Hiking the Sierra

A dog with a job makes the perfect hiking partner
By Suzanne Roberts, June 2014

Trying to hitch a ride from Kennedy Meadows to the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead at Sonora Pass in the eastern Sierra, we didn’t see our handsome dog Ely as liability. Who wouldn’t want to pick up a nice couple—freshly showered, with laundered clothes—and their fuzzy, backpack-sporting dog?

Every car that passed, that’s who. Cars sped by, but still, no one stopped.

Finally, a pick-up truck slowed down. Three happy dogs vied for window space. The driver told us to hop in. “Good looking dog,” he said, pointing to Ely.

My husband Tom got in the back with Ely, and I sat up front with the driver and his dogs. It turned out that the driver had picked us up because he liked the look of our dog. So Ely really had been an asset, not just hiking the trails, but also, hitchhiking the highway.

At the Sonora Pass parking lot, I walked to the back of the truck to grab my pack and we started our 80-mile hike home to Tahoe. We continued up the pass, past the snow-patched, volcanic Leavitt Peak and granitic Tower Peak etched into the southern sky. When the trail crested the saddle, we could see aquamarine Wolf Lake nestled in the rocks below; the forested Carson-Iceberg Wilderness stretched beyond. Clouds had already begun to form on the horizon.

***

At home, Ely barks his head off at any sign of bear, coyote, squirrel or human. If a stranger happens to try to walk up our driveway, Ely springs into protection mode, barking, and eventually, if the warning is not heeded, biting. These are the kinds of things that we see as bad-dog behavior, antisocial problems that have resulted in complaints from neighbors and visits from animal control and even the police. These same behaviors become good-dog behaviors when Ely is on the trail.

Ely would never show aggression to a passing hiker, but once he’s tied up at our campsite, watch out. He stays up all night protecting us from all manner of bear and chipmunk. Though we bring a bear canister, no bear has ever gotten close to our food with Ely around. And strange humans elicit the greatest response, with is fine by me, especially if I’m hiking alone.

Ely was a rescue, formerly known as Buddy. And before that, Yeti. And before that, possibly Cujo. He had cycled through at least three households—places that we have since learned must not have been very nice to him. My husband and I had been trolling Petfinder.com separately, and we each came to the other, saying we thought we may have found “the one.” We showed each other pictures of the same dog, a smiling Chow/Shepherd/Elk Hound. He was scheduled to be at an adoption fair at the Petco in Carson City. “Let’s just go down and check him out,” my husband said. “We need running shoes anyway.”

We both knew that neither of us could just go “check out” a dog without bringing him home, but the people at Petco said this was a very special dog. They said we would have to fill out an application to get on a waiting list, and we wouldn’t be able to take him home right away.

The lady at Petco asked about my elderly dog, Riva, whom we had brought with us to make sure the dogs got along. When she found out that Riva had undergone TPLO on both legs—a $7,000 expense—she told us, “You can take Buddy home!”

“But I thought there was a waiting list.”

“You’re at the top,” she said, looking down at smiling, 14-year-old Riva. “He’s yours. You can take him home now.”

We didn’t buy running shoes that day, but we did end up with a dog.

On the car ride home, the newly named Ely squeezed himself out of the car window. I grabbed his hind legs and dragged him back in as we sped down the highway. Then my husband and I decided to stop at the dog park on the way home. To this day, I am not sure why we did this. With all the trails and open space in Lake Tahoe, there is no real reason to ever visit a dog park. Having a new dog apparently muddled our thinking.

Neither dog seemed interested in socializing with the other dogs. However, Ely trotted over to a seven-foot-tall man in a motorcycle jacket and leather riding chaps. He circled the man, then lifted his leg and peed on him. Proud of his efforts, he did a celebratory after-pee kick, showering the man’s urine-drenched pants with wood chips. We apologized, telling the man that we had just gotten this dog, that we didn’t really know him—he was just barely ours. This did nothing to appease him; he scoffed at us as he tried to wash off in the drinking fountain.

This was just the beginning of Ely helping us make friends.

Ely quickly showed signs of food aggression and guarding, so we fed the dogs separately. Full of wanderlust, Ely taught himself to scale the roof of my two-story A-frame and slide down the other side to the unfenced part of the yard. Once he attained freedom, he took himself for a long walk by the river. When I saw the movie Marley and Me, my first thought was, That’s nothing! Ely makes Marley look like a furry saint. Riva would just look at Ely and shake her head.

