Mother Nature is his mistress, the eye of the storm his comfort zone

June 30, 2007

A tornado ripped through cottage country last year, turning one of the few long weekends of summer into a disaster zone.

Striking at the heart of the Madawaska Valley, just south of Algonquin Park and close to Bancroft, Ont., smack-dab in the middle of cottage country, the furious F2 twister felled trees and uprooted outhouses. A second tornado from the same storm system, this one with an F1 rating, also wreaked havoc on West Guilford, Drag Lake and Minden Hills in the Haliburton area, closer to Toronto.

Winds were travelling with speeds of 120 to 170 kilometers an hour, but not a gust of it ruffled George Kourounis's hair - much to his everlasting regret.

"This was the storm that got away," says the Toronto-based adventurer, sounding not unlike Ishmael in recounting the story of the elusive Moby-Dick. Except, rather than chasing whales, Mr. Kourounis has made a career out of searching for squalls and other wild natural phenomena.

"I had been chasing that day," he continues. "I saw an amazing storm in Orangeville and had my nose on that one. But it didn't become a tornado like the one that pounded Combermere [the tourist centre in Madawaska]."

Remorse sits around the man who considers himself "a New Age explorer of the 21st century." But for only a minute. "I have the metabolism of a ferret on speed," the 37-year-old storm chaser jauntily calls out while walking quickly to damage left over from the gale that pounded Toronto 10 days ago.

A stately maple has snapped in half in front of a Rosedale mansion. Mr. Kourounis steps close to survey the damage. He is deeply underwhelmed. "Feh!" he says, swatting away with a wiry arm any suggestion that last week's spoiler was a storm worthy of his attention.

"A bit of rain? A gust of wind? After where I've been? I'm used to storms that look like the mothership landing on your backyard and transforming it into alien territory. Summer storm? Puh-leeze!"

As the co-creator and host of Angry Planet, the six-part series on extreme weather airing on the Outdoor Life Network, he is used to matching his personality to the oversized freaks of nature that he tracks.

"I've been tornado-chasing and in a few days I'm off again to Alberta to begin filming for a new episode of Angry Planet, on extreme caving. And then I go to Dominica to Boiling Lake ... to take readings of the water and collect a few samples.

"I haven't been home in six weeks," he continues, emphasizing that last week's lightning-speed visit represented a rare return to Toronto, where he has a newlywed wife, a new house and a few pets, including three cats and a one-eyed Boston terrier. He claims that over the past year - during which he was married on top of a volcano in Vanuatu - he has been absent from Toronto 217 nights, having visited five countries since December alone.

He's also busy because, with the sun beating down on our tiny neck of Southern Ontario, it is storm season. Mr. Kourounis says this is the time of year when territory straddling Highway 401 - most of it being cottage country - is subject to intense downpours, and the odd tornado or two.

"Southern Ontario is a very unique environment. We have a microclimate here and our weather is greatly affected by the Great Lakes, which have us surrounded," he says.

His car (whose pockmarked hood bears the traces of falling hail, large as ostrich eggs) is outfitted with a computer and a tiny popup screen that allows him to track storms in the sky in a manner similar to fishermen tracking big fish.

He says storm chasing is "like being on safari. But instead of big game, it's really big game."

Our stretch of Ontario is known as Tornado Alley because of the Great Lakes, Mr. Kourounis says. "The sun heats the ground. The ground heats the air. That warm air then rises and gets replaced by cooler air coming in off the lakes. That cooler air then acts as a cold front. And where you get these converging areas the lake breezes have nowhere to go but up, and that's where the thunderstorms form, mostly along the 401."

He pauses to draw a meteorological diagram of Toronto and its surrounding areas on a napkin. It includes a ribbon of destruction stretching from Windsor to Ottawa. In between, the hinterland is sprinkled with houses, mostly recreational properties that, to hear Mr. Kourounis tell it, are sitting ducks.

"We get about 12 to 20 tornadoes in the region every year," he adds. "But most of them strike down in the forests. But every so often we get a strong one. The last one was Barrie, in 1985, and so you could say we are due.

"There might be another coming right down the pike. It might be 10 years. It might be next week."

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the cottage.