When Lightning Strikes… Tales of Wilderness Survival

Towering cumulus clouds are beautiful and lightning storms are exciting, but they can also be dangerous and deadly. Numerous forest fires are created by lightning strikes each year and there are approximately 50 lighting caused fatalities annually in the US alone.


When you have spent as much time as I have wandering in the woods, there are bound to be situations that qualify as more tenuous, or scarier than others. I’ve already written about some of these, like the time I woke up in the middle of the night with a bear standing on me. Over the next few weeks I am going to relate other incidents on my Wednesday posts— assuming I haven’t disappeared into the wilderness again, which is always a strong possibility.

I’ll start by going back in time with my first three stories, back to when I was still shooting things. My first tale is about being caught in a lightning storm. The second relates to being lost in a snow storm. The third is about encountering Patty Hearst, aka Tanya, and her gun-toting SLA buddies on an early season fishing expedition in the Sierras. Let’s get started…


I grew up in the country where hunting and fishing were common. So, it isn’t surprising that I returned to the sports in the 70s. Actually, desperation drove me to the action. It isn’t that I was particularly enamored with catching or killing things. The meat I got from the local butcher tasted much better than anything I could shoot out in the woods. Freshly caught fish are good for breakfast, particularly when backpacking food is the option, but the process of gutting, cooking and cleaning up detracts seriously from the experience, especially when your objective is to get out on the trail. My general philosophy is live and let live unless necessity intervenes. Starvation qualifies, as does discouraging some large creature with big teeth and sharp claws that regards me as dinner.

No, my desperation had to do with my need to escape into the woods on a regular basis. I think of it as going home. It’s what led me to create the Trek program for the American Lung Association, and it’s what led me back to the hunting and fishing.

I am not sure whether I recruited my old friends from elementary and high school days (Bob Bray, Hunt Warner and Chuck Lewis) to go on expeditions or that they recruited me, but it wasn’t very long after I returned to Sacramento that the value of trout season and deer season became apparent: Fishing in the spring and hunting in the fall extended serious outdoor time by another four months. And then there was bonding, the old tribal ritual of going off into the woods with your friends on adventures. Generous allotments of beer consumed around the campfire helped.

Normally our trips involved little more than lots of good exercise and an occasional hangover. I enthusiastically joined in the efforts to entice fish with a Panther Martin lure, but usually avoided shooting anything. Killing a deer meant dragging it back to camp, hanging it up by the feet, gutting it, and skinning it— all of which was much more work than it was worth from my perspective, not to mention the deer’s. I had enough of that helping my friends. Occasionally I would shoot near a buck that was foolish enough to appear in my sights. I figured it was my job to remind him he was only a leap away from the stew pot.

The truth is, deer don’t have to worry about me— and they know it. This buck in one of many that stop by our house to visit.

I photographed this doe yesterday as she rested between flower pots in our back yard. The last couple of weeks, five or six have been hanging out around our house trimming the grass, eating Peggy’s rosebush, and sleeping in the shade.

On three occasions our expeditions became a little more adventuresome than we had bargained for. The first involved a much too close encounter with lightning.

Bob, Hunt and I were deer hunting north of Interstate 80 in the Tahoe National Forest on a high ridge. As usual, we were spread out, the theory being we might jump a deer and send it blundering into another member of our party. Usually bucks are too clever for this ploy. They send their does out into the line of fire while they sneak out the back door. This was apparently one of those days, thankfully. The car was at least two miles away down in a steep canyon. We’d be forever dragging a deer to it. I was wandering along, blissfully thinking of absolutely nothing when the distant sound of thunder caught my attention.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a huge, dark, cumulus cloud had appeared and was ominously working its way in our direction. I sat down on an old white fir stump and watched as it turned a ridge north of us into a battle zone of thunder and lighting. Having a front row seat was highly entertaining and, as it turned out, extremely foolish. Ten minutes later the storm hit our ridge. I was literally surrounded; Blinding flashes were instantly followed by ear-splitting booms. There was no counting 1000-1, 1000-2 to see how far away the lightning was. (Seven seconds is a mile.) It was right there. Pieces of tree were flying through the air and my hair was standing on end with electricity— or maybe it was fright. I was as frightened as I have ever been in my life. I knew I had to get off the ridge, and quickly.

