Chasing Monsters in the Midwest
Photo: Nick Moir
By KEEN Ambassador Krystle Wright
As my hands death-gripped the steering wheel—the wheels slipping and sloshing through the hail- and debris-covered road—our team was desperately trying to find any cell service to read the latest radars since our immediate view was no more than 100m.
I continue to push and trail our fellow Aussies in the car ahead but it gets to a breaking point where Australian storm chasing photographer Nick Moir turns to me and says we need to give up the chase now.
I must admit that with so much adrenaline pumping through the body that I hesitate for a second and ask him if he’s sure. And as he sternly reinforces his decision, we pull away into side roads.
Later on we learned that we had been driving within a mile or two of a multiple vorticity tornado and were reminded of that vital lesson that if you lose visuals of your surroundings, it's just not worth the gamble with your life. As we circle back onto a remote highway in western Nebraska, we are smothered in a continuous hail downpour where at times it reaches a size of 2 inches. I am utterly perplexed how our windscreen never smashed into a million pieces let alone crack with such forces. The team debate whether its worth the pursuit through this tumultuous situation or do we wait it out safely somewhere? My stubborn attitude behind the wheel is to push through and escape this hell.
When I tell people that I am heading to the American Midwest to storm chase, I see that immediate glint in their eyes light up.
Photo: Nick Moir
Over the course of a couple of hours, we begin to see that silver lining of sky that marks the edge of the system and with that comes a huge relief. As we emerge to the edge, quickly we discover that we’ve caught one of the most beautiful storms ever captured, which carries the name ‘The Mothership.’ The striations stretch out over the sky and I find myself completely in awe of such dark beauty that is rolling across the sky.
I think deep down that not only do we have an inner storm chaser in all of us, more importantly, our curiosity of Mother Nature’s raw power and beauty is inherently built inside all of us.
When I tell people that I am heading to the American Midwest to storm chase, I see that immediate glint in their eyes light up. I think deep down that not only do we have an inner storm chaser in all of us, more importantly, our curiosity of Mother Nature’s raw power and beauty is inherently built inside all of us. How can we not be curious about the nature that surrounds us as it affects us daily. I am very new to the storm chasing community with just two seasons accumulated and yet I’ve witnessed so much.
Last year I remember driving through dust storms in the Texas Panhandle and yet this year we were driving through flash floods in the exact same areas. It was absolutely wild to see how drastically things could change from year to year. These extreme changes create a dangerous chain reaction as these floodwaters across the Midwest are washed into watershed systems, such as the Mississippi Delta, where this year NOAA predicted one of the worst dead zones to hit the Gulf Of Mexico.
For most of my adult life, the camera has enabled me to experience and engage with people or places I’d never thought I’ve ever go to. Landing in Denver airport many times over the years, I would joke that I would never drive East of the airport. How wrong and juvenile of me to make such an assumption. I now long for each Spring to venture into the Midwest and continue this unique ongoing adventure which allows me to engage with people I meet along the way, be further educated about the workings of Mother Nature and the impact it is causing on the environment, and see the beauty that lies beyond the mountains.
Behind the Scenes: Storm Chasing With Krystle
On her storm-chasing shoe of choice:
"The crazy thing is, I spent this year's entire chase in my Kona flip-flops! Now it's not ideal as there were some scenarios that I should've worn protective shoes. But the Australian in me loves to wear flip-flops (or preferably knowns as thongs) as much as possible. I think I push these types of sandals well beyond their means, but I find them incredibly comfortable and love the air on my feet. Also when it becomes wet in the flash flooding and such, at least my flip-flops could dry out immediately and I didn't have to worry about wet heavy shoes drying out overnight :) There is method to my madness!"
On what to wear for storm chasing:
"It's pretty tough as the days begin typically hot. And in that extreme heat, I am wearing just a t-shirt and shorts. During our stops and as the weather begins to intensify, I start to layer up in preparation which sometimes means warmer layers but also the waterproof layers. There are some days where I am not organized and get caught out by rain as it's just such a chaotic trip. The best advice I can give here is that when packing the right arsenal for clothing, it's everything from t-shirts, shorts for hot weather to the warm layers such as a fleece, puffy jackets, jeans and then ultimately the waterproof shell layers. Some days are like experiencing four seasons in one."
On navigating bumpy roads and huge hail with expensive equipment:
"It certainly is not a great combo and our camera gear is put through the test! It's not too often we would stay out very long once the hail drops. We are searching for cover before it hits or moving the fastest we've ever moved if it does start falling since it poses such a danger to our safety. The rain and elements can destroy camera gear, and last year we lost a RED camera to torrential rain in the pursuit of a particular shot. Our crew has insurance and ideally we avoid that scenario, but at the end of the day we are here to capture the best possible imagery to tell a story and sometimes that means damaging the gear in the process. But we do our best to manage where possible!" (See what camera gear Krystle, a Canon Master, carries on her adventures.)
On being behind the wheel during the chase:
"The dirt roads can get very dangerous fast! Particularly if hail or torrential rain wets the roads too much that it turns it as if you were driving on ice. I hit one section not realizing how slick it was and we had absolutely no traction. I had to hope I could slow down by taking my feet off all the pedals and holding my line. As we jump out, I could push the car without much energy as it truly was as if we were on ice but it was slick mud."
On eating well on the road:
"Early in our trip, we arrived into Junction City, Kansas, and we discovered Hot Rodz BBQ. Classic Americana food you'd expect to find in the west with hosts who were so incredibly kind that we felt very welcomed! I think both Nick and my Aussie accents sent everyone into a spin as it's not too often Aussies would venture to such a small town in the Midwest. If you happen to be venturing through, it's a must to stop here for a great bite! 1118 N Washington St, Junction City, KS 66441, USA."