Got the picture? Good! Let's return to John's letter for a minute. In closing, he posed two questions:
I'm wondering if there's a hard and fast rule to apply here, or were we justified in waiting to head for home only when we were assured that the storm was indeed coming our way?
And here are my answers:
Is there any hard and fast rule dictating what to do when you hear thunder? Well, the US National Weather Service thinks so. And their advice? "When thunder roars, go indoors!" In other words, they urge you to take shelter in a "safe building" or vehicle as soon as you hear thunder, since lighting can travel many miles from the storm clouds that gave birth to it, striking down as a "bolt from the blue," sometimes with deadly effect. This is very good advice, of course. But there's an obvious problem, isn't there? Backcountry boaters are often many miles away from any sort of building or vehicle. (Tents and canoes don't count, I'm afraid.) So the Weather Service's hard and fast rule proves a bit hard for a canoeist or kayaker to apply in practice, as the Service readily acknowledges: "[Y]ou are not safe outside," they admit. That's wonderfully short and to the point, even if it is more than a little disquieting. Which brings us to John's second question:
Once you hear thunder, is it safe to hang about on the water until you know the storm is headed your way? In a word, no — as the preceding paragraph implies. That said, I confess that this is one rule I've often ignored in the past. But I've underestimated lightning's reach. The Weather Service doesn't equivocate. When you hear thunder you're already within range of the storm's big guns. It's time to get off the water and under cover.
Easy to say, but hard to do. On an open‑water crossing in a small boat there's little recourse but prayer. If you're paddling on inland waters, however, you should begin casting about for a refuge ASAP. Since buildings and vehicles are likely to be in short supply, you'll have to make the most of whatever the country affords. Give tall, solitary trees a wide berth. Avoid clearings, hilltops, and ridgelines, too. You don't want a room with a view, after all. You'll get the best odds when you hunker down among a uniform stand of not‑too‑tall trees. Are there no such trees to be seen? Then look for a sheltering valley. (Not a dry streambed, however! It won't stay dry very long in a storm.) If your camp is near at hand, and if it fits the bill, you're in luck. Go there as quickly as you can. If not — if camp is more than a few minutes off — head for the likeliest looking place within reach. Then, once you've made landfall, turn your canoe over and take shelter under it, squatting on a foam pad if possible. This is easier if you're paddling a big tripping canoe, obviously. Soloists will have to do the best they can. But in either instance, the overturned canoe only provides shelter from the rain. It won't protect you in case lightning strikes nearby, nor will it do much if something falls out of the sky. So be sure to check that you're not within striking distance of any large branches that might part company from their parent tree. Lightning isn't the only threat in thunderstorms. High winds — gale‑force winds in many cases — are common, and trees frequently shed good‑sized limbs when the wind howls.
How you get to shore matters, too. Here's what I mean: On those times when Farwell and I have been caught out and sought impromptu shelter, we've often made our way to our chosen refuge by skirting close to shore, rather than taking a more direct, open‑water route. We did this in order to take advantage of the so‑called "cone of protection" offered by shoreline trees. This notion — that standing trees can act as lighting rods, diverting strikes from anything located no farther from the trunks than the trees are tall — is a familiar one. And a comforting, common‑sense notion it is, too. After all, I feel mighty exposed in my canoe when lightning is striking around me, and I welcome the protecting aegis of the pines. But like so many comforting, common‑sense notions, this turns out to be largely nonsense. Not only can lighting strike objects within the so‑called "cone of protection," but even on those occasions when a tree faithfully performs its lightning‑rod function, lateral flashes and ground currents can do as much damage as the primary strike. The moral of the story? When you're caught out, take the shortest, straight‑line route to shelter. Don't detour in order to hug the shore.
