Living Beside the Tide

Wild River

For years I dreamed of living by the water, hoping that one day I’d settle beside some quiet cove or tranquil bay.  I expected that having a constant view of nearby water would calm and soothe me.  I do live by the water now, but the experience is not what I’d once imagined it might be.  Here on Johnson Point, I live beside an ominous presence, the Bagaduce River, a restless tidal estuary of wide bays and narrow waterways.  I keep close company with unrelenting forces of celestial mechanics that alternately churn and calm the waters.  The river’s wild beauty and fearsome strength console and unsettle me.

Twice each day the seas of Penobscot Bay squeeze through a constricted passage between our land to the north, and Green Island, the narrow’s southern side.  There’s no need for a tide clock here.  I just look across our fields and down to the river to see what the pull of sun and moon is doing to the river at any given moment, on any particular day.  For short interludes — at full flood or low tide —  the waters are serene and the river is calm as a pond. As the river is pulled back to the ocean, the narrows shrinks to less than 100 feet at its most occluded point. Then, about six hours later, the river rises toward full flood and becomes a reversing falls: the water above the narrows is four or five feet higher or lower than the flow into the narrows itself.  That is when the river is most dangerous.

It is never a safe thing, this tide-tossed estuary.  I have seen many kayakers get into serious trouble in a matter of seconds trying to muscle their way against the deceptive but enormous forces of an opposing tide. Those fast-moving currents have made a fool out of me more often than I care to admit and all my boats have the dents and scratches to prove it.  “US Harbors” puts it bluntly in their advice to mariners: “the channel is so constricted . . . that navigation is possible at slack water only, on account of the current. It is unsafe for strangers . . . .“  While I’m no longer a stranger to these waters — I’ve lived beside them for a few years now, — I’ll never be completely comfortable with the prodigious twelve- to fourteen-foot tides that run through here.  Who is ever comfortable in the presence of raw power and unquestionable majesty?

There are times when all I want is for the waters to calm down and run gently by.   So have others: in the past, people have considered taming this part of the river.  As far back as 1892, Lt. Col. Peter C. Hains of the Army Corps of Engineers surveyed the narrows at Johnson Point in the hopes of making “desired improvements’ which included “the widening of the Narrows, and the removal of some of the ledges above, so that sailing vessels may safely navigate this portion of the river.”  But he found that “the depth in the Narrows is less than four feet at mean low tide, and the current, both on ebb and flood, flows with such velocity that it is not navigable at all for sailing vessels except for about half an hour on each slack of the flood tide . . . .  At no other time, however, can [vessels sail safely here], because of the swiftness of the current and the dangerous projecting ledges on either hand.”  Colonel Hains concludes that “In view of the above, I am of the opinion that the South Fork of the Bagaduce River is not worthy of improvement by the General Government.”

And so our narrows was deemed unfit to be blown up by the nation. This fearsome passageway for great tidal forces remains ‘unimproved‘ to this day.  The river’s mighty force flows implacably on and its untamed strength and terrible beauty continue to unsettle and console me.

This tide-tossed estuary is the wildest thing in my life, a constant reminder that I am not in charge.  So I must adapt and look to the tides to set the rhythm and pattern of my day.  I set out to sail only an hour before full flood.  When the waters are low, I study and memorize the vagaries of the constantly shifting channel.  I cultivate a wariness and vigilance toward this force that I can’t possibly control but which continues to work its mysterious effect on me.  I’ve learned to accept this torrent I live beside as an unsought gift, the bane and the blessing of that invisible hand that roils the waters and governs the depths of the seas.

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