Diary of a Novice Storm Chaser
By Matt Granz
8 Nov 2010
Let me tell you a little bit about myself. I have been fascinated with severe storms... more like obsessed/crazed/psycho since the age of eight, when I first looked into an encyclopedia and saw a black and white picture of a monster tornado.
Later in life while in my 20's I had the chance to live in Oklahoma for two years and during that brief period became absolutely amazed at their skies and the beauty and fury of the storms they produced. Though I was only on a bicycle, I would often travel over hills for miles to see if I could see anything, and was always jealous when friends had tornadic experiences.
Funny enough, after returning home to California, though I was buying every tornado video that hit the market, I never considered going back until I got my first digital camera. It was a cheap Nikon Coolpix point and shoot, but I could easily see the power behind this new way of capturing images. So... I immediately started begging my wife to let me go chase storms.
In short, she told me I could go chasing if I got life insurance, so immediately I did just that, and then to my utter disappointment she changed her mind and still wouldn't allow me to go, citing I'd "probably get killed", and for some odd reason which I couldn't quite figure out, she didn't want that to happen... go figure! So, for the next fifteen years, after more and more continuous begging and pleading and reassuring her I wouldn't get myself "killed" she finally let up and said yes.
Coincidentally, at the same time I got the nod from my wife, Southwest airlines published a photo I took of one of their 737's after a severe storm hit the Pittsburgh international airport (an event that really cemented my desire to chase storms). The deal was now cemented... I now had free airfare to Oklahoma! Lookout tornados, here I come!
Truth be told, I knew I would be a fool to go chasing alone. I had basic general knowledge, but that doesn't count for much under stormy skies. I had made several friends in the chasing community from several online sites and started asking each if I could ride with them. I didn't really have much to offer them besides helping out with gas, and so they all pretty much one by one passed over me in favor of getting someone who could read radar images and navigate. Meanwhile, I was only two weeks away and totally panicked at the idea of trying to find storms alone. That's when a chaser wrote to me saying "lets be vagabonds for a week" and so the adventure began.
My intention on going out to the central plains was a clear mission to be a photographer going out to find good storm structure rather than being a chaser who happened to have a camera. There have been several photographer storm chasers who have inspired me, and shown me through their works that these events can be works of art when caught right. Ryan McGinnis, Mike Hollingshead and the late Eric Nguyen were all very influential in helping me pre-visualize what I was going to try and capture.
So, before I tell the rest of this story, I want to make something clear so no complete novices try and do what I did. Before ever stepping a foot in central states soil in the Spring of 2010, I networked hard and long, my way into finding a chase partner (as previously stated). This was not a sudden thing... it took YEARS of making contacts and also getting to know storm genesis and structure.
So onward to the story. When I first arrived, I drove straight to this chaser's home in Enid (well, after eating some of the best BBQ I ever had in Midwest City). This chaser really knew his stuff inside out and so we began our journey from there the very next day. He was 19 and though we had a large number of years between our ages, our enthusiasm for weather bridged that gap. We traveled on our first day through kansas to Nebraska under the most cloudless skies I have ever witnessed in my entire life! The nightmare of coming out for a week and experience nothing at all but a lot of driving was suddenly becoming real before my eyes. My chase partner reassured me the next day would be very different. He showed me how to read some of the various radar images that evening at our hotel and immediately my impression was that we should go straight north the next day. He agreed.
The next morning however, we wound up hooking up with another team of chasers I had been in conversations with before my trip out. They had been having extraordinary success, and we both thought that hitching our wagon to theirs was an excellent idea. Unfortunately, the leader of that team wasn't all too keen on having us tag along. She was rude beyond all belief, and made no mistake of letting us know we were not welcome. She decided that the obvious place to encounter the storm would be to the south, and though my chase partner and I felt completely opposed to that idea, the momentum of the moment caused us to follow them anyways. First they decided to visit a lake while the storm set up, then when things began to fire up, the leader of the group made it a point that we take her to the local Dairy Queen and once there as the rest of us sort of jumped around like kids needing to use a restroom, she gave us the biggest alligator smile as she slowly ate her ice cream. In hindsight, I think she purposely sabotaged us... but that is just speculation... we did eventually get under a storm that day, but it didn't do a whole lot except teach me how to operate under violent clouds producing inch and a half sized hail.
