Weathering the Storm
By Tamia Nelson
July 31, 2001
Each paddler has a slightly different idea
of paradise. For some, it's a campsite in a springy, needle-filled
hollow, nestled beneath towering pines. For others, it's a tent on a
white sand beach, just a few feet from the shore of a big lake. For still
others, it's a bivouac under a solitary, wind-wracked spruce, far out on
a rocky promontory, with sheer cliffs on either side and the crash of
breaking surf hundreds of feet belowor maybe a sleeping bag rolled
out on a rock-shelf in the wall of a steep desert canyon, only a couple
of yards above a thundering rapid.
These are very different visions of paradise, to be sure. Each, in its
way, embodies the majesty and spectacle of the natural world. But they
all have one thing in common. They're all very bad places to be when a
thunderstorm brews up.
Last week, in "The
Anvil of the Gods," I wrote about the storms themselveshow and
where they form, and how to tell if one is headed your way while you
still have enough time to find a good heavy-weather campsite. That's
important. No sensible paddler wants to be caught out on the water when a
thunderstorm blows through. But what, exactly, goes into making a "good
heavy-weather campsite"? That's not so straightforward, I'm afraid, and a
lot of beautiful places just don't make the cut. When you're looking for
shelter from a storm, after all, aesthetics just don't count for much.
Survival comes first, and, after that, comfort. Everything else is
The upshot? Paradise is often hell in a storm. Let's see why.
What are the hallmarks of a thunderstorm? That's an easy one: strong
winds, heavy rainand sometimes hail, as welland lightning, of
course. Any one of these can make you extremely uncomfortable in a very
short time. If luck goes against you, all of them can kill. But a good
heavy-weather camp provides protection from all three. Here's how.
Blow Me Away!
The winds that accompany thunderstorms can be violent indeed.
Forty-mile-an-hour gusts are common. (If you don't think these are
strong, try walking in one.) And wind speeds of one hundred miles an hour
aren't unknown. In seeking shelter from a storm, protection from wind
comes first. Exposed points, particularly rocky promontories, are bad
choices for a heavy-weather camp. Not only will you feel the full force
of the wind, but you'll have a hard time anchoring your tent. What's
that? You've got a self-supporting expedition tent? It doesn't need to be
staked down? Nonsense! In anything more that a light breeze, all tents
need to be staked down. Moreover, if you're expecting gale-force
windsand when a thunderstorm is headed your way, you are
expecting gale-force winds!you'll need storm guys as well.
What are "storm guys"? They're supplementary guy-lines, running from a
tent's peak or ridge-line down over the fly-sheet, and securely staked.
Many good tents come with reinforced D-rings on the fly sheet for
attaching storm guys. If your tent doesn't have them, they can be added
in an hour or so by anyone who can thread a needle, and it's well worth
the time it takes. Storm guys help prevent your tent's fly from flapping
violently in a gust and throwing its stakes. They also help keep your
tent from blowing away altogether.
You think this can't happen to you? It can, even if your tent was
field tested on the slopes of Denali. Both Farwell and I have seen
inadequately-staked and poorly-guyed "expedition" tents suddenly go
airborne when struck by a single gust. In one case, the tent's lone
occupant was inside when it began to take flight. She had a short but
exciting ride. In another case, an empty tent blew off a low cliff and
into a river. Did I say empty? Well, that's not exactly how it was. The
ownersa couple of experienced back-country paddlershad
hammered four stakes around their tent and then hurried off to tie their
canoe down. They weren't in the tent when it hit the river, but their
sleeping bags, pads, and clothing were. Happily, we found the tent the
next day, swirling around in an eddy several miles downriver. Nothing was
lost, I'm happy to say, but the down bags were still sodden one week
later, at trip's end.
"Hurried off to tie their canoe down." That's another important point.
