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08 January, 2014

The Highest Tide

Mission Creek, King Tide 2013

This past weekend, Puget Sound experienced the "King Tides," the highest tides of the year. According to the NOAA tide prediction tables, the Olympia Shoals station would reach 16.56 feet on Saturday, and 6/100ths lower on Sunday.

Olympia author Jim Lynch, it so happens, wrote a novel set here that he called "The Highest Tide." It's a great book, for many reasons. Way down the list for most people, but interesting to me, is how the titular event, a very high tide, fails to conform to predictions, but enlists a low pressure system and prodigious rainfall to flood above expectations. Something similar happened last year, when February's highs exceeded January's braggy "King" tides. Tides are set in motion by gravitational forces in our solar system, and as such are events that we can track with physics and math, but only to a certain precision, beyond which accidents of history hold sway.

Budd Inlet, 8:08 AM, January 4, 2013

This January, we were influenced by high pressure, and there had hardly been any rain at all, so maybe it was just a Jack Tide. Still, dozens of people showed up downtown, where they could see the floating docks at Percival Landing approach a horizontal state. Surely there are plenty of photos of downtown king tides online, among which I will point to these, because they show the nearly 20-foot rise that occurred between the midnight low (-2.99 ft) to the morning high (16.46 ft) on Friday.

The center of this shot is usually dry land.

My photos are from the mouth of Mission Creek, at the south end of Priest Point Park. I went there Saturday alone, and Sunday with the kids, and each time there were just a couple of other people. With the tide this high, the beach disappears, and a fair amount of the spit takes a dive. Last time the kind tides came round, they had to force their way through a culvert and into a silt-clogged former estuary. For many decades, that was how it went, a grand natural flow imprisoned in a 3-foot concrete pipe.

This time, the Salish Sea flowed free through a channel. This was because in 2013 the culvert was ripped out, the road berm damming (and damning) Mission Creek was dug up and hauled away, and a new channel was excavated. Designed by an engineer, and maybe not where the channel had been before it was covered, but the goal was restoration of the natural system, rather than creating space for real estate development or growing a crop that does not belong there. It is a well-intentioned fake.

As high tides sweep in and low tides flush out, the estuary may change. Silt once sequestered behind the buried sand spit will slither down into Budd Inlet, the channel may migrate, and the spits advance and retreat from either side. Critters will come in and explore the mud, and plant remains will hitch rides out on freshets and ebbs. The abrupt line of gravel laid out according to contract specifications may spread out and soften, or maybe the layer of bricks and rubble once buried by the modern beach will re-emerge. Who knows? It will be interesting to watch as the tides and other forces sculpt this work of man imitating a work of nature.

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