Thunderstorms are one of my favorite things in life. They are one of the only redeeming factors about living in Kansas. Due to the utter lack of terrain, there is nothing to block the wind, so in the springtime when the cold fronts come through, the warm air that remains tries to raise up into the cold air and voila, you have a thunderstorm. Thunderstorms are awesome. The lightning, the thunder, the excitement... there are not a lot of things that I get more passionate about. I wait all year for thunderstorm season and then I thoroughly enjoy it.
I have wanted to take my own pictures of lightning for about seven years. Since well before I was really interested in photography. When I got my camera and really started to get into pohtography, about last December, that desire intensified about a million fold. I could NOT WAIT for thunderstorm season this year. Typically we get the best, strongest storms in the last couple weeks of April and the first week, maybe two, of May. Thunderstorm season can actually begin as early as February and we'll have them all summer, but those three to four weeks are the most intense of the year. As of yesterday, it was April 30th, more than half way through the really good part of thunderstorm season, and we hadn't had dick. I was starting to get really antsy about getting lighting photographs. I didn't want to wait all the way until NEXT year.
Last night was Wednesday. Miah, his dad Bruce and I ride to Old Chicago and drink beer on Wednesdays. Wednesdays are good.
As of Tuesday, the forecast for Wednesday was rain and thunderstorms all day. It looked like once again we were going to be rained out from riding. Yesterday afternoon, however, I checked the hourly weather forecast on accuweather.com, and it looked like we were going to be in the clear until at least ten o'clock - plenty of time to do our thing. So after work, I packed my bike into my car and drove to Miah's parents house, our customary starting point. As I was driving, I noticed a big cloud building. It was just to the east of us, so it was a brilliant white being lit by the sun, which was about three hours up from the horizon. When I arrived at Miah's parents house at about 7:00 PM, the thing was just enourmous. It was amazing the speed with which this thing was turning into a thunderhead. We stared up at it as it churned and fed into itself and built and rose and rose and rose. It was stunning. The contrast between the brilliant white of the sun-lit cloud and the deep blue of the sky almost directly overhead was tremendous. I called Tandra and had her bring me the camera immediately. She did, and I got a few shots, but I don't know if they will capture the enormity of it. It was actually too close to really get perspective on how huge it was.
It was to the east though, and weather in our area this time of year tends to move in roughly a northeasterly direction, so the odds were good that it would move away from us. I said "I just know something's going to happen after we get there, and I'm not going to have my camera with me." (It's difficult and risky to ride a bike with a camera bag full of expensive camera equipment over your shoulder, not to mention a tripod.) We hopped on our bikes and rode to Old Chicago, sitting on the patio as is our custom since they frown upon taking bicycles inside. We sat there and ate pizza and drank beer and continued to watch the thunderstorm build. That thing was amazing. The patio faces south, and the storm we had been watching was developing a new cell directly south of us. Everyone on the patio was watching it and commenting on it. Although the core of the cell was indeed moving to the northeast, that cell developing to the south of us was amazing. It grew and built as the sun got lower in the sky, and the cell turned some pretty cool colors for just being clouds. At one point it was an awesome cotton candy blue. When you watch a cell build like that and you can see other clouds behind and in front of it moving in completely different directions, you know you're in for some good storms.
And of course, as predicted, I was unable to catch any of this on film because my camera was in my car, at Miah's parents house. You can't even imagine how worked up I was. I was going absolutely nuts as the sun set, the sky grew darker and the lightning started to flash. Miah had punctured a tire just before we arrived at Old Chicago. He was able to finish the ride without too much trouble, but the tire was leaking while we were there and by the time we were ready to leave, his bike was unrideable. That worked out alright though, because it meant that we had to call Miah's mother Martha to get in Miah's dad Bruce's Dodge Ram and come pick us up. This was more than okay with me since it meant we would get back to my car sooner, and the sooner we got back to the car, the sooner Miah and I could go chase this storm down.
Martha showed up pretty quickly and Bruce drove us home, also quickly. We unloaded the bikes and I stuck mine in their basement. Miah grabbed his gear and we were off!
We turned the radio on to KFDI. It's a country music station, but during thunderstorms they switch to 100% weather coverage. They have mobile units which are basically nicely equipped storm chasing SUVs with trained and experienced spotters at the wheel. The main anchorperson at the station will update the listeners on the locations of the storms and warnings, describe the radar readings, and report on what trained spotters are reporting around the region. The mobile units scatter and gain different perspectives on the storm, and regularly the anchorperson will throw the broadcast to the mobile units, who each in turn report their locations and what they are seeing. That's pretty good information to go by when chasing a storm, especially for just being on the radio. Miah would also call his girlfriend occasionally who would tell us where cells were, what direction things were moving, which cells looked like they were growing and which looked like they were getting smaller.
By this time it was completely dark and the lightning was flashing literally nonstop. The gaps between flashes were less than a second. There were some cloud-to-ground strikes off to the south, and TONS of cloud-to-cloud flashes, lightning fingers stretching across the sky and weaving their way back again. And the thunder was nonstop too. Most of the time it was just a quiet rumble, but occasionally it would get louder. We headed out east of town on Highway 54. stopped for gas and Sobe Adrenalin Rushes (not that I needed it) and headed to the Augusta airport, a small, one-runway strip halfway to Augusta. We pulled to an area relatively free of sky obstructions and set up tripods. We weren't far from Wichita and we weren't a whole lot closer to the storm, but I was afraid we would wind up spending all our time getting to a good position and by the time we got there, the lightning would have died down. Kansas thunderstorms are completely unpredictable and in the space of fifteen minutes a powerful electric storm can turn into a light rain. We set up at the airport and shot photographs for about fifteen minutes or so. The flashes in the sky were coming from all directions, but the lightning was clearly visible to the south, so we shot that direction. I think we got some pretty great shots. After fifteen minutes, the lightning shots stopped being clear and became no more than vague flashes. A wall of rain had come between us and the lightning, so we decided to move on.
