Monday, December 13, 2010

The Calm Before the Storm

Leaving my camp in the burned area.
August 17: Once again, I woke up with a bad case of mosquitoes. It was becoming a regular and quite annoying habit. I practically had to jog for three hours to outrun them before they started tapering off to a manageable level when I finally stopped for my first snack break. Usually, I break for a snack within the first couple of hours, but I pushed on for an extra hour even after getting hungry just to avoid those darned mosquitoes.

And, once again, I decided to take an extra long lunch break to relax in the relative calm of a mosquito-free afternoon and hike late into the evening when mosquitoes were at their worst. It's always better to be moving when the mosquitoes are thick!

At around 5:00, I decided to stop for dinner. Normally, I prefer to cook my dinner at the end of the day while in camp, but if the mosquitoes were going to be really bad then, I didn't want to have to fumble around cooking a meal. Better to do it now before the mosquitoes really came out. I cooked my meal in some trees on the side of the trail, finishing up about a half hour later. While rinsing my bowl, I felt a drop of water hit my face. I looked up and saw some very angry-looking clouds. Where the heck did those come from?!

The weather forecast for the last several days suggested a "chance" of thunderstorms, but each day would end with beautiful, clear skies. I had grown complacent and stopped believing the so-called thunderstorms would ever arrive. It wasn't raining--not really, at least, despite the one drop that hit me--but it certainly looked like the sky was warming up to the possibility.
I think this is Irish Lake. I was most amazed at how
perfect the reflection on the lake was. It was like looking
into a mirror. I've never seen such a perfect reflection
from a natural body of water.

It looked nasty enough, in fact, that I started hunting around for sticks to prop open my homemade umbrella. It takes a little time to find the right sized sticks for this, so I wanted to do that before it started raining. A few more drops fell on me. I heard a rumble in the distance, and the clouds seemed to grow darker.

I started throwing everything in my pack rapidly and decided it was time to "run" for camp. Maybe I could make it before the rain really started? I didn't have a chance, though. Within five minutes, the skies opened up and the drenching downpour started.

My goal was to do at least 30 miles for every full day of hiking, and I still had several miles to reach that point. The rain was already coming down in torrents--I was already wet. May as well just trudge through it. I reflected on my long lunch. If only I took a normal short lunch, I could have already completed my 30 miles for the day and been safe and dry under my tarp before the skies started pouring. It was my own stupid fault for being stuck in this storm.

The faint rumbling of thunder grew increasingly louder, and I started counting the time between the flashes and the thunder. At first, this was somewhat difficult since I usually didn't see the flash, but as the clouds grew darker, it was impossible to miss. And occasionally, I heard absolutely no discernible gap between the flash and the thunder--it seemed to crack just above my head. I never saw anything around me struck by lightning, but it was close. And loud. And I thanked my lucky stars that I was in a forest full of trees, well down on the side of a mountain. Fortunately, the PCT almost never goes over the top of a mountain. To keep a grade that horses can love, the trail goes around mountains more often than not. In a lightning storm, this is a good thing.
I wasn't thinking much about the clouds at this point.
They didn't seem like a big deal at the time....

The trail climbed steadily upwards, which did not please me at all, but I wasn't too concerned about it figuring it would pass through a necessary gap between two mountains then head back down the other side. The sky darkened considerably. Sunset was still a good hour away, but the clouds were so thick and in the depths of the forest, it was positively dark except for the bright flashes of light.

My umbrella almost felt worse than useless. I was soaked through, cold, and miserable. The storm seemed to have no intention of being a quick one. The skies were angry, and they had a lot to dump.

Then the trail went directly over the top of Koosah Mountain. The very tippy top. I was stunned! I hadn't been at the top of a mountain in what seemed like weeks, and now here I was standing at the very top in the middle of the thunderstorm! And more than a little nervous. I did not stop to rest.

I pushed on, trying to get back down the other side as quickly as possible. I had enough--I would stop at the next safe place I could find. Normally, I would have loved to camp at the very top of the mountain, but in a thunderstorm, that was not going to happen.

