Epic Trail Fail #4: Guide Dog

If you spend time in the outdoors, eventually something will go wrong. It’s a law of nature. But if you survive, those epic failures become the best stories! We’ve all read about amazing accomplishments in the wild, but now it’s time to tell us about the not-so-great times and what you learned from them. Share your best #EpicTrailFail stories on your own page, include this paragraph as a header, and then provide a link in the comments here or here. We’ll curate and circulate the best stories in future posts. We can’t wait to read about what you’ve survived!
Arionis of Just A Small Cog and Rebecca of Wild Sensibility.

This incident happened in November 1989. I think. Memories get fuzzy after 30 years.

The only reason I’m relatively confident about the time frame is that I do remember the first domino setting off a chain of bad events: a road race I ran on Saturday morning that month. The race was memorable because it was unique in both distance and categories. Sponsored by a Seattle accounting firm, the four-mile Pratt & Chew Holiday Classic eschewed the typical age groups and instead offered categories based on occupation. The previous two years, I was the “fastest lady lawyer” and wanted to defend my title. (In all honesty, it was an easy title to defend; there weren’t many “lady lawyers” back then, and even fewer who were runners.)

Race weekend happened to be the same weekend my then-boyfriend and several friends wanted to do a late-season overnight camping trip in the Cascade Mountains east of Seattle. What to do?

I decided I could run the race, dash home to shower, collect my gear and dog Opus (my first Alaskan Malamute, a female about three years old then and an excellent trail dog), drive to the trailhead and hike in on my own, joining the group well before dinner around the campfire. Boyfriend would carry in most of the necessary overnight gear, including tent, stove, flashlights, and food. I would carry my own clothing, sleeping bag, and food for Opus.

dog and lake
Alaskan Malamute Opus on a hike in 1988.

That was the plan.

I’d never hiked this particular trail. Boyfriend described it as a quick climb to a ridge, then dropping down to a lake where they’d set up camp. Total distance from trailhead to campsite was roughly four miles, two miles up, two miles down.

Piece of cake.

Except that once again I was the fastest lady lawyer in Seattle that morning and wanted to stick around for my award. The race had almost 1,500 entrants that year (I dug through a messy file and found my race results). It took for friggin’ ever for them to figure out the results for all their categories. I knew I should leave and head out to the trail, but I wanted that award since I didn’t often find myself on the podium. And they gave nice awards. Finally I collected my swag, then drove 40 minutes to home to shower, eat, get Opus and camping gear and start heading for the mountains.

Ninety minutes later – after 3:00 pm – I finally reached the trailhead. I saw boyfriend’s 4Runner in the lot and parked next to it.

Now, I’ve never been much of a overnight camper. I don’t like carrying so much weight, nor am I able to sleep well on the ground. I’ve always preferred a nice morning trail run or day hike, finishing well before nightfall and sleeping in my own bed. And this was 1989; flashlights were bulky and heavy, and few of us had headlamps. Life was pretty low-tech, and I was by no means a seasoned camper. So I was already apprehensive about this outing.

Opus and I headed up the trail. I knew we were late, and November’s daylight short, so I went as fast as possible. The trail was steep, rocky, with lots of switchbacks in mostly open terrain with few trees. My inner voice said This is stupid; you should go home. My people-pleasing personality overrode my inner voice by arguing, But they’ll worry if you don’t show up, and you don’t want to ruin their weekend.

Eventually I met a couple hiking back down the trail. Sunset wasn’t far off, and I still hadn’t even made the mid-way ridge. They asked where I was headed, and I explained my friends were camping at X lake (I’ve long since forgotten the name of the trail and the lake). They said they’d seen a group hiking in to the lake earlier, and expressed concern I could get there before dark. They asked if I had a flashlight, and I had to admit I didn’t. I took their warning to heart, but convinced myself that surely boyfriend would by now worry about me not showing up before nightfall and hike back up from the lake to meet me before it got dark. He knew I didn’t have a flashlight or the necessary gear to stay out overnight on my own. Surely he’d meet me at the ridge.

I can be such an optimist. Or fool. Yeah, I was a fool.

Opus and I reached the ridge at dusk. No boyfriend.

I looked downslope toward where the map said the lake should be. All I could see was the trail heading down through a thickly-forested, steep hillside for a few yards before everything became shadowy and dark.

I listened. Eventually I heard what sounded like voices and laughter in the distance, down below where I expected they were camping. I yelled boyfriend’s name, over and over, as loudly as I could, literally screaming his name; no response. They were two miles down, probably sitting around a fire enjoying themselves; of course they couldn’t hear me over their own voices.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. When planning this trip, I never thought I’d be hiking in the dark. Nor did boyfriend. But I did expect – hope? – he’d realize what was happening and meet me along the trail.

