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30 May 2018updated 31 May 2018 11:56am

What I learned from being struck by lightning

On a canoe trip, you get off the lake whenever a storm is coming, and in the crackling heat of this Ontario summer, they came a lot. 

By Julia Rampen

It was late afternoon, or early evening – I don’t know which, because one of the rules of canoe trip is you surrender your watches. I was 13, and three days’ paddle into the depths of Algonquin Park, northern Ontario, Canada. With me, were five other girls of a similar age, but unlike me, a city kid from Scotland, they had grown up doing trips like these, and were intimidatingly strong. They knew each other from previous summers, and had an easy rapport I couldn’t match. 

There were dark clouds in the sky, and another rule of canoe trip is you get off the lake whenever a storm is coming. In the crackling heat of this Ontario summer, they came a lot. My father once told me how some trippers he knew had pulled into shore, leaving the canoe on the water. Moments later, lightning hit the boat. So we were glad to reach our campsite. Under the direction of the three trip leaders – wise and experienced gods, I thought; in fact, the oldest was 21 – we hauled up the canoes, turned them over to keep them dry, and pitched the tent.

Like much of Algonquin Park, our campsite was a clearing in a forest. The tent was designed to be tied between two trees, with paddles instead of poles and sticks rather than pegs to save on weight. This time, we chose a spot in the clearing, near a particularly fine and tall tree. By the time we had finished, the dark spots of rain on the pine needles were becoming puddles, and we retreated.

In the eerie light of the tent, one girl pulled out the pack of cards we saved for rainy evenings like this, and we began to play. Outside, the thunder rumbled. I remember having a few cards in front of me when – snap – I felt electricity surge through me. And snap – I saw from the eyes of the girl sitting next to me that she’d felt exactly the same thing. The boom of the thunder drowned out our screams.

At that moment we did the most adolescent thing you could do in that situation and went into collective hysterics. We were too frightened to leave the tent, and the storm was still growling and flashing through the canvas. Eventually, Ashley, one of the “adults”, came over and asked if we were OK.

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Actually, we were still a bit confused about why we weren’t dead. When we eventually emerged from the tent, a jittering, crying, twelve-legged teenage mess, we saw that the beautiful tree a few yards from our tent was now split down the middle, a charred line searing through its trunk. “It must have been a ground shock,” Ashley said.

In those days, Google was not a verb, and we had no access to internet anyway. But looking at the wreck of the tree and our tent, it made sense. As quickly as it arrived, the storm slunk away, until the only sound was the water dripping from the branches on the rocks. While Ashley cooked on the open fire, we sat by the lake and wondered what to do. One of my companions had burns on her elbow; another’s foot was numb. We still had seven days of canoe trip left. Four days more of potential storms.

When we started the trip, I had felt like the odd one out. Straining under a heavy pack, mosquitoes worrying my ears, I noticed how skinny and weak I was, how my accent stuck out, how I didn’t really know the correct order of setting up camp. But now, these canoe trip veterans were pulling out. “We can’t go on,” one said. “They can’t force us to go through another storm.”

In the end, over a subdued Kraft macaroni cheese dish, Ashley told us we didn’t have a choice. “It’ll take us days to get to the nearest pick up place, and then you’re almost done.” The next day, we got up, rolled the tent, packed the bags, loaded the canoes, and paddled off. The only sign of what had happened was the burned out tree in the clearing.

We finished the trip after ten days, just as planned. That summer, and for many afterwards, storms reduced me to mute panic. Although I was always sad to say goodbye to my Canadian family, there was a certain relief in arriving back in a drizzly Scotland that almost never had storms.

But I also loved the canoe trip – so much so that when I was 17 I went back to northern Ontario, to spend 23 days in the wilderness. With a group of only slightly older teenagers, and two “adults” (still only about 20), I travelled to deserted holiday camps, dove into clear, blue lakes that were impossible to reach by any other form of transport, and learned how to patch a canoe with peanut butter and duct tape after getting a hole in the rapids. I don’t remember more than a few drops of rain, let alone a single storm. Take that, nature, I thought, as we sang around the embers. I know how to handle myself outdoors. It was only after we pulled up at our final destination, and re-entered civilisation, that I learned the whole area had been on red alert for forest fires.

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