Flood Tide

FLOOD TIDE   36″ x 36″   2008

This is a painting of the tide. The vermilion along the lower part of the painting is a small island called Ksuilades, which lies in a cluster of islands between the north end of Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. At the top of the painting are two smaller islands, unnamed, which on a marine chart are shown with contour lines and numbers showing their elevations at the highest point.

A narrow channel about 600 feet wide runs between these islands, cutting in a diagonal down to the left. This narrow gap is like a short-cut for the tide. It comes swiftly alive here at every change.

To the far left, beyond the frame of the painting, lies Weynton Passage. It is a mile wide. Four or five other large channels lead south from the open ocean which reaches down from Alaska and the North Pacific into this place. Hundreds of other narrow passages (Beware Passage, Canoe Passage) allow the ocean to infiltrate into the vast basin between Vancouver Island and the mainland. About every six hours this massive flow of water changes direction.

I first came through this place about twenty-five years ago in a small kayak. You have to cross here to get from the village of Alert Bay into the necklace of islands that lie north and east, places with wonderful names like Midsummer Island, Spring Passage, Sunday Harbour, Eden Island, and the historic villages of Mamaliliculla and Karukwees.

In the Canadian Tide and Current Tables, for Weynton Passage, four pages of data are published that predict in detail the tidal currents that flow through this place. Columns of fine print show from January to December the exact moment each day when the flooding tidal current reaches its maximum velocity. Another column of print under the bilingual headings “turn” and “renverse” record the time, measured to the minute, when the incoming tide ceases its movement and – after a moment of equilibrium – the tidal current begins its approximate six hour cycle of ebb. The time that the maximum velocity of the tidal current will occur is predicted to the minute. The maximum comes about half-way through each cycle. The velocity increases and decreases through the month, driven by the moon – and the alignment of the earth and moon in relation to the sun. All of this comes down to govern what happens in this narrow channel. On the day of the new moon the predicted velocity of the tidal current in Weynton Passage might be 5.8 knots on the falling tide. The rush of tidal water in its endless alternation creates a rushing sound when it builds its wild tassel of white crests, like rapids on a river. You can hear it half a mile away.

The hazard in Weynton Passage is not the current itself, but the combination of current and wind. In the summer months the prevailing wind is from the north-west. It can blow 15 to 20 knots even on a day of mild weather. Usually in the early hours of the morning the wind is quiet. The potentially dangerous time is when the current is at its maximum and when a strong wind is blowing in the opposite direction – on a falling tide with a strong westerly. The conflicting mix of tidal current and wind can produce steep-pitched standing waves, like horrendous furrows in a field – rows of tumbling crests that suddenly appear and advance across the surface of the water. They can generate a heavy thundering sound, like a river canyon.

Marine charts are marked with cautionary symbols that tell of these wild possibilities. Finely drawn arrows show the direction of the tidal current where it is significant, often with a notation saying “5.5 knots” where the velocity is fast. Arrows for the ebbing tide are drawn with just a point and shaft, while the ones for the incoming tidal current carry delicately drawn feathers. Another poetic symbol consists of six or seven horizontal, wavy lines – very fine – which are found at strategic points where big standing waves are likely to appear.

Scattered across the surface of a chart are small numerals that count the depth in fathoms. The main channel of Johnstone Strait south of Weynton Passage drops off into a canyon a quarter of a mile deep. These depth soundings are linked by dotted lines of different kinds that reveal the contour of undersea valleys, with shallower waters along the shore marked with crosses, asterisks, and other notations warning of rocks that lie just under the surface.

These islands are in Kwakwaka’wakw territory. Ksuilades is shown on the chart as Indian reserve land. By about 1878, commercial fishing was seriously encroaching on the rich, traditional fishing sites of the people in this area. For a short period after 1881, an Indian reserve commissioner appointed by the Canadian government identified important indigenous fishing sites and set them aside as exclusive Indian fisheries. The reserve lands allocated for that purpose were very small. They were called “fishing stations” and were supposed to provide secure access to traditional fishing places. Later the government repudiated the existence of any protected Indian fishing rights. The little island of Ksuilades is a survivor of that time. The handwritten records of the reserve commissioner say the place was valuable “for halibut fishing”.


On the “fishing stations” and the the loss of fishing rights by the indigenous people, see Douglas C. Harris, Landing Native Fisheries: Indian Reserves and Fishing Rights in British Columbia 1849-1925, UBC Press, 2008.