June 2009 on the Great Plains

We just got back Saturday from our annual storm observing and Great Plains photography vacation. It was amazing — day after day of storms somewhere, in the most prolonged favorable pattern for supercells from any early-mid June period that I can recall. The only bad side was that we chased so much, we didn’t get too many of our usual side diversions, nor much time with Elke’s folks in the Denver area that usually occupy those 3-4 lame storm days between patterns.

Elke got to see a birthday tornado on June 5 from a storm in Wyoming while we were just over the border in Nebraska. The day before I pulled an all-nighter at work (last midnight shift), packed, drove all afternoon to Hays KS, stayed at a Patel Cartel roach motel (more on that experience in a future post), and slept in late. Then with good fortune on the 5th, we somehow made the long drive from Hays to NW of Sidney NE, just in time to see the last several minutes of the Goshen County WY tornado. It was the second time we’ve seen a tornado in one state while we were in another. That storm produced striking structures thereafter until sunset.

Several other chase days followed with assorted severe storms and photogenic skies from southeastern Nebraska to Kansas and Colorado, including a surprise supercell that erupted just a few miles away while we ate dinner in Liberal KS. This storm turned into a small bow echo by sunset, spreading a wild assortment of curved cloud bands across the southwest Kansas sky, intermittently lit from within by diffuse lightning flashes.

That was followed the next day (11th) by an absolutely dazzling storm structure show in the Arkansas Valley of southeast Colorado, where two out of four close-proximity supercells that we observed for hours merged into a stunning singularity.

Then on the 12th, we chased near there again (closer of two potential target areas), only to spend a restless night fielding and making calls because of a nighttime tornado that passed over our home in Norman.

A few more supercell days followed, capped off by a wild chase into central Nebraska on the 17th. After following a late morning supercell that became tornadic in northeast Kansas in early afternoon, we recovered westward to arrive in Buffalo County in time for an amazing supercell that greeted us with several tornadoes and another gorgeous storm structure display.

With three escape options and the car running and ready, we let the largest and longest lived of the tornadoes (near Aurora NE) get within less than a mile, so we could hear the whoosh of it out in the field. When relatively safe to do so (very rare), it is amazing to see a tornado up close, admire its sinuous power and ever-changing form, then back off again and let oneself be captured and enraptured by the full beauty of the whole storm’s vaporous and ephemeral sculpture.

After a bust in Iowa, we turned the lemon into lemonade by thoroughly enjoying Winterset’s classical, down-home Americana (more on that in a future post), John Wayne’s birthplace, and the photogenic covered bridges of Madison County. Elke and I can’t seem to let a Plains vacation pass without quiet time together on the shady front porch of the Spring Hill Ranch house at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. This “tallgrass porch time” has become a custom for us, and we did so again this year, on the way home from Iowa.

Over the next few weeks, work and family time permitting, I’ll try to process and upload many more of the best photos and accounts of our storm experiences, in simple and easy chronological order, to our storm observing BLOG. I’ll also post a few of the best and worst of our non-storm related experiences in future BLOG entries here.

This also was the last chase season for my 10 year old Crown Vic (a.k.a. Squad Car), which now has 227,000 miles and is festooned profusely, on top and both sides, with hail dents. The formerly trusty old steed starts to overheat when 1) the AC is on, 2) it’s in the upper 80s or warmer, and 3) I’m driving uphill. It also has other mainly nuisance troubles that will compel its relegation to teenage driving. This fall, my son gets the car, along with the responsibility for its maintenance, insurance and fuel bills. It, like the Meatwagon before, has served me well.


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