The radio told us there was a tornado warning in Cowley County, which was due south of where we were. We continued east on 54 to Augusta and stopped at the Wal-Mart as Miah realized he didn't have any more film on him. We got more film and a Kansas Atlas/Gazeteer which shows every single road, major or minor, in the state. We then headed south on highway 77 towards Winfield, the center of Cowley County.
As we got closer to the storm, the lightning flashes started to illuminate the shapes of the clouds. We saw the anvil-shaped cloud that is the classic sign of a tornado; the tornado was probably directly underneath it. We pulled off the highway to get some more shots and try to capture that anvil cloud. It wasn't that great of a location because there were lights on the horizon and the cars driving on the highway were going to leave light trails and distract from the intended object of the shots. Miah and I were discussing whether or not to leave when a few great big rain drops started landing on us, making the decision for us. We realized that the storm was moving east quickly enough that to continue South on 77 would cause us to miss the storm, so we headed back north to 54. On our way we came through a very brief but heavy rainfall. We got back into Augusta and took 54 East for another thirty miles or so. Miah consulted the Gazeteer and found a road for us to head south on. We turned south on Stony Creek Road (or something like that) and put it down. The roads at this point were wet and there was some water standing in the fields so it was obvious it had rained recently, but the most we encountered was a light bit of drops, not even enough to turn on the wipers.
As we drove south, we saw a raccoon, a possum, and after that a young deer. The lightning was still nonstop as the road became twistier, and suddenly a flash of lightning showed the horizon to the left to be a lot higher than I thought it should have been. We had evidently come up next to a bluff. As we drove on, we suddenly saw a dirt road off to the left, looking like it went straight up the bluff. We stopped, backed up, and took that road. It was a well-maintained road for being gravel, and we soon came to the top of the hill. We got out and looked around. There were just a couple trees surrounding us, meaning we weren't the highest thing around, but not so many that they got in the way of the view. You could see for quite a distance, and there was hardly a light in sight. At this point we were about twenty miles north of the Oklahoma border and twenty miles east of Winfield. There was still no rain, still nonstop lightning, and still flashes and thunder coming from all directions. No wind. It was utterly mind blowing. Standing up there, watching the sky flash in every direction, at one point a shot of lightning started way off at the horizon to the northeast of us and slowly came all the way directly over us, ending far to the southwest of us. A few seconds later the thunder began to rumble and roll, and as it followed the path of the lightning it sounded like it was coming from every direction and I swear that thunder rumbled for a minute and a half without stopping, swelling and quieting, like nature's majestic symphony. Majestic really is the only word for it. It was awe-inspring. I live for that moment, the moment when the thunder comes from every direction. It reminds me that nature is a wild and willful beast and that despite all our technology for tracking and predicting it, we have absolutely no control over it. It was beautiful.
I pointed the camera south again, framing the black silhouette of a leafless tree in the left third of the frame and picking up as much sky as I could. I locked the shutter open and looked up at the sky. Suddenly, as a rumble of thunder softened, I began to hear the sound of a pack of coyotes, yipping and yelping directly in front of me. They were fairly far off, of course. I said, "Miah!" He said, "I hear that." I said, "Coyotes!" He said, "Yup."
Then I heard another pack of them coming from my left, the east, equally distant. Immediately after that another pack to my right, the west, started up. Suddenly I was hearing the sounds of pack hunting animals from three sides. I was never really scared, but that was another awesome moment, hearing those bands of wild dogs communicating across the stormy plains.
As I said before, there was practically no artificial light, and of course there was 100% cloud cover, so the only light being furnished for our photographs was lightning. Exposure times were long, as were the reverent and amazed silences. Eventually I decided I should get back into range of my cell phone and let Tandra know I was fine, since we had been chasing a tornado-producing storm and by this time I had been out of contact for a good two hours. We packed up and chose the quickest route home, which was to head to Winfield and take K-15 back into Wichita.
Now, the entire night we had encountered only one moderately heavy and very brief bit of rain. The rest of the night we had stayed pretty much dry. That is, until we headed home. The first part of the trip home was uneventful as we wandered down lonely highways and through tiny sleeping towns trying to make our way to Winfield. We drove through Winfield alright, but soon after that the rain really started to come down. The rain just got heavier and heavier! I don't think I've ever seen rain that heavy while in a car. With my wipers on uberfast and driving at 35 in what would normally be a 65 zone and with my brights on, the rain was still coming down so heavily that I was overdriving my visibility range. Then it started to hail. Not big hail, only pea to marble size, but I decided that it's dangerous to drive on marbles when you can't see very far ahead of you. We actually had to stop on the side of the road for a while. The rain eased up just slightly after about five minutes, and we continued on, still only able to go about 40. The rain got lighter and lighter and we were eventually able to get back up to speed. By this time it was almost 2:00 AM and Miah and I were beat. I took him to his car and I headed home to sleep. It was a fantastic night, and I can't wait to get my film developed.