The Tidal Bore

November 1, 2000 by Alex Madsen
The leading edge of the tidal bore arrives in
Moncton, N.B.

The first time I saw it I was standing on a promenade overlooking the river. Right next to me was a couple visiting from South Africa and both of them were very excited about the Petitcodiac Tidal Bore’s imminent and supposedly awe-inspiring arrival.After some friendly conversation, the visitors asked if I had seen the tidal bore. I hesitated for a moment because even though I had lived in Moncton, N.B., for two years, I had yet to witness the natural wonder that’s known around the world. It was then that the three of us became acquainted with this amazing natural occurrence, for right there–moving slowly toward us–was a shimmering wave that spanned the width of the muddy river. All three of us watched as the crest of water crept around a lazy bend, bringing with it an even, rushing sound and the salty scent of the Bay of Fundy.

The tidal bore was not the massive wave of lore. It was only 60 centimetres high, and as I stood there watching it I recalled the stories told to me by my father and grandfather. Both had described a wave several feet high that roared past the boats on the river. The tidal bore, they told me, was no ordinary wave. Even Ripley’s Believe It Or Not had heard the mighty sound and described the bore as one of world’s great natural wonders.

But while the Petitcodiac Tidal Bore is a lot smaller than it used to be, it’s still an intriguing piece of Moncton’s history and continues to draw thousands of tourists to the city each year. Many Monctonians would like to see it returned to its former glory, but there are others who do not share this view. People on both sides of the debate have made their positions known and have carefully explained why they feel the way they do, but before I zero in on the controversy, it would be useful to describe what the tidal bore is and why it occurs.

The arrival of the bore is truly an interesting one. Twice in 24 hours, the Petitcodiac River empties and fills. The massive tides of the Bay of Fundy–the highest in the world–push a wall of water back up the Petitcodiac drainage basin past Moncton. The tides are higher than the river’s level and this causes water to flow back up the river as the Bay of Fundy fills at high tide. The tidal bore is the front edge of this changing tide, but for many onlookers, the rapid, visible rise in the water level of the Petitcodiac is just as fascinating.

The Petitcodiac drains the southeastern corner of New Brunswick. Its waters pour down from the low hills north and west of the Greater Moncton area and eventually disappear into an estuary formed by its junction with the Memramcook River in Shepody Bay. The waters of Shepody Bay lead to Chignecto Bay and then on to the Bay of Fundy beyond Fundy National Park.

Up until the 1960s, the river was seen as an important waterway for commercial shipping. The true peak of the river trade occurred during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when hundreds of ships moved in and out of Moncton’s port. The local economy also benefited from the fact that some of the ships were built in local shipyards before the age of wood and sail gave way to the era of steam and iron. Eventually, Moncton abandoned its commercial dependence on the river and the shipping trade and began to focus on a new era brought on by railway transportation. During the post-Confederation period, Moncton evolved into a railway centre. The industry associated with the railway grew and Moncton became widely known as The Hub of the Maritimes mainly because of all the railway lines leading into and out of the city. Today, Moncton’s railway industry is in decline and more and more people have turned to tourism for business opportunities. For them, the restoration of the tidal bore makes good economic sense.

The size of the tidal bore began to change after a one-kilometre-long causeway was built in 1968. The causeway stretches across the Petitcodiac, linking Moncton with the community of Riverview on the south side. Since the construction of the causeway, heavy deposits of silt have accumulated on the riverbed and riverbanks and this buildup of thick clay has blocked the mighty tides from the Bay of Fundy halfway up the Petitcodiac. Experts say the river is getting progressively shallower and narrower and is becoming useless to even the smallest of commercial vessels.

Another problem is the disappearance of the once-plentiful salmon and shad stocks. Indeed, very few of the fish, which spawn in freshwater rivers, swim through the fish gates in the causeway. Before the causeway was built, fishery scientists found as many as 5,000 salmon in the river. In 1993, only six salmon were counted in the fishway. This number dwindled to zero in 1998.

Alyre Chiasson is a biology professor at the University of Moncton who specializes in fish and aquatic habitats. He has studied the river extensively and agrees the creation of the causeway has greatly deteriorated the tidal bore. “Without the right slope and right depth, the tidal bore is diminished.”

Meanwhile, the river above the causeway has become a lake and a valuable recreational resource for the area. Indeed, the Petitcodiac is no longer a true river above Moncton and it is the effects of human interference with the river that have led to the major local controversy about the state of the river and the bore.

On one side of the debate is an association called The Petitcodiac Riverkeeper which is dedicated to protecting and restoring the river and the bore. It has rallied in recent years to have the gates of the causeway opened. It believes silt deposits, which have given the Petitcodiac its nickname “the muddy river” or “the chocolate river”, could possibly be washed out if the gates were opened. It says this would bring back the ecosystems that were lost decades before when the causeway opened. And, of course, it could also restore the tidal bore.

Petitcodiac Riverkeeper Executive Director Daniel LeBlanc believes the benefits of opening the causeway gates greatly outweigh the drawbacks. This, he believes, would be positively felt in Moncton’s tourist economy. “The Petitcodiac is a unique river system. It’s filled with history and certainly the tidal bore was considered one of Atlantic Canada’s earliest tourism attractions.”

