Lightning lessons 

click to enlarge WWW.SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - Harrowing Pique columnist Leslie Anthony lived through a terrifying storm in 1975.
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  • Harrowing Pique columnist Leslie Anthony lived through a terrifying storm in 1975.

Asleep in a tent high in the Monashee Mountains, I wake to sabres of light stabbing through the dark.

My first thought is that it's someone else in the group going to the loo; after all, there are almost 40 tents clustered around the glacial moraine on which stands the Alpine Club of Canada's 111th annual General Mountaineering Camp. But no, soon too many lights point in too many directions, and rolls of thunder echo around the amphitheatre in which we're camped. Then suddenly it's howling outside, the alders around me swaying like hula dancers while downdraft winds alternately flatten then try to pry up my tent. Lightning explodes so close that a wrenching thunderclap reverberates with the flash. A fusillade of raindrops and hailstones clamour outside.

It's not the worst storm I've camped out in, and at least I'm comfortable in a tent this time. Yet as always when such weather threatens, my mind goes back to that one time I wasn't ready.

It was August 1975, in Quetico Provincial Park in northwestern Ontario, along the route of 18th century explorers Samuel Hearne and Alexander Mackenzie, pretty much as far from anywhere as you could be.

We'd been paddling 20 days when we entered a large lake constellated with islands. There, the YMCA trip leaders announced that our group of eight teens would be sprinkled around the archipelago to tough out the night on solo missions. We'd each be allowed three matches, a metal cup, a knife, a handful of food, our sleeping bag, and shelter in the form of either tent, tarp or aluminum canoe. I drew a boat and, after dropping off a couple other paddlers, took up residence on a high, rocky point dominated by dead trees and backed by thick, dark forest. This was my third month-long canoe trip, and fancying myself experienced in campcraft, I figured I'd chosen my site well: great overview, plenty of dry wood, and breezy—ergo, bugless.

Early evening, after dining on bannock, blueberries and wintergreen tea, I reclined smugly beside a tidy one-match fire burning on a space I'd meticulously cleared of the bone-dry moss covering the point. I leaned back and closed my eyes.

It had been a steaming hot day, and thunderhead clouds sliding by to the west had seemed both typical and innocently distant until strangely stirring breezes and diving temperature got my attention. I'd looked up into the belly of an inky billow that glowed bile-green around the edges. Mesmerized, I foolishly watched the preternatural formation until it literally broke upon me.

The air had gone from calm to chaos in seconds. A vertical blast slammed the ground and fanned out, sprinkling fire into the moss and igniting the entire point. Did that really just happen? Panicking, I grabbed my cup and ran for the water. But barefoot, I'd kicked a rock at the lake's edge, cracking my big toe and surrendering both cup and eyeglasses to the water. It was small mercy that a downpour erupted to douse the flames, though my own sad slapstick continued: scrambling under the overturned canoe into my sleeping bag to escape the deluge, I was aggrieved to discover a platoon of deer mice with similar intentions.

As darkness took hold, cascading rain flowed under the canoe, which lifted and shuddered with tin-can sounds. That should have been warning enough, but it took the incessant light show to finally set off an alarm: dead trees... aluminum... lightning... jeezuz! Rolling out from under the canoe, I'd limped toward the woods in time to see a massive bolt throw the canoe in the air. Spinning and glowing red like a firebrand, it fell back onto wet moss, hissing as steam rose around its edges. Did that really happen, too?

In the forest, I'd hunkered on a mound of earth behind a large boulder as trees splintered and crashed all around. Soaked, shivering, pained, shocked, scared and without my glasses, I'd been ready to believe anything. And then, suddenly, the earth was moving—lifting me slowly, lowering me again. Rhythmically, as if a subterranean beast were scratching to break through and drag me under. Genuinely terrified, I'd wrapped my arms around the tree beside me and felt it move, too.

It took a few seconds for it all to sink in: the wind blew the tree; the tree swayed; its roots lifted up; I was sitting on the roots. Duh. And that's where the leaders had found me in the morning when they came looking. Toe like an apple, blackened canoe, sopping sleeping bag, curled in the dirt.

The lesson of that long-ago experience was to never panic when a storm catches you out, but to be prepared to weather—and maybe even enjoy—the show. In my snug tent in the Monashees, fabric occasionally pressed to my face, searchlights from the sky probing the earth every few seconds, and torrents of water gushing through trenches dug around the tent for just such occasions, I roll over and go back to sleep.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.

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