The Tropical Storm
Riverdave's Journal
October 2004

      More than any other aspect of nature, weather is the medium by which the average person most directly experiences the natural world. The atmosphere is turbulent, changing and reforming itself constantly. It is more immediately vulnerable than the solid earth to the direct influence of the sun’s energy. Although we may feel that modern meteorology has a firm handle on our weather with its daily forecasts, the weather never ceases to toss up surprises. Weather is still quite a wild force on this planet, and with the distinct possibility of rapid climate change looming in the near future, weather appears to be even more ready to assert its own independence and wild side.

      One of weather’s wildest and most unpredictable manifestations is the hurricane. Although modern forecasting can sometimes lay out a fairly accurate tract for these storms, the hurricane will often suddenly veer off and choose a new direction or intensity. We all acknowledge the human suffering and economic loss that these storms sometimes bring. If modern technology could figure out how to actually stop these catastrophic events, we would probably engineer their halt. But such manipulation would most likely create some unforeseen imbalance on the planet that would have other yet unknown devastating effects. The result would probably turn out to be similar to the effects of trying to control beach erosion on our coasts. We would simply be passing the problem on down the line for someone else to deal with.

      Facing the reality of five hurricanes that have recently visited the southeastern United States, all of us have developed our own ways of coping with this powerful weather phenomenon. In the Carolina Piedmont, we mainly experience what are known as the "remnants" of storms that have begun to break up on coastal regions and then finally drift our way. The effects locally are usually moderate to strong winds accompanied by several inches of rain within the space of twenty-four hours. Once the storm passes by, often we awake to high atmospheric pressure and a gloriously blue sky to cheer our sullied moods. Our local reservoirs are replenished as well.

      As a naturalist guide on the Eno River, my work is vulnerable to repeated storm conditions and my volume of paddlers is going to be off by 7% this year. But I have evolved a way to personally deal with this aspect of nature as it seemingly intrudes its presence into my arena. As a storm approaches, I prepare myself mentally for those couple of days after its arrival when the flow of our local rivers will be high enough for white water paddling. Often, on the day immediately after a storm, river levels are too high for safe paddling. So, I simply wander down to the river banks and sit and watch in wonder as the volumes of tropical energy rush by. Usually this means a rise of several feet in water level, but on one occasion, I saw the Eno rise as much as twenty feet as it did during Hurricane Fran in 1996.

      On the second day after the passing of a storm, often that inspiriting blue sky will appear and the Eno will have dropped to a safe range for paddling - between three and five feet on the USGS computerized scale. I rise early and cancel my scheduled public outings. For most people this would amount to "calling in sick to work!" I choose a starting point up in Orange County and then ride the class II waves of tropical energy all the way down into Durham County to the last rapid on the river at the Sennett Hole, just below my cabin on Wanda Ridge. On other post-storm occasions I will paddle the Haw River where the rise in water level will last even longer than on the Eno. This season, my paddling contemplations covered a wide range of thoughts, from the thousands of lives lost in torrential flooding in Haiti to the widespread chaos of homes and businesses affected by wind and water in the Southeastern United States. This is also an issue for me personally, as my family has long been a part owner of a cottage in a vulnerable region of the Southeastern coast where we have shared many happy and carefree times together.

      But for me, my ability to transfer all this tropical storm fury into a manageable and pleasurable experience locally is cathartic. As I glide down my hometown river in an inexpensive inflatable kayak, my thoughts also drift to the coast of West Africa where many of these storms begin as tropical depressions before picking up strength and heading westward to the Caribbean and then up the east cost of America. Once, while walking the sands of Hammocks Beach State Park on the North Carolina Coast after a tropical storm, I found coconuts and red mangrove seeds scattered along the shore. Oh, but would I love to know the story of their journeys! These storms disperse seeds, fell weak trees to provide habitat for wildlife and replenish low water supplies. And despite the obvious suffering and economic losses involved, my guess is that they provide some form of emotional cleansing or energy realignment for us all as well.

      Last week, while surfing the energies of tropical storm Jeanne on an engorged Haw River, I came upon a small flooded island whose only inhabitants seemed to be seven persimmon trees, all of which were loaded with fruit. I quickly veered my boat in that direction and grabbed one of the trunks as the Haw swirled all around me. While holding the paddle in one hand, I shook one tree trunk with my other hand and bright orange fruits came down plopping in the water all around me. I realized at that point that I sorely needed a third hand! But through a delicate act of juggling I was able to release one hand from the tree, grab a falling fruit and drop it in my boat, and then quickly reach out and grab the tree again. After several minutes of effort I was able to harvest what is my favorite wild fruit in our area, what the Algonquian Indians named the "persimmon."

      Most of us living in the Carolina Piedmont are of either European, African or Asian ancestry in the not too distant past. Perhaps we have not yet passed through enough generations in the New World to have fully integrated the tropical storm into our psyches and inner workings. But for the Native Americans who have co-evolved with these storms for untold millennia, the tropical storm has embedded itself deep within their life’s experience. For the Maya of Central America, the tropical storm was understood as an emissary of the storm god Hurukan, a force to be respected and honored and whose name has evolved into our English word hurricane. From my experiences with natives of neotropical lands, I have learned that the shamans of those regions are on such intimate terms with storms that they have developed techniques of protecting themselves by actually altering the paths of storms if need be.

      Perhaps the energy of our intense 2004 hurricane season has played itself out with Charlie, Francis, Gaston, Ivan and Jeanne. But I’m still ready to surf that tropical energy if it charges at us again - even if it comes down to Zola!. In some inexplicable way, I feel that when I paddle a local river with its waters dancing with tropical energy, I magically absorb a drop of the storm’s wild essence into my life. And perhaps there will also be some practical wisdom that I will learn from those turbulent waters, symbolized by the falling persimmons. Or maybe I will just internalize the whole experience and grow in some unseen manner, co-evolving with this important event of nature which continues to blow up into our region year after year.
Photo by Riverdave: wild persimmons

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are new to paddling, please do not attempt to paddle any river after the passing of a storm, unless you are accompanied by an experienced local paddler who knows how to read water levels and who is familiar with the challenges of the particular stretch of river you are paddling!