News From The Woods - March 5, 2008


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published March 5, 2008

"The weather: Everybody talks about it……"

When you live here in the Ozark Hinterland, you have to learn to read your surroundings. It is a very rural area of the United States, and we all live down here among the peoples and the animals and the woods and the weather. Especially the weather. My house sits literally on top of a 550 mile shoreline lake, part of a U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers project built started in 1941. When my parents moved us here from St. Louis in 1947 the Norfork dam was built, the surrounding countryside was completely flooded, and dirt access county roads and some structures had been built. Private land ownership along the lake shoreline was not possible. The Corps owns from the water's edge (which rises and falls) to a certain elevation above sea level. It is a very big lake, and located only 20 miles from an even larger body of water, Bull Shoals Lake, another Corps Project with an even larger dam. Together the area covered spans a lot of territory. Add Table Rock and Beaver Lake and you have created a line of lakes extending from the western state line of Arkansas all the way to the middle of the state. I know, through living here most of my life, that these lakes have the potential to change local weather patterns.

Sometimes it can be raining cats and dogs in Mountain Home and yet we don't get a drop across the lake in Henderson. I have seen a thousand times when a huge storm front heads through Mountain Home towards the lake at 40 to 50 MPH, only to stall when it hits the warm moist air rising from the lake. On other occasions huge billowing clouds will hover on the Mountain Home side of the lake, gathering moisture from the lake and turning darker by the moment until the clouds can no longer hold all the water and then the storm dumps it all back down in the lake as it passes over. It is very exciting for residents here during storm season. We have our share of violent thunderstorms and even tornadoes. The day of my father's funeral the county experienced one of the worst hailstorms in recent memory. Close friends present at the cemetery commented that "Bottles wasn't ready to go" (that was my dad's nickname) and I believed them.

I've been out driving around gathering footage in the spring and watching a storm front moving in rapidly. In fifteen minutes a clear sunny sky can be replaced by nasty looking green clouds. One time I barely got the top of my convertible up in time for a heavy hailstorm and swirling winds to assault my car as I sat by the side of the road to ride it out because I could not see ten feet in front of the car. Later I heard a tornado passed right through the area I was in.

An even worse place to be during a summer storm is actually out on the lake. Storms can materialize so fast that you can't outrun it in a speed boat. One hot July day I had a bunch of friends out on the lake in our pontoon boat. We were down by the Big "E", a well known spot on the lake lined by towering bluffs. We had pulled the pontoon boat up to shore and had just built a fire to cook hot dogs when I saw the storm approaching from the west, directly at us. It was a solid wall of dark clouds which rose hundreds of feet up into the sky, and moving rapidly in our direction. I called to my pals to break camp and put all their stuff on the boat. In five minutes the wind reached us and whipped around the cove, blowing the fire completely out. The first few large drops began to fall as we jumped on the boat, started the motor and headed straight out to face the storm. We had little choice as if we would have stayed in the cove the winds would have destroyed the aluminum pontoons underneath us by crushing us up against the rocks below the cliff. I got almost fifty yards out when the main body of wind and rain hit us. The rain was coming down in sheets and in a horizontal direction. Waves began to break over the bow of the pontoon boat and I called for everyone to come to the back of the boat in an attempt to keep the bow above the water line. As the storm intensified I realized we were making no headway and it appeared we were being pushed backward towards the cliffs. The wind was treating the canvas top as a sail. The 80 HP Mercury outboard engine was straining at full throttle against the forces of nature. Water was now freely running over the top of the carpeted floor which covered the deck of the boat. White caps broke over the bow and huge waves swept all the chairs and coolers towards the stern of the boat. I was really scared by that time but kept a poker face as I didn't want to alarm anyone more than they already were. The storm passed in fifteen minutes and when the wind died down and I could see shore again, I realized we had lost considerable "ground" and our boat was only about fifty feet from being dashed on the rocks. I wondered out loud what we would have done if the motor had died. It was a close call, and we wouldn't have been the first people to lose their lives on the lake during a violent storm.

On another occasion I was down lake about six miles from my dock. The little craft I owned at the time was a wonderful toy. It was a 12-foot speedboat which would barely hold four passengers. I had an old 80 HP Evinrude on the back which almost dwarfed the small craft. The boat's center of gravity was so short than a skeg was fastened to the bottom of the boat. Without the skeg the boat simply would not turn. If you turned the wheel it would continue in a more or less straight line. I painted the boat white with a thin red pin stripe down the sides. There was no windshield and the only thing on the front was a large mirror I used when water skiing. It was a very sleek looking craft and the 80 HP engine could propel it in calm water to around 50 MPH, which is really travelling when you are that low in the water. On this particular late summer afternoon the forecast was for scattered thundershowers. The lake is so large that you could be at one end and a large thunderstorm could be pelting the lake at the opposite end and you wouldn't even know it unless you looked at the dark clouds on the horizon. I saw a storm building up, the thermals carrying the clouds and moisture straight up into an ominous anvil-looking monster cloud. I thought I could reach my dock before the storm hit, but I miscalculated. When I reached the largest and widest part of the lake, the oncoming wind was already churning up 3 and 4 foot whitecaps. The wind was ferocious and a wall of green water in the form of heavy sheets of rain was advancing behind the wind. I was running at about half-throttle as I cleared the last point of land that had been sheltering me from the brunt of the wind, when suddenly a solid wall of water and wind hit me full force. A huge wave broke over the bow of my boat causing gallons of water to rush right down into the inside of the craft. I knew the boat could sink if this continued, and so I attempted to take the waves at an angle. I looked back and realized the only safe place would be behind the peninsula I had just cleared. But if I turned around and made for the cover behind it I would still have no real shelter from the incoming thunderstorm. Even if I crawled up under the bow of the boat, it might take on enough water to cause the boat to founder.

