As I found out in a short amount of time, there are a lot of things to learn and take into consideration when living in a field camp on the Great Plains in northeastern Montana. First, I’m living in nothing but a tent for a month out in the open, exposed to the elements. The wind, the rain, the lightning –it all seems like it’s out to get you. On some nights the wind, with nothing to stop its force, continues to squeeze the sides of the tent in around me. I soon overcame the claustrophobia of it and have managed to sleep well despite the nonstop flapping of my rainfly. Rain has been sparse during my mid-July to mid-August stint on the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation Landmark project on the American Prairie Reserve. However, more recently there have been some magnificent thunderstorms, one of which had the whole crew scared.
The vastness of the prairie and Montana’s “big sky country” provides an unimpaired 360-degree view of the celestial sphere –something I’m not used to living in wooded central Maine. Thunderstorms can be seen advancing from 50 miles away in perfect conditions, allowing you to prepare for the bad weather to come. On one such evening at the end of July we saw the storm coming in from the north. The view was spectacular and we stayed awake until nearly midnight watching its advance. As we watched the northern storm headed for us, we noticed similar conditions forming and moving in from the south… and east… and west. With no other choice but to take refuge in our tents (which are no different than anyone else’s regular camping tents), we hunkered down. About an hour later I woke up to a bright flash of lightning and loud crack of thunder, both within seconds of each other. Rain ensued and the time between the lightning and thunder rapidly decreased. It was clear that all the storms were closing in on Sun Prairie, our dry home.
As the wind roared it blew rainwater up through a tiny vent in my rainfly and pushed the tent walls in around me. The wet tent sides flapped continuously against me and I began to feel soggy. The lightning and thunder were practically in sync and failed to fade in intensity. When my entire back was fully soaked I decided it was time to make moves for our large canvas tent that serves as the communal “living room” and “dining room.” But it was a good distance away, particularly under such conditions. I had no choice though; I already felt pruney and who knew when the storm would pass. I gathered my sleeping bag and pad and made for the canvas tent when the rain died for a moment. No need for a headlamp –the continuous lightning managed to light up the whole prairie as if it were daytime. It’s hard to not feel like you’re going to get struck by lightning when you’re in a storm directly above your head and in the openness of the grassland.
But I made it alive. Shaken up, but alive. Before I set up my bed on our dinner table I stood at the door of the tent to watch the event outside. The scene was probably one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. The storm clouds swirled and the rain pounded on the canvas; the flashes of light let me see what the night normally conceals and the deafening thunder cracked all around. I knew that my crewmates couldn’t be asleep, but I hoped they were at least dry. That storm, of course, was the talk of the town (and by town I mean the six of us and a couple other people that work on the remote reserve).
Just the other night we saw thunderheads forming to the west and I began to dread what was going to happen. However, to my relief, we watched the storm swivel to the south, then east, and then only drop water on us for a few minutes as it came back west. Being a spectator of this event was just as spectacular as the first, if not more so. The wide range of vision out here allows you to watch the shape and movement of the clouds, as well as capture images like the accompanying ones.
I’ll save what such storms do to the roads out here for another time.
Originally from San Diego, California, Jonah Gula is entering his senior year at Unity College, an environmental college in rural Maine. He enjoys anything wildlife-related and having the outdoors as his work-space. Photography, camping and hiking are his favorite activities. Jonah is passionate about wildlife conservation and learning how animals interact with one another and their environment. For the past two years, he has worked on the Unity College Bear Study, trapping and tracking black bears in a recolonizing population in central Maine. See more of Jonah’s photos on his website and on Facebook.
Landmark participants provide us with an in-depth and year-round look at life on the prairie. A month of service on the Reserve is an opportunity to pursue adventure in an iconic American landscape with a group of conservation-minded outdoor enthusiasts.