It's not enough to stake your tent. If a storm is headed your way, you
need to tie your boat down, tooalong with anything else that isn't
tucked securely away in your tent or wedged snugly under (or in) the
boat. If your boat is your only way home, you don't want it getting there
before you, do you?
OK. Don't camp on exposed points, and stake down your tent. Is that
all? If so, it sounds like a thick stand of trees would be an ideal
heavy-weather camp, doesn't it? Unfortunately, it's not that simple.
Trees can break the force of the wind, and they often provide good
tie-down points for guy-lines, as well. But trees and their branches can
also blow down on you. That's not a happy thought, is it? Even a
seed-cone can hurt if it falls on your head from the top of an
eighty-foot-tall pine. If the pine tree itself falls on you, well
What to do? Simple. Avoid campsites nestled among giant pines or other
big conifers, particularly in the thin soils of the Canadian Shield.
Avoid hypermature monoculture plantation stands, too. Look for dense
thickets of shrubby spruce or hemlock, instead. These "spruce hells"
aren't much fun to move around in, but they're great wind-breaks, and a
fifteen-foot spruce won't hurt half so much as an eighty-foot pine if it
topples on your tent. Andwhether a thunderstorm threatens or
notalways "eyeball the overhead" before you pitch your tent.
Remember the Sword of Damocles? Even if the night is dead calm, you'll
sleep much better when you're certain there are no large, dead branches
or other "widowmakers" hanging over your head. At least I know I do.
That Awful Sinking Feeling
After the wind comes the deluge: a couple of inches of rain in half an
hour, sometimes. Most modern tentseven many discount-house
specialsare remarkably well-designed. If you remembered to bring
your fly-sheet and if your tent-seams are all properly sealed, you should
be as dry as a bean, provided that you haven't pitched your tent in a
hollow. The top of a slight rise is much better. Failing that, look for a
site with a gentle slope, but unless you enjoy bizarre dreams,
always sleep with your head higher than your feet.
Whatever the layout of your site, however, there's never any need to
"ditch" your tent. This didn't make much sense even in the days of canvas
lean-to shelters, and modern waterproof floors offer excellent protection
from both groundwater and splash. Older tents sometimes have badly-worn
floors, of course. If that's true of your tent, just put down a 4-mil
plastic sheet. But don't put it under your tent. It'll only funnel water
under the floor and trap it there. Put it inside the tent,
instead, and arrange it so that the sheet laps up against the tent
sidewalls. It'll be a little slippery, to be sure, but at least you won't
suffer from rising damp.
Will this guarantee that you'll stay dry? No. Thunderstorms have other
ways of getting you wet. They can even drown you. In canyon country,
storms can raise river levels many feet in just a few minutes. If you're
bedding down on a low-lying rock-shelf, you can go to sleep under a
crystal-clear sky, only to be wakened suddenly, hours later, by the river
tugging at your sleeping bag, its rushing waters swollen to a muddy
torrent by a storm that dumped rain on slopes many miles away. You
probably never even heard the thunder.
What can you do? If you're in canyon country, look around at the
cliffs near your camp. If you see driftwood caught in scrub on the canyon
walls fifty feet above you, climb higher, or camp someplace else, where
the river opens out. And pay attention to any lightning, however
distanteven "heat lightning" glimpsed on the far horizon. If the
sky lights up anywhere, it's time to "get high."
Thunderstorms have unpleasant surprises in store for beach campers,
too. Sea-kayakers obviously have to allow for the rise and fall of the
tides, and they choose their campsites accordingly, taking such things as
storm surges and offshore winds into account. Lake paddlers, however,
expect the water to stay where it belongs. But it doesn'tat least
not always. Big lakes and bays are like basins. Just as you can slop
water out of a bathtub by moving too quickly, the high winds and pressure
waves that accompany thunderstorms can set the water in a lake sloshing
back and forth. This phenomenon is known as a seiche, and it's
often associated with the passage of line squalls in advance of a
vigorous cold front. In extreme cases, seiches can generate
mini-tsunamis, raising water levels by several feet and flooding beaches.
