I was lying on a paddleboard at Lake Pend Oreille, and I couldn't quite relax. All I could think of were the mountains across the water, now hidden behind the smoke.
I told myself not to worry about it. I had a beer in hand and friends nearby. I dipped my fingertips into the cool water and felt the sun on my skin. It was a perfect summer day, other than the smoke.
Something kept nagging at me, like the tickle in my throat from the smoky air itself. It didn't used to be this way. I grew up staring at these mountains every summer, out at the lake with my family. I could spend hours wondrously admiring them. I could see the trees and the rock formations on the slopes and marvel at the shadows formed on the water. It looked so close that I imagined swimming across.
But now, the smoke was thickening, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
It's the feeling of helplessness that permeates the sky each passing summer. Some summers will be worse than others, and some might not even be smoky at all. Still, no matter what, those smoke-free days, due to climate change, will become rarer and rarer.
There's seemingly no avoiding it. And every time the wildfire smoke blows in, erasing entire landscapes in the distance, it's a literal reminder of an inevitable reality: We're slowly losing our summers in the Pacific Northwest.
That takes something away from you. The reward for suffering through a brutal winter in the Northwest was always a beautiful summer, and that's no longer a trade-off you can trust. Summer trips in August may not be worth planning anymore if they're outside. The health issues caused by the smoke itself may cause new suffering that we don't entirely understand yet.
That's why, sipping a drink on a hot summer day at the lake, I felt suffocated. It wasn't because of the smoke closing in on me. It was the loss of possibilities. I once imagined a future not controlled by wildfire smoke. But as I slowly lost sight of the mountains, then the other side of the bay, then the sun itself, I realized that future didn't seem possible anymore. The smoke robs the world of its color as it closes in on you. At its thickest, it's the only thing that's there. You and the smoke and nothing else.
Maybe there's a way out of it. Maybe there's a way to get to the mountains on the other side of the lake. But I couldn't see it anymore.
I tilted my head back and finished the last of my beer. As the carbonation traveled down to my stomach, that nagging feeling went away, if only for a moment. ♦