The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In a summer scarred by heat, drought and fire, adaptation becomes a necessity

Haze from Canadian wildfires hangs over downtown Minneapolis on July 30. (Caroline Yang for The Washington Post)

In the vast tract of wilderness that is the Boundary Waters area of northern Minnesota, kayakers still ply the glasslike surface. But they do so beneath a smoke-clogged sky, with no campfires to warm them on chilly summer nights.

In California’s wine country, backyard gardeners still harvest lush tomatoes and nurture feathery lavender. But they must use water recycled from sinks and showers, risking hefty fines should they dare run the hose amid crushing drought.

And at sports camps across the Pacific Northwest, raucous kids still chase one another — and occasionally the ball — as they sprint from goal to goal. But they’re more likely to be indoors, forced to retreat from the inferno-like temperatures raging outside.

“This is what our summers are going to be like moving forward,” said Jason Frazier, president of Skyhawk Sports Academy. “We have to adapt.”

Adaptation is, indeed, the name of the game this summer.

With extreme weather ripping across the American West — historically large wildfires, unfathomably high temperatures, a megadrought decades in the making — the reality of a changing climate has never been so omnipresent.

At the same time, a country seeking relief from more than a year of pandemic-inspired anxiety and isolation has perhaps never been so desperate to embrace recreation in the natural world.

The result has been a collision — and, ultimately, a negotiation. Americans are still getting out this summer to do all the things the season is good for. But they’re making compromises and adjustments, a recognition that human-driven climate change is not some abstract notion for the future, but a determining factor in how Earth can be experienced today.

Amid summer of fire and floods, a moment of truth for climate action

“Climate change makes all these kinds of extreme weather events that much more probable,” said Nick Bond, a climatologist at the University of Washington. “If you don’t like it, I’m sorry. But this is probably something that we’re going to have to deal with again.”

Some of the shifts Americans are making in response offer blunt reminders of the scale of the climate crisis. Others obscure it, making it possible to pretend that nothing much has changed.

On Lake Powell — the nation’s second-largest reservoir and a haven for boating enthusiasts — the bathtub ring along the surrounding sandstone cliffs tells an unmistakable story.

Two decades of drought have brought the lake to its lowest-ever level, with a decline this year that has been especially pronounced.

“We’ve all known there was a drought,” said William Shott, superintendent of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which encompasses the lake. “But I don’t think anyone saw how drastic this year was going to be. It’s been very sudden.”

The falling water level has had consequences: On the late July day that Shott was speaking, only two of the lake’s 11 boat ramps were operational. The others had been stranded high and dry.

Yet it could have been far worse: Throughout the summer, divers and barge operators have been working furiously to move marinas closer to the water. Utility lines have been shifted, too. Wells have had to be refashioned to keep water pumping at the park’s hotels and restaurants.

Next month, a new multimillion-dollar ramp will open so boaters can reach Lake Powell even if it hits “dead pool” levels — a once-unthinkable point that would render it virtually useless as a reservoir.

“That’s the type of scrambling we’re doing here now just to maintain access,” Shott said.

Hundreds of miles downstream, at Lake Mead, it’s a similar story, with the water level at the nation’s largest reservoir having fallen by a Statue of Liberty-sized amount. And as with Lake Powell, workers have been so busy moving ramps and making other adjustments that the casual boater might not even notice.

“There’s still a lot of water there,” said Chad Taylor, who directs sales and marketing at Lake Mead Mohave Adventures, which manages marinas, motels and restaurants on the lake. “If it wasn’t for the bathtub ring, you wouldn’t know that the lake level is so low. It just means more sandy beaches.”

In Missoula, Mont. — a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts with its easy access to national forests — the wildfire-infused air this summer has been harder to ignore. It has made the surrounding hills hazy and cast everything under a slight yellowish pall.

“This year is looking like it’s going to be one of the worst ones,” said Pam Gardiner, a retired Forest Service employee in her 70s who said she checks the air quality online a couple of times a day.

On a recent Monday, the air was crossing into “unhealthy.” She was heading home from a running club meeting where the smoke was on people’s minds. Gardiner said she tries to get outside a couple hours at a time for distance training, but lately, she’s stuck on a treadmill.

“It takes some of the joy out of summer,” Gardiner said. As she spoke, she cleared her throat every few minutes. The smoke irritates her chronic cough.

Michael Hodges, a 45-year-old writer and wildlife photographer, has lived in the Missoula area since 2014, drawn by the abundant wilderness.

Yet this summer, he said, fire has put his favorite high-altitude lakes off-limits. Many roads are closed. “Typically I can escape the heat and the smoke by driving to one of these remote national forest spots,” he said. “But it’s so all-encompassing that that’s off the table.”

Now he is looking to move.

“This is my home, and I love it, dude,” he said. “But the smoke — it’s driving me out.”

The vast scale of the wildfire threat makes it hard to know where to go for relief.

More than 1,000 miles east of Missoula, Minnesota’s Twin Cities region was coated in suffocating air pollution last week. Some of those seeking a break drove hours north to the shores of Lake Superior, where they found . . . more smoke.

“When we got here Thursday from Minneapolis, it was really bad,” said Lauren Schroeder, 41, who was staying at a lakeside resort. “It smelled like burning plastic. It’s gotten better, but you can definitely feel it in the air.”

The thick air made Schroeder think twice about hiking and other outdoor activities with her four kids. “It’s unfortunate because you come up here for the fresh air and to get away from the cities,” she said, “and then you have to rethink your plans.”

The smoke plus the dry conditions are keeping some people away entirely. A fire ban in the area, which extends west to the Boundary Waters, has made the idea of camping unpalatable.

“I have a friend who was planning to spend nine days on the Superior Hiking Trail,” said Hans Krengel, owner of WatersEdge Trading Company in Tofte, along the North Shore. “She decided to cancel her trip.”

To those living in the path of wildfires, staying home carries its own peril.

Chris Windbiel packs a bag every night with her best clothes and key household items and keeps it by her bed, along with a head lamp in case of a wildfire evacuation order in the California wine country town of Healdsburg.

In addition to wildfires and smoke, which have plagued the town for years, the area is experiencing a severe drought, with mandatory water rationing. Sprinklers or irrigation are both banned, on pain of fines of up to $1,000 per day.

Windbiel’s husband, John Wiest, recently bought a “tote,” a plastic container for liquids capable of holding 275 gallons, to take advantage of the city’s new program to deliver free “gray water” — recycled from other uses — once a week to residents. “I’m trying to keep my trees, flowers, garden and tomatoes alive,” Wiest said.

In the water-rich Pacific Northwest, the twin plagues this summer have been heat and fire.

Frazier, who runs the chain of sports camps, said in addition to shifting kids indoors when necessary to avoid record-beating temperatures or unhealthy air, his programs have moved to earlier in the day, with more water breaks and coaches instructed to be vigilant for signs of overheating.

And as extraordinary as this summer has been in the Northwest, he doesn’t expect next summer — or any summer — to be fundamentally different.

“That’s the new normal,” he said. “That’s the way we’re going to have to conduct business now.”

Knowles reported from Missoula, Regan reported from Grand Marais, Minn., and Olmos reported from Portland. Lea Donosky in Healdsburg contributed to this report.