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WWAD? What Would Alice Do? Lightning!

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Lightning is unpredictable and deadly to paddlers and hikers

WWAD  or What Would Alice Do?

I received an email this morning from a past client. I can truthfully state that the three days of paddling with this client and his friends was wonderful, exciting, and memorable. His group had paddled extensively throughout the US but had never hired a guide to give them local insights and tips. When in Maine for their trip, the hiring proved to be a good decision.

The question: ”The weather forecast was widely scattered thundershowers. I checked the radar just before we got on the water & saw one line of storms that looked like it might hit us. We were paddling down a deep river valley. At lunch we noticed a storm coming up behind us but off to our left with clearing skies behind. When we got back on the water the storm was past us but we could hear thunder & saw 1 lightning bolt.

One of our paddlers immediately headed to shore got out & went under a tree. The rest of us stayed in our boats. We wanted to keep paddling but waited till the on shore paddler felt comfortable to continue with us. She was prepared to basically walk out rather than get back on the water which none of us felt was a good idea. After about an hour she got back on the water & we continued on. We did get rain a few times before we reached the takeout, but nothing major.

So what is the proper procedure in a thunder storm? Is it safer on the water (where you’re lower) under a tree or just keep paddling?

Ok, that's more than "A" question & every situation is different,  but what is the best way to handle this? (we often find ourselves asking WWAD? What Would Alice Do?)”

Thunder and lightning pose a real and serious threat to paddlers and anyone that recreates in the outdoors. Over the years, different suggestions have been made as to best way to deal with the issue. The newest merit badge handbook on kayaking from the Boy Scouts of America makes it plain that they do not want any of the scout groups to be injured from it. Different paddling organizations such as American Canoeing Association, guides organizations, outdoor organizations such as NOLS and AMC, as well as weather organizations such as NOAA and NASA may have differences of opinions of what to do, but in the end all believe that your personal safety is key.

So WWAD?  Alice always requires that any of her guided groups must get off the water to safety ASAP once any sound of thunder is heard or sight of lightning. Although you can guestimate how far away the storm is by the flash/boom method, it isn’t 100% accurate. To use the flash/boom method, do this: from the point of a flash of lightning start counting seconds until the boom is heard. Divide the number of seconds by 5 to determine how many miles away the storm is. Divide by 3 for kilometers. This is a good indicator of whether the storm is moving towards you or away. HOWEVER if you can see lightning or hear thunder, you can be hit.

What not to have on you? Remove quickly any electrical devices such as iPod’s, mobile phones, GPS’s, digital cameras, radios, and the like. Lightning is more likely to connect with any being holding those than one that is not.

Lightning_hitting_treesWhere to go? If you are on land, go to a structural shelter such as a camp, house, barn, or other building. If you can’t but can get into a car, truck, or bus you will also be protected. Do not go into a shallow cave, the top of a hill or mountain, the bottom of a dry stream bed, stand under a single tall tree, stand on tree roots or rocks covered with them, stand or sit on rock that is orange/brown covered or has a high content of iron, be near utility poles, metal fences, or metal towers. Do look for a stand of trees that are even in height to hide under or find a deep ditch to lie flat on the bottom realizing that you could drown in a flash flood situation. A last choice would be to scatter you and your group with at least 20’ (preferably 50’) between each person waiting in a low crouching position with feet close together, kneeling or sitting in a cross-legged position with arms wrapped around your legs. Keep your patience about you while in this uncomfortable position and resist touching the ground or becoming a bigger target. Sitting on an insulated pad or life jacket is helpful but not as much as previously thought. How long must you stay in the sheltered position or in a shelter? At least 30 minutes after the last sighting or boom has passed.

lightning1If you are paddling then there is a greater risk of being hit by lightning strikes. Do not make a mistake in thinking that you will not be hit. Lightning is unpredictable. You cannot outrun a lightning strike. If you remain on the water, you become a target. If you think that getting out of your boat and swimming makes you less of a target as one of my students once said, you are wrong again. You should upon seeing or hearing lightning or the boom,  immediately paddle straight to shore (of course you have been near shore while paddling), then pulling up your boat on shore, turning it over,  and securing it so it won’t blow away or be washed out into the water. You should then seek shelter as above. If you are on a large body of water and there is no quick way to shore, get all the hand-powered boats together, tie them together to make a big “raft”, and hunker down so that your body is inside the cockpits and drift. Be prepared for some rough seas, wind, rain and possible hail.

If a person is injured by a lightning strike or the electricity that flows in/on the ground or water and passes through them, it can be deadly. Be prepared to treat for severe burns, difficulty breathing, irregular heart rhythms or even cardiac arrest which will need CPR.

So WWAD in the scenario question above? Go to shore immediately after the first sighting of lightning or hearing a thunder clap. Get all the boats ashore, pulled up and tied up and then find suitable shelter but certainly not under one tree. In a deep river valley, the chance of storm cells following the river is high and the chances of getting hit are even higher as there could be fewer places to land and get off the water. Stay put for at least 30 minutes after the last flash or thunder clap. I praise the group for staying together and not breaking up. Being safe is never to have to say, “I’m sorry, I thought that ….” to family, friends, or having it said for you.  These paddlers made it to safety before the second boom.

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Guest Saturday, 07 December 2019