Bay of Fundy's ups and downs

  • Article by: MELANIE RADZICKI MCMANUS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 30, 2014 - 7:31 PM

Great tidal shifts in New Brunswick’s Bay of Fundy let adventurers paddle then walk among the same waterworn rock formations.

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Our kayak rises, hangs in the air, then slaps back down on the water. Over and over again.

I want to admire the immense sandstone rock formations that rise out of the chocolaty water, but with these rough waves, staying upright demands all my attention. Then our guide leads the way into a quiet cove. The water smooths out. I put down my paddle.

Finally, I regard the curving reddish-brown rock that looms before us. The bulbous mass perches on two stocky legs, the hollow in its midsection carved by centuries of relentless water flow. Scraggly trees cluster on its topside.

I fish in the dry bag for my camera so I can take a picture of the giant, dubbed Lover’s Arch, but our guide motions us on. The clock is ticking, and every minute counts.

We’re paddling in the Bay of Fundy, home to the world’s largest tides. In this finger of water tucked between the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, water can rise and fall as much as five stories in six hours — a notion I found so preposterous that the only way to truly comprehend it was to see it myself. My husband, Ed, and I decided to do just that this summer.

Our adventure had begun an hour earlier, when we’d arrived at Baymount Outdoor Adventures, a New Brunswick outfitter that offers guided kayak tours of the bay. A clerk quizzed us about our paddling experience; we assured her that we’d kayaked before.

“Good,” she said, noting the water was rough. “We’re having 3-, 4- and possibly even 5-foot waves. You’ll definitely get soaked, and there’s the slight possibility of flipping.”

Ed and I glanced at each other. It’s true we have paddling experience — on sedate rivers and calm lakes. We’ve never battled roiling waves. But we were determined to experience the Bay of Fundy’s tides while on the water, so we kept quiet.

A few paddling newbies were turned away — a blogger from Paris, a family from India, an elderly woman. Those of us who made the cut were handed paddles, life vests and spray skirts, then marched down to the beach and our kayaks. Now here we are, battling not just rough seas, but a tide beating a hasty retreat back to sea.

World’s highest tides

To understand how Bay of Fundy’s tides work, I looked at the numbers. About 160 billion tons of seawater flow in and out of the bay during one tide cycle — more than the flow of all of the world’s freshwater rivers combined. While that’s a colossal amount of water, it wouldn’t necessarily equate into insanely high tides if it weren’t for Fundy’s shape. The mouth of the bay stretches 62 miles wide and plunges 400 to 700 feet deep. But at its northern tip near the New Brunswick city of Moncton, some 180 miles up the coast, it’s a mere 2½ miles wide with a depth of 40 feet.

“When the tide comes in, [all the water is] squeezed from the sides and bottom,” explains Jon Michael Keir- stead, an interpreter at the Hopewell Rocks provincial park, home base for Baymount Outdoor Adventures. “It has nowhere to go but up.” Which is why tides can rise and fall as much as 53 feet. The world’s average tidal range? A paltry 3 feet.

In this tip-of-the-funnel end of the bay, not only are the tides the highest of the high, but they’re the most fleeting. Keirstead says high tide here lasts 30 seconds or so before the water begins to flow out again, falling an incredible foot every eight minutes until low tide occurs some six hours later. “It’s a pretty massive change.”

And one that people love to witness. Our itinerary is a popular one: kayak a few hours at the Hopewell Rocks, famed for its impressive sandstone formations, chiseled away from the cliffs by the tides, then return about 90 minutes later to stroll along the ocean floor. Exactly where we’d kayaked.

On the water, our guide leads us into another cove, teaching us about the bay and its tides. Even in this cove, the waves toss our kayak around like a cracker, so I can’t concentrate too much on the commentary. But I do learn the basics: The tide goes in and out twice a day, the times for high and low tides move ahead about an hour every day, and full and new moons make the tides deeper.

Back on shore a few hours later, Ed and I admit we didn’t notice the water level dropping as we paddled along. Would all of these still-roaring waves really be gone in a little over an hour? We walk back to our car, change into dry clothes and browse through some educational displays.

Soon our feet clatter on the metal steps leading down to Staircase Cove, home of the Lover’s Arch formation. Hopping off the final step, we abruptly stop and gape. Just as promised, all of the water we’d so recently been battling is gone. There’s no splashing surf, no swelling waves, no brisk winds. Just a wide expanse of soft, mocha-colored sand festively adorned with glistening strands of seaweed.

Groups of visitors wander about, seeing how far they can venture from shore before the mucky sea floor grabs hold of their feet. Others creatively pose by some of the more tide-worn sandstone pillars. A few simply watch the water recede farther and farther out to sea.

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  • Paddlers explored the Bay of Fundy, with its carved stone arches and immense, fleeting tide. Water in the bay can rise and fall as much as five stories in six hours.

  • IF YOU GO

    For more information, check with Tourism New Brunswick (1-800-561-0123; www. tourismnewbrunswick.ca).

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