The first waves were nothing, a slap on the bow, some spray in the face. Then all hell broke loose, eddies and rapids and rollers popping up everywhere as the massive incoming tides of Nova Scotia's Bay of Fundy collided with the outgoing freshwater flow of the Shubenacadie River, turning it in its tracks and stirring up a chocolate-colored mess.
Our inflatable Zodiac, powered by a 60-horsepower, four-stroke Yamaha outboard and piloted by a mud-country daredevil, took it all on, scaling one wave after another as curtains of warm, salty water rose up over the bow and slammed into us. As initiates in the curious, dirty, and very wet adventure of tidal-bore rafting, we white-knuckled the boat's safety lines, shrieked, laughed, groaned, and flinched with each dousing.
The expedition sounds easy enough. You don't have to paddle, just strap into rain gear and a life vest, and hang on for dear life. No experience is required. But what experience could possibly prepare you for this soaking roller-coaster ride? The dunk tank at a fair? Upside-down apple-bobbing?
"I've never done something like this," one of my dripping fellow passengers said, wringing out her clothes at the end of our trip with the three-decades-running Tidal Bore Rafting Resort in Urbania, 15 minutes upriver from Maitland. "I've never even imagined there was something like this."
The "bore" is the first wave that sweeps into the river from the Bay of Fundy at high tide. The bay's famed tides are enormous, the biggest in the world, recorded at well over 50 feet above the seabed. At peak tide, all that water piles up at the narrow end of the funnel-shaped bay and gushes into the Shubenacadie River near the historic seaport village of Maitland. The initial bore may be up to 3 feet high, travel at 10 m.p.h., and have class-4 rapids in its wake.
Riding these wild waters at high tide is an honored tradition on "the Shubie," one of Nova Scotia's largest rivers. Long before entrepreneurs started pitching white-water tourist trips with high-powered watercraft, local river rats were catching the tidal waves on inner tubes, floating mattresses, surfboards, kayaks - whatever they could rustle up. Our guide, Kim Artz, who grew up along these banks, once attempted the ride on an inflatable alligator. (It popped mid-rapids.) "Any way we could float on the water, we tried," she said as we motored toward the mouth of the river at the start of our 10-mile excursion.
The waters were eerily calm as we hummed along, dodging sandbars and catching the occasional sniff of manure from pasturelands on overhead banks. We scouted numerous mature bald eagles on snags and studied chalky gypsum outcrops in 200-foot cliffs of red sandstone and mudstone. The constant erosion of those soft cliffs, along with the scouring of ancient river sediment, silts up the river and colors it sienna brown.
"The erosion rate is a foot a year," Artz said, pointing out a house with a front yard spilling over the banks. "Everything ends up in the river."
So did we when our 16-foot Zodiac became grounded on a sandbar. We six jumped ship and hauled it off, splashing in 70-degree water, marveling that the ground we were walking on would soon be deep under water. How soon? The tidal clock was ticking.
We were full of anticipation as we piled back into the boat, waiting for the famous tidal bore to sweep in and the action to begin. I'd heard rumors of 15-foot waves on these wild waters. I was pumped. But 15 minutes later, when we finally spotted our tidal bore, it was, sadly, simply boring, a Chihuahua of a ripple with some halfhearted froth. I was starting to feel a bit deflated - I'd picked the longest possible ride on the most extreme tide - when the muddy river started swelling and churning like water in a washing machine switching from rinse to spin. Something was up.
The river simmered, boiled, then erupted in chaos as surging tides slammed into sandbars, and rapids began to rise all around us. Artz chased them with a wicked eye, taking multiple rides through one set, then racing to catch another, always hunting down the craziest wave, the killer ride. Our boat continually climbed and crashed and filled until we were not on the water, we were in it, and of it, no longer able to see our feet, or even the boat beneath us.
The boat bailed fast, but even as we popped up, caught our breath, wiped our faces, and let out our "whews," Artz was on another set. She kept at it for more than two hours, until we passengers - including a fun-loving Englishwoman plucked sputtering from the water after spilling out on a five-foot Perfect Storm ascent - finally threw up our hands in surrender, exhilarated, exhausted from bracing and clenching, and drenched to the core. Unlike the others, I was shivering, my teeth chattering like a windup toy. Stupidly, I'd worn non-insulated cotton instead of recommended fleece, and every bit of breeze had penetrated my soggy being.
This is not a ride for anyone with aquaphobia, like the woman who once spent an entire four-hour trip clinging to Artz's ankle in the bottom of the boat. You will get wet - deeply, profoundly wet - no matter what measures you take. One rafter, determined to stay dry, donned the company rain gear, top and bottom, then defiantly duct-taped the neck, legs and arms before setting out. "He filled up like a balloon," said Steve Elder, owner of the resort. "The guide had to drain him by cutting all the tape."
