Fear and Loathing on Two Islands

By Hans Durstling

When you’re collecting on the Bay of Fundy, you need above all to keep an eye on the tides. And you need to think about how you do that. Because when you do things without thinking, the cold bath you take may be your last.

Thirteen Bay of Fundy localities are cited for their quartz gemstones (agate, amethyst, jasper) in the late John Sinkankas’ “Gemstones of North America.” One of my favorites among these, which Sinkankas cites for in particular for its spectacular moss agate, is Two-Islands, Nova Scotia, two small basalt outliers just east of Parrsboro Nova Scotia and about half a mile offshore.

Two – Islands on the day of the excursion. The tide is almost out, but not quite. The large island in the foreground, the little island indistinctly behind it.

And that’s the problematical part: half a mile offshore. To get there you have the world’s highest tides to contend with.

With each change of tide 100 cubic kilometers of water flow through the Bay, which is more than the combined daily discharge of ALL the rivers in the world. At Burntcoat Head, Nova Scotia, the difference between high tide and low tide has been measured at 63 feet. It is a challenging and hazardous environment. Even on the mainland shore collecting at the foot of the cliffs you always keep an eye out for a headland or a rockfall or other place of refuge that you can climb up for safety just in case you should get cut off by the tide.

Over the half century since the lapidary hobby first became popular following World War II when everyone suddenly had money, a car to go exploring with, and leisure time to do it, the beaches of the Bay, like other places, have been extensively collected. Scot’s Bay, for example, an broad arc of gravel beach in the hook of the Blomidon Peninsula on the South side of the bay, used to be cited in the lapidary publications as an easily accessible place where you could collect agate by the bucketful. Not any more. Twenty years ago, well, sort of. Back then in a day I could hope to gather fifteen or twenty pounds from the beach, although even then, that much would have been unusual. But the few times I’ve been there in the last few years have been uniformly disappointing.

Winter is the time to go
The inaccessibility of Two-Islands, across a tidal channel passable for only about half an hour at low tide, means it has not been as intensively collected. Yet even here, good material is getting scarce and by the end of the summer’s collecting season, can be virtually zero.

Hence winter is the time to go. Preferably, in fact, in early spring, when the winter’s abrasion by bay ice and the cliff-cracking frost-thaw cycles will, one hopes, have brought down falls of fresh material. But it’s a long winter, and the urge to get out collecting does not hibernate well. And since, so far, this winter has been comparatively mild, I decided to hazard an early January venture to Two-Islands.

“Hazard” turned out to be a singularly appropriate term. Because for more than a few minutes, I felt deeply doubtful whether I was going to make it back.

I had been going to Two-Islands for some years, crossing the channel on foot at low tide. Usually this was on spring tides, at new moon and full moon, when the high tides are higher and the low tides lower and of longer duration. At fully low tide you could almost get there dry shod, but to extend my collecting time I’d usually wade out before the tide was fully low.

I call this the “resting rock”, on the mainland beach where the packs get adjusted, and the improvised hip waders go on. Destination, the big island, is in the background. This picture was taken on a more friendly winter day last year when the low tide also was lower.

The low investment hip waders: high strength garbage bags inside an extra pair of socks. They work best in conjunction with duck tape.

Approaching the big island shore, the water just less than knee deep and dropping as the tide falls.

Good advice from Eldon George
Always I took with me in the back of my mind the caution from Eldon George, proprietor of the Parrsboro Rock and Mineral Shop. Eldon is the granddaddy of Bay of Fundy collecting. His is the oldest rock and mineral shop in Canada, in business since just after World War II. He’d say, in his singsong sort of way, “If you’re out on the island, and you see that water coming in, and you want to wade back, well don’t go. Because that water, when it comes in, it comes in so fast by the time you’re out in the middle of the channel it’ll be up to your waist and that current is so strong it will pull you off your feet. So stay there.”

After reciting Eldon’s caution in the course of a slide show at the Maine Mineral symposium a few years ago a collector from New Hampshire approached me with a first hand experience of that. He’d been collecting on the more distant smaller island, separated from the bigger island by a channel also passable at low tide. Having seen the tide beginning to turn he was heading back across that channel when suddenly he realized he’d left his new prescription sunglasses behind and went back to get them. Mistake! For by the time he got back into the channel the water was rushing in hip deep. His heavy collecting bags helped resist the pull. Within moments the water was chest deep. He felt himself losing his footing, about to be swept away. Just as he was about to cast off the rock bags and swim for it he felt the rising shore of the big island underfoot and made it back. It had been close. Very close.

Looking back from the little island to the big one as the tide fills the channel between them. The mainland is in the distance. Note the cove of small sea caves on the left back of the big island.

Curiously, a number of my collecting friends, all local people, tide-savvy, had recounted similar experiences. But it had never happened to me. I’d always looked up the tide times for Eastport Maine (www.maineharbors.com) and then added two hours. That gave me Parrsboro within plus or minus ten minutes. Never carried a watch, but always, always, picked out a marker rock at the water’s edge to be my signal: when this began to disappear it was time to head back. I’d never had a problem that way.

