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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Restless Air

Season of Mists

By Tamia Nelson

September 21, 2004

Fog has always fascinated me. Early in my life, when I dreamed of becoming a professional photographer, fog offered infinite possibilities for dramatic pictures. On crisp autumn days, as I looked down from the sunny summit of one of the hills near my home, fog defined the contours of my world in a delicate white tracery, filling each secluded hollow and outlining every ridge. Once back in the valley, though, I saw fog from the bottom up. Colors shifted. Hard edges softened. My horizon advanced and retreated with every change in the wind. Each leaf, twig, and petal sagged under the weight of countless water droplets. And stray shafts of sunlight transformed spiders' webs into diamond circlets. Fog was magic.

When I became a commuter, however, the same magic took a menacing turn. Now fog was my enemy, a malevolent trickster bent on making me late for work — or worse. I started paying more attention to weather forecasts then, and I learned a lot about fog. But I lost something, too. My world was grayer, my life less magical.

Happily, color and magic returned on my rare days off, when I'd flee to nearby lakes, hills, and rivers. There I rediscovered fog's lighter side. Photography was still important to me, to be sure, but it now took second place. In the interval between youth and maturity I'd begun to paint. Watery landscapes and watercolors are a natural pairing, and I made the most of every opportunity that came my way. Fog was once more my ally.

Trickster or trusted friend, or both — fog has many faces. It can be as ephemeral as a threadbare gauze curtain, swaying gently in the first tentative breezes of a summer's dawn, while offering only token opposition to the rays of the strengthening sun. Or it can be a gray shroud, clammy, clinging, and opaque, advancing relentlessly across the open ocean, engulfing all that lies in its path. In such a fog, even the largest ships become invisible, yet sound is so magnified and distorted that the bark of a solitary seal seems like a trumpet announcing the end of time.

In classical mythology, an old man named Proteus, son of the ocean god Poseidon, slumbered peacefully through his days in a sea-cave, surrounded by seals. When awakened by intruders, though, Proteus sought to escape capture by taking the shape of a snake or a wild pig, or even a tree or flame or freshet. Fog, too, is protean — now it's a curtain, now a shroud, now something in-between. It's even slipperier than the old man of the sea. Yet if we cannot hope to capture fog's essence, we can still strive to understand some of its many manifestations. So let's begin…

In the Beginning

How does fog form? Water is the key — fog is made up of tiny droplets of liquid water. It's really a cloud brought down to earth. There are only two ways to grow a fog. You can cool moist air until the water starts to sweat out. (The temperature at which this occurs is known as the "dew point." If you've ever watched beads of water form on the outside of a cold glass on a hot day, you'll know why.) Or you can flood dry air with moisture until it's soaked up more water than it can hold. Call this the hot-shower approach. In this case, you're not lowering the air temperature. You're raising the air's dew point, instead. But the effect is the same.

With this in mind, let's explore the genesis of fog under a variety of circumstances.

  • Invasion from the Sea. Suppose an onshore breeze carries moist ocean air far inland by day. Then night falls and the temperature drops. What happens? The moist ocean air cools down, and if it cools below the dew point, fog forms. This onshore push is one example of "advection fog," and it's a common summertime phenomenon along the Pacific coast of North America, from Alaska to northern California. The fog develops in the small hours just before dawn, often drifting back out to sea on the land breeze. Luckily, it usually burns off by late morning or early afternoon, but if the onshore push is strong enough, the resulting fog can hang around for a day or more, accompanied by a sustained drizzle.

  • The Gray Wall. No one who's seen a wall of fog advancing toward her will soon forget it. In places where prevailing winds bring warm, moist air over cold ocean water, thick banks of sea fog can form. It's another type of advection fog. You can expect it in summer in the cold coastal waters of New England and the Maritimes, and anytime from late spring to mid-autumn in the Pacific Northwest. A warning: sea fog drifts with the wind, and once you've been swallowed up by the wall, your visual horizon will be measured in feet or yards, not miles.

  • A Soft Rain's Gonna Fall. Warm fronts drive moist air over masses of colder, drier air. The resulting rain quickly saturates the cold air, and the subsequent warm frontal fog will linger until the front pushes the last of the colder air out. This fog doesn't burn off. How do you spot it coming? In the northern hemisphere watch for light southerly winds, along with thickening low clouds and sustained rain. Then look for a good place to camp.

  • The Season of Mists. Think of steam fog as the mirror image of sea fog. Cold, dry air rolls down from the hills and spreads out over warmer water. Soon tendrils of fog are writhing up from the water's surface. Where sea fog is frequently menacing, however, steam fog is usually romantic, as ephemeral as a threadbare gauze curtain. Commonly seen along rugged seacoasts in late autumn and early winter, steam fog is also a familiar sight on mountain ponds and lakes in the weeks before freeze-up. And it's at home in arctic waters, too, where it goes by the colorful name "sea smoke."

    Of course, air can move up as well as down, and when warm, moist air is driven up the side of a mountain, it cools as it rises. At some point, clouds will form. If you live on the slope of the mountain, you're likely to call these clouds "fog." A meteorologist will call it expansion fog, since air expands as it rises, cooling in the process. It's found on the eastern approaches to the Rockies in late winter and early spring, and in many other places as well. People who live in the high country soon learn that the foggy-mountain boys were well named.

  • The Season of Mists, Take #2. So far, we've talked about fogs which form when masses of air move from one place to another. But fog can form in still air, too. Consider what happens when a rainy day is followed by a clear, calm night. You go to sleep beneath a tapestry of stars, but you awaken to a gray dawn. The sun is nowhere to be seen. What happened? Easy. Yesterday's rain saturated the soil. Then the still, cloudless night permitted heat to radiate skyward, cooling the damp air near the ground. The result? Ground fog, also known as "radiation fog." Ground fog can form over water, too. In fact, it's often seen in river valleys, basins, and inlets, where cold air flowing down from the surrounding heights cools the surface further. If you think this sounds like steam fog, you're right. The two processes frequently coincide. Like steam fog, ground fog is most common in autumn and early winter, and it's usually short-lived. Unlike steam fog, though, it can only form in still air or very light winds.

