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Live, Play, Travel

Hiking with Dogs – How to keep them happy and healthy

August 3, 2015

I saw a bumper sticker a while back that said “Colorado: A dog in every Subaru” and I had to laugh because it seemed pretty damn accurate.

We’ve been in Colorado for almost a decade now and we don’t have a Subaru but we do have a couple dogs. Dogs who have lived awesome, outdoorsy lives. They are our hiking buddies, our camping buddies, our biking buddies, and our paddleboarding buddies. They have probably spent more nights sleeping under the stars than many people have in their entire lives and they are pretty much up for any adventure.

Allow me to introduce them to you!

This is Maddie. At almost eleven years old she is the matriarch of our little pack. We adopted her from the Leavenworth Animal Welfare Society when she was around a year old and she has been the best adventure buddy a girl could ask for. She has climbed 15 of Colorado’s 14ers, ran more miles with me than I’ll ever be able to count, accompanied me on mountain bike rides all over Kansas and Colorado, and kept me warm on cold nights in the tent. She’s getting up there in age and starting to slow down a bit but, for the most part, she’s still got it!

hiking dogs

This crazy girl is Spotty. We adopted her from the good folks at Boulder Humane Society when she was just a pup. This dog is seriously up for anything. Hiking, running, mountain biking, camping …. you name it, she’ll do it! She’s also the dog that I take standup paddleboarding with me when I don’t have a kid on board! She is a big cuddly teddy bear of a dog with a bit of a rebellious streak. She’s been known to sneak out of the tent in the middle of the night, go romping around in the woods for an hour or so, and then sneak back in before anyone noticed she was gone. We’re pretty sure that she’s out meeting her boyfriend or knocking back whiskey sours in the woods.

These two have been our constant companions in all things outdoorsy and over the years we have learned a lot about how to keep them healthy and happy when we are out and about. We’ve had a lot of grand adventures, a couple failures, and learned a ton along the way. And now I’m going to share some of what we’ve learned with you!

We’ll leave water and snow-based adventures for another day. For now, let’s talk about how to keep everyone safe when out hiking in the backcountry.

Know their limits.

hiking dogs

Maddie on the lower slopes of Mt. Massive.

Before you take any dog on a hike it is important to have some idea of what their limits are. Dogs are a lot like people in that they need to be conditioned to both the distances that you plan to do as well as the environment that they are going to be hiking in. If you live at 2,000 feet above sea level, don’t exercise regularly, and have never hiked more than a few miles, you probably won’t have a very enjoyable time trying to do a long hike at 12,000+ feet. The same goes for your dog. Five miles into a ten mile hike is not the time to learn that five miles is your dog’s limit!

Know your limits too.

Hiking with a dog is not at all unlike hiking with a small child. You are responsible for their health and well-being. You need to be clear-headed enough to make decisions about what is good and safe for the both of you. And you are going to be the one that will have to figure out how to get both of you off the trail in the event that things go very wrong. There are plenty of horrible stories about dogs being left on the side of mountains because their owners needed to make a quick getaway. You don’t want to be that guy.

Bring the right gear for your route.

Maddie had probably done 12 fourteeners with us when we took her on Mt of the Holy Cross’s long and jagged Halo Ridge. At 15-miles, this was a long hike for her, but she had easily knocked out several hikes that were much longer. We really weren’t too worried. And then, halfway across the sharp, talus filled route, her feet began to hurt. As soon as we realized what was happening we put her Ruffwear GripTrex booties on which made the situation infinitely better. Without those booties, there’s a pretty good chance we would have been carrying her down from 14,000 feet. We don’t use booties all the time but when they are necessary, they are really necessary.

hiking dogs

Maddie enjoying the view, and her booties, on the summit of La Plata Peak.

Dogs need water too!

Just because a dog can’t ask for water doesn’t mean that it isn’t thirsty! If your hike happens to parallel a stream or lake, this isn’t as much of a concern, but if you are hiking in the desert or above treeline where water sources are few and far between, you’ll want to be sure to have plenty of water with you for both you and your dog.

Know when to leave them at home.

Much as we may want to take our dogs with us everywhere, not every hike or trip is a dog friendly one. And just because your dog can do a hike, doesn’t mean that it should. Dogs are notorious for chasing wildlife and knocking rocks down onto hikers below them. Our dogs can certainly handle Class 3 scrambling but, to us, the risks to them and others aren’t worth the rewards. We also leave them home pretty much anytime we will be heading into the desert (not that dogs can’t hike in the desert but, for us, it’s not worth the extra worry) or when the temperatures will be hot.

Looking down on the final stretch to the Class 3 summit of Kit Carson Peak. My dogs would have probably handled this much better than we did but I was really happy that we left them at home!

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Live, Play, Travel

How dangerous is Kalalau, really?

June 15, 2015

Pull up any list of “most dangerous trails” and “hardest trails” and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find the Kalalau Trail sitting pretty well near the top. And it’s easy to see why: The trail is narrow and exposed, crumbly and slick. Clouds hanging over the coastline dump rain onto unsuspecting hikers. The wind picks up and threatens to throw you off the trail, straight into the angry, crashing sea below. It’s long and hot and chances are you’ll be carrying 30 pounds, or more, on your back. It’s not easy.

It’s also not that hard.

Last winter, when we first started talking about hiking the trail, I was a little concerned. Between the list of superlatives that have been applied to this trail (hardest! most dangerous!) and the hair-raising videos on YouTube of people making their way across the so-called “Crawler’s Ledge”, I was convinced that this was going to be it for us. We were going to head to paradise and die right there on that eroding stretch of coastline.