But put a pack on Ely, and he is the best hiking companion we could ask for. Ely looks forward to wearing his pack, and once it’s on, he’s all business. Passing hikers exclaim, “He has his own pack. How cute!” but Ely marches by, logging 20 miles a day without complaint. Depending on the terrain, we put his hiking booties on, too, and then he’s a real showstopper. “That dog’s wearing shoes!” people will say. One PCT thru-hiker even said in earnest, “I love your dog. No, really, I love him,” while another thru-hiker whose trail name was Train and who wore a wedding dress (one of the 26 he brought with him on his journey) featured Ely on his blog. While Ely doesn’t exactly love his shoes, and if he wears them too long, he’ll get blisters (like we do), they save his pads on shale and sharp granite.

With his backpack and booties, he’s not only cute, he’s a dog with a job. And as my friend Sandra says, “A dog without a job is a bad dog.” We often forget that dogs are animals. Their affinity for humans has helped them survive on an evolutionary level, but they are still animals with animal instincts. As we have learned from Ely, a questionable puppyhood will hone instincts that clash with household rules. But give a dog a job and those instincts will work for everyone. The behaviors that make Ely a very bad dog—his tirelessness and desire to protect us—make him the perfect hiking partner in the backcountry. Aside from offering us his protection and packing our trash (along with his own food), Ely helps us live in the moment. Backpacking is, after all, a metaphor for life: many miles of slow progression punctuated by moments of excitement and epiphany, beauty and bliss.

***

We descended into the valley of the East Fork of the Carson River, where we stopped for a splash in one of the many pools along the way and enjoyed a creek-side lunch and nap.

After a few days along the Carson, the trail then climbed again along a wildflower-decorated ridge, offering views of the granitic valley below. In another couple of days, we reached the Ebbetts Pass area, where Kinney Lakes offered good camping. Our route then climbed through another surreal volcanic landscape, craggy cliffs notching the Sierra sky. The trail clung to the edge of this ancient volcanic flow, with its rusty pinnacles hovering above like the spires of gothic cathedrals; Indian paintbrush, pennyroyal and mule ears scattered flashes of orange, purple and yellow across an otherwise rocky landscape.

We followed the trail back into the forest, passing a chain of alpine lakes that we all enjoyed swimming in. At the Forestdale divide, we entered the Mokelumne Wilderness, and leashed Ely to comply with wilderness regulations. We traversed the edge of Elephants Back, catching views of the appropriately named Nipple to the southeast and hulking Round Top Peak ahead. The afternoon sun drained us all, especially Ely, who struggled to find shade in the treeless landscape. There would be no place for a belly soak until we reached the saddle and arrived at Frog Lake, so we took off his pack and Tom carried it. I poured the rest of my drinking water over him, hoping it would help. Still, he didn’t want to get up and hike. Sitting there in the sun wasn’t going to work either.

“Try giving him treats,” I said.

Tom took the treats from Ely’s pack and set them in front of him. He ate a few and looked up at us.

“Give him some more,” I said.

Tom gave him a few more, and Ely ate them and then picked himself up off the ground and continued walking. I was relieved; it is one thing to carry his pack, another thing entirely to carry him. But Ely wasn’t overheated, just low on energy, which happens to us all when we spend the day hiking. Considering the exposed ridge of Elephants Back, we were lucky to have the sun. We would not have been able to safely cross the ridge in a lightning storm.

At the saddle, we stopped for a late lunch and a dip in Frog Lake before continuing across Carson Pass. The trail skirted along the side of Red Lake Peak through granite, aspen, juniper and wildflowers until it reached a small pond. Beyond it, we caught our first glimpse of Lake Tahoe—in Mark Twain’s words, “The fairest picture the whole earth affords.” Seeing the lake made us feel like we were already home. At Meiss Meadow, we turned off the PCT and followed the Tahoe Rim Trail toward Round Lake and Big Meadow.

Every day, we hiked as many miles as we could until the afternoon storms forced us to find shelter. Some days, we found a safe spot in a strand of trees, where we would sit on our packs and wait out the lightning. Once the skies cleared, we’d continue hiking until dusk, locate a campsite, feed Ely, then feed ourselves. Ely slept until we got into our tent and then woke up for his all-night patrol duty.

Each afternoon storm seemed more violent than the one of the day before, but the reprieve that last afternoon made us think that maybe the weather pattern had changed.

We woke up at Round Lake and headed for home, more than 20 miles away, hiking the easy three miles to the highway before breakfast. We crossed Highway 89, ate granola and then started up the grade to Tucker Flat. It was still early, but gray clouds tumbled over the pine-swathed horizon.

I asked Tom if he thought we should keep going.

“What are our choices?” he asked.

“I don’t know … turn around? Call someone to pick us up at the Big Meadow parking lot?”

“No way,” Tom said. “I want to hike home.” Ely seemed to agree.

So we continued up the pass. Clouds laddered the sky, shadowed by the first roll of thunder; white flashes ignited the sky. The rain started, and I said, “We’d better find cover.”