Throughout North America, there are only two major estuaries where a tidal bore occurs. One is in the Cook Inlet in Alaska and the other is in the Bay of Fundy. “In the Bay of Fundy,” LeBlanc notes, “you have the Shubenacadie Tidal Bore and the Petitcodiac River Tidal Bore. Internationally, the most famous tidal bore is in China’s Qiantang river system.”

LeBlanc believes the Petitcodiac Tidal Bore can be restored to most of its original form. This, he adds, could be very exciting news not only for the environment, but for the community due to the fact that Moncton and other communities along the river would regain a unique natural attraction.

The Lake Petitcodiac Preservation Association represents people on the other side of the debate. When the causeway was built, Lake Petitcodiac became a choice location for home builders as buyers sought lakefront houses with a view of loons, ducks, Canada geese and even bald eagles. Years later, the association is fighting hard to preserve the area where many members live and work. They have steadfastly argued that opening the causeway gates in an attempt to revive the river would threaten to kill a freshwater lake, depress property values and damage a thriving $8-million fishery in the Bay of Fundy. Most importantly, the association believes that opening the gates without adequate study could result in an environmental catastrophe.

Jim Sellers, a longtime member of the Lake Petitcodiac Preservation Association, believes the issue should be “carefully and objectively studied before any changes to the system are made from here on out.” He says that what would be required to bring back the tidal bore would cause a negative environmental impact to the Petitcodiac. He and others point to the threat of what might be exposed along the river system, a threat that Sellers believes is toxic. Indeed, along the river in the Greater Moncton area are some inactive, decommissioned dumps.

“The tidal bore is a massive rushing body of water twice daily,” says Sellers. “I think that restoring it represents a catastrophic environmental threat because this massive rushing water will cause erosion of the existing dumps.”

Over the years, numerous studies have been conducted to determine what would happen if the causeway gates were opened. Last August, federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Herb Dhaliwal announced the appointment of Eugene Niles as a special adviser on issues surrounding the Petitcodiac River causeway and fish population restoration. One of Niles’s tasks is to examine and consolidate existing fish passage, environmental, social and economic information on the causeway and the Petitcodiac watershed. According to l’Acadie Nouvelle–a francophone daily newspaper in Moncton–a staggering 94 studies have been completed to date on this topic.

Even so, the number of studies did not deter Dhaliwal’s decision to conduct another one. “The proposal to open the gates at the causeway has provoked strong opinions for and against in the community. It has also raised questions about environmental and other impacts of such an action. Before any decisions are taken, we need to do a thorough review of all issues and existing information, and we need to attempt to build consensus within the community on the best course of action,” stated the minister.

The controversy over whether or not to open the causeway gates has been the subject of a lot of media reports, but it is the story of the tidal bore that continues to capture the attention of tourists.

Moncton Tourism and Convention Sales Coordinator Denise Blanchard believes the tidal bore has played a key role in the creation of Moncton’s slogan: It All Happens Here Naturally. “Two of Moncton’s major natural attractions are the Magnetic Hill and the tidal bore. The Magnetic Hill is the power of illusion and the tidal bore is a force of nature. It’s something that’s created by nature and it was there for a long time.”

She says the tidal bore is connected to the whole Bay of Fundy experience. “It is part of that experience. You can go to the Hopewell Rocks on the Bay of Fundy at low tide and later on you can come to Moncton to see the tidal bore. You can witness the tide coming in at the rocks, come in to Moncton later and see the effect of that same tide coming in as a rolling wave across the Petitcodiac.”

Blanchard says the tidal bore continues to help make Moncton a popular tourist destination. “It is smaller than it was, but most tourists don’t know that. They haven’t seen it when it was bigger. A new visitor coming into the city reads about it and they want to see what it’s all about. It’s still popular. Twice a day, there’s always people there. Even if it’s late at night, there are people always here.”

She remembers the time she took some friends from Ontario to see the bore. “We spent the day at the rocks. We walked the ocean floor. We knew when the tidal bore was coming…. We went for the tide time later on and stood on a bridge and saw birds following the tidal bore. The bore was really nice because we could see from the bend that the water level was changing, that the straight line was coming in…. My visitors were really impressed. It’s kind of like the completion of the experience.”

Can one know the future of the Petitcodiac Tidal Bore? As the controversy over the causeway gates continues with no end in sight, no one can be certain. Even so, the mayor of Moncton, Brian Murphy, feels reverence for its rich history. As with many residents of Moncton and its surrounding area, the mystique of the tidal bore resonates within generations of his family. “Historically, in my father’s and grandfather’s time, the river was vibrant and alive,” he recalls. “In 1908, my grandfather went down to Riverside-Albert for the opening of school on the out-tide and came back behind the tidal bore on the in-tide.”

Murphy is optimistic about the bore’s future. He says people from Moncton and the surrounding communities have drifted from “a knowledge and love of the river” to a greater appreciation of the river and the tidal bore’s importance.

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