Rendezvous With a Severe Squall Line…On a Bike.

Let me preface this by saying this is probably one of the dumbest things I’ve done and should be avoided. Nonetheless something exciting needed to happen that day. Was really spur the moment, and a burst of adrenaline pushed it even further. Enjoy the read!

Throughout Wednesday, forecasts alluded to severe storms entering the area overnight. Most likely it would be a squall line as the cold front pushed through an area that had just set some record high temperatures. Indeed a squall line formed and crossed Lake Michigan an hour before midnight. I was about to crawl into bed, when I decided to peek at the radar.

Radar image as I left the dorm at 11:15pm.

Seeing the large line of severe warned storms made me decide that I would at least be up to see this line through, aka, all sleepiness wore off. Storm motion intrigued me more. The large band miles north of Mount Pleasant (my location) was traveling due east. So it would stay north. Crazy idea went through my head at that time, but wanted to double-check how much lightning there was. Walked down the hall to get to a window looking north. Frequent lightning flashes lit up in the distance.  I had my camera with me so I went outside to see if there was a good view, but nothing was there. This made me think back to that crazy idea. Recently brought my bike up to campus to commute better. I had previously taken a trip up to the water treatment plant and there was open land there with little light pollution, I could probably get some nice lightning shots (I swear I am hooked on photographing lightning now). Without thinking much more, I ran back upstairs and started packing. Thought, what the hay, need to do something to spice things up, days are getting a little repetitive up here.

Emptied my backpack, replaced a calculus book with a tri-pod and my camera, strapped on a helmet (doubles as hail protection!), and zipped out of the dorm heading due north.

Route may not be exact, but roughly 3 miles one way.

It was pitch dark minus sparse streetlights and the distant lightning. About halfway there, I realized how silly this was. For one, its dark and I run the risk of looking shady or looking really awkward (whatever, I’m on a bike and on a mission). Not many people I know go tearing down side streets on a bike at midnight with a storm on the door step. Secondly, I remembered the radar image and how eventually the squall line was going to hit Mount Pleasant, but I figured I had enough time. Thinking about that in the first place I didn’t put much time into the bike trip, so that cut my time to get pictures. Figured the storm was about 30 minutes away. Then a trip to my location was about 15 min one way. Setting up the camera would take 5 min, and shooting the storm would be another 5 or so. So somewhere I was going to get hit by this storm.

This brings me to where do I go when this hits? Yea I really didn’t think about that until I was at the last location. I make such a big deal about being safe in a storm, and here I am about to have a squall line bear down on me on a bike, miles away from any place open to properly shelter. Passing a few large awnings on shops I quickly dismissed this important thought. Meh I could just hide under one time them until the large part of the storm was done. Continued to shooting location.

Lightning really was not being cooperative for shooting. Most of it remained in the distance, and lacked much impressive form. However it did outline some unique cloud formations. This is one of my favorites so far.

Lightning illuminates a large cloud formation marking the outflow and gust front.

Soon after this shot was taken, I could really see the clouds accelerating towards me. That was really eerie, until I heard the next thing. It sounded like the freeway behind me was coming alive during rush hour traffic. I heard it from the west and glanced down the road, no cars. So…it must be wind. Lots of it. Packed up lickety-split and crossed the street. The wall of wind approached and caught up to me. Lightning was much closer now. Strike in the field behind a warehouse really set me spinning away. A strong draft of cool air made me realize how strong this line was. The air must have been 10-15 degrees cooler than the ambient temperature, but it only lasted a couple of seconds before warm air replaced it again. Stunned by that, I almost plowed head on into a 6″ curb. Just barely caught the lip lowering onto the sidewalk and another burst of wind licked at me. Trees roared to life, more flashes of lightning. This time branches were already in the air and dust and gravel stung hitting my legs and arms. The street was becoming a wind tunnel accelerating me as I rushed away. Got some dust in my eye and immediately went looking for shelter.

I turned off on a side street sidewalk. Wind ripping at every part of my system, I leaned into the gust of wind. That’s when the safety thought hit me and I realized how dumb it was to bike home now. Trees all over, power lines ready to come down; I better sit still and ride it out. Before heading too far down the side street I dove into the post office parking lot. Never have I appreciated 24/7 lobbies more! Sat and waited. The lobby was nice but a well-built awning out front was more attractive to watch the storm pass in.

A little calm came over, and figured that was probably just the outflow from the real front. No rain had fallen yet either. About 5 min later the rain came and so did the lightning and wind.

American flag can't pick which way to go in this time exposure!

Didn’t want to risk the camera with so much water in the air, so I set it in the corner and took a self-portrait. Professional right?

Checking text messages and watching the rain come down in sheets at the post office.

Despite my purpose to get lightning photos, this was the only good one I got. I’ve found lightning has the natural trait to avoid the direction the camera is pointed in.

Only decent lightning capture :\ Even then it isn't that great with a giant lens flare and other particles marring the shot.

I must have waited just over an hour for the most of it to pass. I was mainly worried about the wind. A little while later, a piece of construction equipment went down the side street. I was prepared to leave with only light rain falling and cloud to cloud distant lightning, so I followed it. This lead me back through town, and to a convenience store where a 6″ limb had been blown down. Don’t think it damaged the structure. The dozer moved it off the street and continued on.

The next scene had an even larger limb down. It looked like the tree had been hollowed out, but it was still alive. This must have covered much of the intersection and narrowly missed a powerline. Flares were on the street so I was cautious at first.

Front end loader pushing a huge tree limb off the street.

He went on to another site, I could hear the back up beeps in the distance. However I was very cold, and now wet. The temperature dropped close to 20 degrees since I had left (it was about 80, and now dropped to 64). I decided to skip his next destination and trek home.

On my way a large tree was down on campus blocking the southbound lane of Washington Street. Really large and I’m not sure if it was lightning or wind that claimed it.

Large tree cut in half and leaning on the street now.

Looking back it was really exciting and one heck of an adventure. However, had it not been for the post office, I may be telling a more damp story. I was really fortunate to find such shelter in short notice. Would I do it again? For sure if I had a car, but a bike was pushing it.  Found it a little harder to wake up at 8am for class this morning for sure!


About gweatherc
Live in Michigan and enjoy observing the weather. Want to pursue it as a career! Currently taking classes at Central Michigan University.

One Response to Rendezvous With a Severe Squall Line…On a Bike.

  1. Pamela says:

    So this is how you are spending your free time. What an adventure! The retelling of it kept my interest. Great description and writing made me feel like I was right there with you. I like the way you incorporate your photos…a real photojournalist. I took comfort in the fact that if you were writing this, you survived the storm, but I have to admit, the mother in me went a little white and was worried.

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