Prior to beginning Phase One of this project, the only “storm chasing” I had done was accidental; driving up the New Jersey Turnpike at the same speed as a severe thunderstorm in 2009. I’ve long been interested in severe weather, but the four chases within the initial phase of Behind The Bear’s Cage were my personal firsts. This is what differentiates Phase One from the rest of the project: I had to shift from thinking like a photographer to thinking like a storm chaser.
I’m not referring to the meteorological aspect of the chase (that learning curve is a lot steeper), but rather my introduction to the storm chaser lifestyle. Since I will never again have the “first chase” experience, I’ve decided to begin the written portion of Behind The Bear’s Cage with six important things I learned during my time with Tornado Titans…
1) Sleep is your friend.
I’m generally an early riser, especially on the morning of a day-long shoot. Waking up early provides me with ample time to shower, pack my gear, eat a full meal, and consume the first of many cups of coffee I’ll be drinking throughout the day. I build this into my schedule so I can take my sweet time completing the aforementioned tasks… plus, I’m less likely to forget something when I give myself more prep time. Sometimes I’ll refer to that early morning period as my “Photographer Zen Time.”
My alarm sounded at 6:30am on May 21, 2016–four and a half hours before I would be meeting Chris Sanner at his house. It was my first “Photographer Zen Time” of Behind The Bear’s Cage, and it also would be my last. When I left my hotel that morning, I was thinking like a photographer. Upon returning to my hotel at 3:45am the following morning, bleary-eyed and exhausted… I collapsed into bed after setting my alarm for 10:30am. Time to think like a storm chaser.
While the first chase to Kansas was the absolute latest time we returned to Oklahoma City in the four days I was with the Titans, I still made sure (by recommendation of Chris & Brandon Goforth) to get as much sleep as possible to avoid burning out, regardless of how early we got back.
2) Driving to target vs. driving home
Storm chasers drive a lot. In the four days I chased with the Titans, Chris drove approximately 2,145 miles (Fun Fact: That’s 88% of the distance between New York City and Los Angeles), between three states (Kansas, Oklahoma & Texas). The average daily mileage clocked in at around 536 1/4 miles a day. The drive to the target is filled with anticipation and a bit of adrenaline. The excitement in the vehicle is palpable. It’s very much like leaving for vacation–when there’s something to look forward to at your destination, the travel time doesn’t seem as long as it does on your journey home.
Additionally, the drive out can be broken up depending on when the atmosphere gets itself together to produce thunderstorms. You may spend an hour waiting for a storm, followed by another 40 minute drive to intercept it. Having limited knowledge of the area’s geography, I would find myself in shock at the day’s end upon hearing how far we had traveled.
The best example was on May 21st, intercepting a storm near Leoti, KS–a town significantly closer to Colorado than to Oklahoma. On the drive out, the 364 miles (broken up by a meal stop in Dodge City) flew by. When Chris plugged in his address to Apple Maps on our way back to Oklahoma City, Siri exposed our grim reality; a six-and-a-half hour drive, beginning around 9pm. Total miles driven: 728.
Brandon Goforth put it simply. “Driving home is my least favorite part of chasing.”
*Editor’s note: Thank you for driving, Chris.
3) Eat before you go.
Once you’re on the road, food options may be limited to whatever snacks you can find during a fuel stop. If you’re lucky, you may come upon an Arby’s or a Taco Bell in one of the “larger” towns of the southern plains, but a diet of fast food can be a dangerous thing (more on that later) when you’re sitting in a car for most of the day.
My best option was to eat a fairly large breakfast (I’m not typically a big lunch person), and fill the ride with high-protein snacks like beef jerky, almonds, and the occasional protein bar. Eating garbage will make you feel like garbage, and you need every ounce of energy you can muster to get through a twelve hour chase day.
Speaking of energy…
This part wasn’t difficult for me since on an average day, I’m one step away from carrying an IV drip of caffeine with me at all times. While my caffeine dependence may be a personal issue I’ll have to examine in the future, it was helpful for the duration of the chase.* Staying alert is imperative while chasing storms, especially on the long drive home. Most storm chaser deaths are the result of traffic accidents. Plus, you won’t miss anything.
Being too warm for hot coffee, energy drinks like Red Bull (Monster Zero for me) were available at most gas stations. Staying hydrated helps, too (for those of you “Red Bull is poison” folks).
*Keep telling yourself that Conor. You weren’t even driving.
5) Your cell service will be tested.
Why am I the only person in this car that can’t get data, @Sprint?
— Conor Clancy (@conorclancy) May 22, 2016
In regards to my relationship with my cellular service provider (one that was already on the verge of a breakup), storm chasing was the “nail in the coffin.” A reliable data network is not only a matter of convenience–it’s the only assurance you’re seeing the latest radar readout, receiving the most recent bulletins from the Storm Prediction Center, and getting current information from other storm chasers on the road. Not having that information immediately available throughout the duration of a chase could put you in danger.
Sprint was the clear loser in the car (many times my frustration would mount so high that I would just shut my phone off), while AT&T seemed to be the most reliable. I don’t recall Chris complaining once about a lack of data service to his phone, even while driving down a dirt county road in the middle-of-nowhere that is the Texas panhandle (sorry Texas).
6) Enjoy what you’ve been given.
Watching a tornado form in an uninhabited area, where it poses no threat to life or property, is an amazing sight. But if seeing a tornado is a storm chaser’s sole motivation, they’re going to end up disappointed… a lot. Some of the more breathtaking storms I had the pleasure of viewing never produced a tornado. The broader concept of appreciating what I’ve been given is one I’ve always struggled with. After my first storm chase, the concept was easier to grasp. Enjoy what is in front of you while it lasts–and you never know, it may surprise you.