Thunderstorms

In the spring of 1997, my wife Debbie and I felt like doing some camping, but not like dealing with the fierce Northern Ontario blackflies. We drove down to Awenda Provincial Park (on Georgian Bay near Midland) and set up our tent trailer there.

On a clear, sunny day we decided to paddle out and do a circuit of Giant's Tomb Island, just across the bay from the park. We paddled the 4 km out to the island and up the 6 or 7 km of its length. As we were paddling back down the island, a typical  Georgian Bay afternoon squall began to develop. We watched a blue "wall" of foul weather begin to roll in. We weren't at all concerned, since we could simply put ashore and wait out the storm. As we made our way down the island toward the southern tip, we noticed that the front seemed to be fairly stationary, not getting any closer to us. We eyeballed the front behind us, and the park shoreline 4 km in front of us and tried to decide what to do. Should we wait and see if the storm passed, or should we make a quick dash for the opposite shore?

We were hearing thunder in the background, but had not seen any lightning, and the front didn't seem to be moving very quickly, so we decided in favour of the quick dash. We paddled away from the island and began the crossing, with good-sized rollers pushing us along. When we were about one-third of the way across, we began to hear an increase in the amount of thunder and saw the first flashes of lightning. All of the pleasure boats suddenly disappeared.

The knowledge that you are the highest object in a 4 km square area of water is not a pleasant feeling. We had reached the point of no return - it would have taken us longer to paddle back to the island into the waves than it would have to keep going, so we carried on. We watched the lightning begin to flash even more frequently in the distance. Fueled by fear and adrenaline, we paddled even harder. We completed the 4 km crossing in less than half an hour, but it was the longest 30 minutes of my life.

Lightning can be a real threat to paddlers if they happen to be caught out in a storm. We don't seem to get hit as often as golfers, but we still hear of the occasional paddlers who get killed by lightning. We have to be aware of the weather conditions as they are developing. If ominous thunderclouds begin to develop in the west or northwest, we should be prepared to take action. Thunderclouds in other directions will generally miss us, since prevailing winds usually push our weather from the west and northwest, but there are no guarantees.

If thunderstorms begin to develop in our immediate area, the only sensible course of action is to get off the water as quickly as possible. Lightning seeks the easiest path between positive and negative, which means the highest object in the vicinity. If we are out in a canoe in open water, we are that highest object, and are putting ourselves at substantial risk.

Getting off the water also means that we are careful about not putting ourselves in danger in our place of refuge. We don't seek out the tallest, most magnificent white pine in the area and try to gain shelter under its branches. Tall trees are also lightning-attractors and we could be in just as much danger under them as we are in the water. The same applies for setting up camp. Putting our tents atop the root system of the tallest tree in the area is not a good idea.

'Safest' area to paddle during electrical storms

Cliff Jacobson, the well-know author of canoeing books mentions a "cone of protection" which extends out at approximately 45° from the tops of the trees on the shoreline. The water in this area is supposedly fairly safe. In theory, lightning is more likely to hit the trees adjacent to this area than an object in the water. Still, lightning can jump from root systems or trees to canoes if they are close to shore so it means that we have to stay a bit away from the shoreline. I don't believe that I would want to be the person to test the theory about this "cone of protection", but if I absolutely

had

to paddle in a thunderstorm it seems to make sense that this is the lesser of many other evils.