As I walked out of the bathroom’s floodlight and into the darkness, I switched on my headlamp in order to see better. The stream of light illuminated thousands of tiny particles in the air floating around like snow caught up in wind. It was smoke. The smoke was so thick the air had a three-dimensional vibe to it.
Not only was breathing in this unhealthy air a problem, but I was there to see sweeping vistas and blue skies, not a gray haze. Hazardous air quality and low visibility are what the National Weather Service called it. “Hopefully, it will move out by the morning,” I thought.
I began planning for my trip to Crater Lake National Park in March with my trip scheduled for the first week of September. I knew the risk of going in wildfire season. A wildfire could potentially cancel my plans.
The 2021 fire season was bad, really bad. Around July I began to keep tabs on the news coming out of California. And then mid-July the Dixie Fire began to burn. It would eventually become the largest single wildfire in California’s history.
I still had a month and a half before my planned trip, so I hoped I’d be OK. But the Dixie Fire was extremely close to my second leg of the planned trip – Lassen Volcanic National Park. I was really looking forward to the volcano exploration trip. But as the Dixie Fire crept into the park boundaries, I knew I was going to need to have a backup plan.
The National Park Service tells us often on social media to “plan like a park ranger.” And having a backup plan is part of planning like a park ranger. My backup plan was to visit Redwood National and State Parks. Don’t get me wrong, I have been wanting to go to the redwoods for quite a while. But I really was looking forward to Lassen Volcanic National Park.
As the time inched closer to the start of the trip, I watched the Dixie Fire like a hawk. That is until I saw on the map that the fire had spread into the campground where I had reservations.
And then my obsession became the air quality. Crater Lake is famous for its blue waters. But without the bright blue sky and sun to illuminate the water, it’s just gray. Also, the overlooks for Crater Lake are much higher than the lake itself. So poor air quality can obscure the view.
I thought about changing my plans, but the problem is that smoke pollution is determined by the wind. So if I switched from Carter Lake to another park nearby, the wind might have shifted before I could have gotten there leaving Crater Lake clear and the new destination socked in. Redwood National and State Park is on the coast and has the advantage of wind pushing away from the sea. The smoke was close to the redwoods, but it seemed to be staying away.
Two days before I left for my trip, a coworker asked me if I had canceled my Crater Lake portion. I told him that I hadn’t. “Isn’t it going to be smoky?” he asked. “It’s going to be smoky,” I answered.
It made me think about the plethora of memes showing expectation versus reality. We really need to plan for reality. Leave No Trace Principle 1 tells us to plan ahead and prepare.
Even we do a lot of planning and preparing, there are times when we are still going to be let down. For example, all the research and planning, I did for Yosemite National Park did not prepare me for the urban feel I think the park has.
My training as a Leave No Trace Trainer helped me prepare for the reality that was what I experienced at Crater Lake National Park. In planning ahead and preparing, I knew to research everything about the park and my destination. I also knew to familiarize myself with the weather and the risk it may cause. This planning helped me mentally prepare for the possibility that I may not be able to see Crater Lake, even from the rim.
After I walked back to my campsite from the bathroom that first night at the park, I prayed for at least one clear day. The next morning I awoke before the sunrise and found a great place to watch it over the lake.
As the sun rose, I could see a film of smoke hanging in the air, but at least I could see the lake. However, by early afternoon smoke completely filled the air, leaving no visibility of the lake.
I awoke before the sunrise again the next morning, but this time the smoke was thick and still lingering around. Thankful for a few hours of visibility during my trip, I packed up and moved on to the redwoods.
My trip could have been really disappointing. But learning to plan and prepare well helped me enjoy what I did have.