Will Ferguson’s Canada

THE KING OF TIDES

It’s got great rocks and rolls. But beware the Bore.

November 18 2002
Will Ferguson’s Canada

THE KING OF TIDES

It’s got great rocks and rolls. But beware the Bore.

November 18 2002

THE KING OF TIDES

It’s got great rocks and rolls. But beware the Bore,

Will Ferguson’s Canada

IT MAY SOUND CRAZY, but I think the Bay of Fundy is trying to kill me. This has been going on for some time now, and I'm fairly sure I can trace it back to a raucous kitchen party I attended in St. Andrews, N.B., many years ago. (In the Maritimes, any party worthy of the name eventually ends up in the kitchen. Don’t ask me why.)

As I stood, crowded in beside the fridge, I mentioned, just in passing, that the tides along the Bay of Fundy might not be the highest in the world after all. I had heard rumours of higher tides in northern Quebec.

Well, you would have thought I had peed on their rug. Not only was I shouted down and threatened with physical violence and, even worse, banishment from the kitchen, but I soon began to fear for my life as well. I had angered the gods of Fundy.

Our first son was born in Saint John in mid-November, 1997, and on the drive back to St. Andrews a thick wet Fundy fog rolled in. Visibility dropped to zero, and then the fog turned to snow. Not fluffy storybook flakes wafting gently to earth, but thick, sticky white slush. Then the temperature dropped. And the slush froze.

And then, just to make things interesting, an 18-wheeler from hell came roaring up behind us and started tailgating our car as we crept along, newborn son wrapped in blankets, through the worst sort of weather Fundy is capable of. I held my breath and gripped the wheel and waited for the inevitable multi-car pileup, which never came— thankfully—though not for lack of trying on the part of the insanely impatient, amphetamine-fuelled trucker who was practically pushing us forward like a snowplow.

The following spring, with the skies now sunny and blue, a local handyman invited me to go “fishing” in his “boat.” Note the use of quotation marks: it turns out that “fishing,” in the regional dialect this man spoke, actually means “drinking,” just as “boat” actually means “wooden contraption held afloat in defiance of all known

laws of buoyancy.” Off we went in his rowboat, onto Passamaquoddy Bay, only to get caught in the grip of a slow but powerful current once we headed back. It was Fundy, hauling Passamaquoddy out again, and we rowed and rowed and rowed without moving an inch. At which point, my travel companion stretched back and said, “We’ll wait it out.” And when would the tide shift? A shrug. “Ten hours. Maybe 12. Too bad I didn’t think to bring some poles, we coulda fished while we were waiting.”

And as we drifted slowly away from an already distant shore, I thought to myself, “The Bay of Fundy is a cruel mistress, indeed.”

Fortunately, we weren’t sucked out to sea, but we did waste an entire afternoon surviving on nothing but beer and beer. Which is to say, by New Brunswick standards, the fishing expedition had been a resounding success.

THE BAY OF FUNDY is the watery wedge that separates the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and the bay’s ineluctable brute strength is everywhere in evidence. You need only make a trek to the high-spanning observation deck at the mouth of the Saint John River to see this strength played out in slow motion. Twice a day, in a struggle between the river’s outflowing current and the tide’s incoming force, the Saint John changes direction. The river’s tumbling rapids—they aren’t “falls” except in the minds of provincial tourist boards—are slowly submerged and eventually reversed.

The Saint John is a river that can’t make

The Saint John is a river that can’t make up its mind, a self-sustained contradiction that could be Canada’s Official Metaphor

up its mind, a self-sustained contradiction that would, if I were on the selecting committee (and really, who better?), be chosen as Canada’s Official Metaphor.

Twice a day, a hundred billion tons of sea water churns into the Bay of Fundy, lifting up ships where they lie, stranded on the sand, and putting the spin back on Old Sow, one of the largest whirlpools in the world. The magnitude of water that surges into Fundy every 12 and a half hours very nearly equals the daily total flow of all the rivers in the world combined. At its peak tide, Fundy can rise as high as a four-storey building.

So why are the tides of Fundy so freakishly big? Three reasons. First, shape. The Bay of Fundy acts like a funnel that forces the water up onto itself as it pushes in. Second, length. Fundy is exceptionally long—almost 300 km in total—and because of this, the tide is never able to catch its breath. As the ebb tide tries to roll out of the bay, it runs into the next, incoming high tide that carries the ebb tide back in with it, creating a double-wave phenomenon called “resonance.” (The bad news? Resonance is never permanent. Over time, as the sea levels shift and the shape of the bay gradually changes, the incoming and outgoing swells will fall out of phase, and the giant tides of Fundy will quietly vanish.) Finally, there is the matter of depth. The bay grows shallow fairly evenly along the way, leaving no secret pockets or sudden drops to be filled with the influx of water, and so—once again—the sea has nowhere to go but up.

