21.2 mi / 10.0 mph / 746 ft. climbing
Home: Luke’s AirBNB camper
We were up late last night having a really stressful time sorting through a list of limited options for places to stay. In fact we didn’t even finally settle on a place until this morning. Our escape-from-Canada route now has us going west from Truro and along the northern coast of the western lobe of Nova Scotia (in contrast to our arrival which had us exploring the southern coast). The Bay of Fundy is the unique draw to this coast, famous for having the highest tides in the world. I’d scouted out campgrounds along the coast-hugging NS-215 between the Shubenacadie and Avon rivers, but since the bridges crossing those rivers were significantly upstream from their gaping mouths into the Bay, that route was much longer than our shortest-possible-path. Plus, the forecast had a cool day and night, with some chance of rain. The problem was that, on the direct route, there was literally nowhere to stay once we passed 20 miles, the places even in that area were really expensive, and that felt like too-little progress. But Rett eventually laid out enough facts to prove that was the best of a bad set of choices, so we booked a night at an off-grid camper (with a really vague AirBNB description) sitting on some dude’s land about 20 miles out.
Dawn, last night’s AirBNB hostess, and a fellow cyclist (how do we keep lucking into such like-minded hosts?), thoughtfully offered to ride out with us, but given our slowness, our only-going-20-miles late start, and need for a grocery stop, we told her she was probably better off just going on her own.
On the Cobequid Trail we got our first view of the Bay of Fundy, and particularly the Minas Basin at the head of its southern arm. The tide was low, so the water was far away from us, leaving a vast, thick layer of orange mud, carved and furrowed with the currents of previous tides finding the paths-of-least-resistance during their inexorable push up the bay. That’s also where we saw Dawn riding back on the trail (that she had recommended to us!) and waved as we passed and recognized each other; later she messaged saying (again, thoughtfully!) that she had hit a bad mood with the cold weather, and so didn’t want to stop and bring us down with her.
The end of the trail and our turn south onto NS-236 took us away from the Bay and into hilly farm country that somehow reminded me more of our first day riding in Vermont than the hilly farm country of much-closer Prince Edward Island. And in the 10-mile stretch we saw what appeared to be several independent bike tourers heading the other way; always a good sign that we’re on a good route!
It turned out that Rett’s call to go short, and for a roof, was the totally the right one. There was more rain than the forecast suggested, never enough to soak us down, but it was at least dripping for our entire ride from 11am to 3pm. Going further in the cool wet wouldn’t have been a lot of fun.
Just short of our destination we crossed the Shubenacadie River, and right next to the bridge was the Fundy Tidal Interpretive Center, a place to learn about and observe the “tidal bore”. We’ve been hearing about the Bay of Fundy’s extreme tides from fellow travelers for more than a month now, but it took us a while to learn what that actually meant in terms of human experience. It turns out there are roughly three main ways to observe these huge tides: vertically, horizontally, or via their tidal bores. Where there are vertical tides (>50 ft. difference between low and high tide!) you can “walk on the seafloor”, or observe boats sitting in the mud at low tide, way below the level of their docks. With horizontal effects, you can see the sea retreat miles from “shore”. But to get the full experience of those directional movements, you need to be able to observe a spot at high tide, and then come back and observe it 6+ hours later at low tide. Unfortunately that’s not particularly compatible with bike-touring, though that was one of the reasons I’d been interested in the out-of-the-way coastal-route for today; maybe we would have been able to observe some changes as we rode along the water’s (or sometimes-water’s) edge.
In contrast, a tidal bore is something that happens at a specific time. So specific in fact that the Interpretative Center said it would reach there at 5:14pm today. It’s the moment that the rising tide reverses the flow of the river, creating an unusual standing wave. Unfortunately this method also did not work out for today’s bike tourers, because we wanted to be well-settled in our camper by 5:14, rather than hanging out in the dripping for another 2 hours waiting for something that might not be all that exciting. Oh well, maybe tomorrow we’d be able to observe the tides somewhere.
Our camper was a big climb back out of the river valley. Our host said he wouldn’t be around, so “check-in” was simply rolling up, opening the door, and walking in. I helped Rett take a shower in the outdoor shower stall, for which I had to connect a wire to a car-battery terminal to run the pump to push water from the rooftop tank. The on-demand propane heater seemed to run in either scalding or barely-warm mode, and shortly after we got that figured out the water flow dropped to a trickle. Rett was still able to finish up, but it was far from the funnest outdoor shower experience (I later deduced that the battery, which is supposed to be charged with solar panels on the shower room when not in use, had likely drained too low to run the pump). Ironically, the stall had utility-provided power, which is what turned on the light (presumably our host built the shower setup before he had power run to the property), but that wasn’t usable to run the 12V pump! This new source of power meant that the camper itself had electricity, but no running water, so dish and toilet duty had to be done outside.
We got settled in to the otherwise-comfortable camper (though the heater seemed a bit intermittent), but then I noticed the skies had cleared up a bit so I decided to snoop around a bit on this plot of land. Heading further down the gravel driveway, I first came to a field with a surprising amount of agriculture, including garden plots and newly-planted (fruit?) trees. I saw our host’s main equally off-grid-looking residence hidden in the woods off to the right. Then I noticed a mowed path continued through the tall grass, which then cut into the woods and continued down the slope. I kept following this unusually-well-maintained trail as it took me through a variety of terrain, on a hike that was a good as anything at a state park. All the while baffled at why such a trail would even exist on this guy’s land. So I needed to keep exploring, since it really felt like the trail was taking me somewhere. Maybe it would take me all the way back to the river? And yes, I finally broke through the last set of thin twisted-root trees, into a wall of chest-high grass, and there, 30 feet down an orange-mud cliff, was the broad bed of the Shubenacadie River! The sun shone on the cliffs opposite, and a pair of bald eagles wheeled in the freshly-blue sky.
The river bed, edged by these high banks, was a quarter-mile wide at this point, and quickly broadened to a half-mile just upstream as it made an S-curve. I could just glimpse the bridge and interpretive center a mile or so downstream. What remained of the river filled only 20% of the bed at this hour, running close to the near bank, but just at my observation point the main stem split, with one half cutting straight across the bed to a channel on the opposite bank. Wait, what time is it? 4:45pm! Was this a chance to see the tidal bore after all?! Even though it was still some 30 minutes away, turbulence on that connecting stem was already causing chunks of its 3-foot-high wall of orange sediment to crumble into the water with dramatic splashes, like a glacier calving icebergs. I quickly ran all the way back up the trail to collect Rett so that she could see this wonder too.
At the calculated time, no sharp change appeared; there was no sudden wall of water coming upstream. But the more we observed, the more we keyed into the oddities and abnormalities of what we were looking at. It was much more than a single “tidal wave”; it was an hour-long multi-act performance during which we watched water move in ways that no previous experience had told us we should expect water to behave. We saw whirlpools gyrate their way upstream in a line. We saw water stack itself into a near-pyramidal shape, maintaining a shape and height that water’s own weight should not allow without the addition of significant amounts of gelatin. Then, those pyramids would form a militarized column eight-or-ten deep, and slowly march their way upstream, as if going to war against the very theories of fluid dynamics.
The pyramids were also continuing to erode the orange cliff at a frightening rate; we’re conditioned to think that soil erosion is a terrible thing, so seeing vast amounts of earth crumble away before our eyes feels like an incredible amount of destruction. But then logic tells us something even wilder: this destruction is not a single 100-year flood we had the bad fortune to witness; it must happen twice every day! That’s because this tide comes in (and goes out) twice a day, so these cliffs must be in a continual cycle of construction and deconstruction.
We would use a protruding rock to gauge how fast the water was rising, but then get distracted by something else that made no sense, and by the time we remembered to look back, the rock would be gone. A couple of seagulls standing on dry ground suddenly found themselves part of an ever-shrinking island; one flew off before the orange patch became Atlantis, but other other stayed until well after his feet got wet, presumably in stubborn defiance that such a thing could be happening.
Eventually the cliff-wall was completely over-topped, the water coated the earth like a spilled gallon of paint, and the action moved toward the stem near us. Here we could see the same standing waves, but this time from the side view, where they would curl over at their tops, continually breaking, yet barely moving. After ten seconds or so, one column would lower itself back down below the surface of the water, while nearby another column would rise, like the undulating backs of a colony of sea-serpents.
Eventually, as the water came to fill the whole river bed, the battle between the river and tide reduced to the occasional skirmish, and we finally pulled ourselves away to hike back up the trail as the sun sank below the trees. What wonderful luck that we were, in the end, able to experience the Bay of Fundy tides! After I’d given up on the chance, we were able to experience this gravitational wonder in a manner that was probably more unique and thrilling than any other method that we could have deliberately sought out.
And so now the existence of the long trail that we were hiking back on makes a lot more sense. If I lived here, I would love to see how the cycles of construction and deconstruction vary from day to day. Or to see the tidal bore at different times of day (we were incredibly lucky to see it in the light of sunset; tomorrow it happens after the sun is already down). We also weren’t able to go back six hours later to observe the “vertical tide”, but by the look of the vegetation lines on the banks, the water had dozens of feet left to rise. Rett observed deer prints in the grass-covered mud where we had been standing, just before the muddy cliff dropped away, and hypothesized that, as crazy as it seemed with the river currently way down there, the deer probably drank right from this spot once the river filled up with the tide.
(Go to https://www.instagram.com/p/CkZrMeRj91U/ to see the water in motion (along with Rett’s excited/incredulous commentary!)
Satisfied and amazed, but now hungry, we cooked up a big seafood chowder dinner back inside the camper, even more glad that we had decided to do only 20 miles today!