My Dungeness Crab Adventure

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Let’s say you’re growing up in Boca Raton, Florida and you’re looking at a map and someone says to you, “Point to a place in America that seems the most exotic to you, the most far away?” there’s a good chance you might point to Washington State. After all, it’s pretty much as far as you can get from Boca Raton within the continental U.S. And growing up, as I did (past the age of 11), in South Florida, I very rarely–if ever–entertained the idea that I might, one day, find myself in Washington State, on a barely inhabited island on the San Juan archipelago, sitting in a rowboat with my boyfriend, his dad, and brother, pulling up traps of giant crabs that we would take ashore, smash on the side of a bucket, and cook in sea water. The closest I ever got to cooking and killing my own seafood in Boca Raton was choosing a lobster from the tank at Red Lobster when I went there with my grandparents.

Flash forward to me at the age of 29: generously invited by Craig and his family to join them for five days on the San Juan Islands where we would catch, kill, clean and cook our own fresh Dungeness crabs; I was suddenly about to experience the most exotic adventure the younger me could’ve imagined.

Craig’s family has a cabin on Eliza Island, which is the first stop on the San Juan ferry from Bellingham. You exit the boat on to a pier and there Craig’s family waits for you with Bagel the Beagle to welcome you ashore.

The island is magnificent. It’s relatively small, though it certainly wore me out to paddle around it in a kayak. It has high peaks with lots of trees and beaches with colorful and smooth rocks which Craig likes to collect. Mostly, it’s the air that won me over: crisp, clean, calming. I quickly eased into island life: playing cards with Craig’s cousins, aunts and uncles, playing fetch with the dog, and helping Craig’s mom, Julee, shell crab in the morning:

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The crab we ate at the beginning was crab caught the previous Wednesday. The law states you can only crab on Wednesdays so, having arrived on a Sunday, we had to wait four days for the fresh crab experience. Still, the leftover crab was plentiful and flavorful–don’t you want to dip your hand into this bowl?

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Craig’s dad, Steve, made his famous crab cakes which are constantly referenced by Craig whenever a crab cake disappoints him at a restaurant or cocktail party. “When my dad makes crab cakes, they’re almost entirely crab,” he likes to say. And now that I’ve had them, I can be a crab cake snob too:

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But as much as I enjoyed the crab cakes and the camaraderie, I was eagerly awaiting the fresh crab Craig has been talking about from the moment I met him back in 2006. Seriously. I’m 99% sure that on our first date, he must’ve talked about the fresh Dungeness crabs he catches with his family on Eliza Island, smashing them on a bucket, boiling them in sea water and eating them, hot out of the pot, right there on the beach. “There’s nothing like it,” he says. “It’s the best thing in the world.”

Alas, after much concentration and attempts at time-control (couldn’t move it forward), Wednesday came. I was profoundly excited, but not more excited than Craig.

“Are you ready?” he said as we joined Steve outside. “This is it!”

The first ingredient one needs to hunt Dungeness Crabs is an ingredient one might not expect.

“What are those?” I asked Steve as he opened a Styrofoam pouch of what looked like poultry.

“Turkey legs,” he answered.

“Turkey legs?” I repeated. “Crabs eat turkey legs?”

“Yup,” he said. “Turkey legs are good crab bait.”

He proceeded to put a turkey leg in each of four traps:

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The next part is where our story becomes a thrilling adventure: the part where we board the rowboat and take the traps to sea.

Here’s Steve, Craig and Craig’s brother Eric as we prepared to row to our deaths:

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Actually, the rowing out to sea was pretty uneventful. Steve is a good rower and, unfortunately for this narrative, no one fell overboard:

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Once we were a decent ways away from shore, we began dropping traps. This entails a complicated process that goes like this: you take a trap and drop it in the water. It sinks. A buoy floats to the surface. That’s it. You paddle away and drop the next trap. When all four are dropped, you return to shore and wait two hours.

“Hi Adam, I’m a reader, and I’m waiting for the adventure. You did say this was an adventure, didn’t you?”

Be quiet, reader! I’m getting there!

While on shore we played more cards and read more books and then, two hours later, we returned to the boat and Steve paddled us out to the first buoy. And here’s where the adventure becomes a real adventure: Craig pulls up the trap from the water, as documented in this exciting video!

For those at work or those who can’t play video: there were lots of crabs in there! But Steve had to throw most of them back because they were female; the law states you can only keep male crabs. The reasons are pretty self-evident: female crabs eat babies.

We pulled up all four traps–some had lots of crabs, some had very few crabs, and a few of them had sea stars like this one:

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There’s Craig’s sister Kristin in the background. Hi Kristin!

All in all, we came to shore with about eight fully-sized male Dungeness crabs and then, after carrying the rowboat on to the beach, we proceeded to Step 2: cleaning the crabs.

Actually, I say we, but it was Craig’s dad who did the dirty work. What is the dirty work? See Video #2:

So you knock their heads off on a bucket (ignore the fact it’s a kitty litter bucket), break them in half, and remove the gills. That’s all the cleaning.

It’s at this point when the crabs go from live, ugly creatures to something that looks like food. And, looking down into the container of cleaned crab, I started getting hungry.

“When do we eat?” I asked.

“As soon as Craig fills up the kettle with sea water, I’ll crank up the propane and we’ll be ready to go,” said Steve.

Craig was quick to do whatever was necessary to get those crabs cooked:

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On to a burner it went:

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And, once at a boil, Steve dropped the crabs in to cook:

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Here are the crabs cooking:

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And, at the top of the post, you’ll see what they looked like when they came out.

We’re finally at the best part: after the hunting, the turkey legs, the rowing, the dropping, the waiting, the lifting, the throwing back, the rowing ashore, the cracking, the cleaning, and the boiling, we finally get to do what I’d been dreaming of for two years: we finally got to eat the crabs.

Here’s Kristin and Craig as we prepare to eat:

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Here’s the wine we’d drink with the crabs:

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And here’s that picture from the previous post of me with my first freshly caught and cooked Dungeness crab:

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What did I think?

Maybe I was caught up in the moment. After all, this was the most work I’d ever put into the acquisition of protein; this was the first time I’d encountered an animal in its natural habitat, watched it die and ate it.

My words might’ve been hyperbole, but I still stand by it: “This is one of the best meals of my life.”

The crab was wildly sweet and succulent; the meat I got out of there, after cracking and pulling and peeling, was large and substantive and deeply pleasing, like lobster, only sweeter.

You may recall a post, from a few weeks ago, called The Great Crab Debate in which our friends Mark and Diana challenged Craig about which was better: East Coast blue crabs (which Mark and Diana favor) or the West Coast Dungeness Crabs to which Craig has dedicated his life. Not having had east coast blue crabs (though I will at the end of this month when I go to Baltimore!), I’m not capable yet of weighing in. However, to close out this post, Craig’s mom has a message for Mark, though Craig has the last word:

[Thank you Johnson family for your hospitality and for sharing your island and your crabs with me! It was an experience I’ll never forget.]

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