Fathom Mag
Short Story

The Tides

Published on:
August 1, 2023
Read time:
11 min.
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When I get out of my car, I walk down to the beach, stretching my steps to paces as I head to the ocean’s ebbing edge. I try to count my steps but lose track somewhere in the three-hundreds, and I still have a way to go. The tide is low, but only a couple of months ago, I could get to the shore with five large paces, down the steps and the water was lapping at my feet. My sons, Ambrose and Isaac, stalk seagulls while I take my measurements. 

The incline is steep and the sand loose for the first third of my walk. I am stepping over dried seaweed, detritus, some rocks the size of volleyballs, before the beach levels out, bottoms out really. This part of the sand is always wet, save for the warmest of days. Tidal pools are scattered to my right and left, some of them at the base of car-sized boulders. They shimmer in the sun, but when I face them, they are like glass, like mirrors, and I watch the periwinkles skate along their bottoms, leaving tracings in the sand.

The Bay is storied for its dramatic tides, which can be as high as fifty-two feet. Think of the length of a semitrailer, but vertical.

The tide is almost fully out, and so I walk on the bottom of the ocean floor, well below sea level, as the water is stretched out by the lunar pull.

The Bay of Fundy is the stretch of cold, North Atlantic water that is sandwiched between the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Its mouth begins where the state of Maine reaches Canadian borders and extends north and east from there. The Bay is storied for its dramatic tides, which can be as high as fifty-two feet. Think of the length of a semitrailer, but vertical. 

Twice a day, about every twelve hours or so, water rushes into the Bay from the Atlantic with surging power, forcing levels to rise, and then, just as soon as they reach their peak, they begin to subside, with waves dragging the ocean back out from the land.

The geologic features of the shoreline date from the Jurassic period, and sedimentary rocks slide out of the earth on a slant, as if they were forced into the side of the primordial clay by some giant. Their rough edges are blunted day after day with the eroding force of the water rising, and falling, rising and falling. 

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The first spring after we moved to Saint John from Toronto, I took to running in the evenings. Running with the sight of the Bay was a luxury. I dreamed of running next to the ocean day to day, and never thought it was something I would ever be able to do. The fog rolled in when the temperatures were above freezing, grey and impenetrable in the twilight. I followed the lay of the land, running up the hill to Carleton Martello Tower, a fort from the War of 1812. I ran around the base, trying to see through the mist, and then down, down toward the shore. The tide was out, and I ran toward it, splashing through the frigid puddles, not much warmer than snow, heading out toward the ebbing waves. I stopped, midway, on the ocean floor and pivoted. There was sand, and fog, nothing else, no light, no habitations, no water, only the in-between, the exposed belly of the bay. 

The Lord appears in the dense cloud, the thick fog. He appears only when it is not possible to see him.

I stopped and removed my headphones, pausing the tinny music, as I tried to listen to the world. I inhaled the fresh sea air, mingling with the ethereal fog. I was suspended in a moment outside of time, with no color or change, nothing to ground my vision, only the faint sounds of lapping waves some distance away. 

I understood something of mystery of theophany: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.” The Lord appears in the dense cloud, the thick fog. He appears only when it is not possible to see him. 

The torrential spring rains kept us cooped up indoors for days on end. To escape the drudgery we visit the library, then herd our sons into the tiny café uptown to eat banana bread while we drink espresso. The afternoon drags on, so we head to the New Brunswick Museum where we have a membership. We wander the displays, now familiar. We start with prehistory and move to human inhabitants.

The first people to live around the steely cold waters of the Bay of Funday were Mi’kmaq, the name of the Indigenous folks scattered throughout what we now call the Maritimes. I don’t know how they managed the droves of snow in the winter or the harsh climes of the Northern wilds. The French came later, following the explorations of Samuel de Champlain in 1605. The British were not far behind, and they jostled with the French for possession of a land that never belonged to either of them. They succeeded in time.

Both the French and the English brought their priests, who initially stuck to their own. They celebrated Holy Communion in the wild. 

An old Anglican Church now stands on a hill looking over the Wolastoq (Saint John) River where it meets the bay. I am told the Rev. Thomas Wood first celebrated the Eucharist here in 1769, a not-to-distant past for these parts. He preached in English, French, and Mi’kmaq at a time when all of these languages were still spoken and easily understood. 

The ocean is equally beautiful and terrifying. It’s easy for me to forget this when I picture sandy white beaches and coconut palms. Dreaming of travel and tropical climes, makes the ocean seem like a place of rest and refreshment. On my regular walks, I realize there is nothing further from the truth.