We had seen the first few miles of trail a few years before, on our hike up the valley to Hanakapiai Falls. Nothing about it seemed daunting to me other than the hordes of people that were also making their way down to the beach. It was crowded, but otherwise completely safe. Everything I had read said that things got a lot harder beyond Hanakapiai (mile 2) and that after you leave the Hanakoa Valley (mile 6), things would get really real. This is “death on the left” type stuff.

When we left Hanakaoa on that fateful Monday morning and headed for the ledges, I was a little apprehensive. But the sun was shining and the birds were chirping and we were in goddam paradise and I couldn’t be bothered by it all that much. A half mile or so from the ledge, a man came trotting past in the other direction. He told us that it was beautiful up there but that it was also very windy. He warned us to hang on tight. I felt my chest tighten.

If you’re at all like me you do a lot of research before you do something hard. You read a lot of trip reports. You watch a lot of YouTube videos. And then the moment comes and that thing that you fretted over stares you right in the face.

“There it is.” I said to my husband, pointing down to the narrow chunk of rock and dirt that I had read so much about. “That’s the beginning of the hard part, the stuff that everyone talks about.”

We made our way down to the ledges.

When I say that I”m not afraid of heights I mean that I’m no more afraid of heights than anyone else that isn’t really afraid of heights. I’ve been in a lot of exposed places and nothing has really given me pause. I’m able to block out the consequences of a fall and keep moving forward. I only get shaky if I think about it too much. That is not acrophobia, that is being human.

The ledges caught my attention for sure. They are narrow and rocky and the consequences of a fall are incredibly high. But they’re not hard. The firm footing and abundant handholds give the whole thing a feeling of security. In my opinion, the sketchier parts of the trail are actually a bit beyond Crawler’s Ledge, in the places where the trail is 12 inches wide and made of slippery gravel that slopes gently downward, straight towards the angry ocean.

But really, it’s not that bad. In my experience, Kalalau was all bark, no bite. It was physically demanding, yes, but it wasn’t especially sketchy. And the ledges are way overhyped. I did a little research about deaths on the trail before we headed out for our hike and found one story of someone falling off the cliff to their death. Considering the thousands of people that hoof it out there every year, those are pretty damn good odds. The real danger in Kalalau is the rivers, which rise with the rains and become impossible to navigate. Three or four major river crossings between the trailhead at Ke’e Beach and the Kalalau Valley can make the trail impassable during heavy rains but if you prepare for an extra night or two out in the wilderness, you can safely wait out the storm.

As with many “dangerous” things, it’s all a matter of perspective. Sure, you can fall from the ledges or drown in the river. But in reality, you’re far more likely to crash your car on the way to the airport or die of some condition related to inactivity than you are to fall from a cliff at Kalalau. Perception of risk is a funny and irrational thing.

At the end of the day, just how “scary” Kalalau is well depend on many things. How you deal with heights and any anxiety you have over them. How confident you are with your footing. How easily you can convince your brain to just shut up when it starts reminding you that you are, in fact, mortal. I didn’t think it was all that bad and I’d recommend that anyone with enough fitness to go the full 11 miles at least give it a try.

You can always turn around. But you probably won’t.

Play, Shoot, Travel

Hanging out at Hanging Lake

May 30, 2015

I have a love/hate relationship with those Buzzfeed style articles that list all the things that you absolutely must do in a certain place. Those places are beautiful but also filled with people and typically not what I have in mind when I head out for a hike. For as much time as I spend gallavanting around our fine state, there’s a long list of iconic places that I haven’t been. I’ve never stepped foot inside Garden of the Gods or driven to the top of Pike’s Peak and the only views I’ve had of the Maroon Bells have been from the tops of 14ers or the glass walled bathroom at the Benedict Hut.

I’m trying to keep my mind open, though, and visit the places that I haven’t been. Because you don’t make it on a “best of” list about a state like Colorado without being pretty damn special.

One of the spots that seems to make every single “must do” list is Hanging Lake. I had been wanting to get up there for a while to shoot the waterfall (swarms of people be damned!) so when a friend mentioned we could make a quick stop there on our way up to Aspen for a hut trip, I jumped at the opportunity.

And I’m so glad I did.

Hanging Lake is a geologic oddity nestled in the cliffs above Glenwood Canyon. A short but steep hike along a cascading stream takes you to the boardwalks that surround this delicate ecosystem. Someone in our group mentioned that it looks like a place that fairies would live, and it’s probably the best description that I have heard so far. A waterfall trickles over mossy rocks into a perfect aqua marine pool. The color of that water is unlike any I have seen in Colorado and the effect made the whole place feel a little bit magical.

We went on a Friday afternoon and, while there were certainly plenty of other people there, it really wasn’t too bad. I would imagine that a weekend day in the summer would be slammed. But even if there were a couple hundred people hanging out around the lake, it would still be worth it.

I suspect that the best way to find solitude at Hanging Lake is to head up the trail in the winter. I’m already planning on making a day trip up once the weather turns cold again. The trail can be steep and slick but with hiking poles and microspikes I think it would be very manageable. And I imagine that frozen water and a fresh layer of snow would make the whole place feel even more surreal.

It’s a good reminder that places make those “best of” lists for a reason and that sometimes the tourist trail isn’t so bad. I will be back.