Enlightening on Lightning

Lightning is a deadly threat that many outdoors enthusiasts ignore. Photo: Stockfresh

The idea for today’s topic came two days ago while I was in the shower, lathered up and ready to shave.

A tremendous a bolt of lighting struck right outside my opened window. Instantly there was a peal of thunder loud enough to make your heart stop beating for several seconds as the hair on my neck nearly leaped into the drain as the lights went out and the smell of ozone filled the humid air.

Fortunately I didn’t slit my throat with the razor in hand. I did, however, cut off one eyebrow and shredded the shower curtain into strands of vermicelli. To say I was a little bit startled is like saying Hillary Clinton is a little bit bitter.

After all bodily functions returned to a reasonable facsimile of normal, I consider the role that lightning has played in my life. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been within a 100-foot radius of a direct lightning strike. Even once is so memorable that it makes you hope there isn’t a second time. For some reason in my case, the laws of probability have been stretched to the point of breaking.

According to the National Weather Service website, an average of 62 people are killed each year by lightning. Considering that 98 percent of those folks were outdoors at the time, lighting is certainly a significant threat to fishermen, hikers and campers.

In my case, I’m fairly conservative when dealing with storms but those memorable occasions where the thunder gods tried to obliterate my being were the result of that famous outdoor cliché’, “just one more….”

In several cases, it was “just one more cast” of the fishing rod. By the time I realized that a horrible storm was imminent, it was too late to seek shelter. In one memorable instance from two decades ago, I violated dozens of boating laws on an area waterway after watching a nearby tree explode on the shoreline in a direct hit. The entire stretch of river is an idle zone but I shoved the throttle forward with gusto and roared downstream to the dock. About fifteen minutes later, safely inside my car, I finally stopped roaring.

There have been other instances such as the time I sought shelter underneath a road bridge but continued to stand in the water and fish. After a nearby lightning strike reminded me that water is an outstanding conductor of electricity, I decided prudence dictated that at least stand on dry land. Looking back, I still wonder why they didn’t find my lightly toasted body floating in the placid waters.

There was the time I went backpacking with my son on the top of Cumberland Mountain in Tennessee. Miles from safety, lighting began to strike around us. As a precaution I told him to stay about 100 yards behind me on the trail. When I explained that this would reduce the chances of a bolt of lightning taking both of us out simultaneously, he grasped the gravity of the situation. He hasn’t been backpacking since.

Safety around lightning is primarily a matter of behavior modification. As some of these examples illustrate, waiting to seek shelter from a pending storm is asking for problems since lightning can often precede rain showers by ten miles or more. Outdoors enthusiasts needs to be alert of the signs of pending bad weather and need to allow sufficient time to retreat to safety when it appears that Thor is warming up for target practice.

Even with a healthy respect for bad weather, fisherman and hikers are often caught away from shelter and must find a way to ride out the storm. In those moments, taking decisive action immediately is important to insure your safety.

The first rule is to get away from any conductors of electricity such as the tall trees, wire fences or water. You should also separate yourself from any equipment such as metal pack frames, wet ropes or metal boats that are likely to transmit current from a nearby strike.

Hikers should move off ridges to lower areas and keep group members separated by at least 20 yards to prevent simultaneous casualties. Lying on the ground isn’t especially helpful but kneeling (with only one point of ground contact) on a foam sleeping pad is often recommended by experts as a last-ditch effort. Keep in mind that rock overhangs and caves don’t really offer protection if, depending on terrain, there is a lightning strike directly overhead.

If you are inside a small boat and there is no possibility of reaching safety, it is best to anchor, lay low inside the boat away from metal objects and pray to your chosen deity.

Having a pair of clean underwear in your emergency supplies is also very helpful.

Trust me on that point.

Brent Wheat
A well-known and award-winning writer/photographer/radio & television talent/speaker/web-designer/media spokesperson/shooting instructor/elected official/retired police officer/bourbon connoisseur/cigar aficionado/backpacker/hunter/fisherman/gardener/preparedness guru/musician/and jack-of-all-trades-but-master-of-none, Brent Wheat is the editor and publisher of WildIndiana.com

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