Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Where There’s Smoke, There’s More

Salmon Creek, Cannon Beach, smoke 128

I grow more uneasy, not less, as we drive towards Cannon Beach for a spontaneous Sunday on the northern coast. The weather report has noted a cooler temperature as it always is–blessedly in summer–at the Pacific Ocean. It has not noted anything unusual out there and the sun is high and blasting as we vacate city limits. My hair flaps in the breeze. Bare feet are pulled onto the seat as I lean back, watch landscape change from suburban to fields, forested to mountainous. But it looks hazy out there; an opacity develops mile by mile.

Now, smoke alternately obscures and suffuses more of the woodlands, hovers over hills and creeps into mountainous acreage. We roll up our windows as we drive farther, turn on the air conditioner. We still are philosophical as we travel on; it is the time of forest fires, the annual fire season. Surely as we arrive at the beach the ocean’s wind currents will have cleared it away. We will breathe fresh salty air and romp about all day.

Little to no rain has fallen for weeks and weeks, though this is not unusual during Oregon summers–we get at least four months of golden sunshine before the rains descend. Still, searing temperatures (90 degrees F or above) have turned fields and forests into combustible land in most western states. California has been subject to terrifying infernos in countless spots; Colorado has had a large number of fires. Parts of Oregon and Washington, Idaho, British Columbia and more have burned–the list has seemed longer this summer than last, when our beloved Columbia River Gorge succumbed in large part.

When I see the Fire Danger sign at “High” and smoke thickens in the distance, I roll down my window a few moments to peer into the trees. It is cooler at a higher elevation but not the unmistakable smoky scents assail nose and eyes. The air is denser with shadow about us, that yellowish-gray tint within mountain peaks and foliage. I check my phone for fire updates, certain we it is nearby and find none in the area. Still, we travel on to the beach if also with less confidence.

My consciousness is set on instinct, awake to possible danger and any lick of flame that might emerge around the next bend or rise. It is possible high on the mountain pass, tangled forest lining the road, miles and miles to go. All it takes is a cigarette butt not entirely safely extinguished, a campfire that was thought to be out but smolders after the tent has been packed and campers done–or lightning strikes from a storm that renders pitiful little moisture but triggers electric zigzags and bombastic thunder. I don’t have a clue what we would do if we were caught in a fire but Marc states clearly that roads would be closed off if there was any real danger lurking nearby. It is about then that I see a detour sign; Timber Road is closed (though I don’t know why). But traffic is heading to and returning from Cannon Beach. We still have hope this persistent smear of smoke will fall away and all will be well.

But it is not. The smoke not only lingers but appears more voluminous. Where, we wonder, can all this be coming from? We note a long back up of traffic on an exit we often take but that also can lead away from the beach, so take another one. Do they know some news we do not? We are still going to Cannon Beach. The feeling we have is that we may as well move forward as moving backward will yield us nothing but the same. We suspect, at least. We want to see and do what we can after an hour and a half on the road. At least give it a good try the pretty coastal town.

The place is packed as it always is in summer, despite a pale haze. I roll down a window and there is that unmistakable potent smell. I am waffling as we park. I know that smoke inhaled for long, even lighter smoke with its particulate matter, is not healthy especially for those with respiratory issues or heart problems. I have the latter. Still, we get out and stretch then decide to check it all out. We  do not want to give up the idea of a relaxing day on the beach.

The main street is streaming with vacationers but it is as if they are moving in slower motion. It seems grittier, has a blurry pallor rather than cheerful palette as is usual. But folks cluster at charming shops, huddle about tables at outdoor cafes despite temperate weather. They look a little bored, impatient. Some appear more stoic, amenable and carry on exploration and conversation with drinks in hand. I imagine how disappointing it could be to have booked a room a few days and wake up to smoke obscuring the views, no glittering sunlight on cresting waves or salt tang on lips. A few people have on respiratory masks which I’ve not seen here before.

As we approach steps that lead to the boisterous sea, a long line of people look over a railing to study sandy and watery expanses, cameras dangling against their chests. It is not a pretty sight, either the lackluster line or the scene. Not the usual jewel blue sky even when a bit of wispy fog or clouds scud about. Not the beckoning, gleaming ocean defining sandy reaches. The smoke has descended upon all like mild melancholia. As it softens all edges it also adds an unevenly textured cloak of grays and yellows: a smudge upon pristine waters and lofty horizon. In fact, I cannot see the horizon at all. It is not like fog, uniform, light-infused and airy. It seems heavy on the skin, sight line and mood. I feel privy to a strangely reduced environment, almost a quasi-apocalyptic feel but maybe that is because I know there are ravenous fires destroying acreage and homes, even killing people not that far away. It sobers me as I walk and gawk. Just three weeks ago we were on a four day vacation along the southern Oregon coast, and it was splendid there.

