ON THE RED RIVER, Manitoba - We thought we’d taken the necessary precautions. We’d read the weather forecast, watched the radar online and delayed our departure for an afternoon catfish excursion on the Red River near Selkirk, Manitoba.
Besides, another cup of coffee in the dryness of my Canadian friends’ spacious house in the woods was a lot more appealing than launching a boat in the rain that poured down most of the morning.
The rain was going to pass, the forecast said, and the skies would clear after lunch.
That seemed to be the case a couple of Sundays ago, when two of us launched at the public boat access in Selkirk. I’d made the trip north not to specifically go fishing, but to take in a fish fry my Canadian friends host every year. More than 50 people had turned out the previous afternoon for the occasion, which included enough commercially-bought Lake Winnipeg walleye to feed a small town.
The weather had cooperated, as well.
Early the next afternoon, the clouds lingered but the rain had stopped as we fished our way upstream from Selkirk. We’d give a spot 20 or minutes or so and pull anchor and move on if we hadn’t caught a fish.
About three hours and seven big catfish into the afternoon, we’d fished our way to within about a mile of the St. Andrews Lock and Dam some eight miles upstream. The weather was unsettled, the fishing not fast and furious, but it was good enough to keep us interested.
Things were about to get a lot more interesting.
The rumbling was almost undetectable, at first, but then we saw the dark clouds billowing over the tall trees on the west side of the river.
Somebody, apparently, forgot to tell the storm that it wasn’t in the forecast.
As bad luck would have it, we were as far from the boat ramp as we’d been all day when the storm hit. That left us two choices: Hunker down and ride out the storm or pull anchor and make a beeline for the landing.
Taking immediate shelter - the recommended course of action during a thunderstorm - wasn’t an option. It’s a situation anyone who spends time outdoors inevitably encounters.
Foolish though it might have been in hindsight, we decided lightning would have a tougher time hitting a moving target. My Canadian friend tucked the boat in as close to shore as he dared - safer there than in the middle of the river, we figured - and throttled up his 60-horse Mercury as fast as it would go.
The rain fell so hard it was difficult to see where our surroundings ended and the river began.
I’ve been caught in lightning storms before and all of the most memorable - make that scariest - have occurred in Canada several miles from shelter. On one occasion, the bolt of lightning that hit a few hundred yards in front of the boat sent us scrambling to shore, where we huddled in the trees amid an onslaught of mosquitoes.
The storm passed quickly, and we were back on the water within 15 minutes.
I was thinking about that encounter a couple of Sundays ago when I saw the bright flash, followed a millisecond later by a clap of thunder so loud it overpowered even the rain and the sound of the outboard.
“That one was close, eh?” I surely would have said if I was Canadian.
Gambling isn’t a good idea where lightning is concerned, but by the time the city of Selkirk appeared in front of us, we’d driven out of the storm and the sky to the west was clear. It reminded me of a line a bush pilot once used when we pulled up to the dock at a fly-in fishing camp north of Red Lake, Ont.
“Once again, we cheat death,” he said.
There was nothing particularly scary about that floatplane flight so I’m sure the pilot was joking. It might, however, apply to the recent lightning encounter on the Red, which we’ll be talking about many years from now.
And any time you can talk about coming out of a lightning storm in one piece, you’ve got no complaints in my world.