The trail clung to the edge of the ridge, exposed. The distance between thunderclaps and flashes narrowed. The gray sky fell as rain, then hail, soaking and then freezing us.

“Here,” Tom said, pointing to a small outcropping of rocks. We crawled under the granite and sat on our packs. The boulders had fallen down the side of the mountain and leaned against one another, creating a space beneath just big enough for the three of us.

The hail bounced into our small cave, but for the most part, we stayed dry. I looked down at Ely, who saw this as the perfect opportunity for a nap. I wanted to be more like him. We couldn’t do anything other than what we were doing—sitting on our packs in what we thought was the safest spot around—so what good would panicking do? Dogs live in the moment, not fearing the real or imagined dangers of the future. This is probably why we love them so much. They teach us how to be happy where we are, even if where we are is squatting in lightning position, rain and hail soaking our skin and fur.

“Is this safe?” I asked.

“Safest place around,” Tom said.

“But we’re right under that giant red fir,” I pointed. “And what if lightning strikes the granite above us? Won’t we get ground splash?”

“We’re okay,” Tom said. Really, we were in the best place within a terrible set of options—the front had moved in too quickly for us to make it back down the exposed ridge. Hovering under this outcropping of rocks was better than standing out on the trail, but just barely.

Rain seeped into the cracks between the granite and fell in curtains around us. That’s when it occurred to me that the water might dislodge the boulders, which would crush us. I tried to concentrate on the smell of wet minerals and earth, of pine sap and sage, but I could smell only my own fear—a mixture of sweat, salt and insect repellent. I pulled my legs up so I wasn’t touching the ground. I tried to see the situation through Ely’s perspective—we were just taking a nap break. Tom had managed to learn a thing or two from Ely; he too had fallen fast asleep. I took out my journal and began to write.

Tom opened an eye and said, “Does it calm you to write?”

I agreed that it did, even though the rain smeared the ink.

That’s when a clap of thunder accompanied a flash of lightning directly overhead, and I yelled, “Frick. Frick. Frick.” Though frick isn’t what I said.

“Stop yelling,” Tom said. “I thought you said writing calmed you.”

“I am calm. This is as much calm as I can manage.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Are you sure we’re safe here?”

“Well, there’s nothing we can do, so you might as well get some sleep,” he said, and nodded off again. Ely adjusted his position under his pack and let out a sleepy sigh.

Water pooled beneath my pack. The hail had turned to rain, blurring out the forest with its gray veil. Even the air held a smell of burning things, of fire and ash.

Nothing reminds you of your own mortality like a lightning storm—a sky cracking open. Unless, of course, you’re a dog. Then life is here in the present tense, where even if there’s imminent danger, there’s no reason not to be happy. I worry so much that I’ve practically reached professional status, and I am here to say that worrying has never saved me from anything, except maybe happiness.

The hail started again and lightning flashed so close that I could see the after-image in the sky. Tom woke up and said, “Another front moving through. We’re probably going to get some close hits.” This is not something anyone hovering under a pile of rocks in a lightning storm wants to hear.

I counted between the flashes and the claps of thunder. Each one less than a second apart. “Frick,” I shouted again.

“Shhh! With love.” I have always hated being told to be quiet, so this is the way we have come up with for Tom to tell me when I’m being too loud. Which is often.

“I can’t help it.”

“Keep writing,” he said.

The creek bubbled with its white noise. The dog remained unbothered, curled in a ball, asleep. Unflappable dog, unflappable husband. Panic-stricken me.

A mosquito landed on my knee, also seemingly unbothered by the storm as she looked for a way to drill into my skin with her proboscis. I admired her fearlessness as I brushed her away.

The worst of the storm rumbled off into the distance. “Let’s go,” Tom said. We got our packs on and climbed the ridge toward Tucker Flat. A soaked chipmunk lay twitching on the trail, had perhaps fallen from a lightning-struck fir. I could not help but think, That could have been me. The blackened trees charted a history of fire and storm. “I think we should pick up the pace,” I said. I am famously slow except when lightning is involved.

Dusk fell, and we followed the yellow spray of our headlamps. The forest hunched over us, and I jumped away from a bullfrog in the path, an animal I had never before seen in Tahoe. I thought of something E.L. Doctorow said: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” This has gotten me through writing books and now it would get me through hiking home at night in the rain. I could see only a few feet in front of me, but I knew that after enough dark steps, I would reach the front door of our house. Ely ambled along, wagging his tail. If Ely could make the choice to be happy, so could I.

“I love hiking with you and Ely,” I told Tom.

“I love hiking with Ely, too. And I love having you in my life.” Rather than to try to decide if this was Tom’s way of getting out of telling me he loved hiking with me, too, I told my mind to Shh! With love, and like Ely, accepted everything for what it was. 

Suzanne Roberts is the author of Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award). She writes and teaches in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

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