By Carter Hammett
Special to the Toronto Sun
"If I were truly an adrenalin junkie, I could just as easily be throwing myself out of airplanes every week," laughs George Kourounis, trying to rationalize the unique appeal of his chosen career.
Storm chaser George Kourounis is the first person in history to photograph a tornado, hurricane and volcano from within the middle of each. Here he is descending into Ethiopia's remote Erta Ale, an active volcano on the Eritrean border.
Perhaps "lifestyle" is a better word to describe the vocation of one of Canada's few storm chasers. At 34, Kourounis has already consciously chosen to expose himself to more devastation than most of us will experience in a lifetime.
From the tornado that wreaked havoc on Oklahoma in May 2004, to the destruction of last year's Hurricane Isabel, if there's an indication of warped weather patterns nearby, chances are Kourounis will be in the opposite direction of most everyone else: directly into the storm.
The question is, why?
After witnessing his first tornado in 1997, Kourounis was struck. "Seeing the atmosphere turn from a thunderstorm, to two times the height of (Mount) Everest on one spinning point was hypnotic," he says. "It's nature at it's most raw, dangerous."
Oh, did we mention he "does" volcanoes as well?
Earlier this year, he managed to "weasel" his way into a Swiss-organized excursion to Ethiopia's remote Erta Ale, an active volcano on the Eritrean border.
His small party hiked 25 kilometres in 45 C heat across the Danakil desert, complete with armed bodyguards in the politically-hostile territory. From there, Kourounis was lowered 20 metres into the active volcano where he remained for a good half-hour, armed with only a camera and a reflective heat suit.
"Just getting there was an adventure," he chuckles. "It's an incredible sense of satisfaction, having organized the logistics, endured the hardships of the journey, and just making it back in one piece."
George Kourounis experiences the wrath of Hurricane Isabel in North Carolina, Sept. 18, 2003.
The journey would have been a milestone for anyone, but with the trip's successful completion, Kourounis also became the first person in history to photograph a tornado, hurricane and volcano from within the middle of each.
"Don't try this at home," he half-jokingly tells wannabe storm chasers, of which maybe 20 exist in Canada. Kourounis warns, "you just can't be running out there with a camera," and "learn, learn, learn."
Storm chasing is an expensive apprenticeship and a career heavy on investment that yields slow financial returns.
Kourounis estimates he has invested a minimum of $10,000 outfitting his truck with tools of the trade, that includes a laptop, GPS system, HAM radio, scanners, fire extinguishers, first-aid equipment, portable TV, toe straps and batteries among a myriad of other equipment.
"My truck looks like the Batmobile," he jokes. But after eight years on the job, it is only now he is starting to see a return on his investment.
He generates income from selling stock footage and photographs to Environment Canada and other government agencies, is a frequent speaker at public schools and writes the occasional article for outdoor magazines.
For several weeks each year, he also heads south to Oklahoma, where he conducts storm-chasing tours for a company called Cloud 9 -- an excellent apprenticeship for potential storm chasers, he says.
"It's a good way to get a crash course in storm chasing," he says. "You realize that sometimes, you are driving 14 hours a day, seven days a week, there's nothing. Then, using all your forecasting equipment, it hits, and you're on it. Storm chasing is 95% preparation."
Kourounis has set his sights on a volcano in Antarctica later this year, and looks forward as summer approaches and tornado season begins. "With this job, you get to be an explorer as well," he says. "All the great places on Earth have been reached, but each time I am trying to top myself. I'm fascinated by nature at its ugliest. I learned a long time ago to squeeze lots of life out of the years I have. When you connect with nature, you realize how small we are in the big picture of Earth."
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