I don’t exactly remember my run down the mountain but I do believe I broke some kind of world record for the two-mile dash. As did Bob and Hunt. We quickly climbed inside the truck to relative safety and called it a day. An ambulance met us as we were leaving. We read in the paper the next day that a hunter had decided to hide out under a tall Jeffrey Pine. Lightning had struck the tree and killed him. It could have been any of us.

Next Blogs: 1) Back to Burning Man; 2) Pt. Lobos Part II; 3) Wilderness survival: It was a dark and stormy night.


38 thoughts on “When Lightning Strikes… Tales of Wilderness Survival

  1. I am so not a hunter. I can’t even imagine it. Fishing — sure. But just look at those deer in your yard. How cute!
    I could, however, relate to your being caught in a storm. I love watching storms. I might have been stuck on that ridge, too.

    • My hunting days are far in the past, or let me put it this way, I now hunt with a camera. I, too, love storms. Few things reflect the power and wildness of nature more. Caution is always wise, however. 🙂 –Curt

  2. I’ve had a couple of close encounters with lightning, includng the time my own house was hit by it. No sound is louder. Glad you’re around to tell the story.

    • I’ve certainly eaten my share of venison. Plus I’ve eaten bear, elk, rattlesnake, squirrel, waterfowl, and who knows what else, which I am sure you have as well from your travels. Kind of hard to tell with stew. 🙂 But I would really have to be hungry to eat one of the deer that hang out here! –Curt

    • That’s right. It’s called anvil lightning, among other names, and there’s a good explanation (with pictures for people like me!) here. I work on the docks and around boats, and the rule is that if we hear thunder, we get off the water. Lightning loves masts about as much as pine trees!

      • I’m thinking that when you are out in the middle of the ocean, there aren’t a lot of options to get off of the water. Also thinking I wouldn’t want to be assigned to the crow’s nest! –Curt

  3. A few months ago we had a storm with lightning. Three elderly ladies decided to seek shelter under a huge conifer in a park where we walk to almost daily. It is in the middle of our small town in the Highlands.
    The tree was hit by lightning and so were the women sitting under that tree. We read later in the local paper that those three women were sisters. One of the sisters died after a week in hospital. The other two escaped but were in shock.

  4. We had a phenomenal lightning storm here night before last. I mentioned the mast/pine tree connection to Mel and Susan. I sat here and watched three bolts hit the top of masts. I’d be surprised if someone’s electronics didn’t get fried.The marine electronics guys love a lighting storm as much as sailmakers like strong winds. They add up to job security.

    • Laughing about the comment on marine electronics folks. I’ll bet. Do sailboats ever include some type of lightning rod, Linda? I’ve always though of sailboats as an expensive hobby. That’s one more factor to add into the equation. –Curt

    • I’ve spent a life of writing things down, Dave, but that was straight out of my memory banks. There are some things that are going to stick, regardless. The lightning storm was one. –Curt

  5. Oh my goodness Curt you have more stories than most people have in 10 lifetimes! So lucky that you and your friends came through unscathed. When your hair is standing on end that lightening is close! As to future stories…well let’s say I can hardly wait. Although my heart rhythm only recently normalized after the bear story.

  6. I am terrified of lightning, which once arced into and then out of our garage as we watched when I was a kid. I was the mom who was yanking my kids off the baseball diamond the minute I saw lightning, and I still fear it when I am hiking and a storm rolls in. Good move to skedaddle down that mountain!

    • Smart move, Lexi, yanking the kids off the baseball field. And having lighting visit your garage would definitely make a believer out of you! Had a woman once who hiked on one of my treks who would throw her pack off, yank out her tarp, and hide under it during a lightning storm. 🙂 –Curt

  7. Reminiscent of Patrick F McManus, who hails from Sandpoint, Idaho (another place I have lived – I’m like a gypsy). The great thing about living life the way you do, Curt, is that you get so many stories out of it! Thanks for letting us in on the good stuff.

  8. Pingback: Book Review: Without Explanation | Browsing The Atlas

    • Yes indeed! 🙂 A little knowledge and common sense goes a long ways in reducing the danger though, Rusha. Nature doesn’t worry me nearly as much as some of my fellow human beings on occasion… –Curt

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s