Northern California, August 2020.
Wildfire smoke was a daily part of life by now, and for 300 miles in every direction, there was no escaping it. What a time to go camping.
Yet it wasn’t just camping, I’d converted my Jeep into a camper and set out on an open-ended quest. There was no choice but to endure the smoke as I hightailed it from Lake Tahoe up U.S. 395, past blackened land and into the small hamlet of Susanville, CA. Everything tinged with an orange hue, passing firefighters battling blazes on both sides of the highway. The town of 17,974 was in emergency mode from Wal-Mart to Main Street.
On all sides of the seat of Lassen County were wildfires, through clearings in the smoke you could see huge plumes rising from the forest. My goal of making it to Lassen Volcanic National Park began to feel foolhardy, but on I went. The landscape was reminiscent of the world if a volcano had just erupted. The blood-red sky, the thick sea of smoke permeating the trees, the occasional fire truck watching for hot spots.
Searching the smoke map for a clean stretch of air, I found the U.S. 199 corridor: the gateway to the Redwood Empire. I changed my heading to the west, thankful that a low-pressure system was hovering over the North Pacific, blowing in an offshore wind that kept the coastal mountains free from ash. It felt like the Coastal Redwoods in their organic mysticism were fighting off the evil noxious smoke. Windows down, sun dancing between the trees, the blue skies were a refreshing change.
Coastal Redwoods take around 500 years to reach maturity. Many of these trees are over 1,500 years old, have diameters nearing 20 feet, and heights ranging up to 300 feet. They are typically better viewed outside of fire season, though the beauty was certainly still there. The Smith River running throughout the region is a national treasure — crisp, clear water flowing past pristine groves of ancient trees. Mountains descend to the Pacific’s picturesque shores, the river a crystal vein connecting the forest to the sea.
I was lucky to find an idyllic river spot highlighted by a venerable rush of the river, bringing a calmness to the forest. A major contrast from the fire and brimstone I experienced in the Sierra Nevada Range and the San Joaquin Valley.
The Smith River was discovered during an 1823 expedition that was to be the foundation for the Oregon Trail. The river was named after Jedediah Strong Smith: a transcontinental pioneer, frontiersman, hunter, and cartographer. I found myself floating in the river; a perfect late summer temperature and pace lost in daydreams of adventurers and mountain men roaming this unknown land long ago. Jed Smith and the explorers endured attacks by Native Americans, bears, and inclement weather — hardly a comparison to today’s van-lifers and tourists, but the adventurous spirit continues on into these storied woods.
But I was soon disturbed by a plastic invader bumping into my head. A water bottle, the most avoidable of the plastic family, was making its way to the ocean via the Smith River. Luckily I grabbed it before it continued on, only to discover his reinforcements coming: a plastic chip bag and a meat snack wrapper that I jointly arrested and carried to shore to the trash. I was proud of my river bound heroics until I saw it…
Several piles of human excrement adorned with toilet paper. A horrifying break in camping etiquette, worsened by the surrounding bushes being haunted by an array of trash from multiple picnics.
“What would Jed Smith do?” I thought, the water on my body already drying in the drought-stricken forest, the wet trash in my hands begging to be put away. Upon finding such a mess there are two options: be a part of the problem, or do your part to solve the problem. Consider doing your part, like paying a tax for being in nature. Leaving No Trace is about paying it forward so that others can experience the beauty of untouched nature.
Nothing compares to a bath in the river after a riverside cleanup. What ends up in the river makes its way to the sea, and every one of those items was bound for the North Pacific. Picking up extends beyond yourself — if you see it in nature it is up to you to take care of it. No matter where you go, leave it better than you found it.
By the next morning, the wind had shifted, blowing from the southeast and driving the smoke north along the coast. Fires in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho kept the West covered in smoke for over a month. As I crossed each of those states, I was met with trash scattered from forest to coast, mountain to desert. It became a hobby, a daily challenge; to go out on trash walks in the smoke, picking up the beer cans and cigarette butts of many camping trips before. Make it a habit: anything that comes into nature with you comes back with you.
According to the FAS (Federation of American Scientists), 2020 brought 58,250 wildfires burning 10.27 million acres nationwide, topping the 2015 record — making 2020 the most impacted year since 1960. 40% of that blackened land was in California. An average of 88% of wildfires from 2015 to 2019 were sparked by humans, beating out lightning for the number one cause.
Respecting nature and doing what is right is the only way to preserve the wilds for the future. It is important to remember that defending nature comes from the small moments, like picking up trash or putting your campfire out properly.
Walking into the woods with a trash grabber and a bag is sexy! Accept that being passionate for the outdoors requires custodianship in the modern age. Last year showed us a future void of nature’s caretakers…
Let 2020 be a call to action for us all.