Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on January 3, 1999
     Naturally caused forest fires have been misunderstood by many until recently. Traditional forest management saw fire as a threat to both humans and to wildlife habitat and often sought to suppress all brush and forest fires immediately. Now we are much more aware of the role of fire in nature as we have learned how it is a powerful and essential renewing force in ecosystems throughout our planet. Many plants and animals rely on frequent fires for the maintenance of their habitat and very existence. Most of these fires are started by the lightning of severe electrical storms. Although the periodic cycle of natural forest fires in our Piedmont riverine habitat is a long one, other neighboring natural communities in North Carolina, such has the Sandhills region to the southeast, have very short and pronounced cycles of fire.

    I find the summer thunderstorm to be the most powerfully sensuous wafting experience of all. I do not intentionally set out in a storm, or even when I know there is a good chance that one is on the way. In fact, I carefully watch the weather to try to avoid getting my public wafting expeditions caught in thunderstorms. I cancel the outing if I think such a storm will be inevitable, not because it is an unpleasant experience, but out of respect for the power of a lightning strike and the slight but real possibility of having it hit too close for comfort. But a summer thunderstorm can sneak up on us quickly and we will inevitably get caught in two or three a year. Storms most often occur between the hours of six and eight o'clock on a summer evening, although they can show up at any time of the day or night in any season.
   This sensuous sequence of events often plays out as follows. Clouds waft up from the West late in the afternoon and progressively turn darker. A gentle cool breeze accompanies the clouds bringing relief from the hot summer day. Suddenly the air becomes very still. The refreshing breeze is gone. Birds and cicadas cease to sing. There is a sense of uncertainty in the air. Next, a few light drops of rain begin to dimple the calm surface of the river. We are still unsure of what will happen. If we are near our put-in and just beginning a trip, I might decide to take the group back, especially if I hear thunder.

    At this point, many storms have skirted us and the threat is soon diminished. If we are on course for a storm, the thunder begins to approach closer and the stillness is broken by gusts of wind that may continue for several minutes. If it is to be a severe storm, trees will  sway and limbs will crack and snap. If we are well into our expedition I look for shelter for my group. In the distance I begin to see a sheet of vertical falling water moving in our direction and we then make a quick dash in our boats to the refuge of the overhanging canopy of a small ironwood or maple tree, avoiding the tall sycamores and other natural lightning rods. Needless to say, holding aluminum paddles high in the air in the middle of the river is not encouraged!

   Of course the ironwoods and the maples do little to keep us wafters dry. But the foliage does slow the pelting, wind driven rain from pounding us and allows the water to drip down upon us in a gentler manner. After several minutes we are soaked. If it is a warm summer day the storm lowers the air temperature ten to twenty degrees and may produce a slight chill if the rain continues for a long time. But more often than not, both lightning and thunder boom ferociously all around for a period of only fifteen to twenty minutes and then slacks off. In the midst of the most severe flashes one can be gripped with fearful visions that the storm may never end. I have seen several small children become upset in that situation. On one occasion when hail began to pelt us, we had to pull the boats ashore and get the children under the boats to shelter them.

    Summer storms on the Eno River soon pass. We are left with a shiver or two as our soaked clothing clings to our skin. The rain stops. Water drips steadily off the twigs and leaves. Birds soon come out from shelter and begin to sing. A patch of blue sky appears as a break in the clouds. We slowly paddle out of hiding. The water in the river feels like a warm bath compared to the now cooler air. The sun finds the opening in the clouds and floods the misty river with its golden rays. The whole experience is like passing through a long dark tunnel and emerging again. The air is heavy with fresh smells from the moisture that is wind driven through the summer foliage. The sun comes out in full strength and we begin to warm up and dry out.

     To use a Middle Eastern idiom from my past, the arrival and departure of a summer lightning storm is truly the "mother of all" river experiences.  
Photo by Riverdave: approaching storm on the Rio Negro, Brazil