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River Wind

By Ranger Steve Mueller

We arrived at the river shortly before dusk. Our friends would join us early the next day. The river flowed straight toward us for about a quarter mile from the west before turning abruptly south. We selected a tent site where we could view the river and feel the breeze. It was fall so few bothersome insects were present and a breeze was comforting during the warm evening. 

We built a small fire in the forest service campsite grated fire ring to cook supper and make s’mores. Birds were mostly quiet during the late season but migrating warblers could be seen foraging in their transient nature niche from summer breeding grounds to winter havens far to the south. 

Grass was green and trees were beginning to flash colors we hadn’t seen in twelve months. Some were shedding a few leaves early. It was a peaceful evening and we were the only campers present. Families were home with children in school routines and it was premature for most hunters. 

We erected a dome tent with fiberglass rods that arched over the top. A rainfly covered the dome a few inches above the screen tent ceiling. The sides were waterproofed nylon. We laid our sleeping bags on small pads to make a comfortable bed and went to sleep after dousing the fire with water in the dark cloudy night. 

It was a quiet evening with only the infrequent hooting from a Great Horned Owl and the sound of rustling leaves as wind forced its way through the tree canopy. The breeze was soothing and lulled us to sleep like a mother humming at our bedside. 

Without warning the roar of a train startled and woke us from sound sleep as it raced closer. The dome tent that we could stand in was flattened and pressed against us. The rainfly was ripped off and carried into the forest. A strong straight wind or perhaps even a tornado was upon us. It was scary but exciting for Karen. For me it was terrifying. I had not inspected the area for dangerous trees that might break and crush us. 

I immediately envisioned John and Pat finding us in the morning dead under a fallen tree. The wind lessened quickly and the fiberglass rods supported the tent dome again. A pouring rain was coming through the screen tent apex. With flashlight in hand, I unzipped the tent and ran into the dark toward the downwind forest to recover the rainfly. Quickly, I returned with the slightly damaged bungy straps and rainfly that were ripped loose.

Together while being doused like in a shower, we covered the tent. Once back inside, we toweled our bags and tent floor as dry as possible and then dried ourselves. The sound of the roaring train came and went in an instant. I had learned that sound accompanies a tornado. When we got up in the morning little evidence indicated a tornado. No trees were uprooted and the area looked much like it did when were arrived. 

It must have been what is referred to as straight wind that came forcefully speeding down the quarter mile stretch of river and it did not turn at the river bend. Instead it continued eastward pressing the tent against our faces and trapping us prone on our backs. It was one of the scariest moments of my life but fear quickly passed when the dome erected itself and no tree was laying across our chests. 

We had a story to tell our friends when they arrived and that was much better than them finding us dead under a fallen tree. I learned that night it is important to survey a temporary camping residence for unexpected dangers. Rarely am I frightened when in the wild. Well maybe I should say infrequently. Dangers are present but rarely are they as dangerous as traveling in a car. One needs to be vigilant and cautious whether camping in wild country or going to the grocery in a car. It is usually more peaceful and safe camping than traveling on what seem like safe roads. Enjoy camping, learn how to stay safe, and have fun outdoors.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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