I decided to continue on my present course, and was at about the halfway point between the two sides of the lake. The main channel at this point was about ¼ mile wide. My decision to transverse the remaining distance at an angle was too slow and I knew if I didn't do something else the storm would hit me just before reaching the far side of the main body of lake. I realized then my only chance to make it would be to go full throttle and ride along the tops of the big waves. I made a momentary resolve to hang on tight and I hit the throttle, sending the small boat surging into the maelstrom. The swells were perhaps 8 feet apart, so I devised a method of riding down the preceding swell and then slacking off the throttle just a bit allowing the bow to follow the natural down-slope of the wave. Then just as the next crest approached I would throttle it back up and zoom over the top of the wave. If I was going too fast the boat would carry me too far over the crest and the bottom of the boat would smack right on top of the next rising wave. At that rate it felt like the hull was ripping apart underneath my feet. Each time it came down I could hear a crack emanating from the hull bottom. This tactic clearly was not working. My only recourse was to go full throttle and risk it all to reach the far shoreline. As I hit the crests doing about 35 or 40 MPH I endured a constant spine-jarring crunch with every wave, but at least I was making a little headway as the storm front had now advanced to within a mile of my location. It took maybe 8 more minutes to reach the other side against all the wind, and a couple of times as I erupted over the crest of a large wave, the wind caught under my hull and lifted me up out of the water. There was a moment there where I thought the wind would flip the boat over on top of me and I did a second check on the straps holding my ski vest in place with one hand while steering with the other. And then, in an instant the wind died down as I made the point off the opposite shore, sheltering me from the heavy wave action. I sat there for a moment getting my breath and making sure I wasn't sinking, then I headed out around the point and back into the channel. However, as I was very close to the shore the wave action didn't have enough length or depth to churn up large waves. There were still whitecaps but I could drive through them without fear of capsizing. Then the rain started. I was kind of glad because the worst of the wind had already pushed through the area, and now all I had to contend with was a driving rain in my face. Remember I had no windshield. While most of the time I liked the wind in my face, but just this once I wished I'd have put a windshield on the boat. I drove straight through the storm for about ten minutes, spending much of the time laying down across the front seats and steering by watching my angle adjacent to the shoreline. Occasionally I popped my head up for direction and to make sure there weren't any obstructions in the churning water, and continued on until I rounded the point to the cove where our boat dock was located. I pulled into the slip pretty fast and had to hit reverse pretty hard to keep the bow from slamming against the metal plate at the front of the slip. The motor screamed as I slammed it into reverse and gunned it, resulting in the boat coming to a complete halt just inches away from the end of the slip. I shut off the motor and sat there for a moment, listening to the rain hitting the aluminum roof of the dock and watching the storm move on down the lake to where I had started from. I took stock of my boat. There was a good two inches of water inside the hull, my feet resting in water up to my ankles. The gas tank had come lose from its resting place because of all the slamming around, and was floating in the space between the back seats. My paddle was also floating in the water. And I was alive !

The storm blew through fast and was over in about ten minutes as far as my present location. Further down the lake it would be nasty but up lake here the dark cloud was receding. I started up the engine and slowly backed the boat out, then opened up the throttle and planed the hull off in the water. I slowed down to as slow as the boat would go and still be planning on top of the surface of the lake, and then inched my way to the seat behind the drivers seat. Once I got there I located the tightening knob on the underside of the steering wheel. The knob is designed to increase the tension on the wheel, making it easier or harder to turn it. I tightened it up all the way, which resulted in king up the steering. As the boat travelled along in a straight line I quickly reached back under the stern and thrust my hand down into the water up to my elbows, searching for the drain plug in the hull. I finally found it and grabbing the ring I twisted and pulled until the plug came out. I held on to that plug like my life depended on it, which it did because the one place you don't want to be in a boat with no drain plug is in the middle of the lake. This is not a recommended practice as the plug was designed mainly for when the boat was trailered and you wanted to drain all the water out of it. But I knew if I continued to move forward with the boat planed out, the water would naturally be forced to run out of the drain hole in the hull and out the back. It took almost five full minutes of driving around to empty the boat of all the water it had taken on in the storm. The next trick was to replace the plug, which was a bit more difficult of a task. I had to get some force behind my thrust as I inserted the plug back into the now dry hole. I pushed as hard as I could and it popped in. Then I clamped the ring down, causing the inside of the rubber plug to expand as it was designed to do. Once the drain plug was secure I moved back up to the pilot's position and loosened the scotch wheel on the steering wheel. I pulled back into the dock and secured the boat in the slip and drove back to the house, where I contemplated my experience, vowing never again to wait too long before making crucial decisions about the weather on the lake.

I still use the lake as much as possible today. My family, especially our son Robert is a real lake fanatic, just like his father. I hope to be around long enough to impart some of those valuable lessons I learned as a young man all by himself out in the lake during stormy season, which lately seems to be more erratic than in the past. I suppose that's due to global warming and whatever else mankind s has conjured up to ruin our planet, but that's yet another story…………...

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