After this experience, the chaser I was teamed up with turned out to be less inclined to continue chasing after some insulting moments he had with the leader of the team we hooked up with. I drove him back home that same night... 14 hours back to Oklahoma. We watched the sun rise as we pulled into town. I was wiped out. I begged him to stay with me, but he was completely burned by what happened and swore he wouldn't chase the rest of the season. So, I wound up alone on the plains after this experience, which was never my intention to begin with.
Although I have some basic knowledge I was scared out of my wits and super intimidated at the prospect of chasing by myself with no computer and satellite hookup... in other words, no weather maps. I tried hooking up with other chasers that morning, but no luck whatsoever was to be had. So, out alone I went, but still, I was far from alone after all. I had some good knowledge of cloud structure and had several wonderful chasers who I kept in continual phone contact with who definitely helped me see what I could not and my storm chasing companion, now at home kept in phone contact with me as well, giving me directions. Yes, I should have had a laptop with wireless on the road connectivity (lack of funds and penny wise wife precluded that), but several chasers including Mike Hollingshead stated to me that it was not essential. I proved that to be true during my outing. Still at every chance I had, I'd pull over and talk with other chasers under the storms I found myself under, and get a feel from them for what was going on as well.
So, yup, out I went all alone on my first solo chase (have I said this enough?). Lucky thing it was not too far from where I dropped my friend off, probably only a half hour or so away... they way that I drive at least... maybe an hour for others. I was still half asleep from the night before, but determined to see some action.
I wound up in some rural parts, and could see the clouds developing over and around me. I was told I was in an excellent position and to hold there by those storm chasing friends over the phone who were watching satellite images on their computers from their homes. Sure enough within an hour, things started to get real interesting. The skies became dark and heavy, the heat and humidity became overwhelming, and the wind picked up. I started traveling towards a lowering of a cloud mass and parked by another chaser who was watching it and his radar. He said that if it didn't do anything in fifteen minutes, then it wouldn't do anything at all. We waited as it churned and picked up scuds (small cloud-like formations that form close to the ground). After the time passed it became very apparent that nothing was going to happen here, but could see another storm behind this one that was sucking up the power and energy of the first. I decided to see what that one would produce, while the other chaser decided to see how big the hail was for himself up to the north... he said he wanted to take advantage of having a fully insured rental car.
I drove due south west and there came under some very interesting swirling black clouds. I asked another chaser who was inside his car watching his radar if I should be photographing this or running for my life... to which he gave a sigh of exasperation, and then said "this storm isn't going to produce anything" so I didn't know if the sigh was pointed at me or the storm. Never the less, I had troubles believing him as I looked up directly above me and saw circular swirling motions in the black clouds above. I decided at length to get out from under it. That's when I saw the tornado tour vans rushing down the road. I decided it would be a good idea to follow them a bit.
When they turned a corner and stopped I went a bit further and then stopped myself. That's when I saw the most amazing storm front (shelf cloud) speeding towards us. Needless to say, I was immediately photographing it. I wanted to stay in front of it, so I started heading down Farmer John's dirt roads at 80 mph to stay ahead. I knew a few shots I wanted to get... storm over wheat field from low angles etc... so I'd stop every time I'd see something that would add interest. Most of my best shot from this day were taken during that time.
Eventually the storm caught up with me, and the storm behind it. I decided to head south westerly since they usually move in a north eastern direction. This series of storms however, unbeknownst to me, were traveling in the exact same direction, so no matter where I found myself, all hell was breaking loose, with tree branches flying around, rain so heavy you couldn't see in front of you and hail (but only marble sized). Finally I got out of it after what seemed like forever. A beautiful rainbow glowed in the sky and I soaked it in. Lets just say I slept well that night.
