Storm Chase Log: "Canada or Bust" 6/25-6/26/12 2491 Miles

I have always wanted to chase tornadoes in Canada. After seeing some of the amazing footage that fellow storm chaser Reed Timmer has captured in the past, I have always hoped for the opportunity to take the trip North. There have been many obstacles to chasing North of the border such as a passport, the distance, data coverage, timing, forecasting. Just to name a few. After watching a low pressure system build on off the coast of Oregon in late June, I knew that the high pressure ridge over the central United States would push this low directly towards Saskatchewan Canada. This would be my chance for my first international storm chase. Storm chasing requires a great deal of sacrifice, persistence and luck. The 2012 chase season was very challenging due to a high pressure ridge that planted itself over the great plains in late April. This ridge was pushing all moisture to the East and all low pressure systems to the North. Both ingredients are required for any sort of high quality and picturesque storms. So, needless to say..great chase days were few and far between in 2012. So, I was itching for one more shot at a quality chase day. After reviewing models around June 24th, I determined that a low pressure system off the coast of Washington was poised to crash into major moisture and instability North of Montana and South of Regina Canada. I pulled the trigger and made the decision to head to Canada. Initially I was going to make this trek alone, but I was able to talk my chase partner Hannah (my wife) into going with me. This was going to be a very challenging chase due to the fact that I had to be back in Pueblo on 6/27 for a business meeting on 48 hours with no sleep. Chasing storms requires sacrifice and sometimes that sacrifice is sleep.

Hannah and I gathered the gear, organized a baby sitter for the kids and started heading North from Pueblo. We dropped our kids off at grandmas house in Denver on the afternoon of 6/25 and continued North towards Wyoming. We made our way through Wyoming and arrived at the Black Hills in South Dakota just as the sun was setting. Perfect timing, as there is no better place to see a sunset than the Black Hills. After taking a few shots of the beautiful scenery, we continued North winding out of the Black Hills and crossing back over into Montana. One of the my favorite things about storm chasing is the long drives, sometimes very late at night. I don't know why this pleases me so much. Being alone on a country road with nothing but you and the night sky. It is really a peaceful feeling. The excitement of the storm chase ahead of you is always a great feeling as well. Will this be an epic day? Will it be a bust? There is no way to know for sure until you get there.

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Black Hills Sunset

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The long drive North across Montana was rather uneventful and I always like the challenge of trying to keep Hannah awake with me on the journey. We arrived at the Canadian border North of Plentywood Montana at dusk on 6/26. I was VERY bleary eyed after driving for 12 hours, and this would pose a challenge with the border agents. We pulled into the border crossing station and were waved in by the Canadian border agents. Up to this point I had never crossed an international border by vehicle and I honestly did not know what to expect. I assumed you show your passport and they welcome you in with open arms. Well, I was incorrect. I am not sure if it was because my eyes were red as a turnip (due to no sleep), the way I was dressed or all of my chase gear in the car, but the border agents were not happy with us from the get go. "Step out of your car sir" was the first words from his mouth. Hannah and I complied. He began to ask us questions. "What are you doing visiting our province". In my stupor I said "taking pictures. I don't know why I did not say we were storm chasers, but for some reason I with held this information. The border agent asked "where are you from?". I said "Colorado". He said, "Why would anyone drive 12 hours to take pictures?". I said "good question". After a few more questions the border agents requested to search our car. I complied as I did not have anything to hide. After searching for a few minutes the border agent emerged from my car with my cell phone. He then requested to search my phone. I said "Ok..I guess". After searching my phone for a few minutes he said "who is this Greg Johnson you have as a contact?" I said "he is a friend from Facebook?" You may or may not know Greg, but he is a storm chaser from Canada and someone I only know via Facebook. The border agent than looked at me suspiciously and said "kind of strange that you drive 12 hours to take pictures and you have a contact from Regina Canada in your phone". Hannah and I looked at each other thinking..what is going on here? I explained to the border agent that this was just a coincidence and we really were here to take pictures. After a few more odd looks and awkward moments they agreed to let us enter. A very strange experience, but we were in Canada and on our way.

We arrived in Regina mid morning and stopped at a gas station to collect our thoughts, get a few moments rest and see what sort of data coverage we would be getting from Verizon. I called Verizon (I should have done this prior to leaving) and went over our options and found out that this could be a very expensive due to Verizon's international data coverage plans. Nothing I could do at this point, I would be forced to use very limited data and try my hand at old school chasing. We took a short nap, got some food and borrowed an internet connection from a fast food joint near by. Looking at the morning models I determined that everything was in place for tornadic storms by mid afternoon. I saw the low pressure system was moving North out of Montana and storms were already developing South of the Canadian border. All of the numbers South of our current location were off the charts. Very high CAPE, modest to high shear, ample moisture and the temperature was already near 70 degrees at 11am. Now we just needed to wait for the low to bring the lift we needed for storms to fire.

