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Touring Humboldt Bay's oyster farms

Amy Barnes

Whether you're in town for a few days or have lived here 30 years, a Humboldt Bay oyster tour must be put at the top of your adventuring bucket list. It offers a perspective of Humboldt County and the oyster industry you just can't get from land. With the mountains in the distance and salt-spiked wind coming off the sea, the experience is at once tranquil and exhilarating.

Sebastian Elrite will be your captain. He's a knowledgeable character who's right at home on the water. Elrite moved north from the Bay Area in the early '90s to attend Humboldt State University and spent his summers working on an oyster farm. He now owns Aqua-Rodeo Farms and operates Humboldt Bay Oyster Tours. An artisan producer, Elrite provides his signature Bucksport oysters to the Humboldt Bay Tourism Center's oyster bar.

Elrite does a great job of explaining the history and logistics of oyster farming. There's a lot to it. Did you know the humble oyster sways with the tides for up to two years before being buttered, slathered in hot sauce, barbecued, broiled or simply eaten alive? Prepare to improve your crossword skills by learning new words like spat, mothershell, merroir and Kumamoto.

Oysters aren't the only wildlife you'll encounter on the tour. Elrite has spotted a medley of critters over the years, including bat rays, leopard sharks and the occasional octopus. As we traverse the bay, great blue herons cut through the sky with long, graceful wings, snowy egrets do their elegant, statuesque thing, a harbor seal bobs past unfazed, and nervous crabs hunch inside net bags of oysters.

You're going to get muddy and that's OK. It gets chilly when Elrite hauls out to the oyster beds, so regardless of the season, wear lots of layers and maybe even consider a wooly hat. I won't even mention the sunscreen. Take just the essentials (camera, chapstick, water) in a backpack or cross body bag as you'll want to have your hands free. Rubber boots are a must if you want to climb out of the boat and walk around in the middle of the bay at low tide, which feels surreal and downright rebellious.

The first stop on the tour is Coast Seafoods. Coast has farmed in the bay since the 1950s, and is the west coast's largest oyster producer. Elrite pulls his boat alongside a fleet of specialty oyster harvesting vessels and describes Coast's extensive nursery operations and the role of the various booms, baskets, landing crafts and conveyor belts.

We then "hot rod out to the long lines" to learn about the different techniques of growing and harvesting oysters in the bay. The majority of acreage implements the long-line method where oyster clusters are spaced every 6 to 8 inches and set out to mature in tidy rows up to 100 feet long. The sea purse technique originates from Australia, and is a relatively new approach in Humboldt Bay. Here, seed stock are placed in rigid plastic bags with floats attached to a line. The floats allow the oysters to tumble on themselves, like a rock polisher, and oysters develop as individuals instead of in clusters. The advantage to this approach is a fairly uniform individual oyster, which makes mechanical sorting and size grading possible, as oysters grown in clusters have to be broken apart using a pneumatic air gun with a chisel point on the end, and the oysters must be hand sorted.

After inspecting a few of Coast's beds, Elrite hollers from the front of the boat, "OK, are you ready? Off to my farm!" Wind in his hair, he waves exuberantly at passing boats.

We pull up to Aqua-Rodeo Farm, which is out toward the Arcata Marsh, and Elrite hops into the shallows in a pair of endearingly saggy-bottomed waders. He guides the boat around by hand, introducing his set-up and answering questions.

At this point, if you've brought your rubber boots you can clamber out of the boat, too. You might just find yourself in awe, as I was, standing in the middle of the bay with bendy-legged godwits poking at the mud with long, chopstick beaks. It is silent but for the sloshing of water and a potluck chorus of seabirds.

The farm in middle of the bay is beautiful, but desolate. Elrite's beds are built from recycled long-line pvc piping, rebar and reusable plastic mesh bags. They look like little gates lined up in the water. In contrast to the bigger companies' specially built harvesting vessels, Elrite takes an old-fashioned approach to collecting his crop. He wades into the water, unpins the bags of mature oysters from their frames and hurls them onto the boat by hand. Bags piled high, we head back to the docks.

The oyster tour is a brilliant reminder of how immediate and satisfactory the farm-to-table experience can be. Once you've returned to dry land, head over to the Humboldt Bay Tourism Center at Second and G streets in Old Town to complete your adventure.

Cozy up to the bar, order a pint of local ale or hard cider, or maybe a glass of Humboldt produced wine. Watch while your just-harvested-an-hour-ago oysters are deftly shucked, prepared to your liking and placed oh-so-lovingly on a locally made plate atop a sparkling bed of rock salt.

Oyster tours are offered year-round, Wednesday through Sunday, and are scheduled at the whim of weather and tide. The one-hour general education and orientation tour costs $55 per person. It's $75 per person for the two-hour farm tour, on which you go farther out into the bay and harvest your very own oysters. (I would recommend the latter, since visiting Elrite's farm was, in my opinion, the very best bit.) Boat capacity is six passengers. Tours originate from Dock B on Woodley Island. Sunset cruises and kayak tours are also available. Book online www.humboldtbayoystertours.com or call (800) 808-2836.

If you'd rather skip the tour and go straight for the oysters, they're served up and available to take away at the Humboldt Bay Tourism Center. Elrite also sells them off Dock B at Woodley Island on occasion. Watch him in action on "Buck a Shuck Tuesdays" from 6 to 8 p.m. at the tourism center.

Want to skip the farm and head straight to the table?

There is a bevy of fine oysters to be had in Humboldt, raw, barbecued, fried and otherwise. But last year, Sushi Spot (670 Ninth St., Arcata and 1552 City Center Road, McKinleyville) took home Best Raw and Best Cooked awards at the Arcata Oyster Festival. Both locations offer the bivalves in cocktail-chic shooters, grilled up with spicy sauces and fried with crisp panko breading. You should probably try them all just in case.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Special thanks to Pacific Outfitters for the models and gear.

www.pacificoutfitters.com

The day's harvest, topped with Humboldt hot sauce.

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