Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Caught in a storm - A kayakers nightmare

Ever have a bad experience and questioned how you ended up in it?  I recently got caught in a storm while kayaking in Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge.  I was unable to get off the water before the storm hit.  As I was sheltering at the base of a tree and lightening was crackling all around me, I questioned how I ended up in it.

Felsenthal NWR a 65,000-acre wildlife enthusiast's playground.  If getting "off-the-grid" is what you seek this is the place for you.  No cell phone service, limited public access, no homes, no ranger stations.  It's a maze of sloughs, swamps, lakes, rivers, creeks and lowland bottoms.  It's called a "refuge" because there is little to no human contact or development once you're out there.

Video of the event

Last week I ran into a large group of big gar in the refuge.  Of course I caught a small one.  I watched as a huge gar followed but rejected my offering, leaving me with a bad case of gar fever.  I spent the better part of Saturday afternoon researching gar flies then tying a few for Sunday's trip.

The weather has been sketchy around here for a day or two. Occasionally a storm will blow up and run its course quickly.  I knew the chances of a small storm existed when I drove to the launch Sunday afternoon.  In fact, I turned around at the launch and drove 8 miles back to the highway because I hadn't checked the latest forecast.  Good news, nothing was showing on the radar and the hourly forecast suggested a small chance of rain around 6 pm leaving me 5 hours to fish, worst case.

Waiting it out

It took about an hour to paddle the 3 miles to the area I knew held gar.  They were still there and popping on top.  I hooked several, including a 4 footer, but landed none.  Ironically, I was thinking this blog post would center around the challenge of catching gar on the fly.  In the excitement, I didn't notice how the clouds began to change (the video shows a clear change) around 4:30 pm.  At 5 pm, I heard the thunder and realized I was in trouble.  I was an hours paddle away in good conditions...

Early afternoon well before thunderstorm

The conditions went bad quickly.  A strong southern wind hit me first.  It was cool and refreshing in the 95F temperature.  I welcomed it and secretly thought it might aid in my return.  It was at my back as I was paddling north.  It didn't last.  A moment later and a strong northern wind slowed my progress.  The water got choppy and I was now paddling into a 15-20 mph headwind.  The cypress trees were swaying back and forth.  I was wearing a self-inflatable pfd.  Meaning you have to be conscious to activate it.  I started worrying about being knocked unconscious from a falling tree branch.  I made a make shift auto inflate pull from my dog leash by attaching it to the lever and locking it.  If I was knocked out of the kayak the hope was the dog leash would activate the pfd.  I'm in trouble...

Looking south, clear sky at 4 pm

Looking same direction as above, clouds building ~4:30.  All I saw was the gar pop on top. 

Looking north, clouds building ~4:30 pm

I was about half way when I saw a cloud to ground lightning strike.  I'm not going to make it.  It was time to find refuge.  I pulled up on a small island and took shelter below a small cluster of trees.  The lightning grew more intense.  It was all around me.  Then a explosion sent me to the ground.  My ears were ringing as a lightening strike had been really close.  I needed a plan.  I had no idea how long it would last, so at the first lull in the storm I jumped back in the kayak and made a break for it.  It wasn't meant to be...

Not going to out run this.  Trouble at 5:15.  The lightning started soon after and I left the water

The lightning continued.  The wind picked back up.  I crossed the refuge and beached the kayak.  It would be safer to run out than paddle out.  I've completed 9 marathons, I run regularly, but I've never run that hard.  My lungs felt like they were bleeding, the burning was deep inside.  I didn't stop or slow down.

The line from upper right corner to lower left corner passed over me.  Got out just in time.

It was a good decision.  Weathering the storm would have been a mistake.  It lasted 3 hours.  I returned and made my way back to my kayak once the lightning stopped.  During those hours and over the following day, I had time to think about my situation.  Here's what I came up with.

Pro's or what I think I did right:

Float plan:
Let someone know where you're going.  I sent a text to my wife with my launch location.  I was confident she would have alerted someone if I didn't return that night.  She has done as much before.

Stay calm:
In any stressful situation one of the most important things you can do is remain calm and stay in control of your emotions.  I could have freaked out and paddled like crazy through the storm.  However, I've heard more stories of people being killed on the water trying to out run a storm then people who sheltered and waited for it to pass.  