    You don't need a weatherman to forecast ground fog. If you can see your breath on a clear night, expect to find yourself socked in by morning. The good news? You'll be in the clear by noon or a little later, unless the moist air is…

  • Trapped! This happens most often during temperature inversions, when a cap of warm air forms over a cooler air mass, trapping it near the surface, along with any fog. Such inversion fogs are frequent, if unwelcome, visitors to southern California, where they add to the joys of life in the fast lane and contribute to the witch's brew of toxins we call smog.

OK. We've seen how fog can form. And we're agreed that — apart from short paddles through the morning mists on remote and sheltered inland waters — the best way to cope with fog is to avoid it. But sometimes even the best intentions come to nothing. After all, the only certain way to avoid fog on the water is to avoid the water, and that's not very practical advice for a paddler, is it? So you'd better plan what to do…

When You're Caught in the Fog

Two problems come to the fore immediately. You need to know where you are at all times, and you want others to know you're there, as well. Easy to say, but not so easy to do. Fog hides both landmarks and seamarks. And it conceals vessels, too, from coracles to container ships. It also distorts sounds. Your first job, then, is to do everything you can to…

  • Be Seen. Take the advice of smart hunters and cyclists: wear high-visibility colors. "International orange" is good, and panels of reflective fabric make it even better. If your boat and paddle are in-your-face orange, rather than no-see-um green, so much the better. Carry a waterproof flashlight "ready at hand" to exhibit "in sufficient time to prevent collision," as the Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea (better known as the "Rules of the Nautical Road") require. WARNING! Strobes are prohibited by the Rules in international waters and limited to emergency use elsewhere. But the fact remains that they're often used by paddlers (and others) who think that being seen is more important than complying with the letter of the law. It's your call. Just remember that not all attention is equally welcome. Don't do the crime if you can't do the time.

    If you paddle in waters frequented by motorized vessels and commercial traffic, a radar reflector can also be a good investment. Don't expect it to work as well in a kayak as it will when perched high in the rigging of a sailboat, though. Here, as elsewhere, the Gross Tonnage Rule applies. Whether you paddle a kayak or a canoe, you're just about the smallest thing on the water. No matter what you wear and how bright your lights, you can never count on being seen, nor should you assume that other vessels can avoid you, even if they know you're in their path. (A container ship traveling at 18 knots can take three nautical miles to stop dead in the water after Full Astern is rung down.) So it's up to you to keep out of every other vessel's way — or suffer the consequences.

  • Be Heard. When paddling through busy waters in fog, silence is not golden. Make noise. The Rules require sailing vessels in fog to sound "three blasts in succession, … one prolonged followed by two short," and to do so "at intervals of not more than 2 minutes." That's probably good advice for paddlers, as well. The whistle on your PFD is better than nothing, though a hunting horn might be better yet. Only small vessels will hear your "Tally Ho!" of course, and only in the best of circumstances, but it's still worth the trouble. After all, even a collision with an 18-foot sailing dinghy that's barely making steerageway will certainly spoil your whole day.

  • Listen Up. Anytime you're not making noise, you should be listening. Sound travels far over water, and it never carries as well as it does in fog. Bell buoys, horns, the rumble of marine engines, even barking dogs and quarreling couples miles away can all be heard with startling clarity. But fog also deceives. "Lanes of silence" come and go. Direction is almost impossible to determine. Vessels that are dangerously close sound far away, while a bell warning of a distant rock seems alarmingly near at hand.

    What can you do about this? Stay alert. Weigh the information from each sense against the evidence of the others. And learn from past experience. Nowhere is local knowledge more important than it is in fog. The characteristic hiss of the tide flooding over a shoal speaks volumes to the knowledgeable paddler, even if it remains a foreign tongue to the novice. All the more important, then, to be sure that you…

  • Stay Found. GPS makes this easy, or at least it makes it easier than it used to be — so long as the batteries last and you don't drop your magic box in the water. If that should happen, though, you'll be glad you have a compass and, just as important, that you know how to use it. This knowledge, when coupled with an educated guess of your paddling speed under prevailing conditions and the strength and direction of any current, will allow you to keep a reasonably accurate plot of your estimated position. (A lead line or its electronic counterpart can be an invaluable asset in fog, but few paddlers nowadays carry a lead, and fewer still have mastered the art of heaving the lead in the confined space of a kayak cockpit. Perhaps more should.) Needless to say, a foggy day is a poor time to embark on a long, difficult open-water crossing.

Are you a novice navigator? Then it's probably better to heed Falstaff's advice and recognize discretion as the better part of valor. After all, you can't come to too much harm if you…

Stay in Port. And there's no denying the attractions of a hot drink downed in front of a warm fire when the world outside the door is chill and gray. Comfort has its place, even in the life of an adventurous paddler.

Not satisfied to remain ashore during the season of mists? Neither am I. But I have to admit there's wisdom in the words of the boatmen of the Aran Islands, as reported by John Millington Synge:

A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be drownded for he will be going out on a day he shouldn't. But we do be afraid of the sea, and we do only be drownded now and again.

A bit unsettling? Of course. But it's a necessary reminder that the sea sometimes drowns even careful mariners. That doesn't mean that prudent paddlers will want to bet against the odds, though, does it? So venture out into the mists, by all means, but do so with your eyes open and your ears tuned to the hiss of the tide flooding over the shoals.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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