Sunday, May 22, 2011

Storms and lessons learned

This past week hubby and I went to an adults only, burning man inspired, regional burn, (Interfuse).
This is not a post about drunken escapades or drug induced visions of utopia. (I say that because I have relatives who think that's the only thing we do at these events. Hi Grandma!) This is a post about lessons learned from an extended outdoor - no vending - no cabins - camping experience.

To set the stage for this tale, let's start at the beginning. We got to the campgrounds Weds afternoon. Immediately we realized the bag with the hand tools didn't get into the car. So, no mallet for the stakes, and no hatchet. We were coming in from out of state, so we didn't pack wood, our plan was to buy it once we got close to our destination. This didn't turn out as planned, either it was too early in the season or we were looking in the wrong places. So, we had no wood. (With no hand ax, it's probably best we didn't waste money on it.) Now, some of you are probably surprised we didn't turn around at this point and try again another weekend, but that's not how these events work. It's very communal. Both Dave and I were doing multiple volunteer shifts, so we knew we could easily skim wood from those. Also, at it's heart, the event is a burn, there's always lots of fires and lots of wood. We figured we could find a neighbor with fire and do our cooking with them, when we weren't being fed from the volunteer kitchen.
So, weds evening we were both fed from the volunteer kitchen, we got our camp set up and enjoyed a bit of sunlight and a pleasant evening. Thursday was the first official day of the event, and again we both had volunteer shifts, welcoming the new arrivals and making sure that infrastructure was in place to make the event go smoothly. We had cold breakfast, but a warm lunch from the volunteer kitchen and we scavenged wood to make a tasty taco dinner. Thursday evening started with some showers and drizzle, we cleaned up dinner, put out the fire and started to prep for an evening full of old friends and new friends and music and art. Most years the evening entertainment is best observed in wild skimpy outfits, (preferably homemade,) and cold beer in hand. As it was already cold and drizzly, we both opted instead for street clothes and jackets. We did get in some visiting and watched some fire spinners before things really got crazy.
We were halfway around the campground inner circle and the drizzle was picking up, so we cut across the burn space and started to head to our tent, thinking we'd take a break and evaluate whether we wanted to call an early night or find a cozy dome to party in for a little while longer. (Dome refers to the geodesic domes that are common at these types of events.) The decision was made for us when the storm slammed into the campground. We were still a ways away from our tent, but close enough that we kept to that heading instead of branching off to one of the more stable structures. We were both soaked in a couple of seconds. Still calm though, it was just a little wind and rain, right? We were almost to the tent when the worst hit. Crazy wind, almost knocked us off our feet. We were close enough to watch the wind snap poles on the carport that I had help erect for the gate greeters. These were not tent poles, these were aluminum poles a couple inches in diameter, with welded joints, fully staked down with ropes tied to rebar that had been pounded into the ground. The wind then picked up the fire, out of the burn barrel that was stationed at that greeter station, and sent the flaming wood and embers down the road, and straight towards Dave and I!! We turned our backs just in time and luckily escaped injury. We were less than a dozen yards from our tent then and we picked up the pace, passing by our neighbors who were desperately trying to keep their campsite together. We got back to our camp, we could barely see for the rain and wind, we grabbed our camp chairs and went to the tent, to find it had partially collapsed.
Of course, I had left my flashlight and headlamp in the tent, (I didn't want to get them wet) but Dave had his. So, I secured the camp chairs, while Dave went to look at the tent. After stowing them in a corner where they could drip safely, I went to help Dave. Basically, the side that was getting the brunt of the wind had collapsed. (In retrospect, after seeing the damage done to the carport, perhaps collapse was a better thing to do than breaking.) Dave took the lead, and re-staked things while I lent my weight to the lines to try and keep the walls upright while he staked. Teamwork prevailed and the tent was re-staked and held against the wind.
We then spent the next hour holding that side of the tent (from the inside) during strong gusts while simultaneously getting dry and warm and sopping up the puddles as best we could. We sleep on an air mattress, so most of the bedding stayed dry, except where leaks dripped down from the top of the tent. Those were easily dealt with, and we went to bed when the storm calmed, listening to the rain and wind, and relieved to have survived unscathed.
We woke the next morning, with new trouble. Most of our warm gear was soaking wet. We hung up everything in the eaves of the pop-up and put on layers of whatever was dry. Thankfully we had known the chance for rain was high and had packed 4 jackets between the two of us. It was barely adequate though and we resorted to draping our blankets over our shoulders to visit friends. We did make it through the day, although we lost a few of our neighbors who hadn't made it through the storm as well as we did. (Our corner got a lot of the wind as we were at the top of a hill with fewer trees between us and the storm due to the parking lot.) There were others who had to abandon their tents, and got adopted into other camps, because that's how burners roll.
The rest of the event passed without incident. Our soaked jackets eventually dried and we were nice and toasty warm for the effigy burn.

Lessons learned:
-Don't leave all the packing to someone who is also wrangling a 2 year old. This is not to put blame on Dave, this is to say that it's too much to ask of someone, especially when it all has to fit in a tiny car and demands a few repacks to get it all to fit. Another pair of hands and another pair of eyes would probably have caught things like the hand tools.
-Stake down everything. We would have been a lot worse off if we hadn't taken the time to stake down our tent, our rainflap and our pop-up. The carport that collapsed at the gate would have been a bigger disaster if we hadn't secured it to rebar stakes.
- Bring more blankets than you think you'll need.
- Be cautious of fires during a really windy storm. Even if the fire is a dozen yards away.
- Know your gear. Can you put it up in the dark? In the wind? With rain in your eyes? :-D Is your tent better in summer or does it work best in blustery spring and fall? We have a tent that's great in summer, but it leaks a little in heavy rain and doesn't hold in enough heat when it's cold out. We work around those things with layers and blankets and the air mattress to keep us out of drip puddles.
-Know who you're camping with. We would have been a lot more miserable, (and home early) if we hadn't been camping with a group of people who consider us family. Whether it was fire, wood, beer or a warm place to hangout for a few hours, it was awesome to know that our burner family had our back.


Jon Lorisen said...

That's quite a trip! Glad you came through it OK, fire blowing around can be quite scary. Good lesson for the rest of us, thanks for sharing.

I've never been to burning man, didn't realize there were regional events either - was it fun?

Jennie said...

Oh yea! Now, I've never been to Burning Man, (too far away) I've only been to the regional burns. But, I find them really fun.

Art, music, costumes, fire, performances, all adult oriented, all wrapped up in my favorite weekend activity (camping) with emphasis on NOT leaving trash, and on self reliance. Love. It.

I usually volunteer with The Leisure Army, (at burning man they go by Dept of Public Works, DPW) which is a lot of fun for me. We all bring work gloves and boots, and a few hand tools, and we build infrastructure for an 900+ person event, with whatever we have available. When the wind breaks it, we just drink a beer, put on our gloves and fix it, replace it, etc, again with whatever's available. No building codes, no bosses, just - what do we need, what do we have, let's make something work. We also get to see the dirty workings as we're in charge of maintaining the toilets and roads and fuel. Which, granted, not everyone finds as interesting as I do. :-D

If you're ever interested, look up regional burns online, and find one that's north enough to be close to you and check it out! I think you'd like it.

Jon Lorisen said...

They certainly sound fun, we'll have to look into it. We're planning on driving down to Salt Lake City in July (from Edmonton, Alberta), maybe there will be something on somewhere that we can stop in at. If we have time, our plans are pretty casual at this point.

Sanitation is very important, what a great opportunity to learn how to organize a large camp. Could be very useful someday.