Outdoors in Maine: Staying safe in lightning

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Throughout the ages, man has long been both fascinated and frightened by lightning — nature’s discharge of electricity. The Greeks saw Zeus as the God of weather, a bewhiskered, powerful icon who clutched a thunderbolt and ruled from Mount Olympus.

According to scientists, who are still debating the exact genesis of lightning, a bolt of lightning travels at an incredible velocity, 60,000 miles per second. And talk about hot, when lightning strikes the earth, its temperature is 54,000 degrees F! Each year, there are 16 million lightning strikes around the world. Weather people record locations of lightning strikes in the U.S. annually.

Although Maine is not, according to those weather statistics, a lightning-intense state, anyone who spends enough time in the out of doors will sooner or later have a close encounter with lightning. It can be downright scary.

A few years ago, in early September, I tried to outrun an incoming electrical storm coming hellbent down a lake. The wall of the storm cell was about five miles north of my boat and sweeping my way. Camp and shelter from the impending deluge was a mere mile away. If my 6-horsepower Johnson outboard had been a 20, I might have made it. But I didn’t. The September squall descended in all its fury. Amid the lightning, driving rain, and crashing thunder, the stench of ozone announced the proximity of the electrical activity. As I willed my outboard to go faster and my heart to beat slower, the squall cell passed, leaving me cowed but unscathed.

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Yes, I was foolish, and lucky. I broke the cardinal rule: in an electrical storm, don’t get caught on the water. It just wasn’t my time.

Although there is a level of vulnerability for any person caught in the outdoors in an electrical storm, there are measures that you can take to reduce the risk of being struck. Northwoods Sporting Journal survival writer Charlie Reitze has given this issue a lot of careful thought. Here are some of Charlie’s lightning-avoidance tips, extracted from a recent column:

“Stay away from open areas. If you’re in an open area where you’re the tallest object, then the lightning is coming after you, as it is attracted to the tallest objects. Find a low-altitude, closed-in area with low growth timber. Shed your backpack. Get away from it. If you’re with someone else, get away from them. The object is to make the smallest possible target. Two people together make a bigger target than one. Don’t lie down thinking that your being closer to the ground will make you a lesser target. Wrong! Bad wrong! When you lie down, you give the lightning a much bigger area to strike. The closeness to the ground isn’t what’s going to make the difference where people are concerned. The smallest you can make yourself is. So after getting as far away from your pack as is reasonable and shedding your metal belt buckle, scooch down on your feet, keep your feet together and bend your head down. You’re kind of in a squatting fetal position. This position makes you as small a target as you can get.

“Unless you’re a big person this position only gives the lightning a two-foot-wide area to strike. If you’re terribly concerned about keeping dry, put on a poncho or some other waterproof gear. You can even put a tarp over you and tuck in all the edges so it’s as small as you can make it and stay under it. The object is to have the smallest exposed area that you can.

“Lastly, if you have any inkling that there is a thunderstorm even beyond the foreseeable distance you need to begin taking precautions. Lightning strikes often travel horizontally for long distances even before you see any rain or threatening clouds. For my money, when you hear lightning off in the distance start making plans. Locate a safe place, put your packs someplace a good distance from where you are, get yourself set so you’ll be as comfortable as possible, then when the storm comes get in your scooching position and wait it out.”

V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal and has written his first book, A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is paul@sportingjournal.com.

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