On a summer day, with the sky true blue, almost as if it were the source of all other blues, I hike around a peninsula unfortunately named “Taylors Island.” From the steep cliffs, I can look down and see the white caps frothing on the tips of the waves. Choppy seas are unusual. Not terribly uncommon, but the bay is relatively protected and thus relatively calm, save for when there is a storm surge. I notice the water is a briny cloud. The rolling waves stir up the fine sediment deposited on the ocean floor and churn it into the water so that the transparent liquid becomes a kind of soaking dust storm. If I were to put my head under water with goggles I would see nothing; I would see swirling muck, darkness, confusion.

I read in the news recently that ocean technologists are relying on artificial intelligence to decipher the marine life living in the Bay of Fundy. With the violent tides, the churning sediment is impenetrable, and scientists struggle to monitor fish and other wildlife. 

What clouds the waters?

Decay, sand, crumbling fossils, and fish flesh worn to dust over time. I think about this when I step into the water. I am wading into a pulsing bowl of decay, of death making a mineral-rich sea, nourishing life and hiding it from view in the same instant.

“He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses,” the Psalmist says. Is it God who rakes the beach, pulling everything not held down into the ocean’s abyss?

I seldom put my head under water in the bay, though on the warmest days in August, I wade up past my knees, but even then my skin hurts, and my legs go numb. The temperature of the bay is relatively stable, only changing seven or eight degrees Celsius throughout the seasons. On the balmiest days, it reaches twelve degrees Celsius (or about fifty-three degrees Fahrenheit). Too much water, about 96km3, is coursing in and out twice every day that there is not enough time for it to warm up. 

To go swimming is to risk hypothermia, even in the sunshine of July. 

“He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses,” the Psalmist says. Is it God who rakes the beach, pulling everything not held down into the ocean’s abyss?  

When I was eighteen years old, I moved to British Columbia to study. I was a freshman in college when some friends and I crammed into an old Honda Civic and drove south along the West Coast during spring break. We slept on beaches and warmed up cans of beans over a gas stove. We left Vancouver’s frosty peaks and found ourselves strolling along Santa Monica Pier. We dove into the tepid waters—the only ones swimming in early March. I ran into the waves over and over again. I rose with them, let them bring me down. Or, I dove through one and the next pushed me over. 

Later that week I scribbled in my journal as we headed back North: “Jumping in the waves is like wrestling with God.” 

Why did I write that? I had forgotten the Atlantic, the bone-chilling cold. I had forgotten that to only dip in my toes is often too much of a commitment. 

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On another day, I went back to the museum, where I’ve learned to return often. It was a Saturday, and this afternoon, I stalked a group that had enlisted a tour guide. 

Did they pay for this? I wondered to myself, keeping to the shadows.

I heard the tour guide explaining the movements of the tides, pointing to a three-story tube filled with water that mimics the rising and falling of the sea.

“The fisherman used to find ways to align their bodies with the tide,” she said. “They couldn’t wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night like the rest of us, because sometimes high tide would be in the middle of the night, and sometimes it would be in the middle of the day. They had to hop on their boats when the water started to rise, whether the sun had risen or not. Their sleep schedules fall in line with the rhythms of the moon.” 

I could understand why the fishermen did this.

I pictured the fishing village of St. Martin’s, only a forty-minute drive from my home, where the fishing boats lay dormant on the sheeny mud during low tide. Gulls peck at discarded scallop shells and unearth crab claws snapping at their beaks. The boats are useless until the waters lift them, elevating them to buoyancy. The fishermen need to be ready for the rise. 

This was a wonderful and terrifying thought, to live like these hardy, weather-worn men. To live out of sync with almost everyone else, not only to be working nights, with a schedule that mirrored the nine-to-five life, but to be always moving, keeping track of the lunar pull and release, to live a life whose movements were completely invisible to everyone else. How isolating! How liberating!

Is the lunar calendar much different from the church year?

Is the lunar calendar much different from the church year? 

In the fall, the light fades and I wake to darkness, work in the twilight, and return home under the glow of porch lights. The fall cools to winter and there is almost only darkness, black to gloom to black. When the sun does shine, it feels uncanny, as if something unwelcome and half-forgotten has burst through a nightshade shroud. 

Then, on the bleakest of nights, we celebrate the light. 

How jarring, how untimely to illumine the soporific darkness with the light of the Incarnation when nature hibernates, months away from the spring light. 

The liturgical year too is correlated to unseen rhythms, heavenly rhythms that converge in ordinary time, but they always remain slant.