In June 1954, a squall-line-induced seiche swept along the southwestern
shore of Lake Michigan, inundating Chicago neighborhoods under as much as
ten feet of water. While such spectacular events are rare, they can also
be triggered by underwater landslides, a relatively common phenomenon on
Lake Powell and other canyon-country reservoirs. All in all, beach sites
are not good choices for heavy-weather camps.
Lightning is the the signature of a thunderstorm. That being
the case, you certainly don't want to be the highest point on the
landscape. When a thunderstorm approaches, therefore, get off the water
as fast as possible, and keep as close to shore as you can while you look
for a suitable campsite. If conditions permit, stay within the "cone of
protection" of shoreline trees during your searchpaddle no further
offshore than the trees are high. In selecting a camp site, avoid exposed
ridges and open meadows. The best sites are among large stands of uniform
and not-too-tall trees. Whatever you do, don't pitch your tent under a
solitary giant! You might as well set up housekeeping under a lightning
By the time the storm hits, you should be snug in a well-guyed tent.
Then, if lightning begins to strike too close for comfort, squat down on
your foam pad, keeping your feet and legs together. And open your mouth.
You'll look silly, but you'll be minimizing the danger from ground
currents and barotrauma. With lightning striking nearby, looking silly is
the least of your worries.
But what if, despite all your precautions, lightning strikes your
camp? It's not likely, but it does happen. What then? First, call the
roll, quickly and loudly. When lightning hits near a group, it's not
unusual for more than one person to be affected. Second, ignore anyone
who's screaming in pain (or fear). If someone's screaming, he or she is
probably OK. Their burns and other injuries can wait. It's the folks who
didn't answer up when called that you need to worry about.
Lighting kills by causing a person's heart to arrest and their breathing
to stop. Normal heart action usually resumes spontaneously and quickly,
but normal respiration often does not. If someone's not "answering the
phone" in the aftermath of a strike, there's a pretty good chance that
she's not breathing. And if she's not breathing, you're going to have to
breathe for her until the respiratory center of her brain recovers from
the effects of 200 million volts of direct current. This may take half an
hour or more. If you're the most experienced person in your group, her
life is in your hands. Don't give up easily. If you know what you're
doing, the prognosis for your "patient" is excellent.
Suppose that you don't know what you're doing, however. What would
happen then? It doesn't bear thinking about, does it? Where the lives of
your family and friends are concerned, you won't want to leave things to
chance. Take a class in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) from the Red
Cross, or, if you simply can't afford the fee your local chapter charges
and if there's no other way, at least get an experienced friend to show
you how it's done. Artificial respiration and external cardiac massage
can only be learned by practicing under the guidance of a competent
instructor. Believe me, it's worth the time and trouble.
Once your "patient" is breathing, you can relax a bit, but you're not
out of the woods yet. In fact, getting the "patient" out of the woods is
now Job One. Evacuation to a hospital is mandatory in lightning-strike
cases. If you have a cell or satellite phone, or a VHF transceiver, this
is where it earns its keep. If you don't have one, it's time to make the
"patient" comfortable and implement your bug-out plan. (You do have a
bug-out plan, don't you? I hope so.) In either case, your trip's over,
but you've got a lot to celebrate. You've saved a friend's life, for one
thingand you've all got one hell of a story to tell, for another.
Of course, adventures like this aren't quite as much fun to live
through as they are to tell about afterwards. Most experienced
back-country travellers would just as soon get their fun in other ways.
So here's the good news. If you follow the common-sense guidelines in
these two articles, the odds are excellent that the gods will hammer on
their anvils in vain. Then you'll be able to enjoy one of nature's most
spectacular displays from a comfortable ringside seat, with no more
reason to be afraid than if you were looking out at the storm through the
picture window of your house. Now that's paradise indeed!
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights