Pause for Paws
By Brandi Rubin, Girls Who Hike Orange County Ambassador
I consider myself a very experienced hiker. I have hiked in many different seasons alone and with my two-legged loves, Teyla and Penny. I hadn’t, in my 6+ years of hiking, had a bad experience. Never been lost, never ran out of food or water, never got hurt or stranded. I consider myself to be well prepared for the trails and on the trails. Many others would say the same about me.
BUT I am always open-minded to learning at every opportunity and chance. Even if/when some of those experiences don’t go as planned. I may get grief from some members for the experience I am about to share, but I feel it is a great learning lesson for us, ALL. I feel very fortunate that this story I am about to share ends well. Please know, first and foremost, my girls are my life. They are my family and go where I go, sleep where I sleep. They are spoiled and loved well. I would never intentionally hurt my girls, ever. Although on this day, events caused me to freak out and become overcome with emotion, I still kept my wits about me and reasoned about the best solution and actions to take to get us three home safely.
On June 4th, the pups and I set out for a quick 5-mile hike up Los Pinos Peak. The temp for the day was supposed to be a high of 83. I had done this peak recently and felt comfortable going alone and taking the pups with me. Teyla is 7 and Penny girl is 6, they are both strong adults, but I still call them my pups. We have hiked peaks together before. We have hiked longer and more challenging trails than this before. We have also hiked at this temperature and higher, before. I felt confident and comfortable taking them. We left early and got to the trailhead about 7:40 ish. I had packed over 7 L of water for us. I will share… I drink lots of water. Teyla usually does not often drink while we hike, she never has. Doesn’t matter how hot it is outside, she doesn’t drink much in general. Penny, on the other hand, drinks tons, like I do. I thought I brought enough.
As we set out on the trail, things were going great. They were happy to be on the trail with me and off their leashes. I usually let them off their leashes if there are no other cars in the lot or I know, as this trail is, it is not a high traffic trail. I felt comfortable and happy to let them roam about and run 6-10 feet in front of me. We stopped, unusually for many water breaks. I felt as though they would walk a ¼ mile and stop again for water. This is very unusual for my girls. As I mentioned, Teyla rarely drinks during hikes and Penny…this is her usual. About half a mile from the peak, my big girl Teyla stopped. If you’ve ever done this trail, there are manzanita bushes/trees along the trail. She drank water often, as did Penny and I tried to conserve the water as much as possible because they were both drinking WAY more than they have before. At this point they are both panting and overheating. I had stopped drinking water about a mile before this, as I thought they might need it more than I. This could not have been truer. Teyla crawled deep into the manzanita after drinking and me putting water on her body. I was determined to make it to the peak, especially now that the girls had a spot to rest in that was shaded. I also was doing this hike as part of the Girls Who Hike City Slicker Challenge. We had come this far, and just a few more minutes I would be at the peak. Their panting had stopped, and I felt like they were going to be able to continue cooling off.
Teyla didn’t want to continue to the summit a short hike away, so Penny and I continued. Instead of our normal rest, hydrate, snack and regroup peak session, we took a quick picture for my CSC submittal, and we headed back to Teyla. I knew she would be where I left her, about 100 feet or so from the summit. But…we were out of water. And I’m thinking to myself, “how did I let this happen?” “How could we have drunk so much water?” and in reality, the girls drank most of it, as I realized that is probably what saved them that day. The trail was harder than I remembered it, rockier than I remembered it and rocks were tough on Teyla's feet. Penny's feet were not affected. What I thought would be a quick two-hour hike turned into almost 4.5 we were in the thick of the heat now with no water. I began to panic. I was so worried about my girls. I coaxed Teyla out of the manzanita and kept her going as often as I could. Though downhill, she stopped just as often as she had going up. We were in trouble.
She weighs 75 lbs, so I knew carrying her was not an option. Penny was energetic but panting… a very weird combo to me. She kept up with me going downhill, but we had to stop often to encourage Teyla. I couldn’t think of anything except getting down the hill, to my car where there was more water waiting. I began to cry about the situation I unintentionally put us in. I kept looking at my girls and thinking “please don’t make me have to tell my family that I killed our baby girls today on the trail” I kept silently praying to myself “please let this be a learning lesson and not a punishment” I have never felt so helpless in my life. Watching my girls pant and become even more overheated with every step was killing me. I get emotional recalling these events, even now as I type this.
I was doing the best I could given the lack of water and the situation. I just wanted to get us down the hill fast. But Teyla stopped about a mile from the car. And I had to weigh my options. Do I sit here and watch her possible die right in front of her sissy and me? Or do I leave her behind, unattended, run to my car, drive it back up with the water and save her? I opted to leave her behind. No one was around; I could not send anyone else. I could not borrow water from another hiker. We were alone. With Teyla a bit north of the trailhead, in some shaded trees and bushes, Penny and I began to run down the trail to my car…I felt depleted and yet energized to get my girl to safety. I think I was running faster than I would even without my pack on, and I had it on still. I don’t know how long we ran, but we weren’t to the car yet. We had a ways to go. Penny stopped, she was too tired and thirsty to continue as well. She crawled under a tiny bush that didn’t even cover her entire body in the shade and would not get up. Deeply panting, she just laid on her side. I am thinking I am going to lose both of my girls. I am crying even harder now. I had to go on, there only chance of survival was me getting them to my cool car and drinking water as quickly as possible.
As I continued to run, a guy drove up, going downhill too and asked if I was ok? I told him “actually I am not. I ran out of water, and I left my pups that couldn’t continue behind, to get to my car to get them more water” he offered me a ride. Although I never accept rides from strangers, I hopped in. Clutching my hiking knife in my lap, we hauled ass down the narrow one-lane dirt path that would take me to my car. He drove intentionally fast and I was so grateful.
At my car, I thanked him and hopped in my Tahoe. I hauled ass up to my girls again and slowed when I got near the tiny bush I left my Penny girl under. But she wasn’t there….I froze. Did she get scared when the guy drove by? Did she run after a squirrel or other animal? I am freaking out and now sobbing…I call for her loudly time and time again, and she is nowhere to be found. I sadly get in my truck and continue up the trail to get Teyla. All the while calling for her out my window. I am worried sick about my girls.
I take my truck as far as I can drive, hop out with more bottles of water and Teyla’s leash. I knew that she would not come out of the bushes otherwise...it was a good call. I found her, easily, where I left her (although she had burrowed deeper into the shade). I had to break branches to get to her. She drank the two water bottles I had for her. I attached her leash, and with all my strength I had to pull her out. We both got hurt on branches, but considering the alternative, I didn’t care. I still don’t. A few scars will remind me to be even more careful/prepared than I thought I was. I’m now headed back downhill with Tey safely resting and cooling off in my a/c blasted car. I slow again as I approach the spot I left Penny. I’m crying and calling for her and she doesn’t come to me. I don’t know where she is. If you’ve never felt this kind of overwhelming fear and sadness, I hope you never have to. It is gut-wrenching… a deep pain that changes your soul. These are my babies. These girls are my life. I have no choice but to climb in my truck and continue. I drive slowly with my window down, screaming her name like a lunatic out my window. As I near a blind corner in the road, I spot her. She is running full speed towards my truck, and I slam the truck in park and run to her. A quick embrace and then feed her my last two bottles of water, get her in the cold car. For a moment I am paralyzed at how fortunate we all are. I drive to the nearby Ortega candy story and my luck it’s closed. I drive across the street to the trailhead and bathrooms and discover they have a water pump there. I never knew this before.
I unload the dogs, and they drink from their bowl for what feels like hours until they cannot and do not want to drink anymore. I drench them in water, and they climb back into my truck, and we head home. To our safe home.
I thought I was going to lose my girls on that day. I feel terrible for not anticipating they may need to stop as much as they did. That was a first experience for all 3 of us. I feel sad that I hurt them, yes, it was unintentional…but I hurt them. I caused them to be overheated and weak…so much that they could not go on. As much experience as we have had, I could never be prepared for the circumstances that played out that day. It was even more heartbreaking to relay the events to my husband when I got home. He looked at me with sadness I have never seen before, asked me “how could you leave our girls alone on the trail like that?” to which I could only reply “all I could think about was getting them off the mountain as quickly and safely as possible. I felt it was my only choice given there were no other hikers around” he understands. But it was a sad and horrible experience for my pups and I. One I hope never happens again. As I’ve said, we have hiked in much hotter temps and been fine. But without water…different story as we have learned. We encountered circumstances that were out of my control, and I did the best I could at the time, despite being an emotional wreck. I stayed calm and rational to get the girls and me to safety.