Now let's get back to the Neals: Their first mistake — and it's one that Farwell and I have made many times ourselves — was deciding to hang about to see which way the storm was headed. And the second? When it became obvious that the storm was speeding their way, they opted to hightail it back to their camp, a distance of some three miles. As we've already seen, this was the wrong thing to do. Their decision to hug the shore during their retreat probably slowed them down, as well, further increasing the risk they ran. It would have been better for them to get off the water immediately, forgoing the home comforts of camp and making the best of whatever shelter the adjacent shore offered. Still, they survived to tell their tale, didn't they? Few mistakes in the backcountry are fatal. (If they were, I wouldn't be writing this.) But that doesn't mean there aren't …
Lessons to Be Learned From the Neals' Experience
Firstly, and most importantly, paddlers need to …
Cultivate a Weather Ear. If you hear thunder, the proper response isn't "I wonder if it's coming our way?" It's "Let's get off the water!" Of course, a weather eye is useful, too. And it never hurts to take note of the official forecast. But whatever the forecast, always remember that YOU are the expert on the weather where you are. If anything you hear or see differs from the forecast, it means the forecast was wrong. Trust your senses. The Neals did just that, by the way, and while their course of action may appear less than ideal in hindsight, they were nonetheless alert to the possibility of danger. They listened to the weather forecast, weighed the (perceived) risks, and acted accordingly. Then they altered their plans as circumstances changed. These are all essential backcountry skills.
But as the Neals' story also demonstrates, it's not enough just to know when trouble's brewing. You also have to …
Weigh the Dangers. This can be tricky. Our understanding of weather phenomena is constantly improving, and expert advice changes accordingly. Moreover, common sense isn't always a reliable guide. (Remember what I just had to say about the "cone of protection"?) And while backcountry travelers can't run indoors to seek shelter from the storm, what they do instead will still affect their odds of survival. Luckily, the absolute magnitude of the danger from electrical storms is relatively small, even for paddlers caught out on open water, far from shelter. (The drive to and from the put‑in almost certainly involves greater risk.) But when you have good choices, why court danger unnecessarily? So learn everything you can. The references listed below will get you started.
Of course, recognizing approaching danger is one thing. Doing something about it is another. And for that, you need to …
Have a Plan. You hear thunder. You know the risks. But what do you do? Hang about or head for shore? Now you know: Get off the water ASAP.
And then, when the storm has passed and there are only occasional rumbles of distant thunder, how long should you wait before continuing on your way? The Weather Service has this advice:
Be Patient. Wait until a quiet half hour has passed. It doesn't matter how you spend the time. Brew a pot of tea, play a few hands of cards, read a good book… But wait for the all‑clear from the heavens. Only then should you head back out on the water.
So far, so good. The Neals dodged Thor's hammer, and chances are excellent that you will, too, even if you're unlucky enough to be caught out by a storm. But what happens when things go disastrously wrong and someone is struck by lightning? What then? Well, the good news is that most victims of lightning strikes survive. And the bad news? They need help in the minutes that follow; you can't wait for the rescue squad to arrive. If a companion is struck, a heavy responsibility falls on your shoulders. A life is in your hands. You'll have to …
Act Fast! To begin with, you'll almost certainly have to breathe for the unfortunate victim for 20 minutes or more. And even when he's breathing on his own, he won't be in any condition to travel. A personal locator beacon will be a mighty comforting thing to have in your pack now. But to get your patient safely to this point, you'll need to know much more than you can learn from this article. Which is why it pays to study a good book on wilderness medicine and take a course in CPR. In short, it pays to be prepared. That's always good advice.
OK. Is there anything else to say on the subject? Yes. In writing this column I've necessarily dwelt on some of the downsides of backcountry travel. But that's not the big story, is it? Not at all. In fact, it misses the whole point of the exercise, which is simply to …
Enjoy yourself! For most of us, paddling is recreation, pure and simple. It's supposed to be fun, and it is. The dangers posed by electrical storms are real enough, but the overwhelming majority of us will still die in bed. Birth ushers us into the world. Death takes us out. That's not exactly news. The important thing, as philosopher George Santayana famously observed, is to enjoy the interval. So, what are you waiting for? Go paddling!