I’ve never been struck by lightning and I’m fine with that. It’s not something I aspire to. Nor did I wish to participate in one of the “hundreds and hundreds” of shipwrecks sitting along the murky bottom of the Great Lakes. I just wanted to get out on the lake.

Mine was simply meant to be a pleasure cruise on Thunder Bay—the actual bay on which the eponymous city is situated. The idea was pleasant enough: fresh air, drinks, and a soaring sailboat in the summer’s evening light. My travel dream looked a lot like a Nautica ad, however, my travel reality (and the horizon) looked more like a blank white page.

All day long, the sky had held back, blushing various shades of grey, sometimes spilling out a few wet drops and then apologizing with a hint of sunlight. An optimist, I boarded the sailboat anyway, and stayed on deck through the early sprinkles in order to catch a close-up of Thunder Bay’s skyscrapers: gargantuan grain elevators from which tons of Canadian prairie wheat begins its journey eastward.

I didn’t mind shivering in the cold and wet in June. I didn’t mind staring at empty concrete grain silos. I didn’t mind that there was no wind, forcing us to motor. When the lightning commenced, I turned a tad uneasy.

Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic

I was sitting on the largest lake in North America, in a metal boat with a metal mast pointing high into the sky. For a thunderstorm, that position seemed less than optimal.

The captain thought so too and sent us below decks, “in case lightning strikes”. That would never ever happen, though—the odds so slim—and yet, as we crouched in the rocking cabin, several fellow sailors on my boat all had real-life, lightning-strike stories to share. (Apparently, boats get hit by lightning more often then people do.)

Of all the Great Lakes, Lake Superior is perhaps the most unpredictable. There are placid blue moments and moment of angry, house-high waves that take down ships. Neither was the case for my three-hour tour—there was no howling wind and barely a wave. As far as sailing is concerned, it was the worst of both worlds: no sail and no view.

There was thunder, though. Crescendo builds of thunder, none of them too melodramatic, yet consistent—white skies, a score of rain on water and grumbling thunder.

I love a town that lives up to its name, so thank you Thunder Bay. I imagine these citizens cope with far worse than thunderstorms: “40 below” is a metric they like to throw around in conversation, a more accurate description of the other season that’s not summer. But traveling on Thunder Bay in the midst of a thunderstorm, well, that’s the kind of sightseeing you just can’t pre-book.

And so, one of my fondest memories of Thunder Bay will be that of rushing below decks, soaked in a flimsy raincoat, huddling, crouched, watching a blank white horizon through a foggy porthole and sharing a plate of elk sausage with perfect strangers. Another fond memory will be going back to the harbor the very next day and soaking in the scene of pure blue that is Lake Superior without the thunder clouds.  The postcard view of blue horizons, islands and sailboat masts was all very lovely, but I think I liked it more for the thunder.

When travel sends you thunderstorms, enjoy the symphony.

Comments

  1. Cheryl McCann
    Houston / Galveston
    July 18, 2011, 4:39 pm

    That’s an understatement to say Thunder Bay lived up to its name. Not very idyllic to be in a boat during a lightning thunderstorm. Enjoyed the article. Thanks.