This is what awaits you if you wait too long: Two-Islands at full high tide with some 50 feet of water in the channel.

Thanks to the watch, an illusion of safety
The “full moon, high at noon” rule that applies in this area of the Bay in turn puts low tide at six in the morning. This is OK in the summer, but at six in the morning in January it is still pitch black night. So a full moon or new moon tide was out for this excursion and I had to make do with the lesser low tide of half moon. Partly for that reason, and for the first time ever, I carried a watch. By my reckoning dead low tide was due at 1 pm. By 12:30 I was wading out, counting on having about an hour to collect, the half hour before dead low, and the half hour after.

There wasn’t much down. A few scattered chunks of agate amid the boulders, that was all, probably because of the unaggressive winter so far. I took a few photographs of agate chunks on the beach and headed toward the back of the big island where, in a cove of small caves, I’d found good material in the past. As I rounded the bend into the cove the little island lay just behind me out to sea. I looked at the watch. One p.m., dead low tide, plenty of time to scout here and head back. But this area too was disappointingly barren of agate and I took some photographs instead.

A tantalizing vein of beautiful porcelain agate in the first little cave around the back of the big island. I broke a chisel chipping at this ten years ago and got nothing for it but a bruised knuckle.

It was in taking this photo of the small Island that I noticed the channel. It should have been almost dry. But it wasn’t.

It would have been well had I looked at the water and not at the watch. I turned around, looking offshore, to photograph the small island from my vantage point in the cove. Wait a minute. What was that water doing in the channel? It was only five after one. It should not be there. Not yet. I looked again. Not only was it unmistakably there but also unmistakably flowing in. And I had to get all the way back to the front of the big island with the main channel still to cross.

A sheet of rising water
A forced march over cumbersome sharp boulders in semi panic had me breathless by the time I reached the crossing side. The channel already was a sheet of water and filling. About knee deep, judging by the few boulders that still emerged from the surface. What to do? What to do? Think of Eldon’s caution. Best to stay? That would mean either a rescue by boat or waiting until the next low tide: twelve hours, in winter, huddled in the one small cove that does not flood at high tide. Moreover the next low tide would be at one-thirty in the morning. So should I wade? But what about the current? At the moment though I did not see much turbulence. The water was rising, obviously enough, but by the rate the rocks were being submerged it looked like I might still have time. Might. Such an unconsoling word. Fortunately I knew the channel well. It was flat without gullies. I plunged in.

And waded, and waded, the panic less and less controlled with every minute. That I cannot swim did not even occur to me. But that I am a cigarette smoker was devastatingly apparent. By the mid-channel I was well over my knees, gasping for breath, sweating, almost dizzy, thrashing ahead through the water. Forcing myself to pause I looked back. Four hundred feet of water. And looked forward. Four hundred feet of water. Same one way, same the other. I was in the middle of it. Turn back or go forward it was four hundred feet of rising water either way. I kept thinking that by rights I ought to wrestle the camera out of my pocket and document this. Just thought it, not more. No way was I going to actually do it, to take that much time. Panic thoughts swirled: what if…what if…what if. I crossed the mussel bed and knew I was getting closer to shore. Still only close though. Two hundred feet more. What if…what if…what if.

At last I was out, staggering my way forward, exhausted, to the big seaweed covered resting rock that looked so infinitely distant. A pause there, still shaken. And to the path up the cliff back to the car, a climb that seemed to take forever. Fortunately I had brought a full set of dry clothes just in case. It took me fully fifteen minutes just to change and another half hour to get somewhere back close to normal, and considerably longer than that until I was able to shake my head and say “the things one does for agate.”

Without even thinking
In retrospect, I probably had not been, I considered, ever “really” at risk. The water had not reached my belt. Despite Eldon’s caution, on this day, on this tide, and for the time I had been in the water, there had been virtually no current. But you don’t know that until afterward. When you are in there gasping for breath with Eldon’s Caution drumming in your head and the New Hampshire collector’s account amplifying that and four hundred feet of rising water either way, it is the mind that puts you at risk as much as the tide - and is equally difficult to control.

A second and more subtle lesson is never to switch safety procedures untested. I had never been guided by time before but always by watching the water. This time I carried a watch, and trusted to it without even thinking. And it was this, the not even thinking, that had put me in the cold Fundy tide.

Lapidary Epilogue
While this was a venture more productive in fright than in agate I did bring back a few handfuls.

A mix of Two-Islands agate. The large chunk in the back is the Two-Islands “Golden Moss” agate; in the front middle a larger piece of porcelain agate, and on top of this, with the pronounced dark streak in its middle, my favorite, the Two-Islands “panorama stone”. The rest is plume agate in varying patterns.

The panorama stone rough, close up. Seen this way, it still doesn’t look like much.


Now doesn’t that look better? Sliced across the thickness the black centres of the panorama stone veins are revealed to be transparent and usually (but not always, nature being capricious) filled with striking swirled patterns like smoke framed in fronds.

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