Baker's Double (Baker, Ekalaka Montana)

21 June 2015

Today’s story begins, as seems to be a trend, with a wake-up in Walmart of Rapid City, a place that was in danger of starting to feel like home. Not that I mind places over here feeling like home, but if one were going to, I’d rather it was somewhere nicer than a Walmart carpark.

As I write this sitting in sunlit rural tranquility, outside our motel in a quiet Montana town called Ekalaka (an anglicised spelling of the Indian for ‘Hole in Rock’) the last day or so since that Walmart carpark seem something of a surreal blur of events. With a blur of seemingly unrelatable experiences that could only really be connected by the story of our day. So it begins, as I say, back in Rapid city.

The forecast was solid from the outset. We knew that there was, as is often the case with decent levels of atmospheric instability, a good chance that storms would evolve fairly rapidly from discrete supercells into big clusters or linear storms. But chances looked good that the storms would spend some time as supercells, and that if they did, we had a textbook setup for them being close to the ground with lots of rotation over rural landscapes. Perfect.

We initially headed to Bowman in North Dakota. This was new territory and probably somewhat east of where anything would start, but we wanted to make sure we were ahead of the storms so we could use whatever roads available to us to position on them. We felt we had enough time, and that was a good judgement. By the time we arrived in Bowman there were storms firing to go after. Pretty much right on plan, they were heading our way, and in places we could reach via the road options we had, so after a very quick lunch we headed out to meet them.

On our way we passed through the town of Baker which had a useful prompt on the road out, saying “no gas for 84 miles”. This wasn’t because we were heading into space, but they refer to petrol as gas here, so we might need a fill up. This was a prompt to realise we could easily not have another chance to stop for a few hours, so after an about turn we found the one out of three gas stations in town that was open and filled up. Our car may only do 26mpg (about 29mpg in English terms) but it has a 25 gallon tank which means we have a 640 mile range on it once full, so we were set.

We reached a great location to watch the storm roll towards us about 10 miles west. I set up a time lapse and we watched it become ever better organised as it neared.

Initial Anvil

The lightning from the storm became gradually more frequent. After a remarkable number of close strikes over the last few days I suddenly felt pretty vulnerable as I realised we’d made ourselves the highest point for about half a mile in any direction. The view was good, but the nagging feeling that something could suddenly turn your world into a explosion of torment, and you’d only even be able to perceive it in the immediate aftermath (assuming you’re not one of the slightly more unlucky ones) can be spine tingling in anything but an overconfident frame of mind. Instincts of self preservation aren’t ones I’m in a habit of trying to overcome, so getting packed up and back into the relative safety of the car seemed prudent. As the rain started to fall we chose a route...back to Baker and south, then we were going to have to gamble on a few miles of dirt road to keep position on the storm.

We were in fairly good time ahead of the storm but even so the large (by local standards) area of very low speed limits was pretty painful as we crawled through town and started heading south as the storm’s leading edge headed our way. Finally the speed limits started increasing, 25 to 35, to 45 then 70 and we’re off. A few miles south and we’re below the line of the storm which should now be passing to our north. The landscape is somewhat hilly but the vantage point is excellent and we have good views of the storm’s core.

Hills and storm south of Baker, Montana

We can see some classic supercell characteristics including precipitation core, shelf, RFD and decent rotation - which isn’t visible on radar. As the storm propagates a little towards us, bringing rain with it, we pull away as I note some really strong rotation wrapping in rain. Somewhat disappointed that this could mean any tornados are now occluded we head south to get out of the rain, stop for a few more shots.

Suprecell Butte

Then again move on a little further south. We’re about another half mile down the road...

“Timbo, it’s made a, sort of, white thing. You should have a look.”

I can’t see it because I’m driving and on the other side, but pull over as soon as I can because this white thing sounds interesting. We are probably as tornado-skeptic as anyone who gives a damn about what is or isn’t a tornado in the first place. As such when I stopped all I could think was, well that is quite a white thing. We stammer our way to a diagnosis of: that is probably a tornado, while snapping away with completely the wrong kit on the camera, but no time to mess about changing lenses. As it morphs I can see without any doubt that it definitely is a tornado, brightly lit by the sun, beaming down from beyond the periphery of the storm’s anvil, so we report it (as this is an unusual situation where there were no other chasers on the road we were on) and watch as it ‘ropes out’ and fades. Absolutely amazing sight of a harmless but pretty big tornado, over the hills. This is turning out to be quite a storm.

Tornado south of Baker, Montana

Tornado from wider angle south of Baker, Montana

Once the tornado is faded we decide on a plan to stay with it. We head south a bit and pull into a road to get a couple more shots. The road is gravel but, as it appears, the road looks viable for staying in fairly ideal position on the storm, so long as it’s fast enough. Screw it. We are really cautious about taking gravel roads, but this looks perfect. The position will be good and, as a backup, if something goes wrong then the storm will be moving away from us to our north, so we’ll just deal with it and shouldn’t be at any risk from the weather.

