My Tahoe camping trip became an undeniable confrontation with climate change Leave a comment

Marlette Peak?  Erased from the horizon.

Cave Rock? I looked in its direction and saw a blank nothingness.

The water in Lake Tahoe was a sheet of glass. Still and calm, but stripped of all its colors. Just different shades of gray.  

But the worst part was how sick I felt. Nauseated. Eyes burning and red. Lethargic. Depressed. The best way to describe my ennui: Blah. I just felt gross. 

A vacation in Tahoe is often an escape, a reprieve from the stresses of daily life. And usually, the Basin feels like a bubble, a mountain kingdom of lake and sky that stands apart from the world outside. 

But Tahoe is not immune from what happens on this planet. Like the eerie orange skies that appeared over San Francisco last September, smoky summer days are an ominous sign that Tahoe’s future is certainly at stake because of climate change.

By the end of this century, scientists say that Tahoe’s temperature could rise by 3.6 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit. Tahoe could be as hot as San Jose. Snow will become rain. Algae blooms and aquatic weeds are already invading in water, and climate change threatens to turn that iconic blue into a murky shade of green. Summer will most definitely become more and more smoky. An environmental scientist who studies wildfires told NPR that the growing fire season is 95% caused by climate change

My summertime camping trip was quickly turning into an undeniable confrontation with the very real, very disturbing impacts of a warming planet. 

The smoke from nearby wildfires erased the horizon at Lake Tahoe. 

The smoke from nearby wildfires erased the horizon at Lake Tahoe. 

Julie Brown / SFGATE

Six months ago, I made reservations to go camping at D.L. Bliss State Park, one of the most sought after campgrounds in Lake Tahoe. I worked for weeks to get these reservations, logging onto the state park reservation website every morning at 7:59 a.m., ready to fight it out for a handful of campsites that are located near the beach with thousands of other aspiring campers. Five seconds after 8 a.m., most of the sites were gone. I only got this campsite because I found an opening from a previous reservation that had been cancelled. 

When I booked the campsite, Tahoe was in the midst of its biggest storm of the winter. The only big storm of the winter. After that storm at the end of January, it didn’t snow that hard again. 

Now, in July, wildfires are exploding to the north and to the south. The Dixie fire, near Quincy, was growing fast. And just south of Tahoe, the Tamarack fire had jumped Highway 395. 

I considered wildfires when I made our camping reservations. September used to be my favorite month of the year in Tahoe and the best time to go camping. It used to be the time of year when the tourists went home, when locals had the beaches and trails to themselves, when the sky was so blue and the air was so crisp. 

Now, September is smoke season. So is August.

But July? I thought July was still safe. I was wrong. So far this year, 480,000 acres have burned in California and Cal Fire has recorded more than 5,600 fire incidents. There’s still a ways to go before 2021 catches up with 2020’s 4.3 million acres burned, but then again, we still have half the year.

I know I sound pessimistic. Being in the outdoors is how I battle depression. It’s how I find optimism and happiness. It’s how I get motivated to do the work and be a part of the effort to address climate. But the smoke makes me want to stay inside, where it’s all too easy for me to tumble down that mental spiral of despair.

Outside, the air is hot, sticky and orange. When I breathe, my lungs feel tight. I feel as if I’m living in a dystopian future, except I’m not. It’s real. It’s happening right now. Inside, my air purifier is humming and I can turn on the air conditioner unit with a remote control. These are band-aids, I know. But combined with the health risks that come with breathing so much smoke, they were enough incentive to make me question whether or not to cancel our camping reservations.

I found my husband sitting on the floor in the office, going through our camping gear. He’s normally the cheerful one in our relationship, but the smoke bummed him out, too. He moved slowly and didn’t look up when I walked into the room. We were both wondering if we should ditch the mountains and just go to the Pacific coast instead, where the air quality map forecast better conditions. In Tahoe, the forecast straight up said “unhealthy.” But later that night, a slight breeze picked up, clearing the air enough for us to sit in our backyard. That gave us enough hope to give camping a try. 

