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Lightning and Paddlers

You’re paddling on one of the many beautiful lakes in central Oregon; you’re out in the middle of the lake; you hear it. First it’s a low rumbling sound like that of a tympani drum in the distance. It gradually builds to a crescendo the closer it gets. You know what follows next. In the distance a chaotic streak of bright white light flashes across the sky. Thunderstorms with lightning are common in central and southern Oregon.

Now’s the time to beat a hasty retreat to the sanctuary of the shore. The last place you want to be in a lightning storm is out on the water in a canoe or kayak. Lightning can be a real danger to paddler and must be taken seriously.

Every expert paddler will tell you that before you set out on a paddle trip, regardless of whether it is a short or long trip, that you should consult a weather forecast. However, most of us living in the Northwest know how accurate weather forecasts are, and weather can change. There’s that old adage in Oregon, “If you don’t like the weather, wait one minute, it will change.” The weather can change from day to day. Weather that was supposed to be sunny for your multi-day paddle or camping trip can all of a sudden do a one-eighty.

The nature of paddling puts paddlers at a disadvantage in lightning storms, especially if you’re embarked on a wilderness trip. It can take some time to reach the safety of the shore, so a thunderstorm and lightning could possibly overtake you. There are no vehicles or dwellings nearby to escape to, only trees and possibly a tent, and tents offer very little in the way of protection from a lightning strike.

So what’s the best way for paddlers to protect themselves from lightning?

First and foremost, if you’re on the water, get off the water as quickly as possible. Don’t think that being in a plastic or fiberglass boat is going to protect you. Water is a great conductor of electricity, so any wet surfaces will conduct electricity. Boats have metal parts, and many paddles have aluminum or carbon fiber shafts.

Find a grove of trees in which to stand. Don’t stand by a solitary tree or in the wide open.

If there is no safe place to land, paddle close to shore. There is a safe zone that extends 45° from the tip of the tallest tree to the water and back toward the shore.

Try to be the smallest object in the area. You can accomplish this by getting into a low, crouching position. Don’t get on your hands and knees or lie on the ground, however, because electricity discharging through the ground can travel up an arm, pass through the heart, and exit out a leg, and vice versa.

Following these simple guidelines can possibly save your life in the event you’re out paddling on the water when a lightning storm approaches.


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