We are on a little boat moving slowly through the Montlake Cut, a canal built to link the salty waters of Puget Sound with glacial Lake Washington, stretching ribbon-like along the eastern shore of Seattle. In the distance, I know, are the off-ramps of the floating freeway. Some of the roads literally lead to nowhere – just massive truncated infrastructure built to carry even more cars, but left unfinished, providing perfect diving boards to plummet into the lake, or for paddling a canoe around their reedy passageways.

But today I can hardly make out the shape of the floating bridge as we pass it, unable to see much beyond the water skimming the boat. A veil of smoke hangs everywhere. It limits the normally expansive view across the long lake towards the Cascade Mountains, creating the sense that we are floating above more than just the surface of the water. We are out of time and place, out of civilisation, just suspended in heat and cloud.

It is an unreal version of a familiar view, but our eyes aren’t playing tricks. This forest-fire cloud is real. A state of emergency has been declared by the regional Washington State government. Seattle is thick with unfolding climate disaster, where smoke moving south from British Columbian wildfires converges with that from multiple blazes burning past the mountains in eastern Washington.

We’ve long feared this. It’s a consequence that’s been steadily emerging, despite the fact that this crisis is, or was, avoidable. Now this perilous cloud descends on the Pacific Northwest with frightening regularity. Cascadia, as a region that prides itself on its natural beauty, on its love for the environment, on a desire for sustainability, is especially shocked. We have recycled. We are eco-friendly and have bought carbon offsets. Many of us have stopped driving cars or gone electric. We have voted for climate-conscious politicians. But it has proved nowhere near enough.

One hundred corporations have generated more than half of the world’s emissions. The man we refuse to call our president has pulled out of the already precarious political agreements keeping our global ecosystems from the brink of collapse. People are in denial about the experience of entering a slow-motion breakdown; they can only look sideways at the smoke as it comes into focus for the second summer in a row. Climate breakdown is becoming our reality. A common question, half-panicked, half-resigned, asks: is this the new normal?

When I was a child, I was taught nothing about the Indigenous peoples who valued, respected and lived off this land for thousands of years. The Duwamish people call the lake Xacuabš, or ‘great amount of water’. Their ancestors came to this area at the end of the last glacial period, moving on and off the shores with the seasons. It’s hard to reconcile their centuries of peaceful stewardship of this region with Seattle’s founding in the mid-19th century, an act of colonialism locally lionised on the walls of settler-themed bistros around the city with old-time portraits of lumberjacks chopping down big trees. In just a few centuries, we’ve almost destroyed this paradise.

As the little boat moves out onto the vast lake, it dawns on me how foolish we seem. Breathing this air for a day is akin to smoking ten Marlboro cigarettes, the air quality deemed ‘very unhealthy’. Symptoms of being out in it too long include stinging eyes, a sore throat, irritated sinuses. Recommendations are to stay indoors. There are no other boats around, the dystopian atmosphere choking any hope for normal late-summer recreation. The bright red glowing sun shimmers across the surface of the lake, seeming to bleed above the distant city. But perhaps this sense of doom is why I felt so stubborn about the need to swim today.

Neither the local nor the national news in the United States ever uses the phrases ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’ or ‘ecological disaster’ to describe what is happening. The heat, the dry, the forest fires destroying habitats – even the disastrous flooding and hurricanes in other parts of the country – are reported in a manner unconnected to human impact, as if the weather were a magical phenomenon, created by a complex deity, that people are merely forced to navigate. Nonetheless, the spike in wildfires has been linked to rising temperatures in the region, but also to more than a century of preventing forests from burning naturally, together with the endless sprawl of suburban development encroaching on wilderness. The state predicts that by 2040 more than a million acres might burn each year.

So it feels urgent to be swimming now, in this smoky, impossible lake: not only to enjoy this world while it still exists as it is, but to face the reality of what is happening. I remember days I spent out on the lake as a child, on a boat just near this spot, a memory enshrined as perfect summer bliss: standard bright-blue sky and normal hot-yellow sun, Mount Rainier a perfect white pyramid towering over us to the south. Back then I believed the mountain, the lake, the fish – the world – would go on forever.

Our group, like an odd band of pirates wearing bikinis, with bandanas tied around our faces as makeshift filters, slowly moves towards the centre of the lake, near the middle of the floating bridge that carries an endless stream of cars from Bellevue to Seattle. From the boat, I gaze at the murky outline of the cars on the bridge beginning to slow to a halt, brake lights illuminating as the road clogs to a stop.

I jump into the water. I’m unsure how long we’ll last out here. The lake envelops my head, my scalp tingling from the welcome, cooling water. I roll around, turning onto my back, my face now unmasked, my eyes closed and turned up to the red orb hanging in the sky. And I listen underwater to the hum: the enclosed sound of millions of gallons of water, gently mixing and flowing. I think about the bottom of the lake, so deep, and I imagine that I can hear the quiet sounds of fish. I hope they are safe. I hope the depth is endless for them. I say a silent prayer of protection for the Earth, which echoes in my head, even though I think prayer is probably hopeless. And I bless the water, and the beautiful mountains that I can no longer see for the ash.

In a few days’ time, doubtless the smoke will clear. The collective panic will subside, and everyone will talk about something else. But I promise myself that I will remember this. That I will continue to rise to accept some kind of challenge, to do whatever I can to stop this mess, if only just by resisting apathy. With my arms spread wide like an angel, I float over the deep, ancient lake and shallowly breathe in the filthy air, savouring this beautiful and bitter moment, floating into the apocalypse.

Alexis Wolf lives in London, where she researches women’s lives and lectures on literature. She is working on a collection of essays about swimming.