In addition to the smoke, the campground at D.L. Bliss State Park had shut off the water because of the drought, yet another indicator of climate change. “The spring-fed water supply at D.L. Bliss is critically low,” read an “important alert” sent at the end of June to all campers with reservations. No showers (so we swam in the lake). No bathrooms (except for porta-potties). We purchased a six gallon tank and brought our own water for drinking and cooking.

The drive up to Tahoe was not encouraging. Only the lowest ridgelines were visible and just barely. Faint lines stacked on top of one another in the orangish haze. Trees were dark green silhouettes. But if the view from Interstate 80 felt desolate, pulling onto Highway 89 in Truckee and driving into the Lake Tahoe Basin felt like dystopian denial. 

Tahoe was still packed with people, smoke be damned. Floaters on blow-up innertubes and blue boats poured down the Truckee River. A line of cars streamed down the highway. We turned to head down the West Shore and beach goers, loaded with chairs, umbrellas and coolers, were bound for the lake, which looked more like an ocean on a stormy day. When we finally made it to Bliss State Park, a line of cars were idling at the entrance, waiting to get in.

We almost didn’t go camping because the smoke was so thick, but all these people seemed to go on with their days, regardless of the air quality. I’m not sure which is worse: to have to stay inside because of the smoke, or to keep living as usual, even if its smoky?


Tall trees surround the campsites at Bliss State Park.

Tall trees surround the campsites at Bliss State Park.

Julie Brown / SFGATE

Giant trees towered over our campsite. These behemoths are one of the signature characteristics of Bliss State Park, along with huge granite boulders that display a great balancing act as they stack precipitously on one another. The trees did us a favor and kept the smoke up high. I wondered how many fires they have withstood. Fire was once a natural part of the forest life cycle here in Tahoe. It’s essential for fire-resistant species of trees, like Sugar and Jeffrey Pines, to grow this tall. When the Basin was clear-cut in the late 1800s, the terrain around Bliss was harder for loggers to access, thanks to the sheer cliffs that drop down into Tahoe. A few trees survived the devastation, and they are some of the oldest in Tahoe.

We unpacked our gear. Or rather, the car my husband carefully packed became a pile of goods on the picnic table. The campers before us had left their dirty trash in the fire pit. The crumpled paper towels stained brown grossed me out even more and reminded me of yet another dire problem facing the Basin: Trash and pollution. The ranger told us we could still have fires in the designated metal pit, even with all the smoke in the air. It felt nefarious to strike flames, but I still didn’t hesitate to burn the abandoned paper towels. 

After we set up our tent and put all of our food, toiletries and anything else with a scent into the bear box, we walked down to the lake. Our campsite was lakefront living, just steps away from the beach. I dove in and Tahoe’s cold water washed all the smoke off of me. I stayed in until my skin was layered in goose bumps. The lake was quiet and still. But then a motor boat cruised across the water, speeding along. 

The book I brought to read on this camping trip was “All We Can Save,” a collection of essays on “truth, courage and solutions for the climate crisis.” One piece by journalist Naomi Klein, who has been writing about climate change for decades, struck deep. The human capacity to rationalize, compartmentalize and be distracted is important in normal times, she writes. “When it comes to rising to the reality of climate breakdown, however, these traits are proving to be our collective undoing. They are reassuring us when we should not be reassured. They are distracting us when we should not be distracted. And they are easing our consciences when our consciences should not be eased.”

That night we grilled hamburgers and hot dogs. We ate old fashioned potato salad. We drank margaritas. The smoke seemed to insulate the air and temperatures stayed warm. I never needed a layer, even though I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. We didn’t bother to light a campfire that first night. We just leaned back in our chairs and looked up at the sky. 

There were no stars. It was only gray. I was glad we had gone camping after all. But I was not reassured.

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