The next day I woke up to my phone ringing. A friend from Arizona was telling me to get out to Colorado immediately. Colorado? Isn't that like forever and a day away I thought. I told of my hesitation to head out there, but he insisted. I told him I would go as far as the Oklahoma panhandle.
Truth be told, I was feeling less than enthusiastic about encountering another storm after the one I had just been in. I was humbled and licking my wounds. I thought there was supposed to be a day between storms anyways, so I was not in any mental state to chase again. So, thus began my long drive out to the panhandle of Oklahoma.
I happened upon some beautiful scenery on my way and decided to stop and shoot some pictures of the red clay mountains surrounded by lush greenery. After all, there was no sign that anything was going to happen... why waste a perfectly good landscape opportunity? I spent nearly two hours exploring and taking pictures of cows and other things. I got another call from another chaser telling me that I needed to head to Colorado... there was a fantastic tornado happening. I once again thought "I'll never make Colorado" and so I stopped at a local eatery. After lunch yet another chaser told me to get my rear end to at least the outer portion of the panhandle. Now, that for some odd reason sounded reasonable, so off I went.
As I drove on the skies started turning grey, and many miles in the distance I could see a wall cloud... I knew immediately what it was, and got excited. Moments later I could see two horn shapes appear on either side of the lowering and then suddenly a tornado appeared! I was probably close to 30 miles away, so I stepped hard on the gas and proceeded towards the storm at 100 + mph. It was a straight long road, and was empty, so I figured the only threat would be from a police officer in hiding. Actually the closer I got, the more violent the clouds above me became. Blinding sheets of rain, hail and lightning all around me, and fang like lowerings that I hoped were not tornadic. I just sped on with a bit of faith that I would make it without incident.
As I got near I watched the funnel dissipate and disappear in front of my eyes... I was sorely disappointed. I turned off the road and parked by a Sheriff. I told him I sped to get to this spot and he said "it's alright son". There was a nice mothership cloud forming (named after the huge circular UFO in Close Encounters) and was excited the chase would not be a waste after all. I hopped into a barren field near a railroad track and started shooting. Not more than two minutes later another tornado suddenly appeared. It only lasted a very short while, and I wound up realizing I had forgotten to bring my 200mm with me, so I ran back to my car. When I arrived the sheriff said "boy that was a great rope out" so I turned around and the tornado sure enough was completely gone. Doh!!!
I still kick myself for missing hours of tornado experiences to be had. I should have listened.
The storm soon became a lightning and hail producing wonder and I spent a few hours basking in it's presence and shooting photos. Although I was far off the main road, I had many people come to visit me during this time and recount their tales of the tornado and ask to chimp off the back of my camera at the images I got. It was a warming feeling. A feeling of camaraderie. This storm also most decidedly justified my decision to come out to the central plains! What a fantastic day!
The next day had all the storm chasers heading to south western Ohio, so I woke up extra early and started down the road... and made a wrong turn. Two hours later I found myself deep in... Colorado... wouldn't you know it? Well, there was no chance of catching the storm now. With great futility, I drove at 90 mph the whole day long and by 6pm had only gotten to Wichita. I called some of my friends and they said it would take me another three hours to get to where things were setting up. I did the math and decided I didn't want to chase in the dark. It's hard to shoot a good picture in those conditions. As it turned out, the storm was a bust, so I didn't feel so bad after all... just worn out.
I traveled back to Oklahoma city the next day, got some more awesome BBQ and then got on a plane and headed back home to a wonderful reception from my wife and kids. All in all, mistakes and all... it was a success. Some people spend a month on the plains and see nothing. I owe a lot to my friends for their kind thoughtful directions. I would have never seen anything if not for them.
Now I'm home, planning on getting back out in 2012.
The plains are still calling.