Evaluate the risk:
I went out knowing there was a risk of thunderstorms during the afternoon.  I checked several times before getting on the water.  Later, as the storm ran its course I had to re-evaluate the risk of staying or moving.  Eventually I decided to move and run out during a brief break in the lightning.  The storm seemed to be growing and I could hear more thunder in the distance.  

Keep thinking, evaluating, and adjusting:
The situation was very fluid.  In the beginning, I though I was going to make it back to my truck.  When the lightning started I knew I needed to find shelter and get off the water.  I wanted to be on dry ground.  Not on the water sheltering under a giant tree that might fall on me or be a lightning magnet.  There are large trees all over the refuge that were obviously struck by lightning.  Finding hard ground in the refuge is not easy.  Being familiar with the area was a huge benefit and I'll talk about that next.  As time passed I sensed this storm wasn't going to pass quickly.  It wasn't a summer storm like I had hoped.  But there were waves and after each was a small opening.  After 40 minutes in the storm I decided to move during one of these openings.  Again, the situation was fluid.  The opening I choose didn't last long enough for me to get back.  However, I was now close enough to leave the kayak and run out.  It was both quicker and safer to run than paddle.  Again, knowing the area was huge!

Know the area:
Like I mentioned earlier, being familiar with the area was really important.  First because it helped me get back safely.  Secondly, not feeling lost and being confident on my location reduced stress in a stressful environment.  It made it possible to keep moving in the storm.  Even if you're not on home water you should always take note of prominent landmarks.  You never know if you'll need them later.

I stopped wearing flip flops on the water 2 years ago.  Primarily because I do a lot of solo kayaking and felt like if I ever found myself in a bad situation I'd want real footwear.  I was happy I had shoes on when I was running through the refuge.  

Cons or things I know I did wrong:

A weather radio would have been helpful but I'm confident I could have avoided the situation.  More on that next.
Also, in my opinion a manual inflatable PFD isn't ideal in a storm.  When the winds kicked up to 20 mph the trees started swaying and cracking  All those downed trees I saw as bass habitat, I had a different picture in my head now.  Being hit by a falling tree or branch and knocked unconscious became a real concern.  I'll keep a traditional PFD in my kayak in the future.
I didn't have any foul weather gear.  A simple rain suit would have made things more comfortable when the temperature dropped to 73f.

Pay attention to your surroundings:
Being honest, I got fish brain and it cost me.  I failed to notice the clouds changing in the distance (sequence of pics above show the change).  Looking at the video there was an obvious change in the weather.  If I had paid more attention to the conditions I would have been closer to the boat ramp when I heard the thunder and ultimately off the water before the storm.

Over rate your abilities:
No matter how confident you are in your kayaking abilities you will never out run a storm.  Don't let your mind convince you otherwise.  I was sure I could get back even after I saw it bearing down on me.  In fact, I hesitated and questioned if the storm was moving in my direction or going to be a near miss.  If you can see it, start moving to safety, and move with a purpose.  Lesson learned, the hard way.

That's all.  Hope some of this helps someone avoid repeating my experience.  It wasn't fun.


  1. Fear.

    I have kayak fished twice. The first time was just off the beach near Apalachacola, FL. With a guide. Perfectly calm when we launched. SLIGHT breeze pushed us southeast. Neither of us realized how much Parkinson's would slow me down when the wind came up. And physics sucks: Force = Pressure X Surface Area. A Kayaker has too damn much surface area.

    (Big Surface Area) X (Small Wind Pressure) = Too Much Force, pushing the wrong &^%@#$* direction.

    I managed to make it back to shore without passing out or calling the Coast Guard. I needed assistance. Walked the kayak about a mile back to the truck. I was not really in danger, but I felt the fear. I can only guess your were in terror.

    VERY glad you're safe and we may yet fish together...

    1. Being in any environment and at its mercy is humbling. Oceans or thunderstorms...they have a way of making us feel really small.

  2. I'm glad you made it out safely. When you're below the tree line like that storms can sneak up on you.

    1. Me to. This one was sneaky, sneaky, and angry.

  3. That's a bit of a hair raising story Drew. We all make that mistake once. Hopefully that's the last time.

    1. It was certainly a memorable event and I will be me more aware in the future. Don't want to repeat it or have anyone else go through it.