Patrick Manary is an Oregon native, lanky, with piercing blue eyes and a wild beard. Thoughtful and soft-spoken, he holds himself with the steady confidence that brutal outdoor work can impart.
For the past few years he has moved seasonally, splitting his time between Bristol Bay, Alaska and Tillamook Bay, Oregon. He works in Oregon through the frigid coastal winters before heading up to Alaska for the summer salmon run. “Diving and salmon fishing are my two main jobs now” Patrick explains. “Being in the water, it takes your mind away from everything – you’re focused on finding things – you’re not in today’s world, you’re in the natural environment.”
Patrick hasn’t always been in this industry though. While in college and working on the stunning waters of Prince William Sound, Alaska, he glimpsed the lives of the fisherman around him. “When I first saw commercial fisherman work, I envied their lifestyle,” he says “They looked like they were always having fun. They had freedom and were enjoying life, and I wanted that.” For Patrick, working in aquaculture was drudgery; the slow and painstaking process of cultivating fish populations a monotony of sameness. He decided to change course. “I felt like a prisoner in my job, and the fisherman just seemed to have the best deal, so I decided to just do what they were doing.”
“A buckle on my gear failed, my hose kinked and I had to shoot up to the surface. I had to remind myself to exhale on the way up to get rid of extra oxygen. I was fine, but you never really know what’s going to happen.”
In Oregon, commercial clamming in no way resembles recreational clamming. Here the hunt takes place 20 feet down along the bottom of Tillamook Bay. It requires a wetsuit, a hearty spirit, and a professional dive certification. Patrick says, “In Tillamook, I work for a company that’s been in business for 50 or 60 years, a family called the Coons. There’s around three outfits in the bay and there’s always drama, so most of us divers stick with our group and don’t really work for multiple outfitters.” He’s not shy about how difficult it was to get into the business. “When I first started I was living out of my car, scraping the inside the of the windshield, then the outside. I was changing into my cold, wet wetsuit in the public port restrooms.”
He changes into his wetsuit at the Coons’ headquarters now, but the job hasn’t changed in intensity. The perils of clamming include, but are certainly not limited to: broken boat motors, thick fog, failed navigation instruments, and ripping tidal currents. “I bailed once,” Patrick recalls. “A buckle on my gear failed, my hose kinked and I had to shoot up to the surface. I had to remind myself to exhale on the way up to get rid of extra oxygen. I was fine, but you never really know what’s going to happen.”
During a typical two-hour dive Patrick is dressed in layers of wool under a thick wetsuit. He also wears a weight-belt that holds him to the bottom of the bay and allows him to battle an often swift current. “I think of the bottom of the ocean like a climbing wall. I’m probably the only guy who does it the way I do. Most divers just dust the bottom of the bay by waving their hands, stirring up and brushing away mud and trying to grab as many clams as possible. Instead, I look for their necks. They’re bivalves so I think of the clams as handholds, grabbing one, then the next, tearing up them off as I go, dragging my way forward through the current.”
It’s easy to forget that the work Patrick does is cold, wet and arduous, because his eyes light up when he talks about his life. “I love this lifestyle because of the free time that I get. I like to do things I enjoy instead of working all the time. I get to work hard for a bit and then go surfing, or hunting for mushrooms, or anything really, that I want to do”. “Growing up, I loved the water because I loved fishing – now I have a variety of things that I love about it.” Here Patrick pauses, his eyes looking out to the nearby Pacific. “I love searching for things – waves, rocks, mushrooms, waves for surfing. It’s that curiosity – having the time to wonder where the fish are, what the next wave will look like, where the clams will be. That’s the best part about my life.”