I have encountered a number of extraordinary cloud formations during my years of photographic pursuit, and I have had the good fortune to have a camera with me for nearly all of them. From time to time I will share one of these on my website. I considered doing a single post and adding the best ones all together, but I think it will be far better to be concise, and spare you a longer post than is necessary.
I have never actually seen a tornado, but this is probably the closest I have ever come. I was living in Duluth, Minnesota, and my work office was in Hibbing, some 72 miles to the north (one of Hibbing’s main claims to fame is that it’s the birthplace of Bob Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan). The weather started out rather unremarkable. It was a pretty uniformly gray morning with a low, light-slate-colored cloudy ceiling without any detail to speak of, i.e., no indication of unusual turbulence such as muffins, or anything else. As my first stop for the day would be in the little town of Buhl, I drove up Highway 53 and when I turned west on Hwy 37 as usual, at around 7:30 a.m., I immediately noted that something was out of the ordinary. The hitherto nondescript cloud cover had now developed a definite texture, though with not much detail, and seemed like a solid sheet of uniformly-gray sandpaper stretching out above and before me. In the far distance I could see a very sharply-defined, brighter and slightly orange-tinted area next to the ground. As I approached my next turnoff onto Hwy 25, near the village of Cherry, I became aware that the brighter area was approaching me far faster than my 60 miles-per-hour driving could account for, and the gray ceiling was lifting as it approached and raced along eastward. When I caught my first detailed glimpse of the cloud bank that was approaching, I knew this was no ordinary storm, and I immediately turned around and tried to see if I could outrun its obvious violence. I remember pushing my VW fastback up to at least 85 mph and that I could plainly see the monster coming after me considerably faster than I was driving. So I stopped the car next to the first significant ditch I saw, ready to hop into its relative protection in case the worst should come my way. I remember clearly that the turbulent front was racing in, not like a steam-roller, as I had expected, but rather so that the lowest part—next to the ground—was coming faster than the upper part, and rolling up, more like the brush of a massive carpet sweeper. The analogy that best describes it is that it was as if I were looking across the bottom of a cup of weak tea and someone were pouring cream into it at the far edge so that it billowed up as it approached.
While I waited for it to reach me, I fumbled for the only camera that I had with me. I had left my Pentax Spotmatic at home, but a friend visiting from Germany recently had brought me a gift: A Pentax Auto-110 kit. This was a unique and very fun little camera, and as far as I know, the only one of its kind that was ever produced. It was actually a single-lens reflex camera with interchangeable lenses, but it used the tiny 110-format film, which produced an approximately 0.5 x 0.7-inch negative; I believe that only color negative film was available in this format, but I may be mistaken in this. Exposure and shutter speed were automatically set by the camera; no manual settings were possible, except for focal-length with one of the zoom lenses. I had time for only three frames before I had to put it away and prepare for the storm’s onslaught.
When it came, the front passed over me in only a few seconds, and I felt able to sit it out in the car, though I was ready to bolt for the ditch if it should become too fierce, and then it settled into heavy rain with surprisingly steady, strong wind. I found out later that the storm had continued to build in power and had plowed across the state, bearing some of the strongest straight-line winds that this area had—and to date has—ever seen. Many thousands of trees were snapped off at or near ground level in great areas of forest across the northern part of the state, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. On August 6 it was designated as a Major Disaster Area.
The negatives are now more than 25 years old, and I scanned them only just a few days ago to produce digital images that I could process. The colors have faded somewhat over the years, and I have performed only minimal Photoshop enhancement, to try to restore the colors to the way I remember them. I feel very fortunate in a number of ways—that I was able to weather the storm without injury or damage, that I was able to observe and experience such a truly awesome natural force of nature, and that I had a camera with me and was able to make a modest visual record of this (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime, magnificent event. These photos don’t really do it justice, but I still get shivers up and down my spine when I see them, for I remember the experience as if it were yesterday.
Great photos and fantastic description of how the day unfolded!!!
Not many of my 25-year-old memories still stand out as clearly as this one. I tried to make the narrative more concise, but once I started re-telling the story, it sort of told itself. I think this is the first time I’ve ever told it in such detail. Thank you, Cindy, for the high compliments!
Wow! I would have been scared to death I guess. Great post! :)
It all happened so fast that there wasn’t much time to be scared. I was ready to try to protect myself, but it was too fascinating to retreat into a fetal ball!
I am more partial to really loud and bright thunderstorms. Clouds are what I hope for, especially the dark ones you have here. Love the back story.
Yes, clouds are certainly worthy of lots of attention. No two are ever the same, and no matter how many you’ve seen, they can still surprise us. I never get tired of watching for something unique, and I’m often quite pleasantly surprised.
Wow…those images are quite something. I’ve been through a few very nasty storms (including several that have spawned tornadoes), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that.
I’ve never seen the like, either–and will consider myself more lucky than not if I never do again. It was truly an otherworldly experience, wonderful and terrible at the same time, and I’m happy that I can look back on it with true awe.
That was a great experience, all right. I’m glad that you had it and were able to take at least a few photographs of it.