Stories From the Trail: Backpacking with Nathan & Turkey

Stories From the Trail: Backpacking with Nathan & Turkey

  • Erin Swanson

Hello, everyone! I’m Nathan and this is Turkey – my shelter pet mutt and hiking goofball. We started our trail days in the mountains of Colorado’s Front Range while I was still in vet school. Ever since our first trip hopping boulders in a talus field, we’ve been hiking all over the West. Our longest trip was 160 miles in Colorado’s San Juan mountains. 

This year, we were both recovering from a long winter of very little hiking as I finished my intern training year in emergency and critical care medicine in San Diego. While we did a few day hikes, we never really got “out there” into the wilderness like we used to back in Colorado. With a big long summer vacation coming up, I had big plans for us to see the Sierras and the Cascades.

A dog sits on top of an air mattress in a tent in the wilderness.

For our first backpacking trip of the season, we went to the San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles for a two day, one night loop hike of Mount Baden-Powell. Coming from sea level, climbing up to almost 10,000 feet was tough on me, but it was the gritty trail conditions that wore out Turkey’s paw pads that were the real problem. 

Luckily, I came prepared with her Ruffwear boots and some medical supplies to patch them up until we could hike back down. I always pack bandaging material for dogs, including cotton wrap, gauze, and triple antibiotic ointment. Paw injuries are by far the most common on-trail injury for hiking dogs that I saw in the ER, and this was true for Turkey too.

A dog sits on a hiking trail high up in the San Gabriel mountains east of Los Angeles.

That first hike was only about 15 miles total, so I knew we had a lot of training to do to get back into hiking shape. Once Turkey’s paws were healed, we started doing more day hikes in the area to build back up.

Whenever I had time off, we would escape to any of the SoCal mountain ranges, like Mount San Jacinto and the San Gorgonio Wilderness. These trails varied in length and difficulty, and I was careful to assess how Turkey was doing every few miles. Thankfully, we never had any more injuries as we both hiked our way back to backpacking fitness. 

A dog wearing goggles sits in front of a sign for the San Gorgonio Wilderness.

Once we had successfully completed a 20-mile out-and-back to the summit of Mount San Gorgonio, the highest peak in SoCal at over 11,000 feet, I had a good feeling that we were both ready to go backpacking again.

To test our mettle, I managed to get us away for a quick trip to Chocolate Lake and Bishop Pass in the Eastern Sierra during mid-June. This was a moderately difficult, middle distance trip with easy access back to the trailhead if something went wrong. 

A dog rolls around in the snow on a mountain.

After snagging permits and packing all of our emergency medical supplies, we headed out and enjoyed the last of the season’s snowpack and some mosquito-free views.

With that successful trip, we followed up with a longer 45-mile, 3 day trip to the Mammoth Lakes area. All the JMT and PCT hikers loved seeing Turkey in her backpack, and she made a lot of friends with the thru-hikers staying the night at Virginia Lake.

A dog wearing a Ruffwear Palisades™ Pack stands on a trail near Mammoth Lakes.

With this trip a success, I felt confident that Turkey was ready for longer, harder trips in the wilderness again. 

Our first big multi-day trip was to the Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe. This was a more leisurely trip that was also a shakedown cruise for making sure all of our gear was dialed in for longer, multi-day trips.

A dog wears a Ruffwear Palisades™ Pack and stands on a mountain trail overlooking Lake Tahoe, California.

Turkey’s new backpack, the Ruffwear Palisades™ Pack, was working out really well to store extra water during dry sections of the trail. She could carry her sweater, coat, snacks, and collapsible bowl all on her own, with lots of room to spare. 

The best part was that the pack itself could be removed from the harness, which gave us a lot of versatility if we wanted to set up a base camp and do day hikes in the area. This is how we explored Mount Tallac to catch the sunrise – a fast hike up without having to carry a whole pack! 

Two dogs smile while sitting on a hiking trail.

After a detour to Montana – where Turkey went on a vacation with her friend Nuna while the humans explored Glacier National Park – she tried kayaking for the first time.

A dog sits in a kayak while wearing the Ruffwear Float Coat™ Dog Life Jacket.

We had spent the previous months having her explore the kayak indoors with treats as rewards for positive interaction, but this was her first time on the water. She wasn’t so sure about it, but the life jacket proved invaluable when she decided to jump in the water to chase a duck. 

 A dog licks his owner's face while they are on a hiking trail.

After swimming in Montana, we headed to the North Cascades for our big trip of the season: a 100 mile hike along the shore of Ross Lake, and then a loop of Jack Mountain in the high alpine of the Pasayten Wilderness.

A man and his dog walk on a mountain trail in Washington.

After all of our training and preparation earlier in the summer, this was our embrace of our new home in Washington and all the terrain that comes with it. From the mountain passes through the thick understory of the valley forests, we toured through exquisite mountain scenery that left me speechless and Turkey excited to look for chirping marmots. 

A dog stands on a hiking trail with a mountain and the woods behind him.

With the season winding down, we took one last big trip to see glaciers in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. The glow of the late summer sun caught all the colors of the changing flora – reds and golds blazed all around us, and Glacier Peak shined like a lighthouse in the distance.

I could only think how perfect this season was, and how happy I was that all the hard work we put into it earlier this summer allowed us to enjoy our adventures in the wilderness. 

Loved Nathan & Turkey's story? Follow their adventures at: @mountainsandthyme. 

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