The road is pretty stony. A little unnervingly stony. We don’t drive many gravel roads but we drive enough to have a feel for the character of different surfaces you can expect. Sandy, gravel or the real nasty ones of red sand or clay (risk those if there’s any water around at your peril) but this one is really stoney. Small shard-like bits of shale abound. For much of the road, however, there are two well worn tyre tracks which aren’t too rough, so I keep the car in these and we head on. About 10 miles in and we hit our first right turn with the southwest part of the slowly growing storm directly ahead of us, looking raggedy, low and ominous. As I look to the right towards our new road a bird lifts its wings from a tree immediately in my eyeline and takes to the sky. The brilliant white face of my favourite, but that I’ve only seen once in before in the wild, an owl, looks straight at us for a couple of beats of the wings, turns, and flies away. A tornado and an owl, both within a heartbeat in terms of the whole trip. Loving it.

“Ding ding ding”

What is the car beeping about now? Modern cars do love a good beep. And when you pretty much live in one, constantly behaving in ways it doesn’t like, such as opening the door without removing the car’s battery, or nowadays just getting out of the car with keys in your pocket, you get beeped at a lot. So, young Jeep, what’s this one? The beep draws my attention to a new picture displayed on the digital dashboard. The picture is of the car and specifically its wheels. The back left one is red. 15psi, and apparently we should inflate it. Well, Jeep, if you’re so smart you might recommend that we do more than that, being as it’s going to need to be reinflated every mile or so. So we have a flat tyre. Chase pretty much over, but it was a risk we took.

It only took about 20 minutes to change it. Mostly hampered by having to move out of our house to get at the spare, then move back in afterwards. Now we had to decide on the safest route back. The road we were now on was a lot smoother, but it would be another 25 miles of unpaved roads to get to tarmac again. Going back was only half as many miles, but that road was almost certainly the thing that had done for the tyre. We chose onwards.

The road was varied. At times smooth fine gravel, at times bigger rocks with some mud. Always keeping an eye on the tyre pressure monitor. The spare was reporting as dropping in pressure. Seemed unlikely but I wasn’t going to waste any potentially precious time by stopping and checking, unless handling changed a lot we had to keep trying to get nearer to a town.

About half way to tarmac and a new wheel went red. Now we are in it. 12 miles to go until tarmac and the front right tyre is at 20psi.

Tyre Pressure

This is the nightmare scenario that relatively cautious chasers like us keep in mind when decision making about going on unpaved roads. Fortunately, we had only made this decision with the knowledge that the storm wouldn’t be bearing down on us if this were to happen. But seriously...two punctures?

We kept the best speed we safely could as the tyre got flatter. By the time we, with great relief, got to tarmac the handling of the car was decidedly lacking, but the spare wasn’t going flat (probably reported as such because it was a space saver so a little smaller...not a great design!), and the new flat still had just 8psi to allow us to limp it into Ekalaka, drop our stuff off outside a motel where we took the last room, and dump the car outside the nicely named “Fruit Service Centre”, now with 5psi, to wait for them to open in the morning.

It had been a classic day of sights and lessons, unforgettable in many ways, and it wasn’t troubling to watch the ongoing storm fest enjoyed by our fellow chasers as the storm progressed to the east, our day had been crazy enough.

We continued to watch its progress on radar, and noted a new storm that had popped up to our northwest. It looked pretty organised and looked like it would be passing very close to our north. This had not been on the agenda, but here we were, a mere jog from some incoming storms, making the lack of car irrelevant. We ran up the road from the motel to the nearest brow of a hill. The half mile distance coupled with a hundred foot climb was surprisingly hard at the 4500 foot altitude of the town. We got there treated to the site of the storm’s forward flank surging over the land to our north, and deeming it necessary to eject a massive shelf cloud in our direction. It was a totally bizarre situation, we were being hit by a gust front with an ominous shelf cloud detached from the main storm, at the last stages of dusk, with a backdrop of lightning, while a 5 minute run from any shelter. Not that we necessarily needed shelter, but typically when we see the gusting winds picking up dust and bending trees around us we have the car to jump in. The combined feelings of liberation from our vehicle and ‘oh my god we’re being gust-fronted’ was surreal unique in our storm chasing experience. It was both hilarious and dramatic, and exactly the sort of thing you couldn’t ever hope to organise.

Sunset Roll Cloud

Roll Cloud And Sunset 2

We got back to town with dust swirling, trees swaying, a little rain but mostly just laughing at the outrageously improbable day we were having.

End Of Day Running Back In Ekalaka

For the last time of the day we sat down to go through our photos and watched on radar as, bizarrely, the roll cloud that had provided our entertainment became a new storm which proceeded to become a monster line that dragged itself through South Dakota.

The juxtaposition of all this hecticness would come the next morning, heading back to the now open-for-business “Fruit Service Center” where any hecticness would have to stop and we could get the car fixed at a rural pace. The till of the gas station, tyre, car, truck, just-about-anything-mechanical center was set up like a bar, with high chairs around it. Then some overflow seating of some old desk chairs floated around for those who preferred the lower seating. Various clusters of local characters turned up, had a chat, bought a thing or two, asked Randy (the owner) to order part 12938197c from some manufacturer or other, had a coffee, talked about the weather (with me and each other) and went on their way for the fresh week. It was a rare opportunity for me to get a feel for the community in a rural high plains town, and I could not detect a hint of negativity between anyone, everyone seemed to be working in an easygoing way that you would hope or imagine that they might. It rounded off a bizarre 24 hours that I have no doubt we will always remember.

Seriously though, 2 punctures?


SPC Day 1 Weather Outlook as at 06:00UTC (01:00 Central Time the night before)

SPC 01:00UTC day 1 forecast for Sun June 2015

SPC Day 1 Weather Reports for the day.

SPC storm reports for Sun June 2015

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