“One of the most beautiful and exhilarating storms I ever enjoyed in the Sierra occurred in December, 1874, when I happened to be exploring one of the tributary valleys of the Yuba River. The sky and the ground and the trees had been thoroughly rain-washed and were dry again. The day was intensely pure, one of those incomparable bits of California winter, warm and balmy and full of white sparkling sunshine, redolent of all the purest influences of the spring, and at the same time enlivened with one of the most bracing windstorms conceivable. Instead of camping out, as I usually do, I then chanced to be stopping at the house of a friend. But when the storm began to sound, I lost no time in pushing out into the woods to enjoy it. For on such occasions Nature always has something rare to show us, and the danger to life and limb is hardly greater than one would experience crouching deprecatingly beneath a roof…
Toward midday, after a long, tingling scramble through copses of hazel and ceanothus, I gained the summit of the highest ridge in the neighborhood; and then it occurred to me that it would be a fine thing to climb one of the trees to obtain a wider outlook and get my ear close to the Aeolian music of its topmost needles… After cautiously casing about, I made choice of the tallest of a group of Douglas Spruces that were growing close together like a tuft of grass, no one which seemed likely to fall unless all the rest fell with it. Though comparatively young, they were about 100 feet high, and their lithe, brushy tops were rocking and swirling in wild ecstasy. Being accustomed to climb trees in making botanical studies, I experienced no difficulty in reaching the top of this one, and never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion. The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobolink on a reed.
In its widest sweeps my tree-top described an arc of from twenty to thirty degrees, but I felt sure of its elastic temper, having seen others of the same species still more severely tried -- bent almost to the ground indeed, in heavy snows -- without breaking a fiber. I was therefore safe, and free to take the wind into my pulses and enjoy the excited forest from my superb outlook. The view from here must be extremely beautiful in any weather. Now my eye roved over the piny hills and dales as over fields of waving grain, and felt the light running in ripples and broad swelling undulations across the valleys from ridge to ridge, as the shining foliage was stirred by corresponding waves of air. Oftentimes these waves of reflected light would break up suddenly into a kind of beaten foam, and again, after chasing one another in regular order, they would seem to bend forward in concentric curves, and disappear on some hillside, like sea-waves on a shelving shore. The quantity of light reflected from the bent needles was so great as to make whole groves appear as if covered with snow, while the black shadows beneath the trees greatly enhanced the effect of the silvery splendor.
The sounds of the storm corresponded gloriously with this wild exuberance of light and motion. The profound bass of the naked branches and boles booming like waterfalls; the quick, tense vibrations of the pine-needles, now rising to a shrill, whistling hiss, now falling to a silky murmur; the rustling of laurel groves on the dells, and the keen metallic click of leaf on leaf -- all this was heard in easy analysis when the attention was calmly bent.
I kept my lofty perch for hours, frequently closing my eyes to enjoy the music by itself, or to feast quietly on the delicious fragrance that was streaming past…
When the storm began to abate, I dismounted and sauntered down through the calming woods. The storm-tones died away, and, turning toward the east, I beheld the countless hosts of the forests hushed and tranquil, towering above one another on the slopes of the hills like a devout audience. The setting sun filled them with amber light…
-- John Muir, from The Mountains of California, 1911 (included in Words for the Wild, Sierra Club Books, 1987)
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Some people are concerned when they see “thunderstorms” in a weather forecast, especially when they’re going to be hiking or otherwise spending time outdoors.
Yes, thunder and lightning can be scary. A powerful “boom” of thunder is capable of startling any of us, and inducing a brief surge of adrenaline and anxiety.
We’re reminded regularly in news and weather reports of the dangers of lightning. An average of 50 people are said to die annually from lightning strikes in the US (not many when compared with 30,000 in traffic accidents, etc.). Many fatalities are avoidable.
Some people who are hit have famously sought refuge under a lone tree, or are standing mindlessly on top of a building, or a mountain, or at a lakeshore – putting themselves unnecessarily at risk, rather than retreating to a more sheltered area.
In my 45 years of hiking I’ve never heard of a single local hiker being killed by lightning. In doing an internet search I found just one reported incident of New York hikers being injured, but not killed, by lightning --- and also an assertion that no one has ever been killed by lightning on the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail.
There’s definitely much more risk in higher mountain ranges like the Rockies in CO or the White Mountains in NH, where some trails are well above treeline and totally exposed. In our region we’re sheltered by forest on most mountain trails.
Thunderstorms are especially common in summer, and they tend to spring up from mid-afternoon through evening, often after we’re done hiking and heading home.
Personally, I’d be thrilled to see showers and thunderstorms in the forecast more often this summer, since for months we’ve had much less rain than we need to keep the forests healthy and the waterfalls full.
Probably an average of once or twice a year I move a hike to a more protected area or otherwise change our itinerary when there’s a high probability of thunderstorms.
On those relatively rare hikes when we’re actually caught in a storm, if we’re on or near a mountaintop, or on open cliffs, we quickly descend into some reasonably dense, lower-elevation forest, where a lightning strike is extremely unlikely.
The sky usually darkens before a thunderstorm, which gives us a window of time to seek a more protected area, and to change our itinerary if that seems sensible.
Finally, as I often try to remind people, forecasts for storms are highly unreliable. Showers and thunderstorms often “fail to show up,” or may be widely dispersed.
Most recently, on our 7/1-4 camping trip in the Adirondacks, there was a forecast for severe thunderstorms our first day – we’ve had such forecasts several weekends this year. Once again the storm mostly bypassed us. We heard thunder and it rained for an hour or two – plus another brief thunderstorm hit during our 2nd night, which caused no harm, of course. For the rest of our trip, lovely fair weather ruled.
The fact that summer forecasts do often include “a chance of thunderstorms” is certainly no reason to stay home. Always bring raingear just in case, and be prepared for the possibility of a refreshing summer shower -- but also for possible dry sunny weather, even on days when thunderstorms are said to be highly likely.
-- Charlie Cook