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Smoke on the Water | Wildfires add wonder to a Lake Chelan visit

Blue depths, turquoise shallows, azure skies — they all went pffft! last autumn when smoke from distant wildfires clouded Lake Chelan and dimmed our hopes for a sun-filled weekend.

Memories of our lakeside visit in September 2020 are hazy. Not from mental erosion (although that’s not so far-fetched), but from smoke accumulation that veiled the waterscape and played peekaboo with nearby peaks.

On this particular weekend, at a house hugging the water’s edge, a smoky blanket from fires in Okanogan County and Oregon obscured much of our waterfront view. Air quality ranged each day from below 50 (“good”) to above 300 (“hazardous”), depending on the wind. One no-breeze morning, as the air quality index passed the 400 mark, I could basically see my arm, my coffee mug and gull droppings on the dock 30 feet away. Beyond that, the world was … well, there was no world.

But here’s the good news: The smoky cloak rejiggered expectations of what a lakeside getaway could be. For three days, the lake’s magnificence was shrouded in muffled mystery that piqued our curiosity and fueled our imaginations.

On the veranda, we sipped evening cocktails and wondered: What’s out there? We could hear voices, boat motors, goose honks and muted pop music (The Weeknd for our weekend), but sources of these sounds weren’t immediately apparent. Everything seemed farther away and yet much closer.

Once at sunset, a down-lake breeze thinned the murk to reveal a glide of paddle boarders. We had heard their laughter a full 10 minutes before they materialized just a dock’s-length away. “Ahoy!” they called. “Back ‘atcha!” we responded. Clearly, we hadn’t quite mastered marine lingo.

My friends and I all agreed that this Twilight Zone-ish getaway, certainly not touted in the Chamber of Commerce brochures, had become a once-in-a-lifetime lake experience. We realized these particular conditions — water, wind, wildfire, wonder — would most likely never happen again for us. These few days were special and, more importantly, damned interesting.

More good news: We were already fortified with COVID-19 masks, which turned out to be effective filters against woodsmoke particulates.

On our second morning, the smoky veil was brighter by, say, two shades of gloom — the perfect day, we decided, for a trip to Stehekin. The express boat could whisk us to this isolated community — accessible by water, on foot or seaplane, if you had one handy — and have us back in time for an afternoon nap.

For most of the boat ride the lake’s stunning scenery was dimly visible. Majestic mountains, verdant valleys, primeval forests — we knew they were there somewhere, waiting stoically for our ooh’s and ahh’s. Just not today.

We contented ourselves by pondering shoreline shapes (hiker? bear? Sasquatch?) and studying other passengers (is he gonna eat that whole bag of chips?)

As we neared the Stehekin dock, the smoke miraculously thinned to reveal lighter-than-usual crowds and open-armed locals encouraging us to see the sights, buy some food and return later for a longer visit. We hopped a free shuttle bus to a surprisingly unsmoky Rainbow Falls, grabbed a Ranch-Bacon-Swiss Chicken Pocket at the Stehekin Pastry Company and chatted with our young bus driver about living in what many visitors must consider paradise.

“It’s remote, it’s beautiful, and it’s just a few hours from the restaurants and wineries in Chelan,” he said. “I frequently remind myself of that.”

Hours later, back at the house, the smoke had re-thickened and smelled of burnt forest. We sat on the deck, sipped our drinks and listened to muffled laughter, a splash, a whoop. We laughed, too, with whoever was out there swimming in the void.

Sure, the weekend’s smoke had suppressed the lake’s sights and sounds, but not our appreciation for Nature’s shifting spirit — solid and vaporous, seen and unseen, real and imagined.