Downburst Blues: When a Trip Goes from Calm to Chaos

Severe weather brings valuable perspectives to backcountry trips. Words :: Leslie Anthony.

 

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Photo: Brandon Morgan via Unsplash

 

One August afternoon a decade ago, I was just starting a canoe trip with my then 16-year-old daughter, Myles, who, to that point, could best be described as an equivocal participant. We were setting up our tent at the Kiosk Campground in the north end of Algonquin Provincial Park when a dark line of clouds approached from the west. With the tent standing taut against the rising storm, we threw a couple of heavy packs into it just as rain arrived with the sound of splattering birdshit.

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Biiiig drops, I remember thinking, and then, just like that, it was howling, trees swaying like hula dancers, aqueous blasts as from a hose. In the movie-set maelstrom of churning air, swishing branches, flying greenery and three-dimensional water, lightning exploded so close it could have been in an upstairs bedroom, the thunderclap reverberating before the flash even ended. A huge gust yanked the tent up with such force it pulled out every peg, the entire thing stretched up off the ground—packs and all—as if the wind were blowing from beneath it. Myles’ eyes became saucers.

Sundown-dark at 2 p.m.

With the tent resembling a hot-air balloon set to launch, we grabbed wildly at the straining fabric and forced it to the ground. Soaked, water spouting from our noses, breathing was like opening your mouth in the shower. Lightning pulses illuminated our faces as we yelled over a roar so loud we couldn’t hear each other. Nearby trees snapped gracelessly upright then jackknifed over in ferocious winds that sought to lift and flatten us as well; it took every bit of our collective strength to hold the tent down, a distraction that kept Myles from registering the surreal, chicken-bone sounds of trees uprooting in a gloom that was sundown-dark at 2 p.m. That was a good thing, given the scope of danger we were courting—the chance of being crushed, impaled or electrocuted.

 

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Photo: Anandu Vinod via Unsplash

 

And we hadn’t even put the canoe in the water yet.

—Dad! Is this the worst storm you’ve been in? yelled Myles.

—No, I told her. But bad enough.

Mr. So-lo Trip

It was August, 1975, in Quetico Provincial Park in northwestern Ontario. We’d been paddling 20 days when we entered a large lake constellated with islands. There, trip leaders announced that our group of eight would sprinkle 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, sleeping bag, and shelter in the form of either tent, tarp or aluminum canoe. I drew a boat and took up residence on a high, rocky point backed by thick forest. At 18 years old this was my third month-long canoe trip, and, fancying myself experienced in campcraft, I figured I’d chosen well: breezy, bugless, plenty of dry wood and a great overview.

Early evening, 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 was dialed. Smooth wilderness guy. Mr. So-lo. I leaned back and closed my eyes.

The Wall-o’-Black

It had been a steaming hot day, and thunderheads along the western horizon had seemed innocently distant until a strangely stirring breeze and diving temperature got my attention: I’d looked up into the belly of an inky billow that glowed bile-green around the edges—what the sky might have looked like if the beginning of The Wizard of Oz had been in colour. Mesmerized, I foolishly watched the preternatural formation until it all but broke upon me: One second the wall-o’-black was rising from the horizon like a drawbridge, the next it was overhead.

 

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Photo: Breno Machado Via Unsplash

 

As it would in Algonquin, the air went from calm to chaos in seconds. A vertical blast slammed the ground, sprinkling fire into the moss and igniting the entire point. Did that really just happen? Panicking, I grabbed my cup and ran for 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 sad slapstick continued. Scrambling under the overturned canoe to escape the deluge, I was aggrieved to discover a platoon of deer mice seeking similar reprieve.

Did that Really Happen?

As darkness took hold, waterfalling rain flowed under the canoe, which 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 it, I’d limped toward the woods just as a massive bolt threw the canoe in the air. I’d watched it, spinning and glowing red like a firebrand, fall back on 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 as trees splintered and crashed all around. Soaked, shivering, and shocked, I’d been ready to believe anything. And then, suddenly, the earth was moving—lifting me slowly, lowering me again. Rhythmic, as if a subterranean beast were scratching to break through. Terrified, I’d wrapped my arms around the tree beside me and felt it move, too.

It took a few seconds to understand: wind blows tree, tree sways, roots lift, I’m sitting on roots. Duh. And that’s where the leaders found me in the morning when they came looking. Joe Wilderness. Mr. So-Low. Toe like an apple, blackened canoe, tear-stained face, sleeping in the dirt.

In Algonquin, it seemed Myles and I huddled in the storm for hours but it was probably under 30 minutes before the tap turned off and the wind subsided.

 

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Photo: Shutterstock

 

Downbursts and Microbursts

What we had experienced was no run-of-the-mill thunderstorm, but a bona fide downburst. Downbursts are columns of cool, sinking air that spread out with straight-ahead winds that can reach 250 km/h and cause tornado-like damage. Where tornadoes leave a trail of wreckage consistent with rotating winds, however, downburst blasts point in one direction. The discrete blowdowns you often glimpse in the near north—imagining a small tornado has deftly brushed a few acres of trees to the ground—are usually the result of a small downburst, or microburst. Large ones, or macrobursts—associated with the squall lines known as derechos (Spanish for “straight ahead”)—are sustained for much longer periods over much larger areas.

With a warming climate, such events have become both more frequent and severe in east-central North America. While I also experienced a microburst in Quetico, on July 4, 1999, a vast area of that park—some 20 million trees—was leveled by an historic macroburst that marauded 20 hours through 2,000 kilometres of forest from Manitoba to Maine, killing two and injuring 70—almost all campers, hikers, or canoeists. A large tornado cut a 25-kilometre swath through Algonquin in 1972—but downbursts do far more damage. On July 17, 2006, a strong, fast-moving derecho wreaked massive destruction across Algonquin’s northern tier; at Kiosk, a canoeist was killed and his partner severely injured.

I wasn’t about to share this information with worrywart Myles, but in overcoming the momentary adversity of a microburst together, the trip had truly started—and already made us a team.

Les Anthony’s latest book is The Aliens Among Us.

 

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