Mi’kmaq legends ascribe the high tides of Fundy to the mythical giant Glooscap, sloshing about taking a bath, and a whale that sets the water rolling back and forth with its tail. It is a remarkably accurate description of how the tides work. The Atlantic Ocean is essentially one extended wave that rocks back and forth with the pull of the moon and the sun. In Fundy, this wave rocks just that much higher and that much harder. The

result is something in which the people in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia take a certain misplaced pride.

Joseph Howe, the anti-Confederation crusader and Nova Scotia patriot, caught the feeling of Fundy perfectly. “Boys,” he said. “Brag of your country. When I’m abroad, I brag of everything that Nova Scotia is, has, or can produce; and when they beat me at everything else, I turn around on them and say, ‘How high does your tide rise?’ ”

With so much pride-by-proxy at stake, it’s no wonder that the heirs of Howe bristle at any suggestion that their tides might not be quite as brag-worthy as they seem. The Inuit village of Aupaluk in northern Quebec recently challenged Fundy’s claim, arguing that nearby Ungava Bay has high-

er tides. (According to official government records, Fundy’s highest tide was 16 m to Ungava’s 15.9 m, which seems dubious, if not downright suspicious. How exact can any tidal measurement honestly be?)

The main difference between Ungava and Fundy is that Fundy has millions of dollars in tourism revenue riding on its title to “world’s highest tides,” whereas Ungava has mainly seals and a few icebergs riding on its tides. And you should never underestimate the power of tourism councils when it comes to fudging certain unpleasant facts.

Exhibit A: The muddy Petitcodiac River that slides sluggishly into Moncton, N.B. The Petitcodiac is home to the much-hyped “Tidal Bore.” Twice a day, the incoming tide from Fundy forces the river Petitcodiac to

a standstill, and then sends a mighty wall of water rushing forward in a single wave. Well, not exactly a “wall” perhaps. It’s more of a ripple, really. A majestic, muddy ripple.

The look of stunned disappointment on the faces of tourists who have gathered to witness this is something you don’t soon forget. (One family, who had studied tidal charts and plotted highway mileage with military precision, so they would arrive at exactly that climactic moment, ruefully dubbed the phenomenon “the Total Bore.”)

In fairness, a lot depends on the phase of the moon. Why, I once saw a bore that was almost a foot high! The seabirds that were feeding there didn’t even bother leaving; they just bobbed with it as it passed under them, but it was still a breathtaking

scene, I assure you.

The best thing about the Tidal Bore? The city of Moncton is attached to it, and Moncton is a lively town that welcomes visitors with great gusto (possibly to make up for the wave of disappointment).

Farther up the bay from Moncton, at the very eastern tip, the tides of Fundy end, not in a roar but a whisper. Fiere are the grassy meadows and salt marshes of Tantramar, reclaimed centuries before by Acadian settlers who accomplished a singularly impressive feat: they turned back the tides. As early as the 1670s, the Acadians were building elaborate dikes that drained off the water, transforming the head of the bay into “the world’s largest hayfield.” Today, it is a land of open meadows and old barns.

Just south of the mighty bore of Moncton lies a landscape of looming stone pillars: the Hopewell Rocks, tree-topped islands, contoured by countless currents, that stand exposed at low tide.

The Hopewell Rocks exist only in the moment in between, that Sisyphus-like pause before the tide rolls back and the landscape is again submerged. The tides of Fundy pull innumerable pranks—slapping down waterfalls, changing the course of rivers, toying with rowboats and pulling the water out from under the larger ships like a tablecloth parlour trick—but nowhere are the effects as incongruous or as impressive as they are at Hopewell Cape.

My wife and I visited Hopewell at low tide and we scrambled among the towering flowerpot rocks like Lilliputians in a giant’s garden. At one point, I posed for a photograph at the base of a notably tall formation. “Here, I’ll just lean against this large boulder that appears to have fallen from the sky.” There was a long pause. I looked up, directly above my head, two storeys high, and saw where the slab of stone had once been. “Or maybe not,” I said, and, what with discretion being the better part of valour and time and tide waiting for no man, I fled. My wife remembers the moment fondly, in particular the way I held my hands over my head as I ran. Now that’ll stop a boulder!

Sigh. Some things should be admired from a distance. Especially when they are trying to kill you. flil

Will Ferguson’s debut novel Happiness™ won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Flumour. He now lives in Calgary, far away from the Bay of Fundy.