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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Gimme Shelter!

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 below—or 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 themselves—how 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 optional.

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 rain—and sometimes hail, as well—and 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 winds—and 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 owners—a couple of experienced back-country paddlers—had 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, too—along 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. And—whether a thunderstorm threatens or not—always "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 tents—even many discount-house specials—are 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 distant—even "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't—at 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.

Bang! Zoom!

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 search—paddle 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 rod.

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 thing—and 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 reserved.

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