URBANIA, Nova Scotia -- The Shubenacadie River ebbs and floods on the flailing tail of 40-foot tides in the Bay of Fundy, so when the husband learned that commercial rafting trips take clients down the river's tidal rapids, he pitched the idea as an anniversary gift to his wife.
"Ride the tide?" she sniffed. "Sounds a bit slow."
"I don't think so," he countered.
He persevered, and on a warm afternoon last September they found themselves with several companions aboard a Zodiac with Tidal Bore Rafting Park , waiting like a leaf on a mill pond for the tide to turn. She was in the bow, the chatty -- if somewhat bored -- vanguard.
And when the tide turned, it took just moments for "the Shubie" to explode like biblically parting seas. Six foot waves erupted out of nowhere. Some people screamed with laughter, others screamed as they flew overboard.
She, however, went totally quiet -- mostly because she was seated on the tip of a vessel that was driving through waves like a drill taking core samples.
And he started to wonder if this was such a great anniversary present . No doubt they were both confronting a profound truth. On a full moon tide, the Shubenacadie is anything but slow.
Pronounced shoo-ben-ack-a-dee , the 32-mile river is located midway between the bay and Halifax Stanfield International Airport . On a flood tide, some 52 billion tons of water roil up the river in two hours, the currents topping 18 miles per hour as standing waves, created not by underwater obstacles but by the motion of water, reach close to 10 feet high.
Micmac legend was onto something when it suggested the Shubenacadie was a sign of just how deeply the earth inhales and exhales, twice a day.
"I had always wanted to give it a try but the rides were always booked," said Jack Robinson , 51, a Nova Scotia native. Three years ago he quit his "real" job as a lawyer for
"But I've never looked back," Robinson said of a business that now jettisons 5,500 tourists through roiling water from June through October without injury, he said.
Tidal Bore Rafting, founded a quarter-century ago, is one of three outfitters that make the most out of riding the Micmacs' breathing river.
On a finger of the Bay of Fundy where the tide can rise 56 feet, water charges up the Shubie on a bore ( from the Old Norse "bara," a wave or swell). Just the bore itself can reach 12 feet overhead. Surfers have tried to ride it. The only other part of the world where tides are so extreme is Ungava Bay in northern Quebec, according to scientists with the Canadian Hydrographic Service.
"Which place has higher tides is a matter of debate that gets down to fractions of an inch," said David Greenberg , a Canadian tide specialist. Taking a precise measurement is nearly impossible, he added. Only once every 18.6 years, during a particular alignment of planets, moon, and sun, are the planet's tides the highest.
"To date, we have not been able to put one scientist in both places," Greenberg added, "and so we have to live with the ambiguity." On one point Greenberg is clear: The Bay of Fundy's radical tides are not caused by its funnel shape -- the explanation often offered by sailors and river guides alike.
"There are plenty of funnel-shaped bays worldwide with unspectacular tides," Greenberg said. Instead, the Fundy's extreme tide is powered by a particularly propitious resonance, or the back-and-forth movement of water between the head of the bay and the continental shelf. The motion creates a natural optimal frequency that, like a child's swing, can be maintained with just a push of a finger (or a nudge from the moon and sun), according to Greenberg.
The nudges were predicted to be particularly big on the day last year when a dozen Zodiacs from Tidal Bore Rafting Park started several miles downstream to meet the incoming tide.
"God do I love my job," said Cliff Kearley , the driver at the helm of one of the boats, as he put the outboard into reverse and then headed down the lazily ebbing current. A Newfoundland native and former Navy boating safety instructor , Kearley, 35, turns into a teenager on the Shubie.
"I want to warn you : The ride I give is not for sissies. If you want something easier, find another boat," he said. No smile. What a tease, that Kearley. It occurred to no one that " the crazy Newfy," as other drivers called him, was telling the truth.
For the next 40 minutes the fleet of boats moseyed along under the gaze of bald eagles. The river cuts through an Alaskan-type wilderness that was not to human scale. Less than an hour's drive from Halifax, this world belongs to others, not people.
At one mud flat in the middle of the expanse, the Zodiacs beached. Here they would await the bore. Passengers went for a dip. Others played on the slippery mud like children on greased slides . The water gurgled and whispered. It was 12:26 p.m.; the world was at peace.
At 12:27 p.m., peace was a memory.
They heard the bore before they saw it, a rumble like a very large animal with severe congestion. Then perhaps 100 yards away, a wall of white froth suddenly appeared. Boat drivers lurched for their boats, barking at people to climb aboard. Swimmers scrambled and flailed to get ashore. Mellow turned serious, engines started, chatter grew giddy.
Now well around a downstream bend, the bore advanced at a cyclist's pace. It was all suds, growling. It was now clear why the fleet had beached here; the wide fetch of the steam bed allowed the bore to stretch out and diminish in height so that when the surge passed under the Zodiacs, they bobbed safely like corks. A moment later, the bore was gone. The water turned silky, undulating -- moving , but smooth like muscle.
Then the ride began in earnest. Because you don't come to the Shubie to ride the bore. You come to ride the waves that form about a minute after the bore passes.
Approaching the first giant wave, Kearley throttled up and lanced the muddy mountain of water. Passengers seated along the rim of the boat had clung to each other like pop beads. The water busted the human necklace. Three people went overboard.
"I have just fallen into the world's largest washing machine," yelled Andy Cochrane , 53, dean of continuing education at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Herein lies one of the assets of riding the wild Shubie. White water in the mountains is mined with underwater rocks; rafters wear helmets. The bottom of the Shubie is nothing but mud.
Cochrane and associates were hauled back aboard, then Kearley resumed his pursuit of whatever white whales he saw in the turmoil.
Because the river fills so quickly, sets of rapids can sometimes last only minutes before the Zodiacs need to move upstream to find more. The boat drivers dashed from one set of waves to the next like kids looking for the next ride at an amusement park.
"God I love my job," Kearley kept shouting each time his boat submerged. An hour later, the fleet was bashing into the last waves just a stone's throw from where the trip had begun.
Everyone, including the wife, looked waterlogged, as if they had risen from the deep to clamber ashore. She was still not chatty. He refrained from making a smart aleck comment such as, "Happy anniversary!"
Instead, he thought: Next year, flowers.
David Arnold, a freelance writer in Milton, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.