Salmon Creek, Cannon Beach, smoke 072

There are people making do with this holiday time (though there is a couple in a car from Minnesota who get out and get right back in and leave). Families, couples and lone walkers set out with cavorting dogs, seeking sights they can barely make out. It’s as if all are intent on fun despite this prohibition against ebullience and pleasure. I get it. We descend the steps, determined to feel waves grab at our toes, seek agates, observe stalwart gulls.

But as we saunter , we also marvel over how weird it is to see smoke blanketing the famous beach, half-hiding an oft-photographed Haystack Rock and beyond. Groups of people are drawn to it despite the conditions. I photograph here and there, taking things in with bewildered interest. Children and youths are the most unaffected by the smoggy air, racing about, splashing in the surf, shrieking at one another, urging their parents on. They cheer me even as I study the tree line and feel sadness edge into my general well being. The ocean is almost warmish, a rare thing, inviting as we slosh through rolling waves of a low tide, pick our way through seaweed and hollow crab shells and gelatinous blobs.

And all the time I am thinking: how much hotter this earth has become, how many more monster fires now ravage it: how this changes everything and we are not prepared for it. The beasts in air and sea and on ground are not, either, how can they be? How much life has perished in multitudinous wildfires? Once extensive, poorly contained fires seemed a more rare event. A tremor of fear ripples through me.

Growing up in Michigan, a state dominated by forested land, vast lakes and rivers, I seldom considered fire except to be respectful of it. To appreciate its beauty and usefulness for a summer or fall campfire or glowing fireplace or wood stove or, more seldom, a pig roast and party. Since making my home the Pacific Northwest I have developed a greater perspective and even some anxiety about it. The media carries coverage of alarming wildfires routinely much of the year. A ruinous dominance of fire is what I’ve learned here, not its utility or magnetism. How it can turn life into ashen debris.

So we stand still to observe. Walk as long as we can. Sniff the rancid edge of air but also that whiff of sea breeze sailing in from far away–the sweetness and pungency of it. Only at the beach do I have no significant allergies. Only at the beach do we both feel cleansed in the certain ways that waves/beach/wind/rocks can offer. I love our rain forests but the sea mystifies me in ways both foreign and familiar. It always demands attention, shows off its powers, shares wild beauty and reminds me how small I am in my humanness.

I try to be grateful and positive we are at the Pacific Ocean again but the smoke is becoming too much, clinging as if dropped from a huge dusty bag to lurk and float about. My eyes sting; I cough a little. I want out from under it, want it off my skin and out of my chest–and we have been in it only a couple of hours. We find Fultano’s, a pizza joint, and enjoy a tasty meal with icy drinks, then browse at Cannon Beach Bookstore. Someone explains the smoke is arriving from the north, blowing down from Washington and British Columbia wildfires, not California and southern Oregon as we thought. Not it sits here a few days. I am surprised it’s come from as far as Canada. I wonder how the smoke as it travels will impact weather patterns, where it will blow to descend next.

As we drive through and leave Coastal Mountains I follow ominous smoke, watch as it alters colors and shapes of surrounding land, as it so darkens late afternoon. As the elevation lessens again, it may be slowly fading; it might be gone soon. But, not: when we come closer to home we can see it has visited Portland. The waterfront of city center doesn’t sparkle as usual when summer light dresses it up in finery; it lies  sullen under heavy, smutty air as the start of sunset signals end of day. Proud Mt. Hood, a beacon as we enter the city, is hidden behind it. nightfall when I peek out, the half-moon glows red through a darkness made murky by the haze.

Salmon Creek, Cannon Beach, smoke 133

As I write this it’s been over four days of smoke dominating our activities in Portland and I know that this isn’t at all long compared to countless people seriously impacted. I’ve taken a couple brief walks in evening or early morning when it is perhaps less oppressive but I still feel the sting of the smoke–I can’t risk breathing too much  of it with heart disease. The neighborhood seems emptier with fewer runners, cyclists and scampering dogs with cheerful, chatty owners. Many of us are or feel captive indoors. My restless body and spirit long to play and work outside, just as in any season. The windows stay closed, the air conditioners on full blast to cool and filter our air. I run the purifier all day long. I can still smell it as it seeps into my home. Fires are engulfing much of northern California. They flare and spread in Western states as well as Canada’s besieged provinces. It is taking a heavy toll. We hope for the salvation of a number of serious drenchers to fall upon the flaming diverse and magnificent lands. It may be a long tough wait. It may bring too many more tears before it cools and starts to settle once more.

(To read a post on Oregon’s 2017 wildfires click here: https://talesforlife.blog/2017/09/06/beauty-and-this-beast-wildfire/)

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