"You're in it!" I told him, looking around with a smile at the steeple of the tiny white and red church, near a towering line of ancient cypresses and around the corner from the old one-room schoolhouse, no longer used for daily classes. "You're in it."
Beyond the old houses the 25-mile-long bay is now America's largest producer of farmed oysters. On your way here, drive snaking Highway 101 along the bay's eastern shore and you'll cross bridge after bridge over rivers and sloughs that bring nutrients oysters feed on. At river mouths, prairie-like salt marshes bristle with reeds, capturing erosion-caused silt that might choke the bivalves. With a largely undeveloped shore, Willapa Bay has all the makings of an oyster's Shangri-La.
Stroll the village. Step into Oysterville's simple old church, where heat comes from a potbelly stove and the lighting is all by oil lamp. (Befitting a community by the sea, on our visit a Bible on the lectern had been left open to the Book of Jonah.) Peek through windows into the schoolhouse, which these days hosts a summertime science academy for local kids and a public lecture series (recently on the schedule: a chief of the Coast Guard motor lifeboat school at Cape Disappointment).
Then it's time to get oysters for dinner.
Follow the road to the bay and you'll find the former oyster cannery, which claims to be the only one of its kind on the National Historic Register. Today the weathered dockside buildings are home to Oysterville Sea Farms, which markets products under its "Willabay" trade name. A retail shop in a rustic waterfront shed sells oysters shucked or in the shell, along with clams, crab and shrimp.
You can buy oysters or shrimp cocktail ready to eat with a glass of wine on a deck overlooking the bay. But my mission was to procure oysters in the shell for my first-ever experiment with roasting oysters on a charcoal grill.
On the way to the beach, I'd already picked up a dozen medium-sized beauties across the bay at Goose Point Oysters, on the west side of 101 just north of the Niawiakum River, near Bay Center. This time I chose a dozen small oysters for comparison.
In-shell oysters of any size were $7 a dozen here, or three dozen for $20 if you want a real feast. A sign promised they were harvested that day.
"All our oysters come from right out here," said counterman Mike Gibbs, nodding toward the bay where Oysterville Sea Farms stewards more than 200 acres of private tidelands "These on the shell are hand-picked."
Being new at barbecuing them in the shell, I asked for guidance. He suggested putting them directly on the grill, waiting for the shells to gap open slightly on their own, then prying them open with a butter knife.