Saturday, October 19, 2013

Underwater Memory: To Halifax and Back

For a week we toured Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the lands where rocky shores are submerged every 12 hours and where the Bay of Fundy is rocked by 30 foot tides.

My wife and I got quite obsessed by that ebb and flood.

Of course we were safely ashore with no greater worry than camera angles.

Coming back from Nova Scotia we spent one night 250 miles down stream from our island home in the St. Lawrence River. We sat on a river side balcony in a motel in Berthier-sur-Mer, Quebec, sipping wine as the rising tide covered the braille of rocks below us.

When we woke in the morning we saw rocks we lost sight of the night before and already had a hard feeling for which rocks had been just been washed over.

Night falls quickly in October, and I think with more light and wine, I’d have made drunk correlations between the mountains along the north shore of the 10 miles wide river and the rocks forming the south shore.

Then it struck me. My vacation was the opposite of what it should be. Instead of the unfamiliarity of new worlds engendering sentimental memories of the home I know well, these reiterations of rocks began to shake my confidence. I got the feeling that I knew those rocks on exotic tidal shores better than those at home in the magnificent but relatively placid river I frequently ply. Keeping tabs on them requires some doing because no tides refresh my underwater memory.

Where we live on the St. Lawrence River there is, thanks to dams, never more than a 4 foot yearly variation in the water level.
A graph of the river water levels near where I live makes it look like we get one tame ocean swell a year. No Mississippi flooding here.

On our trip the only place I felt somewhat on similar terms with a large body of water was in and along Halifax harbor,

but it has a daily 6 foot variation in water level which an old painting in a quay side museum made clear.

Of course, living out of the reach of tides is commonplace. Most of my life I never thought of them, and it is a relief not to have to think about them.

If you have a boat in the tidal St. Lawrence, you never stop thinking about them.

As summer lazes into fall the water level at our dock slowly drops. Once or twice a year I realize I forgot to loosen some lines to keep boats bobbing sprightly. Many rocks in the river slowly emerge, otherwise no harm done by being oblivious to them unless you sail or pick up speed in your motor boat.

When I sawed up the 14 foot sailboat and leaned its 4 foot cast iron center board on the shady side of the house, I stopped thinking about the rocks that don‘t emerge, most of whom my centerboard met. Now I usually just kayak. In the bays at home, my kayak wimps over the rocks making lily pads the hard cheese of the river.

My style of kayaking is the equivalent to walking the beach, but one that is slow to change. On our vacation I gawked at all the tiny things briefly detained in tidal pools.

Back home I ponder the aphids’ parallel universes on a parade of lily pads.

Even when the wind kicks up some waves, the aphids hang on for a couple months. Along the sea the vegetation sharing rocks with the barnacles spends its 6 or so hours in the sun looking completely exhausted.

River vegetation can get a heavy look as it swells with flowers and seeds but there is always a spring to it, best exemplified by the water celery.

The water lily can be fickle, but only when the sun doesn’t shine.

For years I've used my 14 foot aluminum boat with a 6 horsepower motor like a kayak, just fast enough to some distant shore and then I row. At my slow top speed I trust shoal markers distributed by a non-profit and avoid areas where cormorants seem to be standing. 

That’s a perilous way to identify rocks. Imagine a Maine mariner navigating the 30 foot tide pushing back the St. Croix River by looking for seals basking on the rocks.

But at the end of this summer we bought a new engine for our son's 16 foot aluminum boat considerably increasing its speed. On this vacation, what the tides kept saying to me is that I have to start remembering where the rocks are. Underwater memory where I live is not easy.

More or less the same granite beds the northern rivers and seas, but this beautiful hard bottomed river has become as soft as a bayou to me. I now have a livelier sense of the Nova Scotia beach where we sat for a few hours,

Than I do of more familiar shores on Wellesley Island where we live.

I only see that beach of rocks from October until it snows. Those rocks don’t shimmer anew with every daily low tide.

In Nova Scotia we had perfect calm weather, but there I was bumping my imagination with rocks. All bodies of water with rocks sport that feel safe, the lighthouse. The day we visited Peggy’s Cove south of Halifax we had a clear view of the iconic beacon. But I wouldn’t be fooled and took a more accurate photo of the danger inherent in that coast.

The Rock Island light is across from our house and we see it everyday if there is no fog or a blizzard and really not a day goes by when we don’t see it. I rarely take photos of it and when I do I emphasize its peaceful insignificance.

I can no longer be so dismissive of local dangers. There are rocks everywhere. Half the view from my house is of Granite Slate Shoal. I've never taken a photo of it. I just walked down and took a photograph of the first rock in the river off my dock which began winking at me a month ago after being a hidden danger since spring.

The tides and waves make the sea a constant lesson. Study the shore. In 12 hours there will be a pop go the rocks quiz. The waves drive you  into them. The St. Lawrence River has been simpler at my paddling and piddling speeds. It is where the rocks aren’t.

I feel an evolutionary tug that this view of the river is just fine. It must be the way a fish feels the river. The best definition of a river is that it is not a rock. Most everything not a rock simply becomes the river.

This summer we swam off our dock everyday from June through September. In summers when I was less persistent the rising river weeds struck me as alien. This August I began to get a fish like feel for them. They made the water feel softer and move slower. They stretched time.

I did see some sparse patches of tidal grasses, but the ubiquitous sidekick of the tides in the Bay of Fundy surprised us, mud everywhere.

The river has wind, waves, and a rare surge that might raise some silt but nothing in the river is battered into all consuming liquid rock by the too huge and timely tides. Or should I say nothing is jarred, especially my underwater memory.

The river is freedom, and freedom, when you really think through it, is life without memory. I don‘t have to check the tides. I can live superficially, unless I push the throttle forward....

A memorable vacation reminding me of home dangers, bow bending memories lurking just out of sight.

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