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Pins And Needles: High Tides

The action is overhead where gulls, eagles, hawks and crows congregate under the sky. An occasional airplane from the naval base up north streaks through the clouds, and private planes not much bigger than the birds putt by. In October, Canada geese move in with an air show which darkens the sky, followed by a land invasion of beachhead dimensions.

Gloria MacKay confesses that she is happiest when within sight and smell of salt water.

At high tide, logs on the beach where I once lived bounce around like sun-dried apples in a tub. As the water creeps backward it drains slowly, as though there must be a clog somewhere out in the strait beyond

Kayak Point is badly in need of a plunger.

Blame the Stillaguamish River coming to the end of its line, layering silt over the bay like dust on a tired old bed. Thanks to the river Livington Bay at low tide becomes a saturated desert. Not stagnant yet, but sticky, slick and clamless.

The action is overhead where gulls, eagles, hawks and crows congregate under the sky. An occasional airplane from the naval base up north streaks through the clouds, and private planes not much bigger than the birds putt by. In October, Canada geese move in with an air show which darkens the sky, followed by a land invasion of beachhead dimensions. Cars park. People group. Even the dogs stop what they're doing and look up.

The bay, on the other hand, has no follow-through. It fills with a stir – as though something is about happen – but then empties without a sound, as still as a movie theater at midnight. Without the tides the waters of Livingston Bay would shrink like a woolen sock until the bottom of bay became dry enough to be short platted and dotted with Lego-like houses. Families would sit on pads of concrete and look at the sky; it would be the only thing around worth watching.

When a person grows up around tides, even shares real estate with them for a time, I suppose it might be easy to overestimate the significance of the motion. My view – that it is always, irrevocably more satisfying to live by a salty body of water than fresh – is more provincial than I like to admit. But I have my reasons, parochial as they may seem to lake lovers, stream waders, and dwellers in middle America.

I put tides in the same bag where I put the rest of my trust: with friends who listen, children who phone, cars which start, recipes that never fail and dresses which always manage to fit. You can set your watch by the tides, and you can be absolutely positive that when one goes out it will come back right on schedule. When I need a reminder that my bag is not as empty as it feels, there is nothing like an incoming tide and a strong breeze to take up the slack.

Which leads me to believe tides should be added to the short list of things we can count on. "Nothing's sure but death and taxes and tides?" The meter sounds right. The alliteration works. But does it make sense? Just because I lived along side a quirky old tide that comes in with a hoot and a holler but sneaks back out like a mother at nap time, I am not an expert on tides. But I do think Mark Twain missed the boat when he ended his list at two; tides are every bit as intransigent as either death
or taxes.

If the sight of the Mississippi River being sucked straight into the Gulf of Mexico like milk through a straw had not clouded his early perception of how "real" waters move, I am convinced Twain would have included the tides, without pause, in his list of things we can be sure of.

I spent summers when I was young on another strand of water, a blip in the briny coastline of Puget Sound called Liberty Bay. I slept on a sun porch a few steps away from a steep path edged with a wobbly, tree branch railing leading down to a barnacled beach. Some days I played along the water all afternoon, moving my pail and shovel in and out with the tide, letting the ripples play with my toes like kittens. But there were hours when endless waves roared against the bulkhead like wild animals and I didn't have to be told to stand back.

When the high tide and the weather were right, my grandmother and I slid her round bottom boat (built by an old Swede who lived up the beach) over the edge of the bulkhead. If the tide was high enough the boat bobbed around in the water as eager to get started as a bird dog waiting for the hunt, while we managed to scoot ourselves in. If the tide was too low we had to half lift, half push the boat into the water. One way or the other we were going trolling, but first we had to get bait.

My grandmother always rowed straight to the abandoned dock, well within sight. Grunting a bit but still strong, she lurched herself upright among the pilings with the help a long handled tool concocted by my grandfather – he had lashed a sturdy black rod, pointed at one end and curled like a "C" to a pole the size of a broomstick. While the boat dipped and rolled, grandma scraped through barnacles and mussels, pulling out long, lethargic worms. I held out the coffee can and she dropped them in.

Actually, getting the worms was more exciting than catching the fish. My grandmother could doze out there all afternoon with her line in the water. Instead of a pole, we each used a line wound around a homemade wooden reel with a deep "V" notched in both ends. As we drifted with the current I learned to skewer worms on the hook, drop my line and wind fast when I felt a tug. We kept the perch and flounder but threw the dog fish back.

I don’t have to spend all that much time in a boat, but I am happiest when I can see the the water. At least I like to stay within smelling distance. When I venture inland I am fine for a time. Then I start feeling uneasy, as though something is missing. It certainly is not death or taxes. I miss the salt water. I want to go home.

When you first get to the beach, if you haven't been there for a while or neglected to glance at the tide table, it is hard to tell if the tide is coming in or going out; this is a good thing to know, because the benefits of either tide depend on your needs.

High tide is full of secrets and hiding places and more energy than it knows what to do with. If high tide were a guy, he would help an old lady across the street even if she doesn’t want to go. If you have a boat like mine, eight feet long and fiberglass and doesn’t slide any better than a saucer in slush, high is a help. But a high tide can eat a shoreline away like a giant with a snack attack.

Low tide spreads her arms wide like a hostess welcoming you in. It is the tide made for children just as spring is the season for flowers. Pebbles sparkle, logs settle into the sand and crab families scurry out from overturned rocks. But if you are caught on the water at low tide you learn that not all rocks are benign.

Four times every twenty four hours and fifty minutes – for about as long as it takes a ball to move from up to down or a soldier to turn about face – the tide stands still: slack tide it’s called. The stilling of the waters between the ebb and the flow, the aim and the fire, the pitch and the hit. The vision of an ocean hovering between a tick and a tock is too awesome for me to imagine.

Back to Mark Twain, I am suspicious of death. Death can smolder like fire or strike like a cobra. Taxes are worse; they hide. But tides are as in your face as a stiff breeze and more punctual than a wake up call. Nothing is more certain than a tide.


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