per shell attach themselves and grow as “spat,” reaching a size of a half-inch across in about two months.

By summer, the spat may be moved to other parts of the bay where they will reproduce and grow better. A skilled oyster farmer takes into account a variety of tidal conditions: changes in temperature and oxygen levels, the blend of salt and fresh water, sediment driven by rainfall, and other factors.

It may take three to five years — and a change of gender — before the oysters are ready for harvest by hand or by dredge. Usually at about 3 years old, a male oyster becomes a female. The reason is unclear. But by the time the shellfish have reached maturity, they may be as large as 6 inches long. After harvest, the shellfish are shucked, with the old shells piled and left to dry in giant white mounds before being replanted as new seed. Commercial operations spend the winter months canning and shipping the product.

All this I learned from the Willapa Bay Interpretive Center.

But pearls? Not likely. When a grain of sand filtering through an oyster becomes lodged in its soft mantle, the mollusk heals itself by wrapping the irritating particle with layers of its shiny inner lining. On rare occasions, Willapa oyster farmers will find a small hard pearl. But most pearls come from Asian oyster farms where the particles are intentionally introduced.

Where to eat

The most important thing to know about oysters is where to eat them. Not unexpectedly, there are a plethora of choices around the shores of Willapa Bay.

For 25 years, Jimella Lucas and Nanci Main owned a restaurant called The Ark on the Nahcotta wharf. It gained them a national following. They sold The Ark in 2004, but barely two years had passed before they were back in the business of feeding grateful patrons.

Now, at Nanci&Jimella’s Klipsan Market Cafe, the women serve five lunches and three dinners a week, along with a Sunday brunch. I dropped by for the brunch and was delighted with a Hangtown fry, a traditional oyster omelet with bacon, spinach and cheese.

Down the road is the 1896 Shelburne Inn, long known for regional fine dining. Chef Richard Windrich serves a grilled wild king salmon steak on a bed of polenta, with fresh oysters in a reduced brandy-cream sauce.

At the historic Depot Restaurant, in a century-old train station, owner-chef Michael Lalewicz pan-fries a half-dozen local oysters and presents them with a roasted-garlic aioli dipping sauce and Yukon Gold smashed potatoes.

And in neighboring Ilwaco, owner-chef Jeff McMahon, formerly of Portland’s Saucebox restaurant, serves pan-fried oysters with grilled asparagus and a mustard-shallot sauce.

I didn’t get morning oysters at the Boreas Bed&Breakfast Inn, where I stayed, but I didn’t feel deprived.

Owners Susie Goldsmith and Bill Verner made sure I was well-fed and comfortable in their five-room home in Long Beach. And I could see the waves crashing upon the Pacific shoreline from my window.

Working class

While the resort towns are on the western shore of Willapa Bay, the working-class communities are on the east side of the estuary. Forty miles northeast of Long Beach, where the Willapa River enters the bay, the twin communities of Raymond and South Beach have their own bustling brand of activity.

The logging business is not what it once was, and Raymond is pretty quiet these days. The city government has invested in a civic sculpture project that has lined the arterials with dozens of two-dimensional wildlife figures, but it’s not enough in itself to attract tourism. Its two excellent small museums — the adjoining Northwest Carriage Museum and Willapa Seaport Museum — are often recommended but have limited opening hours.

As the Pacific County seat, South Bend boasts the handsome Pacific County Courthouse. It’s a historic art deco-era treasure, with a 1920s art glass dome and historic murals throughout. The Pacific County Historical Museum has a small but well considered collection of artifacts, including items from centuries of oystering.

About 15 miles southwest of South Bend, the village of Bay Center, on a peninsula that extends into Willapa Bay, has a thriving oyster business. Goose Point Oysters, Ekone Oysters and Seasonal Seafoods are located in or near the town, and at almost any daylight hours, curious visitors can watch the scows heading in and out from the harbor.

The south end of Willapa Bay is dominated by eight-mile Long Island, part and parcel of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge. More than 250 species of waterfowl, raptors and migratory birds live in the refuge, along with Roosevelt elk and substantial numbers of black bear. A trail near refuge headquarters, facing the island along U.S. Highway 101, weaves along a quiet inlet with substantial bird life of its own.

I had a companion as I drove past the refuge en route back to Long Beach. Pete Davis had approached me for a ride at a South Bend coffee house. Tall and slender, with far more white hair on his chin than on his head, he was en route to his peninsula home after playing a series of Seattle-area gigs as a fiddler and mandolinist.

Davis was glad to have someone to listen to his stories for an hour or so. I was glad to listen.

“My great-great grandfather was a Scotsman named Fernando Cortez Davis,” he related. “He was one of the first people to live in Oysterville, back in the 1850s. He owned the land that is now the Oysterville cemetery.

“Fernando had two big oxen, Moses and Aaron, who were his constant companions. When the oyster schooners came in, he and his oxen would unload their freight and deliver it to the local stores.

“But he was a God-fearing man, and he refused to take the whiskey off those boats. He found it beneath the dignity of his oxen.”

I later consulted a small volume on Oysterville history and discovered that, indeed, one F.C. Davis was credited with selling the cemetery land to the city.

Clearly, Oysterville has a hold on the people who love it.