Tempting winter tides not advised


Death does not become me—at least not yet. But it’s impending shadow does impress me from time to time. As it did this week when human beings, heavy equipment and seawater converged on the gravel bar connecting the mainland to Ministers Island.

For our little Ministers Island volunteer group it was a happy occasion. We’d just purchased a big snowgrooming machine, a Pisten Bully “snowcat”, a four-and-a-half ton beast with a powerful Mercedes diesel engine and caterpillar tracks 12 feet wide. Our plan to groom cross-country ski trails on the island was coming together quicker than we could imagine. In the space of two weeks we’d met with one of Canada’s top Olympic trail makers, brought together local ski enthusiasts, found the right machine and by last Tuesday had it on a truck headed for the island.

And there I was, proudly sitting in the passenger seat of the first car leading the parade. Behind us was the big flatbed truck with the Pisten Bully on its deck. A pickup truck and another car rounded out our small convoy.

“Gee. The water is over the rocks,” said my driver and resident tide expert. I knew what she meant. The “rocks” near the island are her tidal clock. When the tide creeps up these rocks, it’s her signal to get the heck off the island. We both knew that within a few minutes the gravel bar would flood with water and Ministers Island would again become an island for the next 7 hours or so.

She stopped the car and I hopped out. The flatbed truck pulled up behind us. Its driver rolled down the window and leaned out. “How fast can you unload the it?” I asked, looking up at the Pisten Bully. He and his helper jumped down from the truck without answering. They began to undo the chains holding the machine.

“Guys, you can’t unload it here. The tide’s coming in.” I glanced over at the island. “How long will it take to unload it over there?” I watched as the tidewater spilled across the road, creating a wide shallow moat separating us from shore. “Can you get over there and unload it fast?”

Neither answered. It was a guy thing. They were still busy unhooking the chains from the machine. I began pacing. I checked the water flowing in. “How long to get this thing off the truck?” I asked again. Still no answer.

My friend, the driver in the pickup truck, put it in 4-wheel drive, drove around us and splashed across the moat to the near shore. The water was rising fast. I waved at him to get back off the island. The water splashed high as he crossed the moat. As he rolled up beside us I asked him to get everybody else off the bar and turned back to the truckers.

“Guys, we’ve got to get this thing off the bar.” I said firmly. “We've got to go.”

The helper resisted. “We have to do up the chains first,” he said as I watched him wrestle with the heavy chains.

“There’s no time,” I replied stiffly. “Back this truck up and get it off the bar—now.” I glared at him. “I don’t care what happens to this equipment. We have to get off the bar. The tide’s coming in.” With that they climbed off the back, got into the cab and fired up the truck. The driver pulled it into gear and began to inch back. ‘They’ll never get it off in time at this rate,’ I remember thinking. “Keep it moving. LET’S GO!” I yelled, and began running toward the mainland shore.

The cold air burned my lungs. I was running hard. Visions of the two kids drowning on this bar a few years ago danced through my head. I was only halfway across when I could see that another moat had formed, dividing me from the mainland. The truckers and I were now on a long island—an island that was getting shorter by the second. I picked up the pace.

As I looked back at the truck its rear tire hit a big boulder, bouncing the hind end of the truck into the air and pitching the Pisten Bully toward the side of the flatbed. Half of one track now hung precariously off the side of the truck. I stopped. ‘It’s every man for himself,’ I thought, and started running again.

The icy salt water splashed up over my knees as I ran through the shallowest part. I was across in seconds and on dry land. I looked back again. The truck was still inching backward. I turned and kept running toward my friend’s pickup. “Let’s go,” I said, getting in. He started up the hill to the parking lot. “I think we’re gonna need a boat,” I said. “Who do we know?”

Up on shore my tidal expert was snapping pictures. The rest of us stood and watched as the flatbed truck crawled backwards. It was painfully slow. No one said much. The truck’s rear wheels rolled into the moat, then the front. Minute by minute the moat grew wider as the truck made for the shore. The weird mechanical apparition with a hulking alien on its back—and its reflection—were moving toward us, wheels and axles submerged under water. At long last it powered up out of the water and onto the gravel roadbed. I felt my chest. My heart was still thumping. I wasn’t sure if it was from running or watching.

Neither of the truckers seemed phased. They cheerfully unloaded the machine and were soon on their way.

The next day we were following a van on the way to work and watched as it slowly drifted sideways on the fresh, greasy snow and slammed into a telephone pole. We stopped to help. It was a mom and her two kids. She was hysterical, but thankfully, no one was hurt.

Later that morning the truckers arrived again, this time with the rest of the equipment. After we got it unloaded we went back to the office to pay them, and showed them photos of their truck crossing the water. The driver turned to me and said, “I didn’t realize how deep that water was. When you were trying to get us out of there, I thought ‘this guy is kinda grumpy’. But now I see why.”

Yes. As they say there’s no escape from death and taxes. Or is that time and tides? Whichever. We all lived to tell the tale, this time. And that’s exactly the point of living, isn’t it?


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