Sometimes we get complacent. We’ve paddled the same spot so many times without incident that we could do it with our eyes closed. The one hour workout is so routine, we needn’t worry about anything, especially the what ifs. How many times have we seen big thunderheads not produce anything but frustration because we canceled a paddle just because it MIGHT storm. So we start to ignore them and the forecasts. It’s very easy to do here in the South.
For me, that day was yesterday.
I’d skipped my interval session the day before because of an ominous cloud that dumped nothing on my part of Raleigh. Irked by the unplanned adjustment to my schedule and needing stress relief from my office environment that only the water can provide, I scurried up to the Barton’s Creek boat ramp for an easy, short session of intervals. Plan was to go out the upper part of the the creek, round the bend and pass the island that marks the entrance to the lower part of the creek and back. Easy peasy. Before leaving, I activated my INeverSolo app, which sends a float plan to my designated contacts and will automatically send out an email to those same contacts if you don’t check in and end your plan on time. I put in on the dock, activated my fitness apps and Garmin Fenix 2 and set out to get the intervals in the bag.
My strokes were smooth and slow, I was doing an extra good job of not starting out too fast and was about to commence the session of eight one-minutes when I paddled past a fellow on a high end race board, sitting in the water at the mouth of the creek. We exchanged pleasantries, mentioned the weather casually and he warned me about the shallow section I was about to paddle around. Later, it occurred to me that he might have been checking the radar on his phone, trying to decide of he should abort his paddle. Perhaps it wasn’t the shallows we should have been discussing.
About three interval sets later, just as I was getting into my groove, I looked up. The dark cloud that had appeared to be the twin of yesterday’s impotent dark ominous cloud was closer. And darker. And more ominous. I could see the tendrils of rain squalls reaching toward the lake, looking kind of like the Death Eaters from the Harry Potter movies. Yet, I’d heard no thunder. The rain started to hit the lake downstream from me and it was actually kind of cool to see it move closer and closer until I felt the drops on my board and my face. Okay, I’ll paddle back in the rain. No worries, the wind is going in the right direction, I won’t get overheated in the humidity, it’s all good. There’s no lightning.
CRACK!!! BOOM!!! ZAP!!!!
Thunder right overhead and a lightning bolt worthy of Thor himself came down from above. The wind kicked up. The rain pelted.
Suddenly this easy peasy quick one hour session became an Advencha with a capital A.
I paddled to shore as quickly as possible, trying to find a non-rocky place to pull out of the water. I hauled my board out and looked for some sort of safe place to wait out the storm. Unfortunately, the safest place would have been the Blue Jay Point County Park Lodge, which was about a quarter of a mile across the lake, right in front of me. But the thought of crossing the open water as lightning cracked all around me was not attractive. Fortunately I was in a low spot on the shore under smallish trees. That was good. I didn’t want to sit down in the leaf litter, so I was squatting as if getting ready for crow pose. Thank goodness that’s one of my favorites in yoga class – turns out that crouching with heels touching in a lightning storm is recommended. You don’t want a lot of contact with anything with all that discharging going on all around you. What was bad was that I was very close to all the trees…there’s no avoiding that in the coastal plain woods.
And then there were the biting ants. But that was the least of my concerns at that point.
The storm stayed right over my position for about an hour. I got cold. I got scared. I cried. I prayed. I couldn’t remember the Lord’s Prayer. I apologized.
“I’m not scared, I’m not scared. Breath, breath, breath. It’s okay okay okay okay.”
I called Wendy and told her where I was, begged her to meet me the boat ramp with dry clothes. She was in the car driving and couldn’t really talk. We hung up. I felt alone. REALLY alone. And yet, so frickin’ close to a county park, a highway, houses.
This was a good reminder that you don’t have to be in the wilderness to have a dangerous experience.
Do not panic. What would Bear Grylls do? No, I was not going to lie back and think of England. Wrong emergency situation. No, the best thing to do as the storm raged was to stay put. Moving on foot might have been safer, since that can reduce the likelihood of getting struck by lightning. However, the woods were full of briars, there was no clear path to follow, visibility was low and I was in flip flops. I’d already hurt my toe getting away from the water. Getting lost was not an option. There were at least two boats in the creek, so I turned my Naish Javelin upside down so that it’s yellow bottom would be visible to anyone who might happen to pass my location.
My phone was a security blanket. After calling Wendy, I turned off all my apps to conserve the battery. I left the WRAL radar app on however. I kept refreshing it over and over to see how the storm was moving. The rain was coming down so hard, even under the canopy that drops would hit the touch screen and change the view on the app – usually it would activate one of the advertisement links so instead of seeing the radar, I got used car ads. Not helpful. Thank God for my phone’s Lifeproof case! otherwise I’d have been screwed.
As I was watching the radar I got a message on the phone that my INeverSolo float plan was about to expire and that emergency messages would be sent to my contacts unless. I checked in and canceled it. Wendy already knew my situation, but I let the message expire anyway. Next time, I will be sure to include a map link to my starting location in my float plan.
Every time I thought the storm might be letting up, more lightning. At one point, I could no longer see the lodge across the lake nor it’s lights. The wind howled. Falls Lake was the roughest I have ever seen it.
Dammit. I am NOT going to die on freakin Falls Lake!!!!!
More praying as it got darker. About that time, something moved next to me. Oh please, not a snake, please let it not be a snake. I turned on my phone’s flashlight app which revealed a little toad. He hopped away from me, stopped, turned and looked back, then hopped back to me and sat by my foot.
Well, if he’s not scared, then it must be okay, I told myself, believing in the inherent ability of animals to sense danger and protect themselves.
Maybe this toad is a sign that my prayers have been heard. Maybe this is my spirit animal here to tell me it’s okay. Or maybe THIS TOAD IS HERE TO ESCORT ME TO THE NETHERWORLD ….no, go back to the first two ideas. This is not the Falls Lake Grim Reaper Toad of Death.
The radar showed signs that the bulk of the storm had passed my position. The thunder was definitely father off. The light show had subsided. I decided to start paddling, on my knees, hugging the shoreline. I made it out of the lower creek and carried my board across a small sand spit. More FLASHES. I got under the trees, checked radar again and ate my GU. One of the boats I’d seen earlier was coming down the creek, I tried to wave to the captain but he didn’t see me. Other boats were coming in so I decided to run for it.
It was about a15 minute paddle back to the dock. The was little to no rain, but thunder and lightning was still in the distance. It was dark, but there was still enough light for me to see. I stayed close to the shore, so close that I startled a beaver, who in turn made me scream when he slapped his tail at me.
I focused on my paddle strokes, and my breathing and by the time I made it to the dock, all the other boaters had left. Sitting on the dock, I started shaking, and there were a few more tears. Dry clothes helped. The hug from Wendy helped. Hot shower, Benadryl and a big plate of pesto pasta at home helped.
So, what did I learn? ALWAYS pay attention to the forecast. ALWAYS carry a dry bag with the essentials, even if you are just going on a short workout paddle- jacket, space blankets, headlamp. Keens, not flip flops. ALWAYS file a float plan and let someone, maybe more than one person know where you are. Make sure those folks know how to find you, too. Know what to do in weather emergencies. And ALWAYS have your phone with you.
And never, ever, ever, take Mother Nature for granted. Even if you’re just in your backyard.
For more on safety in thunderstorms check out the NOAA lightning safety page.