June 3-5, 2001 – Chase vacation to the plains

Before this little adventure, I had never set foot outside IL in a chasing capacity. An opportunity to chase in the plains had presented itself to me and I was definitely not going to pass it up. (plus I needed a vacation anyways!) Darin Kaiser, a chaser from Clinton, IL, sent me an email informing me that he would be off work this week and that he was interested in chasing if there was something to be chased. I somewhat jokingly told him that the moderate risk out in KS/OK looked good and that we should go for it. When he emailed me back and asked me when I wanted to leave, I was quite shocked and excited at the same time. I rushed to get all the resources I could for chasing since I would be in a new area. Not having a laptop, I loaded everything I could into my Palm Pilot. This took me alot longer than I thought which kept me from getting to bed till 1:30.

Day 1: Sunday (June 3)
Target Area:
Wichita, KS
After waking up at a bright and early 5am, I checked some data and everything still looked good in Kansas. I received a call from Darin at 6am asking me if it was still a go, which I happily said yes. After loading up all my gear into his car, we hit the road a little after 7am. After starting off in completely cloudless skies in IL, things started to change once we got into Missouri. The overnight MCS had moved into Missouri which was providing us with a very wet and tiring drive across the show-me state. Our plan was to head into Kansas City and then go from there, but after receiving a call from Scott Kampas, we decided we’d better start heading south. We hopped south on RT 7 and then jogged west to Ottawa, KS on HW 68. Once we got to Ottawa, we decided to head SW to Wichita, KS on I-35. Rather than going to the downtown area, we went just south to the town of Derby, KS. After chowing down on some DQ food and waving at the human ice cream cone in front of the building, we headed west. (I apologize for the lack of detailed road info, my GPS ran out of memory and I lost all of my track log!!)

I believe we were somewhere on RT 40 between the Sedgwich and Kingman county lines. We hadn’t seen any chasers until all of a sudden we saw about 4 or 5 cars parked on a county road. We kept going and noticed another 4 or 5 on the next road, and then another 4 on the next one. We finally pulled off on one of the country roads and talked to some of these chasers. One guy looked very familiar, and since I’ve never been out there before, I figured I’d seen him on TV somewhere. Darin rolled down the window and asked him who he was. He replied “Piotrowski”. Yes, of all the people, we ran into the famous Jeff Piotrowski! Also on that road was Tornado Safari Chase Tours, led by Stephen Levine. We talked to him and his one tour member (Angelina) for quite awhile. All the other chasers decided that this was a bust and left the area, while we stayed and continued talking to Stephen and Angelina. While we were talking, I heard this noise coming from our vehicle. *light bulb* It was my weather radio, which up till that point, hadn’t even been able to pick up much of a signal. I ran and brought it out so everyone could hear it. It happened to be a severe thunderstorm warning for Kingman and N. Harper county, which was just about where we were. *yippeeeeeeeee!*

We said goodbye to Stephen and Angelina and headed SW on 42 into Kingman county. Shortly after we left, the weather radio went off again, this time a tornado warning for the same county. Darin and I are getting really pumped now and we finally started to see some lightning. Scott called me on the cell phone and told me how rapidly this storm had developed, so I knew it was a good one. We followed this storm for the next 2-3 hours as it slowly moved across the area. We saw several lowerings throughout its life cycle and Darin says he has video of a touchdown. (my video didn’t come out at all!) There were reports of a touchdown with this cell, so had it been daylight, I’m sure we would have gotten better video. We eventually encountered some more chasers / TV crews who were following this storm at night. It finally died out and with nothing else in our immediate area, we decided to call it a night. We headed back into Wichita and stayed at a Quality Inn. (once again backing my claim that I did not stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night) 🙂

Day 2: Monday (June 4)
Target Area:
Topeka/Kansas City area
After eating some breakfast and checking out TWC, we decided to find a library. Being in Wichita, we decided to find ‘Main St.’ and hopefully we would find a library. Sure enough, we found the main public library which was quite a nice library. We told the people at the desk that we were from out of state and wanted to use the computers. I was shocked to find out that we didn’t have to pay a dime to get a library card! (kudos to Wichita!!!) I got online and loaded up the Day 1 and other weather data. The best spot looked to be Eastern KS and Western MO. After checking some email, we went back to the hotel and checked out. We decided to head NE on I-35 towards the Kansas City area. Darin thought it would be good to get off at Topeka and see what was going on with the weather. It was rather cloudy and cold in Topeka, so I called Rob Stout from INCHASE for a weather update. He informed me that the SPC had issued an MCD stating that South Central KS had a much better shot of severe weather than where we were. We hopped back on I-35 and proceeded SW towards Wichita.

On our way back, we started seeing some towers going up, so we figured we better get off the turnpike! (“maybe we should get off this road”) 🙂 We ended up in Harper county where there happened to be a severe thunderstorm warning. When we got closer to the storm, we started getting some small pea-size hail. Then we started to notice louder clunks on the car as we got closer. Darin pointed out the window and I noticed the hail splashing in the field! (which is great on video!) I did jump out and grab one of the big hailstones and sure enough, it was golfball-sized. We encountered a group of meteorology students who were also inspecting the hail and the skies. We also talked to one of the local county officers who was very nice to us. While we were sitting there, we saw the DOW truck go by and 2 other radar trucks from the Univ. of Massachusettes. Being typical chasers, we decided to follow them and see which storm they were targeting. We ended up about 10 miles west of Wellington, KS on US 160. There we encountered what appeared to be another chase tour and 2 DOW trucks.