About ten minutes later, I found a tent set up near the edge of a cliff alongside the trail. I shouted into it over the thunder, asking who was in there. A fellow named Mike, who claimed to be a thru-hiker himself. "Then why are you just called Mike? What's you're trail name?" He had no trail name, though. He was just Mike. I'd never met Mike before and introduced myself, then decided to camp in the same area, a small distance away.

I was a little nervous about this particular site. We weren't at the top of the mountain, but we weren't very far downhill from it either. Mike had set up his tent next to a couple of prominently large trees that worried me a bit. I set up next to a couple of smaller trees. Had Mike not been there, I would never have considered stopping at that location at all--it seemed too dangerous. It still seemed dangerous, but I also liked the idea of having another hiker nearby if lightning did strike a little too close. Also another reason I didn't want to set up my camp too close to Mike. If there was at least a little distance between us, at least one of us would be okay if lightning struck. So I hoped. I also crossed my fingers. =)
I look out from under my homemade umbrella.
Forecast: Wet.

With my tarp finally set up, I dived under and changed into the dry clothes in my pack. Actually, even my dry clothes were a little wet. The waterproofing of my stuff sacks seems to have lost their resistance to water. The clothes weren't soaking wet, but they were supposed to be 100% completely and totally dry. They were not. Neither was my sleeping bag. I made a mental note to be better prepared for wet weather in the future. This was only the third time in four months it had rained on me--and the first time I had to set up camp IN the rain. I'd forgotten it could rain.

My view from under the tarp was awesome--I could see the silhouette of South Sister, a magnificent mountain that would light up with every flash of lightning. Given the fantastic view, I decided to try my cell phone and e-mail. It seemed unlikely I'd get anything, but I had nothing better to do. Remarkably, they both worked! I called Amanda. =)

"You would NOT believe this lightning storm out here?!" I'd shout over the rain pounding the tarp.

"Are you under your tarp?"

"Yes!" A flash of lightning streaked across the sky. "WOAH! You should have seen that lightning bolt!"

"I can actually hear the rain on your tarp!"

This was the last decent picture I could get for the day
before the skies got so dark I couldn't get anything
but blurry photos. The burned area let enough light get
through. Once I was in the trees again, it was just too dark
for more photos. That's the South Sister (of the Three Sisters
fame) in the distance. Lightning was striking that
mountain all over the place! And shooting across the sky
in cloud-to-cloud strikes.
"Yeah, it's pretty loud," I agreed. "Can you hear the thunder too?" I asked, just as the boom from the lightning bolt rumbled through. She couldn't though. I guess the pounding of the rain drowned it out.

Amanda seemed pretty amused that I was talking to her on a cell phone, from the middle of nowhere, in a lightning storm. The reception was awesome, which is strange since half the time I don't even get a signal even when I'm IN a town.

The lightning didn't stop until nearly midnight, and the rain lingered on for most of the night, and I finally went to sleep. At least the mosquitoes weren't out this night. The rain must have driven them off. =)


Okie Dog said...

I thought you weren't supposed to be on a phone in a thunder storm? Heard of lightening hitting the phone before...OD

Funhog said...

I remember that storm well! I was hiking a wee bit farther north on the PCT, just beyond Santiam Pass. I scurried to pitch my tent, dove inside and got every bit of me on top of my sleeping pad. There was no hot dinner for me that night. It was scary enough to make my hair curl.

Amanda from Seattle said...

The danger of talking on the phone during a Thunderstorm is the lightning coming into the house via the wiring, not the case with cell phones.

Anonymous said...

Well being from Oklahoma you could only imagine what my fear would have been. But I think you survived I will have to wait for the rest of the posts. When did you reach Canada? At the end of Sept? or in Oct?

Goofy girl

Anonymous said...

Love the photo of Irish Lake... and glad you survived the thunderstorm in safety.


P.S. (Thanks, Amanda, for the clarification, and the link to the SNOPES article.)

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Sounds like your next trip to resupply will include some waterproofing spray.

Had to roll my eyes at your comment about the PCT *almost never* going up and over the tall mountains.
What an inopportune time to prove you wrong. Yipes!

I enjoy falling asleep to the sound of rain pittering on my tent....not so much to the sound of booming thunder and cracks of lightning. *shaking head*

Hike On!
~Twinville Trekkers