By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 2, 2008
At low tide, the exposed shoreline emits an odour of iodine mixed with sulphur. A snootful is as crisp as smelling salts, clearing the sinuses and watering the eyes.
The urge is to plug your nose. Not Tom Koppel. He inhales deeply.
“Some might find it stinky. It's a rich smell, not unpleasant to me.”
“I like seafood.”
Mr. Koppel has spent many of his 64 years around the sea, chronicling the tale of the Hawaiian settlers of British Columbia (in his 1995 book "Kanaka") and surviving adventures in Indiana Jones fashion while tracing the route perhaps taken to this continent by prehistoric peoples ("Lost World").
A visit to the ocean was a rare treat in his early years, as he lived in a housing project in the Bronx. An annual seaside holiday introduced to him the natural wonder that is the subject of his latest book.
For one glorious week every summer, young Tom cavorted on Star Island, one of the nine rocky Isles of Shoals in the Atlantic off the coast where New Hampshire squeezes next to Maine. At high tide, he splashed along the fringe where sea met land. At low tide, the defined shoreline gave way to a treacherous minefield of rock and barnacles, all covered by slippery seaweed.
The sun would bake the exposed seabed until it gave off what he now recalls as “a powerful miasma of salt and organic decay.”
Mr. Koppel never lost the curiosity he held as a boy for a natural order that lifted an island's dock as much as four metres twice a day, and a lifetime's travel has led to an exploration of the phenomena in Ebb and Flow.
He would learn the rise and fall of tides was not always slow-acting, nor especially benign. Some of the fastest tidal currents in the world can be found in British Columbia's waters. He first heard, rather than saw, the effects of Skookumchuck Rapids. Named “place of strong waters“ in the Chinook coastal jargon, the rapids' roar results from a majestic display of crashing waves and, nearby, “deep, gurgling holes,” all the chaotic result of tidal waters pressed into narrow inlets and channels, water gushing through a bottleneck. Overhead, opportunistic seagulls wait to pluck fish injured in the maelstrom.
Not for nothing do Peril Strait and Deception Pass carry their warnings, while only the foolish ignore whirlpools known as the Drain and Devil's Hole. Mr. Koppel and a friend once got caught in a whirlpool, completing a dizzying revolution before a desperate tug restarted the outboard engine. “The roar of an internal combustion engine had never sounded so sweet,” he writes. “There was no need even to talk about our escape – that would come later. But we had felt the power of the tide, and how it dwarfed our petty human nature.”
Mr. Koppel's book belongs to a new genre of non-fiction in which everyday items and natural phenomena too often taken for granted are explored in narratives combining science and history.
They are usually presented with titles of monosyllabic definitiveness – “Cod” and “Salt“ and “Coal” – promising not so much a yarn as a dictionary entry. One of this season's entries is a tome on the humble toothpick, a sequel to the author's examination of the pencil.
Lest you think Mr. Koppel's choice of topic a tidal bore, the author finds the rise and fall of empires mirrored in the sea's ebb and flow, incorporating Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great in his captivating look at tides. He examines the complex science of tides and explores their possible future as an energy source. (One of his earlier works, Powering the Future, about the Ballard hydrogen fuel cell, was nominated for a National Business Book Award.)
A veteran magazine writer, Mr. Koppel knows how to tell a story. In doing so, he is his mother's son. Mr. Koppel was the product of a mixed marriage in that his father's ancestry was German Jewish and his mother's Irish Catholic. His father, Edwin, manufactured tchotchkes such as toothbrush holders and other gift items and novelties. His mother, Margaret, known as Peggy, was a minor celebratory in their New York neighbourhood as the author of a weekly column about domestic life called Sugar 'n' Spice for the Bronx Press Review. Her death in 1958, at 52, warranted a news obituary in the New York Times.
The family lived in Parkchester, a large planned community designed for working- and middle-class families. His parents were supporters of the pacifist Norman Thomas and his Socialist Party. (They were also early conservationists.) His father ran for a state assembly seat in 1937, losing to a Republican who would spend the next 27 years in the state capital. The elder Mr. Koppel would be asked to take his party's vice-presidential slot in 1956, an honour he wisely declined.
Tom Koppel graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1966, a would-be architect who wound up specializing in economic theory, which he found too boring to sustain a working life. After completing a doctorate in political science in Russian and German studies, he became a translator for a news service, a job that allowed him to live wherever he wished.
He chose the Gulf Islands, living on a shell midden on Prevost Island and in a lakeside log cabin on Salt Spring Island. He has travelled the globe, always returning to a place where nature provides a bounty.
The aboriginal peoples of this coast have a saying: “When the tide goes out, the table is set.”
At certain times over the past 30 years, Mr. Koppel could be found in gumboots, armed with a digging fork and a galvanized bucket, seeking supper on one of his island's beaches. He casts a discerning eye at his favourite dig. Not for him are the cockles (“too rubbery“) or oysters (“good but sparse”) or horse clams (“the meat tends to be tough”). He seeks little necks or manilas, small clams with tender meat, harvested for a white clam sauce to be served over vermicelli, “a simple but sublime meal.”
A page turns on the calendar. A year fades and another launches. We mark the occasion by lying to ourselves about improving bad habits.
The possibility of our success is an unknown, human behaviour being measurable but not absolutely predictable.
More certain is the continual rise and fall of the seas, an immutable law of nature and a timeless action that somehow comes with a timetable.
So, in the waters near Mr. Koppel's Salt Spring home, the Canadian Hydrographic Service predicts a high tide of 3.6 metres will be reached at 11:21 a.m. today. A low tide of 1.1 metres will be met eight hours, eight minutes later.
For those of you keeping track at home, that's a difference greater than Mr. Koppel's height.
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