Losing My Bearings, Losing the Sea

Tuesday morning, June 12th

The sun is just coming up. I’ve made my coffee and eaten a biscuit. I’ll grab some blueberries on the way. I’m preparing to make my way south from here. I have my map and compass, but I’ve “perdu le nord (lost the north),” as they say around here, or lost my bearings. I should be somewhere south of Petitcodiac, I think. I’ve decided to get back to the Great Trail by marching straight through the woods. I’ll point myself south and try to follow the muddy streambeds where I can. I should eventually run into the Atlantic Ocean, and the trail will be obvious then. This part of the country is inhabited by black bears and moose. While the sun is up, they are active, so I better be, too!

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Late morning
Finally! Four hours later, and I’ve found the ocean! I can’t be more than a half mile from the beach. What a beautiful place! Red rock cliffs, towering pines, and clear sparkling water as far as the eye can see. Best of all, I’m pretty sure I’ve found the Great Trail! There’s a little town a couple of miles down the shoreline. Once I get there, I’ll know where I am, get some supplies and continue the journey east. I can see the town from here, but I’m so tired and honestly feeling relieved, so I think I’ll get to the beach and take a short nap on the grass at the shore. The salty breeze is soothing, the sky is overcast, and the sound of the gentle waves against the rocks only a few yards away is magical. Seems like a perfect place to relax a while.

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Afternoon
Whoa! This is weird. Am I dreaming? I’m suddenly not sure where I am. When I went to sleep, I thought I had finally found my way, but now I’ve “perdu le nord” all over again! I don’t even want to write this down. It doesn’t make any sense; people will think I’m crazy. But I said I would document this journey, so I will. The sun is in the west now, which means I must have slept four hours or more, but that’s not the strange part. The ocean… it’s… gone! The spruce and firs on the ruddy cliffs look familiar, but the water has gone missing. The beach is covered with damp rocks, but they’ve multiplied, or been stretched out in front of me, or I’ve been moved to another beach..? I’ll have to go look around.

I stand up and reach for the sky, thinking this may clear my head. I do see some water in the distance. At least, I think it is water. It’s so far, almost all the way on the horizon. Like a mirage. I walk out over the stones, each one moving a little under my feet, each one wet and green with moss… no, not moss, it’s algae! There are patches of sand and occasionally I see a little crab scurrying to avoid my attention. The water is silent and still near the horizon, it seems. I keep walking toward the sea and a light breeze brings the smell of salt and fish, and convinces me I am still near the ocean. The clumps of algae are brown or green. Some have swollen stems that look like balloons. They don’t belong on dry land; these appear to be marine species. They need to be under water to live, but they still look alive, only slightly deflated. I am careful to avoid stepping on them, since they are very slippery. There are some shallow pools of water here and there, but not enough to support these aquatic plants. How strange!

I keep walking with my back to the beach, trying to get closer to the water, when I come to a large patch of sand. A thin stream of water is flowing across it, leaving ripples. It looks like water has been making ripples here for some time. But the ripples are symmetrical. Ripples in a streambed are always asymmetrical with one side longer and flatter than the other, indicating the direction the water was flowing. Judging by these ripples, the water must move in two directions equally, but that’s not possible, is it? Looking back at where I napped, I must have walked a mile toward the water by now, but it’s at least another mile out to the waves. This feels like someone pulled the drain plug on the ocean, but there are no confused fish flopping around. Apart from a few shy crabs, no one seems to be the least bit concerned!

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A gull flies nonchalantly overhead and drops a mussel on the exposed rock to crack open her lunch. She eyes me distrustfully and gives a little squawk, warning me to keep away. I watch the gull with her prize for a few minutes, or maybe it was longer. As I turn to walk ever further toward the water, it suddenly doesn’t look so far away. Finally I arrive at the water’s edge! My feet are tired, so I drop my pack on the stony surface and take off my boots, carrying them with me toward the cool muddy brine. Aahh! Suddenly, I look back and realize my pack is sitting in a little puddle of water. I thought that spot had been merely damp a moment ago. Hmm… I grab my pack and realize the water is flowing uphill, over the cobbles, and toward the shore. “That’s not possible,” I mutter to myself while gingerly picking my path toward the grassy hillside so far away. I shuffle over to a patch of sand to try to gain some ground on the water, which appears to be returning toward the shore. I pause long enough to throw on my boots, and realize the water is definitely rising.

I finally begin to consider what is going on. While the sun and moon conspire to pull water toward and away from the land over a few feet on all the beaches I’ve encountered before, this place seems to have an extreme version of this tidal phenomenon. In this place, the water is pulled not over feet or yards, but miles!

I’m getting closer to shore now, and I notice a rocky outcrop along the coast. Not the red cliffs, but green rocks covered by algae. They reach at least fifteen feet above my head! If the tide was all the way in, I’d be under water for sure! I’m a capable swimmer, but the thought frightens me enough to quicken my pace and my heartbeat! After a while, I start to get winded and look back to see that the water is indeed pursuing me, but I’m outpacing it just fine. I can afford a minute’s rest. It occurs to me that I’m still not exactly sure where I am, but I can see the village and I know the townspeople can tell me when I get there.

Another half mile of walking at a nice, relaxed pace, and I find myself crossing the grass and strolling along the road toward the town. They tell me this is Alma, New Brunswick. But they jokingly ask me where I just came from. I told my story, and they said, “you were in the Bay of Fundy”.

“In? Like on the bottom of the sea floor!?” I laugh. But as I look back at the ocean gently, slowly, relentlessly returning to the cliffs, I realize that I was indeed walking on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.

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The Bay of Fundy is home to the world’s largest tidal fluctuations. Here, the moon and sun pull the water 53 vertical feet, and over three horizontal miles from shore, twice a day! There are two reasons that the moon’s (and sun’s) gravitational pull affects this location differently than other locations. One is that the Bay of Fundy is funnel-shaped, so as the water is pulled into the space between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, it gets squeezed into ever-narrower areas horizontally, which means it is pulled to greater depth, vertically. (The same volume of water pushed against a long shoreline will spread out, but pushed into a narrow space, it will become taller.) The other is trickier to explain without some understanding of physics, and I’m a biologist. This will be a bit of an oversimplification.

Resonance is a concept in physics that happens when an external force acts on an oscillating system. Sounds difficult, but you’ve definitely experienced it. Let’s say you’re pushing a child on a swing. If you lift them and let go and they don’t “pump their legs”, they will slow down due to the friction in the chain and air resistance. On the other hand, if you push them every time they get to where you are standing, you will be adding “external force” that will keep the “system” (child on swing) “oscillating” (going back and forth). If you add the force at the wrong time, you can slow them down, but by doing it at just the right time, you can keep them oscillating and overcome the resistance forces that would stop them eventually. This system has a “period of oscillation” or time that is just right for adding that helpful force. If the swing’s chain is longer or shorter, the time period will be different.

In a similar way, water in a bowl could be sloshed back and forth rhythmically in such a way as to allow it to reach the rim of the bowl on each side, if you moved the bowl just right. If you wanted to keep that sloshing going, you would have to keep adding force at the right time. The larger the bowl, the longer the period of oscillation. The shape of the Bay of Fundy means that the period of oscillation for the sloshing water happens to be a little over 12 hours. And of course, the moon goes around the earth every 24 hours. So the moon pulls the water into the bay, then away from the bay every 12 hours!

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