07/26/2013 02:50 pm ET Updated Sep 25, 2013

When Nature Breaks

I was awake.

That's about all I knew. It's disconcerting to wake up crouched in the middle of your tent with your heart jumping out of your chest when, last you remember, you were falling asleep peacefully curled up in your sleeping bag.

The thunder might have had something to do with it. Not to mention the rain that sounded like it was trying to tear my tent to pieces. Or the frog that had just thrown itself against the outer wall less than an inch from my face.

It was the first night we were spending in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, 375,000+ acres of wilderness owned by the Bureau of Land Management (part of the Department of the Interior) in central Montana. I've been working as an intern in the paleobiology department of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and as part of that internship, my mentor invited me to spend ten days in the field collecting fossils. We flew into Billings with two colleagues and canoed down the Missouri River to rendezvous with the rest of the expedition. After being delayed a day and having to sort out the various resulting mishaps, my mentor warned me that fieldwork could be unpredictable. As the rain continued to slash at the tent fabric and a bolt of lightning flashed uncomfortably close, I was starting to see what he meant.

Three thunderstorms rolled through our campsite that night, one right after the other, and sleep was scarce. The next day dawned sunny and clear, with no sign of a storm, so we loaded the canoes and set off down the river. I quickly became engrossed in watching the scenery. I was mentally patting myself on the back for managing to shoot decent pictures one-handed from a moving boat, when there was a brilliant flash and a low rumble echoed down the river. The four of us looked at the black clouds that had appeared out of nowhere, glanced down at our metal canoes, and paddled for shore.

We rode out that fourth storm in the shelter of a nearby ravine, dodging hailstones and alert for the flash flood that could come ripping down the streambed at any time. After the wind, rain, and noise subsided, we made our way through ankle-deep mud back to where we had beached the canoes and pushed back out onto the river. Twenty-two miles and a stiff headwind later, we finally reached base camp.

Over the next twenty-four hours, I learned that you've never experienced a thunderstorm until you've camped through one. And I'm not talking car camping, where all it takes is a quick exit and a short sprint to reach the safety of rubber tires and four-wheel drive (I'll admit I ended up in the back seat of our Pathfinder that first night.). I mean really camping, with little to no sign of civilization and where the only shelter you have available is either a thin-walled backpacking tent or the nearest ravine. You learn to truly appreciate the power of what you're living through. You are seeing and hearing the air you breathe being explosively torn apart -- a single thunderstorm can pack an energetic punch larger than a nuclear warhead. I never expected to feel so small, but sitting in my tent and listening to the wind tear at the guy-lines, I felt as microscopic as the fossils I've been studying.