My 14-foot rowboat’s route to the Canadian picnic island was circuitous to avoid the prying eyes of American Coasties on the lookout for terrorists. After secretly crossing the international border, I rowed The Shag along the shore of Campobello Island until I reached the mouth of Head Harbour Pass at Bald Head. From there, through binoculars, I examined the sandy beach of the picnic island, just a little more than a half-mile away, across the shipping channel. Paradise.
(The beautiful woman wouldn’t join me on this adventure because she didn’t like the weather: overcast grey, with a whiff of late-morning fog and a gentle whisper of southerly breeze. The marine radio wasn’t issuing any warnings, though, and I wanted to picnic.)
Row a boat around here and you’re regarded, by some, as foolish. The waters between Eastport and the Canadian islands — extreme tides and river-quick tidal currents — are famously treacherous, even for those with engines on their sterns. The bay is a series of fast liquid conveyor belts and swirling eddies, littered with countervailing gyres far more powerful than any set of oars. Old Sow, the giant whirlpool off the north end of Eastport, has killed people and consumed many boats. The strength and energy of the bay doesn’t scare me, though, because I’ve been rowing my entire life. And because I’m an idiot.
I’d planned to reach the shipping channel during the slack water of high tide, the easiest time to row, but I was late. When I arrived, the tide had turned into a mad rush, ebbing toward the wild Bay of Fundy. A smarter man would have cancelled the rest of the trip and picnicked another day, knowing that being swept out to sea was a very real possibility.
I decided to cross the channel. Determined, I rowed and rowed, harder than ever before. In my mind’s eye, I was a Winslow Homer painting of man and dory, slicing the swells, cutting across the fury of blue-grey chop. The reality was much different. The sea had taken charge and I was just along for the ride. Despite my best efforts, the current made my rowing ineffectual. Aimed northwest, The Shag went northeast. Eddies spun us sideways and backwards. The current pulled us away from the picnic island and pushed The Shag, at five knots, toward the other end of Head Harbour Pass, two miles away.
According to the chart, I had one more island, a last chance at dry land, before being swept out into the Bay of Fundy, where the clouds were dark and the winds were starting to blow, like they do every afternoon when the tide turns. Reaching the island meant I’d be safe. Otherwise, once out to sea, the larger waves could swamp the waterlogged and leaky Shag and we’d sink. And I’d perish in the bone-chilling, deep water.
With survival as my motivator, I began rowing anew toward the last island. I rowed hard, and pulled deep, trying to break free of the receding tide’s intense pulse and surge. After many minutes of rowing, I paused, for a single second, maybe two, to gauge the distance to my saviour. The powerful sea instantly took notice of my resting oars and unforgivingly pushed The Shag hard, in the wrong direction.
I didn’t want to die because I don’t want to die. And because I’ve handled bodies recovered from the sea. No interest in becoming a bloated corpse, half-eaten by crabs, discovered by dogs on a rocky beach. Not my style. I’d be embarrassed, because I fancy myself a boatman. A rowboatman. Besides, I’ve always envisioned my death connected to a poorly packed parachute or an all-night sex-a-thon.
I tapped into the brute strength that lurks within us all. Like a son-of-a-bitch, I pulled and rowed. Stroke! Stroke! Stroke! Stoke! For hours, it seemed, pulling those oars. Occasional glances over my shoulder — without stopping the stroke — showed the island growing larger and larger. I could see a wharf and a fish weir. The weir was closer. A real destination. A target. I dug in, deeper and deeper, and I rowed and rowed and rowed, breaking free of the tidal grip, finally reaching the net and the poles of the weir. And I grabbed ahold and sobbed. Wept. Not grief. Relief. Wasn’t gonna die. Not yet.