The view was quite astonishing and just couldn’t be captured on video. Mammatus clouds directly over head, a storm brewing to our west and one dying to our east. A couple of chasers from KZSN (102.1 FM) pulled up next to us. Like the other chasers we had met the day before, they were also very friendly. We watched the storm to our west which appeared to be strengthening. All of a sudden, a severe thunderstorm warning went out for that cell that we were watching. (how lucky can we be!!) The lightning was starting to increase from the cell, so I took some video for a little while. The KZSN guys decided to head back and get some food while we stayed and watched the storm for a little while longer. Almost out of gas, Darin decided that we’d better go into town and find some so we wouldn’t be stranded in the middle of nowhere during a severe thunderstorm. 🙂 The severe weather seemed to be dying, so we just decided to head back into Wichita and call it a night.

Day 3: Tuesday (June 5)
Target Area:
Woodward, OK
After watching some TWC in the morning and visiting the Wichita Public Library again, we decided that a good target area would be Woodward, OK. We decided, however, to make a pit stop in Wakita, OK. (it just wouldn’t be right if we didn’t stop and check out this little town!) As we entered town, we saw a bunch of tourists taking pictures and going through the ‘twister museum’. When we turned the corner, there was a DOW truck sitting there. (hmmm, this is interesting we thought) We decided to continue going west towards are target area, but as we left, there was this nice red Dodge Ram that made us both laugh. (I wonder what kind of special discount that guy got on it!) Anyways, we decided to head towards the town of Enid, OK to check on weather data. We found the library which didn’t even require us to have a library card in order to use the computers! By habit, I loaded up my weather page and clicked on the local radar and noticed that Central IL was about to get slammed! (darn, here I am in Oklahoma wishing I was back home!!) I finally loaded up the latest info for our area and noticed that we still needed to head towards Woodward.

As we were heading west on US 60, we saw some towers going up to our north. We decided to head towards these towers and hoping that we weren’t blowing our chances by changing target areas. The storm we did encounter never did go severe, though it did look like it had a wall cloud with it. Anyways, we ended up near Medicine Lodge, KS. (yes, we went quite a bit further north!) Just around 7:00pm, we heard a tornado warning go out for Woodward county in Oklahoma! *DOH!!!* We decided to head back that way and hopefully intercept something, but we were quite far from there. On the way down there, we heard another tornado warning, this time for Woods county, which is just east of Woodward county. A few minutes later, another tornado warning gets issued for Major county, which is south of Woods county. (should of stuck with the target area!!) Anyways, we finally made it back down there and ended up punching through alot of heavy rain. We finally ended up in Custer County and that’s when the fun began.

We watched this cell continue to grow into a line of storms and the lightning from this was totally awesome. (DUDE!) 🙂 It started raining so we decided to move away from the line so we could get some good shots of this lightning. I had never seen such intense and continuous lightning until that night, wow was it awesome! 🙂 CGs, CCs, anvil crawlers, it was great. I finally tried some still shots with my SLR camera, hopefully they will turn out. Anyways, after watching this storm system, we realized that it was moving towards us! They issued a severe thunderstorm warning for our county and then we realized we were about 4 miles from the storm. Just as we were entering Clinton, OK, that’s when all heck broke lose! Very heavy rain, winds, and intense lightning. Unfortunately, I realized that I had run both batteries down on my camcorder and Darin only had about 10 min left on his. We decided to call it a night and look around for a hotel. We headed east on I-40 and came into Weatherford, OK. We were both starving, so at 1:30 in the morning, we went into the only open restaurant in town. We both ordered breakfast, which wasn’t too bad, but a bit too greasy for me. There were a few chasers at the restaurant, but not sure who they were. (I think their plates were from NJ) Anyways, we left the restaurant (rather abruptly as Darin ran over the curb) and found a Days Inn. The guy at the counter was hilarious, and even gave us $10 off the room because it was so late. After watching a little TV, we finally hit the sack around 2:30 – 3:00 in the morning. *yawn*

Day 4: Wednesday (June 6)
Target Area:
Champaign, IL
With the severe weather threat shifting to the northern plains, we decided to head for home. We did encounter some towers in Missouri, but they kept fizzling out before they could get organized. Anyways, we finally pulled in my driveway at 11:30pm!

Final thoughts:
All I can say is wow! 3 days of severe weather in a row, you just can’t beat that. While I didn’t see any wedge tornadoes, I was very satisfied with the wall clouds, mammatus, rainbow, golfball-size hail, and spectacular lightning. It was a great experience and I can’t wait to do it again. It was really spooky on how decent our target areas were on all three days. (not bad for a computer geek like me!) I learned alot from the trip and hope to use my experience on future chases. The weather radio coverage was, well, it sucked. The cell phone coverage was just as bad which made getting updates really frustrating. It was also cool to meet some really nice people out in KS/OK. (except for the 2 Oklahoma girls who flipped us off) If any chasers out there ever have a need to chase in IL, I will welcome them with the same hospitality as they showed me. (group hug!) 🙂

Special Thanks:
Well, a HUGE thanks goes out to Darin. Without him, this trip would not have been possible. I’d also like to thank Scott Kampas and Rob Stout for periodically nowcasting for us. Next time I get some $$$, steak is on me guys! 🙂

Total Chase Time: 4 days
Total Chase Miles: 2700 miles

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