Changing Tides

January 3, 2008
By Lorin Mackey, Eaton, CO

Just to the east of Haystack Rock and down the sand about two miles to the south, a gray cinderblock wall and a long set of black rocky stairs are the only boundaries between the Great Pacific and I. Not to mention a two hour flight from Denver to Portland and a three hour drive from Portland to Cannon Beach, Oregon. Arch Cape is the name given to the small piece of land north of our beach house which juts out like a cursive “i” and is dotted by the famous Haystack Rock. This rock is the favorite photo spot for many vacationers, (and might I add I am not a vacationer), but little do many tourists know, it can be a wicked spot to get stuck behind when the tide comes in.

The tide, a magnificent period of time controlled by the gravitational pull of the moon, is more than just the slow beat of the water as it changes levels on the beach. I like to think of it as a giant, gentle wave. The tide is a destroyer, and a deliverer. It will demolish and distribute all in the same day. Sometimes twice in the same day.

I remember last summer, the summer of 06, when I built this mermaid. Not just a figure drawn in the sand, this mermaid was legit. She was sculpted out of the perfect consistency of fresh water, salt water; wet and dry sand. After eight years of returning to this exact spot on the beach, it wasn’t until a year ago that I finally mastered the skill of sand sculpting. She was breathtaking. A long sweeping fin, curvy supple body, and lengthy flowing locks which extended past her shoulders (the technique I used for her hair was called “drip castle sand” so it was more of a curly style rather than flowing). I then completed the look with a finely selected collection of sea shells, barnacles, oyster shell chunks, brown kelp, and sand dollars. I carefully puzzled these pieces together to create the mosaic which was her fin as well as her bikini top. After spending around four hours on my magnum opus, I was faced with the terrifying realization that she would be flattened in around an hour. I cursed the tide as my four cousins and two sisters frantically helped me gather logs from the shore to build up around my mermaid. We stacked them and filled them with a gumbo mixture of sand and water, and my cousins got busy on the trenches. The sun was beginning to set, the signaling of dinner and our nightly campfire just behind the cinder block wall, which was a lower extremity of our back porch. We ended our struggles trying to save the mermaid, knowing that if the tide wanted to, it could change anything in its path. I just hoped that my mermaid would endure the monstrous salty drops long enough for the moon to pull him back out.

The tide is strange, leaving and returning as it may. The mermaid was eventually destroyed, but I was already distracted by the morning sunrise on the line between water and air, and nature’s gifts deposited on the light brown grains just below the wall. Sand dollars are the “morning-after” of the tide; the exoskeleton of a small sea animal. The trick to finding the most whole sand dollars is to wake up before the seagulls, and vulture beach-goers. The sunrises are just as picturesque as the sunsets there on Cannon Beach, though each morning is different. Jaunting towards the south down the beach, barefooted and dressed in a light windbreaker, it’s easy to lose track of the distance traveled. I remember getting caught in the fog turning around and not being able to see my footprints except for the seven or eight directly behind me. The next thing I knew I was staring up at the side of a mountain, the very southern end of our beach. Around the edge of the cliff small tide pools form as the tide gradually leaves, dropping little pieces of the sea in sandy bowls. The water washes away sections of sand around rocks creating crevices in the sand and perfect places for sea animals to gather for the day. My uncle Craig, a biology teacher at Loveland High, had a blast discovering and naming every sea creature he could find. The starfish, orange and deep purple in color, would gather by the hundreds on the sides of the mountain and larger rocks. We learned to leave them alone because once removed from the rock, the starfish usually died. Between the sleeping starfish were the sharp white barnacles, and muscles. The muscles made this clicking sound. Almost like stilettos on marble. Craig had this brilliant idea one day to hammer a dozen of those muscles off the rock and cook them up for lunch. When the shells are opened the muscles look just like little orange tongues, and they smell like fish. I didn’t participate in the muscle eating fiesta; I just stuck with fridge food. But anyway, these tide pools are different every day. The tide will sometimes come in extremely high and stay for a long time, leaving sand over the rocks, a disappointing situation. And yet when this happens, we are able to walk all the way around the cliff and not get caught in the 40 degree water without a wetsuit. The 40 degree water doesn’t bother me however, when a boogey board is strapped to my wrist.

Boogey boarding, an extremely intense battle with the Pacific waves, is an art that can only be mastered by experience. Timing is everything. In order to get the most beneficial ride the boarder must be out to at least chest deep water. What I do is stand parallel to the beach and watch the waves coming toward me. When one satisfies my desired level of volume and intensity, (it must be at its peak, ready to curl over), I hop on my toes feeling the icy water approach my shoulders. I then turn, facing the beach, and throw my board out in front of me. I proceed to jump on to my board, stomach first, just as the wave strikes my back. If it is a perfect leap, the wave will curl just behind my shoulders and throw me to shore. The only thing left for me to do is balance on my board, keeping my head up, and skim across the water. Of course there are downfalls to this ocean riding. If the rider jumps too late, the wave will miss them. If they jump too early, the wave will curl right over their head, shoving the boogey board to the ground and the rider with them. This has happened to me a good number of times, and each time after finally finding the surface I stand up, dizzy from tumbling on the ocean floor. I blow the salt out of my nose, and spit it out of my mouth. My eyes burn from the brackish water and the chafing of my wetsuit on my neck intensifies. The worst are the times when I arise out of the water only to find another wave choking me as I take a cold salty breath. And every time we return to the beach house my cousins, sisters and I take on the ocean again as if we are invincible, forgetting the hard feelings we had toward the waters in years past. We’ll return to the beach just as we always do; squinting in the warm Oregon sun, spreading out our rainbow of beach towels, and soaking up the postcard picture Pacific Ocean.

The sea is more than a place to vacation; for one to sit, build sand castles, and become a rotisserie chicken. It is a place to get lost. A place to change. The beach is never the same. With each wave, each tide of each day, and each day of each week, it is changing. The ocean is a life. It has its perks, but it also has its depressions. Every time a wave sprints into shore, it skips back to the big blue as swiftly as it arrived. It’s unsure of itself, and persuaded by its surroundings. It’s molded by the winds and pulled by the moon. It’s generously giving, and selfishly snatching. The ocean is a mystery, and yet so familiar. The waves are so powerful, and yet they create a gentle breathing sound. The changes of the waters are the changes of my life. Returning to the Pacific has created in me the understanding of the flow of existence. No matter how often it rises and falls there is always a steady horizon to keep my footprints straight in the sand.

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