Experiencing Bay of Fundy Tides

The northwestern edge of Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, along the Mina Basin, has a unique feature that makes it a particularly interesting destination–the largest tidal variations in the world. Although these variations differ depending on the alignment of the sun and the moon, they average 12 meters and can exceed 16 meters (over 50 feet) in when the sun and moon are aligned on the same side of the earth. The speed of these changes can also be fast, traveling about eight knots in the Basin and raising or falling at a rate of about an inch per minute. The changes are particularly evidenced in different ways, in different places. For example:

1. In the Basin itself, where low tide is characterized by huge tidal flats and the sandstone bluffs along the coast that have been deeply eroded by the rushing water. One of the best places to see these flats and cliffs are at Burncoat Head, the site of the world’s highest tides.

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We timed our visit to this location to low tide, where one can see the full extent of the tides by standing down on the mud flats and looking up to the high water marks. While the height is impressive enough, the dramatically carved shapes of the water-scoured sandstone cliffs are even more striking. In an ideal world, we would have returned at high tide. Unfortunately, we had many miles to travel and were unable to return.

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2. On a tidal river that flows into Mina’s Basin. This provided a chance to experience high tide in a different, even more dramatic way–by powering through the tide as it surged, at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour, up a river that typically flows into the Basin. Nowhere is this surge more dramatic than in the Shubenacadie River, between Maitland and South Maitland. These flows, called “tidal bores”, are what, in open water, are called tidal waves. They occur when water from rapidly rising tides pushes into the shallow rivers–and especially over sandbars–so rapidly as to create waves. Although most tidal bores are small and barely noticeable, in this location, they produce waves that typically reach 9 to twelve feet. During Harvest Moons, when the moon is closest to the earth and exerting its greatest gravitational pull, waves of 22 feet have been measured. Traditionally lazy rivers are transformed into torrents.

While most people observe these bores from the river bank or observation platforms over the water, we wanted to experience them first hand. So we signed up with River Runners for a Zodiac trip that would take us through, back over and then return through the bore many times. They warned us that we would get soaked, and we did. So soaked that by the time we reached an eddy, jumping in for a swim through the tide seemed superfluous. But we did so anyway, floating, uncontrollably, further and further from the Zodiac, which eventually came to retrieve us. We also had a chance to walk a water-saturated sandbar (easily digging in to over our knees, where we could rock forward without fear of falling into the slop. (By the time we returned 60 minutes later, that sandbar was twenty feet below the surface. Nor were water and mud the only parts of tidal bore experience. We also saw three bald eagles and a nest that was about six feet in diameter.

How does this compare to whitewater river rafting? The waves we experienced were probably equivalent to Class Two raids, with some approaching Class Three. Good, soaking fun but nothing like the sense of terror of Class Five Rapids. (Possibly during a Harvest Moon!) And, since these rivers are all sand, you don’t have to worry about hitting submerged rocks that can capsize the craft. Most importantly, white water rafting is done on rafts that float with the current, navigating one rapid after another with paddles. Tidal bores, by contrast, pass a given spot only once every twelve hours. The only way to multiply the experience is to motor back down River, and continually repeat the process. Repeating, however, does not translate into reliving the same experience, since waves change dramatically depending on the depth, width and contour of the river at different spots.

What does a tidal bore look and feel like? If you’ve reacted or kayaked through whitewater, you know. Or, if only we had a waterproof GoPro attached to our life vests, we could have showed you. Since we didn’t we have to rely on pictures from River Runner’s Web site.

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