Around 1 pm a few interesting storms began to develop around Swift Current Canada about 50 miles to our West. These storms would be advancing North East into an environment that was ripe for super cells. I was nervous about pursuing these storms as I knew they were ahead of the main forcing form the low that was still positioned South. With that being said, I was bored and anxious so I bit on these early storms and we headed West towards Swift Current. As we were driving I discovered that my wireless coverage was awful at best, and this sealed my fate regarding any data while chasing. We arrived in Swift Current and intercepted our first cell which was already tornado warned. WOW! This storm had some incredible rotation to it. We were directly under the base and watched the clouds dance above us. For a moment, I thought we were going to get a tornado much earlier than I anticipated. The forcing was not strong enough to support the dynamics and this earlier storm died as quickly as it popped up. Boy was this a good thing, I shot several photos of this initial storm WITHOUT MY MEMORY CARD. Doh!! So we headed back towards Moose Jaw Canada to await the center of the low pressure system.

Just as we arrived in Moose Jaw around 4 pm the center of the low pressure system arrived as well. Storms began to fire to the SW of Moose Jaw. I knew this was it. Time to bag a Canadian tornado. We determined we needed to move back West again to get into position for this cell. Another challenge presented itself. I forgot to purchase a road map for this area of Canada and we had no data. We were already chasing based on what we could see and now we were blind as far as roads. Yikes! We turned left on a road that looked promising and would position us on the SW side of the cell. The storm was growing quickly. We made it within a mile of the storm and BAM!! Dead end. Ugg..this was trouble. I could see the updraft strengthening and even could make out a small wall cloud. We needed to re-position and do it fast. We backtracked as small hail began to drop on us. We made it back to the Trans-Canadian highway and headed back East to find another North/South road. Like magic a road appeared that looked to deliver us right underneath the wall cloud that was growing right before our eyes. I made a hard right turn and we headed South.

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Tornado Canada

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As we arrived near the base of the storm a large hill obscured our view of the wall cloud and I made a split decision to take a Right to position ourselves with a better view. Just as we arrived at the top of the hill a beautiful tornado began to drop from the wall cloud. What a beauty!! My first international tornado with no radar and no map. What a victory. As we sat in amazement, we noticed the storm looked to be making more of a right turn. Supercells tend to do this as they strengthen and this was not a surprise to me. What was more of a concern was the limited road knowledge I had and the fact we had no map. Time to get back in the car move.

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We jumped back in the car and backtracked down the hill. We took a moment to re-evaluate as we could see the first tornado was roping back up into the parent cloud. We could also see the the RFD (rear flank downdraft) was kicking and forming a huge dry slot ahead of the original wall cloud. This thing was recycling and was about to drop another tornado very close to our current location. This wall cloud was a beast. The motion and rotation on this thing was breath-taking. I did not have much time to admire it as another tornado was imminent.

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Wall Cloud Canada

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"There it goes" shouted Hannah. I look back and a stout cone funnel was descending as I drove down the dirt road hoping for a North South option to get us out from under this beast. Visually I could see that the road ahead of us either ended (not good) or turned to the North. As we approached I let out a sigh of relief as the road headed North.

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We positioned ourselves out of danger and got out of the car to take in the beauty of mother natures most awe inspiring creation. This incredible second tornado danced over the prairie. This tornado was longer lived and stronger than the first. The tornado narrowly missed a farm and sped past a line of grain silo's. It was very picturesque tornado as the very base of the condensation funnel was not visible at times but the debris could be seen swirling on the ground.

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Canada Tornado

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The tornado lasted around 15 minutes and picked up speed while becoming more of a cone as it sped along.

As the second tornado neared the end of its life the RFD kicked in again and created and incredible cloud formation as the dry slot punched ahead of the tornado creating a shield like formation. I don't care how many tornadoes you have seen, each one is different and you cant wait to see the next one. We watched as the second tornado weakened and roped out in front of us. The RFD kicked in again and a third wall cloud developed We were certain that our third tornado was on its way. The storm tried hard but the juice was gone. Two tornadoes was all mother nature had for us today. What a chase!! I laid everything on the line driving thousands of miles to Canada and it sure paid off. We followed the storm to the North past Regina. We noticed that a massive squall line had formed along the cold front that was moving East. This line of storms was huge. We waited for a direct hit from the squall line North of Regina. Two tornadoes and now we were being treated to a beautiful squall line. As the sun was setting the line of storms developed an amazing purple tone just before being blasting us with wind,rain and hail. What a treat!After the squall line past us we began to make the long trek home. As we drove South a beautiful mammatus cloud display showed itself on the back side of the squall line we just intercepted. Now the only thing missing on this incredible chase was lightning, but I had no time to stick around past dark as I was due back in Pueblo the next day for a business meeting.

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Canada Tornado

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We crossed back into the United States late on the evening of 6/26 and began the long road back from Montana to Colorado. This was by far one of my most memorable chases for a number of reasons. 1. My first international tornadoes. 2. We made a successful intercept with no radar data or GPS. 3. My wife was able to join me. 4. I made it back to my business meeting just in time. As we crossed Wyoming the sun was rising and I was able to capture a great image. The colors were incredible and I knew that forest fires that were burning in Colorado had to be bad because of the smoke in the atmosphere. We turned on the news and were sad to hear that the Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs had exploded overnight and destroyed an entire neighborhood. I really hope that 2013 brings more moisture to the central plains so we can avoid these types of destructive and deadly fires. We arrived in Pueblo tired but happy. Another successful storm chasing adventure was in the books. One that I will never forget.