Garlands of seaweed, ferried to shore at Tenakee Springs

[USA] On a late summer evening, we watched tidal currents expressed through thick, floating strands of seaweed. A pocket of clear sky allowed the flat, evening light through the clouds. The light hit the glassy ocean. The water was silver, like a metal plate extending out from the cove into the inlet. Stop it, moving slowly toward us, were garlands of orange and red and gold seaweed that had been ripped from its mooring and taken for a ride on the tide.

The seaweed’s formations told secrets of currents and tides that the flat surface otherwise did not. Long thin piles atop the water looked like strung lights as they ebbed toward us. Between lines of seaweed, the water’s surface was smooth. Then the surface was broken again by another thick, long line of ocean foliage.

My husband and I watched the long strands advance toward us like a weather front. It had rained all day, and though Tenakee Inlet had been calm, Chatham Strait, just to our east, must have frothed and churned violently; this displaced vegetation was evidence. Why did the seaweed pile and move like this? Why did the currents, which rushed into this inlet as the tide came in, push sea creatures, boats and seaweed into these patterns?

Great, magical mystery

I’ve watched with wonder the crisp line where two ocean currents hit. I’ve thought about the way water bounces off points and pools in deep holes. No matter how much I learn, tidal currents remain a great, magical mystery. On one level, tides are so simple, with their patterned ebb and flow. On another level, they are infinitely complex, with the ways that geography and temperature and weather and gravitational forces play with the ocean, this most malleable substance.

On this night, however, I was happy to let the mysteries be, and to watch the migration of blue and gray and gold. There is something so calm and still about the ocean after a storm. Other creatures seem subdued — the ducks paddle and dip into the ocean with fewer squawks, the eagles perch quietly in the tall spruce trees. We watched for a while. Then, long before the tide finished its progression toward our toes, we turned up the beach and trudged home.

In the morning, despite the calm of the previous night, our skiff sat high and dry, just in front of our house, a good quarter mile from where it should have been. What had we done wrong this time? We had painstakingly made sure to anchor it at a low tide, our anchor was solid, and yet something hadn’t gone according to plan.

When it comes to skiffs, my husband and I seem to be trying out each variety of mistake. We have beached our skiff, planning to spend a night or two camping, only later to check the tide book and realize we beached at the highest tide for a week. We have used old rope to tie to the shoreline, and woke to find a snapped line and our skiff half a mile away.

Trying to avoid another runaway skiff, we beached the aluminum skiff high and dry for a winter bout of rough weather, only to discover it flipped by the wind the next day. We have misjudged low tides and misjudged high tides. When the shoreline got stuck on a rock, I’ve had to strip off my clothes and swim out to it. When we’ve needed the boat wet and it sat high and dry, we’ve had to nudge logs underneath the hull and push it to the tideline. With each mistake, we learn something new about living on the ocean. But seemingly, an infinite number of things can go wrong.

Wheelbarrow loads of the seaweed make for a lot of food for the future. (Megan Bush Moody)

Awed and flummoxed

On this morning, with the skiff higher than it should have been, we noticed a huge, snakelike heap of gold and green and orange and brown that had amassed around the anchor and now sat in the creek just ahead of the skiff. A tugboat made of bull kelp and bladderwack, fueled by tides, had dragged our boat home. Those strands of seaweed had seemed so gentle as they’d floated in on their post-storm calm, like ethereal evidence of the past storm, ripped from its rocks and powerless. And yet, the seaweed had been strong enough to pick up our anchor and carry it in. Once again, I was both awed and flummoxed by the force and magnitude of the ocean.

The skiff was fine. Transported to a less convenient spot for the next time we needed it, but fine. And the mountain of seaweed, I realized, was a gift, deposited right in front of the house. A different kind of oceanic power: a rich, nutritious pile to turn into food.

I was thrilled. I spent a good portion of the day scurrying back and forth from garden to beach, claiming this bounty, before the next tide took it away. The strands were braided and snarled into thick messes, hard to separate. Strong enough to drag an anchor. I was covered in salty kelp slime, and often my hands grabbed already-decomposing mush. Slowly but surely, I cut and pulled clumps apart, and ferried them to my garden.

The compost pile grew taller and taller. I separated choice stalks of bull kelp to pickle later.

Late in the afternoon, the ocean lapped at the edge of the boat and slipped under the remaining heap of seaweed. Once again, quietly and gently, these two heavy masses were afloat. We had untangled our anchor, so that the tide could collect its offering and carry it on to its next destination. Or not. It all depended on the whim of this next tide.


Photo: Wads of seaweed hit the shoreline at Tenakee Springs in Southeast Alaska. (Megan Bush Moody)

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