The red canoe out in the middle of West Passage was not making headway. It had an outboard motor – we could hear it buzzing away – but the little craft and its single occupant struggled mightily against the incoming tide. At times, it looked as if he was actually going backward.
Adam and I had come to this street end in the down-and-out fishing town of Eastport, Maine, to see if we could get a glimpse of the Old Sow, the biggest tidal whirlpool in the western hemisphere. (The world’s largest whirlpool forms at a narrow gap between islands in Norway’s far north.)
The Old Sow appears now and again in the West Passage between Eastport and the tip of Canada’s Deer Island as tidal waters either rush into or flow out of Passamaquoddy Bay. The tides here regularly fluctuate 20 feet or more. When Adam and I drove in for breakfast, the vast clam flats inland of Eastport were uncovered for miles. Now, the water was surging back in, at about 7 mph (an estimated 40 billion gallons of water move through every six hours), and our hapless canoeist was paying the price for his bad timing or bad route finding, or both.
He didn’t appear to be in serious danger; this day the Old Sow failed to form its small-craft swallowing funnel. We did see lots of “piglets” and gyrating eddies and wild-looking currents, but nothing like the watery funnel that has swamped and drowned about a dozen seafarers since Eastport’s founding in 1780. Nowadays locals mostly see the humor in their Sow. Every other gift card in town is printed with the words of an (apocryphal?) downeast fisherman in his dinghy: “I didn’t mind so much gettin’ caught in it. What I resented was havin’ to row uphill to get out!”
Even though his father is from nearby Perry, Maine, Adam knew nothing about the various attempts going back to the 1930s to harness this tidal energy for electric generation. We stumbled on the story when we glimpsed a room-sized scale model of the area inside a Water Street gift shop. The model was built in 1935 to illustrate a Depression-era project that would have dammed several passages to impound the incoming tide and then generate electricity by running the water through turbines when the tide receeded.
It was called the Quoddy Project. Franklin Delano Roosevelt championed it. On the wall was a photograph of the president standing right where we were, looking at this same model. FDR knew these tides well; his family vacationed on Campobello Island, which dominates the horizon northeast of Eastport. You can visit the Roosevelt Cottage via car ferry from Eastport. Or you can drive over the Lubec bridge, which is clearly visible a couple of miles to the south. So complicated is the coastal geography here, though, it will take you a good 45 minutes to drive from Eastport to Lubec around Cobscook Bay.
The Quoddy Project would have cost $36 million, a staggering amount in those days. And Congress killed it in 1936, but not before a village for 1,000 workers had been built along with the causeways connecting the island city of Eastport to the mainland.
Since then, Eastport has seen the “self-inflicted” demise of the cod and sardine fisheries and fallen on serious hard times. Dairy farming has collapsed; timber is way down; and about the only ships pulling in to the deep-water wharf are loading paper pulp from mills in the interior.
But now a New England startup called Ocean Renewable Power Company has reenergized the old tidal generating possibilities. ORPC has been testing their proprietary cross-flow turbines in the passages around Eastport, and they’re ready to start contributing electricity to the grid. The turbines look like push lawn mowers. The 20-foot long blades spin no matter which direction the tide is flowing. They are suspended beneath barges moored in the passages. It is the largest commercial tidal generating project in the U.S. Similar efforts in the U.K. and elsewhere have been pumping out electricity for nearly a decade.
With $10 million in matching funds from the Department of Energy (out of $37 million to be spent on ocean-current projects from Alaska to the Gulf Stream), ORPC hopes in five years to contribute enough electricity to power all of Washington County. Locals we talked with are not about to drop their anti-government, anti-tax mindset in appreciation of the stimulus funds. But they should.
It’s the kind of smart, infinitely renewable, obvious thing that – along with Ridgway’s new solar farm – might give you hope that our fossil-fueled mess is not completely intractable. The Old Sow is about to do some real good.