Storm-Watching Vacations: The Lure of Nature’s Power

Tornadoes and coastal storms often wreak havoc, but witnessing them can be thrilling

The sky is sunny along the coastline, and that's bumming me out.
I realize it's unusual to wish for bad weather on a vacation trip, but that’s what has inspired my husband, Tom, and me to visit the Oregon coast for five days in March. We’re here for wind and sideways rain and enormous waves rolling in from the Pacific Ocean. We’re here to experience a coastal storm.
Storm watching has caught on as winter pastime on this rocky coastline. Even on calm days, the Pacific is trecherous: Signs along coastal trails warn of “sneaker waves”  — sudden large waves that can sweep people away. And on stormy days, the waves don’t sneak; they crash and churn and sometime overwhelm those who underestimate their power.
“Just about every year people there are washed away by a storm,” says David Posalski, owner of Oregon Storm Tours.

Posalski also owns the Tsunami Sandwich Company, in the resort town of Seaside, which bustles during the summer but in winter is fairly quiet.

“I’ve always been a weather geek,” says Posalski, who enjoyed chasing storms in South Dakota before he moved to Oregon 13 years ago. Stocky and neatly goateed, he launched his small tour operation to help pump up the region’s winter business by luring in day-trippers from Portland, some 80 miles to the east, during the height of storm season. 

I had visited the Oregon coast earlier in the summer, where I stayed in Yachats at the Overleaf Lodge, a hotel just steps away from the wave-pounded coast. All of its rooms have an ocean view, and the hotel brochure boasted that the location was great for storm watching in winter. That was all I needed to hear. Spectacular vistas, the appeal of off-season travel (all of the beauty, none of the crowds) and the opportunity to witness nature’s power made me know that I wanted to come back when the weather was bad.

Although I understand the havoc they can wreak, I find big storms thrilling. Mother Nature’s libido, I call them. In Texas, my home state, you can smell a storm coming: The air feels charged, the sky darkens, clouds do crazy things. The dog paces nervously; birds chatter and shrill their way to cover, where they fall silent. Thunder rolls, grumbles and crashes. Then there's lightning, rain or hail. If I’m home, I sit on my porch to watch — unless the tornado sirens go off, in which case I retreat to a closet. 

A good storm is at once humbling and exhilarating. There's no stopping it; you can only ride it out. It reminds me how small we really are in this huge universe. As a metaphor for life, a passing storm may not be soothing, but it is apt.

If Tom and I had had any control over nature, we would have scheduled some whopper storms for our Oregon trip. But we were helpless in the face of sunshine and the occasional drizzle. After Yachats, we headed north to elegant Cannon Beach, where we booked another room with a view and a fireplace at The Ocean Lodge.

From there we drove further north to Seaside to meet Posalski, but there was no point in taking a tour on this gray but calm day. Even so, we noted his suggestions and then visited some of the places he takes his tour groups to observe the ocean. The Astoria Column, an 80-year-old, 125-foot-tall beacon with an observation deck, turned out to be closed, but The South Jetty observation platform was open as it always is.

The South Jetty is located in Fort Stevens, a military installation that dates back to the Civil War, and is now a 4,000-acre state-run park. The observation platform is perched atop rocks where the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean meet. More than 2,000 vessels have met their end here, earning the intersection the name Graveyard of the Pacific. Tempestuous waters batter the jetty violently, and even on this clear day, I was fearful for a man who had climbed atop the massive wood structure.

Back in Cannon Beach, we walked to an overlook at lovely Ecola State Park, where we stood exposed to the wind and took pictures of waves and rocks below.

“You get this huge grin on your face any time we do this kind of thing,” my husband said to me. Yes, even without a bona fide storm, wind and waves get my blood up.

The next morning, our last, we finally scored. A storm blew in, a big one — about a seven on a 10-point scale, Posalski told me later. And so my husband and I put on our rain gear and returned to Ecola State Park. After we pulled into a parking space, I leapt out of the car —  the wind nearly blowing me off my feet.

I immediately abandoned my plan to return to the overlook — it was obviously too dangerous, and I couldn’t have made it anyway. As I stepped a couple of feet from the car, a sudden gust had me lunging for the door handle to steady myself. Across the parking lot, a man hung on to the luggage rack on top of his car, clearly as exhilarated as I. (Our respective spouses stayed inside the cars, shaking their heads.) When another gust of wind almost took me, I leapt back into the car.

And yes, I had that huge grin on my face. I was loving it.

Chasing Twisters: An Inland Adventure

Despite my love of storms, I'm not so sure I'd be game to chase twisters. But lots of people are. As storm watching season winds down on the Pacific Coast, it's just gearing up in my neck of the woods.

Although tornadoes aren't to be taken lightly, many companies offer storm-chasing tours, mainly in the spring. Most of these tours sell out, so you have to book up to a year in advance. They usually last about a week, and cost roughly $300 a day per person. Still, there's a fair chance you'll get what you pay for: Silver Lining Tours of Spring, Tex., boasts having chased 306 tornadoes in its nine years of operation. 

But choose wisely, says Charles Doswell, whose fascination with tornadoes started when he was a child and led to a long, distinguished career in meteorology. Retired from the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., he continues to do research and consulting.

“Some of them take what I consider to be unnecessary risks for the sake of putting their clients into the extreme chase experience they see on TV,” he says. “This is disturbingly irresponsible, in my humble opinion, however successful these companies may be.”

And, he says, “What you see in that stupid movie ["Twister," 1996] and that stupid Discovery Channel show ["Storm Chasers"] is just media-generated, superficial nonsense.”

Doswell is an occasional guest lecturer with Tempest Tours, an Arlington, Texas-based company that, he says, values safety and provides “an opportunity to experience the whole spectrum of storm chasing, including frustration and failure, and learning to appreciate the environment in which these storms occur.”

After all, nature has the last word as to whether a storm-chasing expedition will include actual storms. When the weather doesn't cooperate, Tempest might take you to the National Weather Service offices in Norman, Okla., or the Twister Museum in Wakita, Okla.

Some companies offer on-call tours, for customers who can drop everything and travel when storms are predicted. But Tempest does not.

“We don’t see any need for them,” says company president Martin Lisius. “We develop our calendar with careful consideration for tornado climatology. It works well for us. We see a lot of tornadoes.”

Sophia Dembling
By Sophia Dembling
Sophia Dembling is a freelance writer who specializes in travel stories. She lives in Dallas.

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