Storm chasing has been in my blood since I was a young boy. I remember very well when I was seven years old growing up in Clinton, Oklahoma the evening that would forever set in stone my love for stormy weather. I was at home with my family as storms moved in from the west and we were inside watching Gary England tell us that Custer County was under a tornado warning and residents should be seeking shelter. Sirens began wailing and we rushed outside to the cellar, and along the way out I happened to look up and I was mesmerized by this new thing the sky was doing, turning green and spinning as if the world were coming to and end. We rushed down into the cellar, full of musty smells and spider webs and Mom took us kids down into it while Dad and his best friend stayed outside to watch the sky (which is what you do in Oklahoma to this day). I tried to make my way up the steps to get outside to take a look and caught glimpses of the sky but Dad would tell me to get back down into the cellar and of course, my mother wasn't going to let me go out into the elements, so I sat there with everyone else until the storm had passed. A tornado ended up hitting the east side of town that night, and a seed was planted in a young boy that would drive him the rest of his life.
So, what is life like for a storm chaser? First, you have to answer the question of why they do it.
I imagine my story is similar to many others, something happened as a child or teen where a storm was involved and it ended up making such an impression that they carried it with them the rest of their life. Others who were born in the mid to late '80's may have seen the movie Twister, which told a fictional story of a group of storm chasers and it made its mark on them. Those who were born in the mid 90's may have been influenced by both the Twister movie and a reality series named Storm Chasers that made its debut in 2007 that documented the real life world of storm chasing, at least in its early years. Regardless, somewhere along the way a fascination was developed, and each person will have a different reason for chasing.
For me, chasing drives a lot of positive and deep feelings. It takes me back to that time as a boy where I was so entranced in the moment. It also is a way for me to get closer to God and stay in touch with my spiritual side because I tie that with nature and the world untouched by man. The photos I capture is driven by my vision of how I see things and that's why my photography turns out the way it does. The beauty, the inspiration, the power and the movement of feelings all come into play when you see these things in real life. Also, for me of course, weather is one of the few wild things left in the world that is untamed by man and there is something about stepping out and being a part of something much bigger than you are, seeing things in motion in real life that most only see through their television sets. Others chase because they are fascinated by the science of it all, working hard to possibly solving the mystery of why tornadoes form and forecasting when and where they will form. Some chase for glory, recognition and attention, and some chase for the thrill of it. The reasons chasers chase is abundant and none of them are either right or wrong, because it's what drives each unique individual.
Now that we've talked about why, what is life as a storm chaser like?
Contrary to what you see on TV, in movies, or read about in books, storm chasing is not all glamour and storms. Chasing is about preparation. Looking at weather models days and even weeks ahead looking for the next trough, low pressure system or dryline, waiting for moisture to return from the Gulf of Mexico and which way the wind is blowing and at what level of the atmosphere. It is reading skew-t charts and forecasting. Chasing is figuring out what equipment will work best in some of the most remote places in the lower 48 states.
It's scheduling. Weather doesn't work to a schedule, so you have to be flexible. If you work or go to school (which most do), you have to predict what days you need off and take a gamble on if it's worth it or not depending on the setup. It's about getting up early and staying out late and sometimes getting home well after midnight.
It's being away from your family, and the excitement when you return. It's meeting new friends while you impatiently wait for the first signs of initiation.
Once you figure out something might happen, and I say "might" because there is no guarantee that the weather to do anything at all, there is the driving. Sometimes getting up at 5 a.m. to get to an area where storms may fire by 4 p.m. then driving to the storms and staying with them, then driving either to a hotel or driving home. An average day of driving for a storm chaser could easily be 8 to 16 hours and even more on some days depending on how far.
It's watching the sky do what it does. Does the storm have inflow, outflow, is it stationary or is it moving fast? It's about looking at radar and looking at velocities, echo tops and looking for signs of a hook. For some it's about getting readings, for some it's about how destructive is it being, for me it's about how it looks.
All of this work for a couple of hours of sheer enjoyment, for three months of the year, for 10-15 days within those months. Again, see the list of reasons why. This is life as a storm chaser and the definition of passion.
About once a quarter I pick a destination to shoot. There isn't a whole lot of thought process behind it other than "That would be a cool place to visit" and I try to pick places I haven't been before, which means I have a lot to choose from. Last year I Monument Valley, the Grand Tetons and Rocky Mountain National Park. Earlier this year I was in Big Sur and it was a fantastic trip. But, now I needed to find a unique place that I hadn't even been close to and something was pulling me towards Washington state.
So, I boarded a flight from OKC to Seattle and arrived a little after 9 p.m. pacific time and that was a little tough to start off with because of the two hour difference in time that my body clock was used to. I had about an hour drive to my hotel in Olympia so by the time I got to my room it was after 1 a.m. Oklahoma time, well past the time I usually head to bed.
I got some sleep and woke up early the next day ready to hit the road. I chose to drive west on my first day to get coastal shots, I didn't want to be too obvious and drive directly to Mount Rainier which would have been the easy thing to do. I went through the town of Aberdeen then headed for the coast up Highway 109 finding Roosevelt Beach along the way. I was there fairly early in the morning so there was no one else on the beach and it gave me a lot of time to explore. The scenery was pretty nice with the forest coming up to the shore while fog made its way inland. I love shots like these because it's not an obvious subject and can easily be overlooked. But, not this time.
I found a few more interesting subjects along the beach including a sandpiper asleep along the beach and a makeshift wedding alter made of driftwood. I'm sure if you've seen this stuff a million times it's easy not to give it a second thought, but since it was all new to me I think it comes out nicely in the photos.
After spending quite a bit of time on the beach (it felt amazing) it was time to head inland towards the rain forests. It took exactly five minutes once I was out of Moclips to leave the coastal scene and get into dense forest lining each side of the road, which felt a little spooky especially with the fog lingering in the low lying areas.
After about an hour drive I arrived at the Quinault Rain Forest and it was a pleasure to explore the area. The temps were warm and it was as green as I've ever seen any place. Fog obscured the higher altitude views so I focused on the immediate area to shoot in and stumbled upon a couple of nice waterfalls, including the impressive Merriman Falls. I almost missed seeing it, in fact I drove right by it and didn't know it was there until I saw another visitor stopped on the side of the road looking upwards at it. It was such a beautiful waterfall with the lush vegetation all around. I may have been pretty upset knowing I missed a place like this.
After exploring the rain forest I headed back out of the park to get some lunch. It was time to travel up the coast further north as far as I could go for the rest of the day. The fog had pretty much lifted for the day so as I traveled west the views became amazing especially as I drove north on Highway 101 right along the coast. There are several stops along the way where you can get out and walk down to the beaches, aptly named Beach One, Beach Two, etc. The views were incredible and getting to shoot the forest leading right up to the coast was a real treat.
I finally stumbled across a gem of a beach called Ruby Beach. There I would find seastacks like you see in those classic beach scenes and knew it would make some great photography. Unfortunately, sea fog had developed and rolled in making the rest of the day a wash as far as capturing anymore photos. So I jumped back in the car and headed back south, but only for a bit. I stopped at one of the numbered beaches and got out just to soak up some beach life before I headed back to Olympia for the night. I was incredibly lucky because gray whales (at least that's what I was told they were, I had no reason to doubt the info) had decided to make their appearance, but again the fog and rain was a factor. I was fortunate enough to capture a couple of shots with my camera although they were more for personal enjoyment more than anything.
The fog and rain intensified and I called it a day and drove back to the hotel. My first day in Washington was incredible and the next couple of days held lots of promise and I couldn't wait to see what else I would find.
Be sure to check back for my Day Two post very soon.
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