How does that old adage go? Time and tides wait for no one. Few islanders need, actually need, to know about the tides; but there’s a lot to know. While most people ignore it, the sea around Whidbey Island can rise about twelve feet between high tide and low tide. Even more noticeable can be some of the island’s shorelines where the distance from the shore at high tide to the low tide line can be a mile. That’s a lot of walking. Pity the crabs that make that commute twice a day.
Let’s start with the cautionary tale because it’s a good example of why that much exposed tideland needs to be respected. The tidelands can be sandy, rocky, or muddy. The bad news was that someone walked out far enough (and not very far) to get stuck. Losing a boot would be a small price, but this time they had to be rescued. The good news was that they were rescued thanks to the island’s emergency personnel – and eventually a stout washing machine.
“With Tide Rising, Girl, 10, Rescued From Mud…” South Whidbey Record
Take a look at the maps. Navigation charts show the depth and the extent of the shorelines, harbors, and bays that are affected. That sand, gravel, and silt left behind by glaciers can wash down and fill those spaces until they’re almost flat. A foot of water height can open or cover hundreds of feet of those lands. Useless Bay gets to show off the accuracy of its name, again. But, it isn’t the only bay that shrinks significantly. Navigational charts have the data and the geography, but seeing the open sands is a useful awareness for boaters.
Of course, skip the data. Many people only care about one number: the low tide of the day. If the tide is low enough and the sand is firm enough, clam diggers cart their tools out onto the tidelands looking for a variety of shellfish for dinner. Kids, and other folks who are there to play, may not care. Wander around to check out animals in tide pools. Watch the birds that have flown in for the twice-daily meal. Or generally enjoy wide and open spaces that are natural. Dogs can get tired trying to herd the flocks.
As free as that may sound, there are some places where the shellfish are off-limits (check with the state), and places where local homeowners own parts of the tidelands (yes, you can buy land that’s underwater part of each day.) But these pesky cautions are the sorts of things that need to be learned long enough to find the places that work for what you want to do.
One family ventured out on a low tide day. As they came back to shore they were disappointed because all they saw was grey sand. No signs told them what to look for. The only scheduled performance was the water coming in and going out. Yet, as they walked home, a bald eagle fought an osprey hoping for a fish, Dungeness Crabs were following the tide line in and out as they searched for a meal, more than a dozen great blue heron harvested the small fish swimming in the shallows, hundred-year-old clams spouted sometimes wetting the inside of a passerby’s pant legs, and of course, dogs and kids running and playing.
In addition to having a map of the tidelands, it is also useful to have a tide calendar. The timing shifts each day as the Sun and Moon dance around the Earth. In general, though, the low tides in winter can be around midnight, but around noon in summer. As for where to walk and what to avoid, check the neighbors for where there’s mud of property issues.
There’s enough life above, on, and below the sandy surface that beachwalkers can be surrounded. There are also enough shells and crab claws that at least some footwear provides some protection. Also keep in mind that, before the roads were established, many neighborhoods were reached by waiting for the right tide and simply walking from beach to beach. There are more fences, signs, and rules, now; but the low tide wanderings on Whidbey Island are extensive enough to keep a person busy for a long time. Just make sure to follow those rules, particularly that first one. The high tide isn’t going to wait for you to get back to shore. It has work to do, life to water, currents to create, and a never-ending cycle to continue.
And remember to wash your feet. Sand can get everywhere.