I never needed to sell Jill on joining me in Yellowstone, but I was always prepared to give her the hard sell if required. It would have been two bullet points: Impressive geology and many thunderstorms.
You see, my wife is something of storm loving hobbiest who enjoys nothing more than a violent thunderstorm. Growing up in Ontario, she has a comfort level with Mother Nature’s darker side that I’ve never enjoyed, being from Vancouver where thunderstorms are rare.
But even though I might not find comfort in storms, I do find them fascinating and found myself falling in love with the beasts of the sky as readily as Jill was falling in love with my bears.
On our first trip into the wild, Jill was determined to find a tornado. We narrowly missed a rain-wrapped twister while driving through Michigan in the dark. And when we neared Yellowstone, we found our small car being tossed by strong winds before hearing that telltale tornado-warning siren as we approached Dubois, Wyoming. Looking above us, a funnel cloud hovered. While most would have driven to cover, we eagerly navigated ourselves into a safe location to observe the rare, but famous mountain tornado of the Wind Range plateau.
Every time thunderheads formed in the sky above us, we’d quit what we were doing and try to capture the storm’s compelling light and curious cloud formations, as the heavens opened up upon us. But while each storm ratcheted up Jill’s love for extreme weather, my love affair was short lived, coming to a crashing halt in the summer of 2012.
After completing our wildlife photography adventures in Yellowstone and Glacier National Park, we moved up to Waterton National Park and set-up our tent in the park’s town site campground.
While not the wildest location of them all, the campground is strategically located for bear viewing. However, what I forgot from my younger years is that its stunning view down Waterton Lake toward the US border and Glacier National Park also acts as a demented wind tunnel, channeling the region’s notorious hurricane-level winds at unsuspecting campers.
The entire east-side of this wilderness, the Crown of the Continent, is compromised of glacier carved valley after glacier carved valley that are often defined by winds that frequently gust to over 100 kilometres per hour. None of this really is an issue if you’re a day-tripper or plan on sleeping in a RV or a hotel. It’s a big bloody issue, however, if you’re staying in a tent.
When Jill and I arrived, we felt lucky to even find a camp spot given the Canadian August long weekend approaching, so we weren’t complaining that our tent had to be erected in the middle of a bald prairie – the space provided for walk-in camping.
The first night was fine.
The second night was windy and we began to question our judgment for selecting this campsite, given that every minute or so the wind would race down the lake like a freight train and slam into our tent. In fact, the entire tent would bend until it was almost flat on the ground, giving us a mouthful of canvass if we didn’t sit up and push back with our bodies – and even that didn’t work all of the time.
The third day, as a result, was a bit of a write-off. We were exhausted and, with the wind dying down, we planned on an early night. Asleep by eight, our peaceful night was short lived, as we were woken abruptly at eleven with the clap of thunder down valley.
Jill was immediately alert and in heaven. A storm. I was thrilled for her, but was more focused on trying to get back to sleep. Like that was going to happen.
What started off as a distant thunderstorm became a ferocious beast with the wind picking up and moving it down the lake and toward our campsite.
It was around this point that I remembered stories from my mom’s childhood growing up on Canada’s prairies, stories about wicked storms and my grandmother’s constant fear of what havoc they could wreak. I wasn’t scared per se, but I became acutely aware that we were in a small tent, held up by metal poles, on a bald prairie with few others around. And the storm, what sounded initially to be so peaceful, was now crashing toward us – and its lightening displays were becoming ever more frequent and violent.
I asked Jill if we should flee our tent for the safety of our car, but she told me not to be silly and just enjoy.
We “enjoyed” the storm for maybe five more minutes and then it was upon us. The wind was every bit as bad as the previous night, if not worse. We could hardly keep the canvass from our faces and items like jackets and shoes became impossible to find it the battle to simply maintain a space to breathe.
Then there was the rain. It came in sheets, doubling the force of the wind and began to penetrate our tent’s tarp. At least it wasn’t totally dark. Though the clock informed us it was midnight, the lightening made it feel like it was midday – or midday in some hellish place where a constant threat of electrocution was extremely real.
I didn’t need to ask Jill again if it was a mistake not to have fled to the car. The look in her eyes said it all: Panic. And when someone who dubs herself an amateur storm chaser is scared, you know you’re in trouble.
Screaming over the roar of the wind, rain and thunder, she said we had to get to the car. Fast. She felt this wasn’t an ordinary thunderstorm, but very likely a storm masking a tornado.
Jill somehow found the tent opening and, before I could say anything, was out and gone.
