BRUNSWICK — Through four years at Brunswick High School, Rachel Johnson has found a way to marry two of her passions: art and digging clams.

Creating art has always been a part of the teenager’s life, but probing the clam flats came into play during her freshman year. She credited her hardworking nature to her father’s influence.

“He was fishing on the coast of Maine his whole life, roofing, always working hard,” Johnson said recently. A clammer friend of her father encouraged her to apply through the high school for a student clamming license, and she joined him and his daughter on the flats one night.

“We had about an hour before the tide started coming in,” Johnson recalled. She dug a bucket full of clams, weighing 12.5 pounds, or a quarter of a 50-pound bushel.

“I came home, and I was covered in mud,” Johnson said with a smile. “… The next day, we went out and I dug the whole tide the whole morning, so it was a full six hours. And I wound up getting 43 pounds. … It was almost at a bushel, which was really awesome.”

Johnson was able to pocket about $100 as a result, which wasn’t too shabby, either. Soon she was raking in more clams and dollars alike.

Although she lives in Brunswick, “Harpswell runs in my blood,” she said, and needless to say she was hooked.

“I love being able to work hard,” Johnson said. “I always do firewood, always help my dad roof, so (clamming) is a job I can work hard at, and feel like I’m doing something. I hate working jobs where I’m just standing there doing nothing.”

Being on the ocean doesn’t hurt, either.

“The ocean breeze all the time,” she said, although, she added with a laugh, “it’s a little smelly on the flats some days.”

Johnson said she enjoys the freedom of not being told what to do, and taking whichever days off she needs.

The student clamming program is popular in Brunswick; there were 21 applicants in town this year for 15 licenses, she said. Students have to be doing well in school to be eligible.

Johnson may be one of the few young women out there, but she’s never found that to be a deterrent among the other clammers. In fact, she appreciates the camaraderie of those men, who often direct her to prime digging locations on the flats.

Her reputation as one of the few female clammers often precedes her. One from the Boothbay area, when chatting with her father at the store, noted how they’d heard of her up there.

“A lot of the older gentlemen are always like, ‘I’m glad to see younger people out there doing this,'” she said.

That encouragement has emboldened Johnson to attend clamming meetings, and advocate for a change in the student licensing program that would allow her and other students to dig an unlimited amount.

“It is a little nerve-wracking, I will admit; I’m not very big on public speaking,” she said. “Over my four years, I’ve definitely gotten better at it.”

A bushel per tide was the cap before the Brunswick Marine Resources Committee enacted the change two years ago.

“I do a lot better now,” Johnson said. Students are prohibited from digging during the school week, so as not to interfere with their studies, she noted.

Although Johnson declined to say how much money clamming now brings her, she did note that it should be enough to pay her share of college tuition – about 40 percent, with her parents funding the rest.

Graduation is set for 7 p.m. Friday, June 7, at the Sidney J. Watson Arena, 27 Watson Drive; this fall she’s attending the University of Maine at Fort Kent.

“For someone who loves the ocean and beach, it’s going to be a lot of snow,” she said.

Johnson plans to study conservation law enforcement, with an eye toward becoming either a game warden or marine patrol officer.

Clamming inspires her in school as well, and served as a focus of her Advanced Placement studio art class portfolio. Apologizing for the charcoal on her hand from a recent project, she showed off a selection of her works on display at the school.

“I used a lot of micron pen, India ink, colored inks, and charcoal for a lot of my pieces,” said Johnson, whose art has been displayed at the Maine College of Art.

Her illustrations are due to grace a children’s book, for which she plans to complete work by August. Johnson hopes to have a few books ready to give to family members for Christmas; she gave her sister a 9-square-foot painting of her dogs, who died last fall, and has been approached by others about doing canine commissions.

A self-dubbed perfectionist, Johnson enjoys creating realistic works, such as a turtle she painstakingly completed in micron pen. “It took like 150 hours,” she said. “I’m very meticulous to details, and I love that sort of thing.”

That dedication is clear in classroom and clamflat alike. She was normally digging just two bushels (100 pounds) a day last summer, until she heard that a friend and fellow clammer had nearly cracked three bushels, barely exceeding her then-personal best of 140 pounds.

“The next day I stayed down, and I stayed until the full tide, as long as he did,” about 5.5 hours, Johnson recalled.

She got 157 pounds that day, followed by 163 the next day.

“When I brought (the haul) up to Ray, the guy I sell it to, he’s like, ‘So you got tired of the boys out-digging you,'” Johnson said with a smirk. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I had to put them in their place, show them who’s boss.’ … I made a good chunk of money those two days.”

It goes without saying that her dad, whose influence and friend got her started three years ago, was quite impressed.

“He was so proud of me,” Johnson beamed. “That was great; I was so happy.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 780-9085 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Rachel Johnson shows off a display at Brunswick High School of her artwork, which reflects the senior’s interests in clamming and being on the ocean.

Rachel Johnson has been clamming for three years, since her freshman year at Brunswick High School.

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