In the spring, I go to the Bay often, to walk the shore, to see the aftermath of spring storms. In the summer it becomes even more a part of life. The Bay is the neighborhood pool, the massive splash pad that far exceeds the colorful, candy-hued competition at the playground not far from our home. In the fall, as the water cools, I take to the hills and cliffs, hiking under reddening maple leaves and canary yellow birch. When winter comes, my visits become less frequent, and I am hedged into my house by the bittering wind and cold.

Last January, early in the month, I made an exception. I wanted to mimic the Orthodox “Great Blessing of the Waters,” submerging my body in the icy ocean to remind my soul of its baptism. I invited my friends to come with me. They wouldn’t budge. 

My wife was more accommodating, though even she would only indulge me from a distance, within a running car with heated seats. My sons were held hostage in their car seats when I marched through the hardened snow toward the shore. I was clad in a bathrobe and wool socks, shivering before I reached the water.

I removed the robe, exposing my tensing flesh, now uncovered save for my swimming trunks. I steadied myself, took a few deep breaths, and tip-toed forward. 

Though everything in me wanted to recoil, to turn my back on the bay and its gentle waves, to run to my car, I stepped forward pace after pace until the water reached my waist.

I sat down, submerging myself save for my face. 

A kaleidoscope of pain and bright lights flashed in my brain and I gasped involuntarily, my chest heaving again and again. I tried for a while to steady my breathing, but my vision was starting to blur, my muscles contracted, and I gave in to the cold. I woodenly stood up, hunched over, and shakily made my way to the car, to a heated seat, to warm air, to comfort.

Herman Melville writes of the ocean in Moby Dick:

Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

I think Melville is on to something. There is something unnerving about the ocean depths, but even its shallows make my heart flutter.

There is a beach where my family and I go to swim. Technically speaking, it’s not on the Bay of Fundy, but a kilometer or so upriver. The sand is less coarse, and the water, though still tinged with salt, is a cocktail of fresh and brackish, the mingling of the river and tidal backwash. We come here because the water warms a little more quickly in the cove. In July it still makes me shiver, but it is tolerable.

As long as I only wade in a few feet deep I can make out my toes against the soft bottom if I stand still to allow the sediment to settle. A few more feet out and I lift from the bottom and only see the dark. 

I’ve paddled out here too. In the heat of the day, I like to plunge in for a moment, but this is always preceded by a flash of terror. What might be swimming, slithering underneath?

Sharks can come this far. Last summer a bull shark got trapped upriver and kept swimmers on the docks.

Lamprey eels too. I poured over pictures of their demonic teeth after hearing reports of an attack nearby. A swimmer felt a sudden stab of pain and luckily was able to pull the razor teeth off her leg without drowning. She kept out of the water for the rest of the year.

One summer in June, I hiked out to a lighthouse on the cliffside overlooking the bay. Even with the short, even walk out to the water I was sweating in my short sleeves. The sun was beating down through the clear air—we have none of the pollution I had become accustomed to living in Toronto for years—and the fir and spruce stifled any wind. It wasn’t until I reached the clearing that led to the white and red lighthouse that I felt the breeze coming off the water. It was unbelievably cold, chilling me to the bone despite the hot sun, despite the warmth emanating from the gravel path. I had goosebumps. I wished I had brought a sweater. 

I forced myself to stand for a moment and surveyed the distance. On a day like this, I could just make out the far shore, the gentle cliffs in Nova Scotia on the other side, a slightly darker shade of blue. Otherwise, everything was illumined. The sea shone and the barren sky was lit by the ball of fire that we call the sun. I squinted through my sunglasses in the transfiguration light. This was everything for a moment, with only the sound of the waves rolling in. And then the cold; I remembered the cold. 

I turned my back to the bay and made for my car. There, I would be shielded from the warm sun, and the chilling breeze. There I would pick up my phone, check my emails, perhaps, before I drove to town to buy a coffee that I would drink through a plastic lid. At home, I would place the empty cup in the trash before I cooked dinner. I would eat with my family, and waste some hours watching television with my wife. I would go to sleep when the sun was down, however late it might set in June. I might wake to the sound of the train outside my window, but I wouldn’t even notice the tide’s rise and fall, or the shark propelling itself under the waves.

Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin
Dr. Hartin is an Anglican priest currently serving in The Episcopal Church in East Texas. He has a PhD in theological studies from Wycliffe College. His recent essays have been published in Commonweal, The Living Church, and Mere Orthodoxy. You can find his poetry in Ekstasis and The Reformed Journal.

Cover image by Landon Parenteau.

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