Now, I should mention that I wear glasses. And when you don’t have your glasses on, finding where you put them last can be a challenge. It’s mission impossible if you’re single handedly holding up a tent being pushed into your face and you fear imminent death from lightening or suffocation. At least I don’t suffer from claustrophobia.
I eventually, through feel and touch, found the opening to the tent, but I was missing my glasses. And my shirt. And shoes. Luckily, I found a pair of sandals, but with the lightening all around and the car a short walk away across the flat field, I elected to place the rubber flip-flops on my hands, rather than on my feet, and crawl – hoping the rubber would ground me in some way. I never suggested I was smart.
So on my belly, with the rains of hell coming down upon me, I shimmered through the mud, completely blind and clueless as to where I eventually exited the tent, armed only with my trusty hand sandals.
I lasted maybe thirty seconds before the lightening struck a little too close for comfort and I decided belly-shimmering was a poor strategy. It was time to run for it.
I ditched my two flimsy pieces of rubber and began to run. Three feet. And then I remembered the other hazard of this delightful personal nightmare: This campground was littered with the holes of Columbian Ground Squirrels. Hundreds of them. And just my luck (my blindness having something to do with it, no doubt) I jammed my toe into one and back down I went.
Now my toe’s broken. I was covered in mud. I was cut and bleeding. I was soaking. I was blind. I was exposed to the storm. I had lost Jill and my sense of direction.
And my hand sandals were gone.
Somehow, I pulled it together and limp-ran without further incident, narrowly dodging lightening, and found the car.
As I got in, Jill just starred at me and said: “Where did you go?! What happened to you?! You’re bleeding!! Your toe!!”
Yes, Jill, we left for the car too late and I got lost after you left me. My toe, now broken, really hurts and I’m cold, bloodied and wet.
“I wish you had your glasses”, Jill responded. “This storm is amazing!”
Yes, just amazing.
The next day, we spent hours locating our tent, mostly ripped to shreds by the wind and rain, and scattered items of clothing, found around the Waterton campsite. At least we survived to tell the tale. And curse the ground squirrel holes.
After the Night of the (Toe) Killer Storm, the sound of thunder sent a bolt of fear through my heart, as did the sight of thunderhead clouds in the sky.
So a few weeks later, when we found ourselves on Jasper’s Maligne Lake Road looking for black bears and I noticed a massive thunderhead – the likes of which I had never seen before – crest the nearby ridge, I suggested we urgently head in a different direction from the storm and back towards town and our campsite.
Begrudgingly, Jill agreed, but by the time we reached our camp spot at Snaring River, a few miles east of the town of Jasper, there was an eerie calm, complete with flickering lights, buzzing bugs and a gnarly pre-storm hue in the fading light. It was like a scene from the movie Twister.
This time I wasn’t even thinking about sleeping in our tent, now held together by duct tape and string. It was a car night for me.
Jill insisted that I was letting one bad experience get to me, so off she went to bed in the tent, while I watched the shifting storm, now mingling with another front being push our way from the north, and wondered how long before it was upon us. I was like a kid waiting for the monster in the closet to attack.
And I was right to be scared. If possible, this storm was even more violent than the one in Waterton and though the wind wasn’t as bad, the lightening was worse and so too was the rain. I became worried about a flash flood from the nearby river. And I worried about Jill sleeping in the tent.
Cursing the love of my life under my breath, I got out of the car and ran to get her. Was I met with a showering of love and gratitude? Nope. She was angry that I woke her. Really angry. And under no circumstance was she coming to the car.
As I returned to the safety on my rubber-grounded storm protectorate, I looked back at the tent in time to see a massive chain of lightening hit just behind where I was standing. In less than a second, the nearby tree was completely and totally incinerated.
That’s it, I thought, Jill’s dead.
I started to weep, as I strapped on rubber sandals to both my hands and feet and waddled back to the tent.
Jill, amazingly, wasn’t dead. But she was still angry – once again, after all, I woke her.
The next day we began our drive home to Toronto and as we headed east, wouldn’t you know it, the storm joined us. It followed us to Grasslands National Park, in southern Saskatchewan, crashing down upon us once more while Jill slept in the tent and I sat awake in the car. And it even followed us the next day to Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba. It even delivered an encore as we drove across the Canadian Shield as we closed in on Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Needless to say, I now hate thunderstorms. Jill is still miffed about being woken up. And tent manufacturers everywhere rejoice with news of our storm follies.
Founder of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition, Simon Jackson is a storyteller, connector and movement builder committed to improving our pubic discourse and shaping a better balance between the needs of people and nature. His GhostBearPhotography.com column appears on the first Saturday of every month.