Lightning Strikes

I was watching the rain today and thought back to this summer. I was out for a quick paddle whent he weather turned to a slight drizzle, but quite threatening. I don’t go out canoe tripping as I would wish to. So I have never been out when the weather does turn really bad. This meads me to think about lightning.

Which is better, keep paddling sitting in a lake in your old alumicraft canoe like a shallow lightning rod, or pull out and camp under the trees begging to fall?


Get off the Lake
Far better to get off the lake, but choose your spot on shore wisely for sitting out a storm. Look for a spot on shore where the trees are significantly shorter than those in the surrounding area. A usual piece of equipment on a canoe camping trip is a tarp and they are quick to set up to sit out a garden variety thunderstorm. If you have no shelter, pull your canoe completely on shore on a well drained spot, turn it over, and crawl underneath to stay semi-dry. Don’t forget to tie the bow and stern lines down in case you experience strong winds. Stay away from the giants of the forest that tower over every other nearby tree. White pine and white oak seem to attract lightning strikes more than other types of trees that I’m familiar with. Stay away from them and the spawling shallow roots of the white pine in a lightning storm. Also stay away from dead spruce that still have their tops and over-mature aspen. These are especially weak and prone to tops breaking off and crashing down in wind. It is best to have access to a large rock or root wad on a windward shore out of the trees if a nasty front with high winds is bearing down on you. You may have to leave your shelter in the trees for the windward shore if you fear trees are going to start crashing down.

Crap shoot
Common wisdom is to get off the water, but personally, I feel that lightning is so unpredictable that it is a crap shoot.

I jokingly call the Chesapeake Paddlers “safety nazis” because they take their safety very seriously, and it is serious so my joking is respectful joking. Anyway, I’m out with them one night last summer, and a butt-kicker T-storm rolls in. Everybody hustles back to the put-in, where they proceed to gather under a tarp that is supported by a frame of galvanized pipe, located under this HUGE oak tree. This was one of those storms were all hell breaks lose for a half hour, and I was way scairt of standing under that tree. Loaded my boat and got out of there. But I guess the safety nazis had karma on their side. But I can’t believe they were safer under that 80-100 foot tree than sitting in a kayak in the middle of South River, where they’d have an elevation of three feet.

I look around while I’m paddling, and there are all kinds of pilings, duck blinds and navigational markers out in the Bay and Rivers, and they are a lot taller and more substantial than we are in our tiny boats. And there’s thousands of sail boats around with 30 - 50 foot masts supported by steel guys. So why isn’t all that stuff getting zapped?

One possible answer is that they do get zapped, only we don’t see the ones that got zapped, cuz they are no longer there to see. But I don’t think that’s it.

So, rationally, I tell myself, “I’m just a tiny target on a very big body of water.” But when the thunder gets cracking, I run if there’s anywhere to run to.

Spent one storm in the nicest privy in which my arse ever shat in. It was unlocked–any shelter in a storm. So big I thought it was a tool shed. It had sashed windows, nice shelves and coat hooks. Left 'em a thank you note and a couple of dollars for supplies and to refurbish the magazine collection!

Sorry, I wander. I’ve heard all kinds of advice, like huddle on shore and pile as much nonconductive stuff under you as possible; pfd, coiled ropes, drybags, etc., so that you are not grounded. Some say approach shore so that you are in the “lightning shadow” of trees or buildings ashore. It all sort of makes sense, but I arrive back at my premise: its a crap shoot.

At a concert in DC a few summers ago, a lady got zapped sitting in the second row of RFK Stadium. That’s below ground level, inside a huge ring of concrete and steel, with huge steel light towers all around the perimeter. Lightning reached down to the bottom of the seating bowl, selected that lady out of 50,000 people, and zapped her. Bad karma, or crap shoot? There’s no end of freaky lightning strike stories. Defensive behavior on our part is rational, but unless you can get yourself out of contact with the ground and inside a shell, its a question of where you want to roll the dice.


Get off the water
If you’ve ever been close to a lightning strike you’ll know you don’t have to be hit to feel the effects. One year we were 100 yards from a strike, we were on an island and the strike was on the mainland. We felt the electricity, static, airborne, through the ground; whatever. It caused both of us to jump involuntarilly. From 100 yards away.

I mused, “If that was any closer we might have woken up smoking wet!”

T-storms produce highs winds. That alone is a good reason to get off the lake. If you do have to make a run for it just get to shore along the shortest route possible. Then look for shelter. Don’t worry about big tree little tree. I’d worry more about sheltering under a leaning tree. A tarp or poncho that you can quickly crawl under is handy. It doesn’t replace to good rain jacket though.

Remember that the NOAA lightning guy
says you should be inside away from windows, doors, and conductors whenever you can hear thunder, and you should not be outside again until 30 minutes after hearing the last thunder.

No one can seriously contemplate enjoying the outdoors unless they can get over irrational fear of lightning. I have been out in thunderstorms most of my 63 years, and the closest strike I ever experienced was while I was lying in bed.

In the BWCA and Quetico, strike deaths seem to occur on islands or mainland, more than out on the water. When we were in Quetico in '73, we had violent thunderstorms every night. One scout was killed while he slept on an island on Basswood Lake, because a pine tree struck next to his tent exploded.

Finally, if out on a lake in a thunderstorm, don’t go for the shortest route to shore, go for the SAFEST.

I live in west-central Florida; lightning capitol of the U.S. I’ve been caught in a few thunderstorms myself. Here’s a few things I’ve learned:

  1. Your chances of getting hit are slim but it does happen and people do get injured and killed.
  2. Your alumicraft canoe makes an excellent ground for lightning and aluminum-shaft paddles are good lightning rods. Although any canoe can be hit it seems to me an aluminum canoe would be a calling card. Paddle to the safest shore and get away from that canoe ASAP.
  3. Don’t be the tallest object in the area. If you’re out paddling in open waters that object will be you.
  4. Make for shelter at the first sound of thunder or flash of lightning.

Supposedly there is a cone
of protection at a 45 degree angle from the tallest tree. Consequently, if you can’t safely land on shore it’s best to stay at a safe distance from shore. Close enough for the trees to take any strike, but not too close for a tree strike to cause harm.