Lightning struck a tree 40 yards away from Brooke Cribbs, its electrical force spreading through ground current. The charge entered her body at her ankle, surged to her knee, arched to her opposite knee, ran up her thigh and exited near her back. The incident occurred last summer while Cribbs, 14, participated in a wilderness education program.
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Lightning is like any predator; it seeks something to strike. That sobering idea is even more relevant this time of year. The likelihood of suffering a lightning-related injury corresponds with the increase in warm-weather activities, such as boating and camping. June, July and August accounted for more than 70 percent of lightning deaths between 2006 and 2016 in the United States, according to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA). Saturdays and Sundays topped days of the week.
Though indoor shelter is the first safety precaution during thunderstorms, wilderness travelers rarely have that option.
Hennepin County Emergency Management Director Eric Waage and field and training coordinator Kelly Fisher are well-versed in reducing risks that accompany severe weather. They emphasize that the lack of substantial shelter puts backcountry campers in a dodgy spot during thunderstorms.
“There’s really nothing that is going to protect you out there, so you have to use your wits,” Waage said.
Mental preparation begins before the adventure. Waage encourages people to learn basic weather technology and how to read weather. He also recommends studying trip maps, understanding terrain, telling others about the route and timeline, and becoming familiar with upcoming forecasts. If harsh weather appears to be on its way, preparation opens options for choosing alternative routes that could offer better protection. Plus, as Fisher said, there’s always the option of postponing or canceling a trip.
Waage and Fisher also suggested some weather gizmos that are worth their weight in a backpack. Portable weather radios compliant with the NOAA continually update forecasts specific to an area. Some devices include an alarm to alert campers during sleep. Lightning detectors determine storm distance. Transistor radios can also double as inexpensive detectors. Off-tuning an AM band picks up the crackle of lightning from long range.
But simply having the knowledge isn’t enough. Waage said the choices for protection aren’t as important as when the choices are made, especially with lightning. Action is required before thunder booms, trees bend and choices turn into panic. “That’s just the wrong time to be looking for shelter, because then you’re going to be making dumb decisions.”
Though eye-catching campsites with majestic trees are grand on bluebird days, visual site-aesthetics are a risky selection in a storm. Fisher trusts the adage, “look up, look down, look all around.” He starts by looking for leaning trees and loose branches in the tree canopy.
“If it can fall on you, it probably will,” he said.
Waage also reminds campers of a storm’s water component. In a deluge of rain, attractive campsites can be susceptible to flash floods.
Between rock and a far place
Cribbs’ brigade was six days into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on a trip through Voyageur Outward Bound School (VOBS) in Ely. They had just finished setting up evening camp on Crooked Lake when a thunderstorm approached. Course leaders instructed the group to begin their lightning drill. Everyone dressed in rain gear and sat on their life vests so no part of their bodies touched the ground.
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“Lightning is the biggest wild card of any of these storms … because it’s independent of that [thundercloud],” Waage said.
What’s more, electrical charges can come from ground current. Waage said “streamers” or “upward leaders” are also like little fingers hunting for a downward leader from the sky. Even if the two don’t connect, they’re dangerous.
NOAA research indicates that lightning can strike up to 25 miles from its parent thunderstorm. A ranging system was developed to measure lightning distance. The sound of thunder travels one mile every five seconds. To estimate a storm’s mileage away, divide the seconds between the lightning flash and its thunder by five.
Situational awareness is key to buying time to seek shelter. Fisher said looking for lightning, checking wind direction and watching for falling branches affords campers a better chance to protect themselves.
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The ground current from a lightning strike left all eight in Cribb’s brigade with burns, and they were flown to a local hospital. Authorities credit the drill for saving lives. Had the campers been directly on the ground, the outcome could have been far worse. Cribbs had severe injuries. She was knocked unconscious and sustained excruciating burns.
VOBS awards pins to students who “graduate with excellence” after persevering with intense coursework. Cribb’s participation was cut short, so the school helped her design a plan to earn her pin and arrange BWCA travel through the Ely Outfitting Co. She was determined to see that tree again and discover her personal courage. One month after being struck by lightning, she returned to the site with family and friends.
She found the tree had exploded into pieces, six parts of which hung in other trees.
Cribbs, now 15, describes her former self as fairly introverted. But by returning to the tree, she has since developed strength and self-confidence to speak up more often, meet new people, push herself through difficult schoolwork and take on a captain’s slot on her volleyball team.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached at email@example.com.