Now here we were, me and Opus, alone on a mountain ridge two miles from my car, with darkness quickly settling around us.

I felt let down, abandoned even, that boyfriend hadn’t come searching for me as darkness loomed. Thirty years of hindsight tells me that wasn’t reasonable, even rational, but that’s how I felt.

So, after sitting on a boulder to wait – ever hopeful boyfriend would magically appear – and indulging in a brief cry out of frustration at finding myself in such a dangerous situation, I looked at Opus and said, “We’re going back.” By now it was full-on dark.

Two things went right after that: there was a full moon rising, shining through the clear night sky, and Alaskan Malamutes have big fluffy white tails that they hold over their backs when trotting along a trail.

With the bright moonlight highlighting Opus’s tail and to a lesser extent the trail, I followed her carefully back down through the rocky switchbacks to my car. I’m amazed I never tripped or fell. I followed her tail like a bouncing white ball down the trail, almost mesmerized because the rest of her coat was black and all I saw was that tail. It was my beacon, my salvation. Opus was my guide dog that night. I relied on her completely.

One of many reasons I love Malamutes: they can follow a trail without deviation. They know the way home. Opus got me back to our car around 9 pm.

I had two miles of following Opus down the trail to nurse my anger toward boyfriend, to plot my revenge. I’m embarrassed at some of the thoughts that occupied my mind, but they helped ward off any sense of panic or doom. Nothing like anger and righteous indignation to keep my mind focused on the task at hand.

The universe must have been listening to my thoughts. When I got to my car, I wrote boyfriend a quick note explaining I turned back because of darkness. When I went around the back of his 4Runner to place it under the driver’s side windshield wiper, I noticed that his left rear tire was flat.

Ha! Let him think I did it! I admit, I smiled at the thought, that he’d have to change that tire before being able to drive home the next day, wondering if I’d let the air out of his tire out of spite.

I drove home, arriving just before midnight. My housemate was surprised, of course, and encouraged me in my feelings of ire toward boyfriend. After rewarding Opus with a big dinner, housemate and I had a couple glasses of wine as I described my ordeal in dramatic detail before I finally fell exhausted into bed.

woman and dog
Housemate sharing a popcicle with Opus.

The next afternoon, boyfriend unexpectedly knocked at my door. With flowers. He apologized. By then, I had cooled off and was able to acknowledge my own role in the fiasco. But I asked him to go, that episode leading to a breakup because it was one of a string of such misadventures ultimately making me feel unsafe with him.

Is it any wonder I fell in love with Malamutes, and have had one or more as trail and life companions ever since? Best guide dogs ever. Much more reliable than men.

race results
Just for grins, race results from two years earlier – 1987 – showing the myriad categories for the race.

7 thoughts on “Epic Trail Fail #4: Guide Dog”

    1. Without that full moon I probably would have had to huddle in my sleeping bag until daylight. I really don’t like being in the forest in the dark without a light! So I think my biggest takeaway from this experience was to stick to morning trail running or hiking so I won’t run out of daylight hours unless a complete disaster occurs! That strategy has worked for 30 years… 🙂

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  1. Awesome story! You had me on the edge of my seat once again. I think I mentioned it before, but just in the last year I started carrying a head lamp even on day hikes just in case. After not needing it for several trips, I started to wonder if I should even bother anymore, when it saved my ass. I know there were no lightweight head lamps back in ’89 and carrying a regular flashlight would be a pain, so I can understand why you wouldn’t bring one, even if that does make you somewhat culpable in the trail fail. However, I must say that your BF is more culpable than you. I can’t even imagine not going to investigate when my GF did not show up before dark. It’s not like you said you might or might not come. You said you’d be there. So even if I went to look and found no sign, I would have been a basket case the rest of the night. Good thing you had Opus there with you to guide you back out by the light of the moon. My Sawyer has a good head for the trail too. He’s gotten me going the right way many times when I carelessly wondered off on a side path without noticing it.

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    1. Oh, the lessons we learn, often the hard way, eh? Thankfully flashlights/headlamps are not only lighter, but brighter and last longer today. Although I often wonder if these days we rely a bit too much on cell phones to get us out of trouble? I’ll keep relying on my dogs to keep me on trail and safe, just as you do on yours.
      Happy New Year, Ari!

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    1. Always knew exactly how tp get back to the car. I remember deliberately trying to get our Bernese Rex lost on a mountain. I could not do it. Backtracking, looping around in circles, wandering in zigzags, even wading down streams. That car was like a beacon combined with a siren and I might as well have been laying out Thesues’ ball of twine in the Labyrinth for all the good my efforts did.

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