I worried as flakes of ash fell from the sky like a hot summer blizzard. I worried as plumes of smoke appeared in the east, spread across the horizon and blocked out the sun. I worried as red-bellied air tankers landed at the airport, refilled, then flew east again.
Like so many others in the Valley and beyond, I watched and worried as the Rough fire threatened Hume Lake, retreated and roared back again.
My husband and his family had gone to Hume Lake every summer since 1968. As a person who loves life’s comforts, I am a reluctant but regular participant on these trips. There is agony and ecstasy when in-laws, siblings, cousins, babies and a dog share a 600-square-foot, turn-of-the-century, A-frame cabin borrowed from family friends.
Small countries are invaded with less planning and fewer provisions than it takes to get us up to the cabin for 72 hours. After unloading all our supplies, we always walk down to the boat ramp to survey what’s changed since the last trip.
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I wonder what the landscape will look like the next time we go.
Our days at Hume Lake all pass the same way. Adults fish at sunrise wearing layers of sweatshirts on top of pajamas and clutching hot cups of coffee in the cold as mist rises from the lake. One of us stays back at the cabin, watching over the collection of sleeping babies and little cousins who are too young to hold a rod and reel. They are warm and sleepy, tucked into unfamiliar beds with cold mountain air on their faces, and don’t want to get up. But if someone was really lucky fishing, the smell of fresh trout being fried for breakfast will wake them.
We drive down to the Christian Camp and sit on a bench outside the General Store, eating huge ice cream cones, and lazily reading the newspaper. After lunch, the little ones grow sleepy from the heat and take long naps. My husband makes pitchers of brutally strong margaritas, then he and his family sit around a picnic table, in the shade of a huge pine tree.
They talk, and play a complicated card game that no one knows the name of, and I don’t understand. I listen to chattering squirrels throw pine nuts on the roof, and watch families slowly push strollers around the lake. I try to read a book. I miss my WiFi.
While dinner is cooking, I walk my daughters and their pink Barbie fishing poles down to the boat ramp. I pull their hooks out of bushes, replace missing worms and wade out to retrieve bobbers snagged on rocks. The best part of the trip is watching the kids scream and laugh about the dozens of tiny fish they catch.
After we eat hamburgers and make s’mores, it’s dark and we are all tired. A line forms on the cabin stairs leading down to the bathroom. A dozen of us sit patiently, waiting turn to wash dusty faces. The water level is incredibly low, so there are no showers. Instead we make fun of whomever has the dirtiest feet and the scariest-looking hair.
Sleep is sparse for me. People are snoring in an off-key orchestra of wheezes, whistles and rumbles. My blanket smells like the fish fried at sunrise. I want a shower. And cable. I drift off as the temperature drops and the smell of the forest comes through an open window. I wake up grumpy and cold, when the sun rises and the birds begin to sing.
On Sunday morning, while we pack and clean the cabin, my husband walks to the lake by himself. When his brother was alive, the two of them carried a heavy canoe down the hill and spent hours catching trout in the deep spots above the dam. We could hear them laughing and joking with each other, all the way up to the cabin. Now he fishes from the water’s edge, alone. Hume Lake was the last trip his mom made with us before she passed away. She painted a beautiful watercolor of a pair of ducks paddling in Sandy Cove. That picture still hangs in our house. I know he’s thinking about all of those trips, and remembering wonderful times with loved ones no longer here.
We didn’t go on our trip this summer. Instead, as everything around the lake burned, I thought about all the love and laughter in that little cabin over 47 summers at Hume Lake.
While more air tankers rumbled east, I looked up and wondered how much longer the drought and this fire would last.
And I prayed again for rain.
Dawn Golik lives in Fresno with her husband and their two young daughters. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.