The resort welcomes guests to its nicely appointed wood cabins and chalets with Nova Scotia's traditional Gaelic greeting, Ciad mile failte, or "100,000 welcomes." It is the oldest of a half-dozen companies running trips on the river. In peak summer season, 30 boats might crisscross the tidal rapids at once. When passengers spill - and some will - guides are on them in a flash, instantly shutting down motors and hauling them safely aboard.
Most tours conclude with a bit of river floating - jumping overboard and drifting along with the warm current - and mud sliding, or "mudding," another honored tradition in these parts, where kids grow up mud-fighting, building mud castles, sinking in mud bubbles up to their waists, and plastering themselves with the muck for sunbathing beauty treatments.
Mud sliding seemed a fitting finale for our day's dirty-water adventure. We pulled up to a slick bank that looked like spooned-up chocolate mousse, stepped off the boat, and sank almost mid-calf into muck. Each step up the little slope required pulling your foot out of the sludge. I fell to my knees, wiped my face with the stuff, pushed back up, and reached the top of the slide looking like a stumpy bog monster. The rest was easy, a fast whoosh into warm brown water and that wonderful momentary rush of being a grimy little carefree kid again.
Back at the resort, we headed straight into the mud showers. I stripped off my clothes, splotched with mud and saturated with water. As I thawed under the shower head, I watched rivulets of mud snake down my thighs and calves. Would I ever get clean?
I heard a woman's voice from the locker room. A lament. "My pink panties have turned beige."
A voice from another shower stall joined in. "Mine, too."
I looked over at my wet pile, knowing that if the pinks were in danger, my whities were doomed.
Two weeks and four washes after returning home, I finally abandoned them to the trash. The tint of the Shubie, like the crazy memories it had left in my head, just wouldn't come out.
If You Go
Where to stay
Willow Bend Motel & Suites in Truro
277 Willow St., Truro, 888-594-5569, willowbendmotel.com
Launch sites for tidal-bore rafting excursions are approximately a half-hour’s drive from Truro, which has an abundance of reasonably priced motel rooms. The night before our expedition,we stayed at the Willow Bend Motel, a standard motel with some nice art and super-comfy beds. Rooms from $67.
Tidal Bore Rafting Resort
12215 Hwy. 215, Urbania,902-758-8433, raftingcanada.ca
After our rafting trip with this friendly outfit, we stayed in one of its roomy, one-bedroom cottages with a flat-screen TV, WiFi, gas fireplaces,and a fully appointed kitchen — perfect for cooking up a quick dinner after a wet, exhausting day. The resort also has multiroom cabins and chalets between $103 and $594. Added bonus: Lodgers get a 10 percent discount on rafting trips.
Cresthaven by the Sea
19 Ferry Ln., Maitland, 866-870-2001, cresthavenbythesea.com
You can observe the tidal bore from the safety of the lawn or back porch at this history-rich bed-and-breakfast, one of several in the Maitland area. Its three suites have baths, fireplaces,and water views. Rooms from $105.
Irwin Lake Chalets
680 Loch Haven Lane, Old Barns,866-554-7946, irwinlakechalets.com
Six wood cabins are set on a secluded lake in Old Barns. The one- and two-bedroom chalets have covered decks, barbecues, full kitchens,and woodstoves. Rooms from $98.
Where to eat
Murphy’s Fish & Chips Eatery
88 Esplanade St., Truro,902-895-1275, facebook.com/murphysfishandchipseatery
This is a local favorite in Truro. Waitresses call you “sweetheart” and “honey,” and the fried fish is deliciously light and crisp. (Note: the restaurant does not have a liquor license.) Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. most days, later on weekends. Entrees from around $14.
What to do
Burntcoat Head Park
611 Burntcoat Head Rd., Noel,902-883-7098, Ext. 239, burntcoatheadpark.ca
We spent the day before our rafting trip at Burntcoat Head Park, site of the highest recorded tides in the world. A two-hour, $11 ranger tour from the park lighthouse takes you out on the ocean floor to study marine life and rock formations that will slowly be buried under five stories of water as the tide comes in. Go at low tide and return six hours later at high for maximum drama. Tours begin in May.
Fundy Tidal Interpretive Centre
9865 Hwy. 236, South Maitland, 902-261-2250, bit.ly/fundytidalinterpretivecentre
If you’re more inclined to watch than participate in tidal-bore rafting, visit the Fundy Tidal Interpretive Centre along the Shubenacadie River. The center has displays that describe the natural history of the region and a wheelchair-accessible observation deck for watching the tidal bore arrive and seeing all the rafting excitement that follows. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. most days from May 20 to Oct. 8. Free.
Tourism Nova Scotia lists most of the top tidal-bore rafting companies here: novascotia.com/see-do/outdoor-activities/rafting. Trip costs, which average $45 to $71, are based on the length of the ride plus the height of the tide, with lower tides recommended for families with children. Extreme tides, the hang-on tides, are for adrenaline junkies who want maximum thrills. Some companies offer lunch or a post-trip barbecue. The length of the trip and the length of the season vary by company; most open in May or June and close in September or October.