Goat Rocks Wilderness: 8 days and 80 Miles on the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington
Story and Photos Contributed by Tenley Lozano + Elu the Mutt
Sitting on a stack of rocks next to the trail just south of Packwood Glacier, I stare at an alpine lake in the distance and think about how we got here. My 53-pound husky-mix, Elu, lays in the shade of the rocks resting, wearing the Ruffwear Palisades Pack stuffed full of kibble and freeze-dried patties. An ice axe is at my feet next to my overstuffed pack. I carried it 60 miles from where we started on the Pacific Crest Trail near the Oregon border six days before, sometimes in 90-degree weather, all the while cursing its extra weight. Elu and I walked through old growth forests with spotted frogs jumping across the trail, past bright blue streams colored by volcanic rock dust, forded the thigh-deep and frigid Lewis River, and crossed Cispus Pass with sweeping views and whistling marmots to get to this point on the trail.
Never mind all of the training we did before arriving in Washington. We spent countless hours hiking the trails near our apartment in San Diego, and weekends backpacking sections of the southern California Pacific Crest Trail, just the two of us. Elu had to learn not to chase wild animals; instead patiently and silently watching as rabbits sprinted across the trail. We worked on her off-leash skills, but only used them on downhill sections when it was more dangerous for us to be attached because I could lose my balance and tip forward. We’ve spent so much time together that she can read my emotions, follow hand signals and finger points, and I can tell when she’s tired or too hot by how she lingers in the shade or walks a bit slower. We trust each other, and keep each other safe on and off trail. All of that training culminated in this backpacking trip in Washington, our most ambitious yet. Elu is happy to go anywhere, as long as she’s with me.
A signpost marks the Old Snowy Mountain Alternate Route and I spend a minute considering that option. It would be a safer hike, avoiding the glacier crossing, but the detour will add several miles onto our route. Elu likes to be in camp napping by 1 pm, when the summer sun starts to scorch. I schedule our backpacking trips around her needs and we’ve been up since dawn to pack up camp and begin hiking each day. I take another look at the scree up ahead, large rocks that shift under your feet as you walk, then the glacier just a few yards beyond. The trail is marked in footsteps along the steep and snowy embankment. I gather my courage and take a deep breath.
“Okay, Elu. It’s time to get moving,” I say.
As she stands up and stretches, I strap my pack onto my back. Next, I attach the handle of Elu’s leash to my waist strap and clip the other end of the lead to the D-ring of her harness. With the ice axe in my right hand and a hiking pole in my left, I point toward the glacier and say, “Let’s go.” Elu understands the signal and begins trotting toward the snow. She is reluctant to step off of the rocks and onto the slippery, mushy cold.
I point again and say more sternly, “Let’s go.” She leaps down onto the glacier and slides a few inches, scrambling to get her feet underneath her. I lower myself behind her onto the icy trail and dig my ice axe into the high side of the slope just ahead of us. Elu slowly walks a few feet ahead and I take baby steps, planting my hiking pole into the snow on the low side then pulling out the axe and anchoring it another few feet in front of us.
I look down the talus slope, and the steep descent over jutting rocks ends in more rocks and another incline on the opposite side. If we fall, we’ll be lucky to get away with a helicopter rescue and just broken bones. I push that thought out of my mind and focus on Elu. She’s moving slowly and steadily a couple feet in front of me along the trail. We continue along the path, anchored by the ice axe and my hiking pole. As the trail leads up an incline, Elu begins slipping back towards me. Her paws can’t find purchase on the slick snow and she doesn’t weigh enough to dig her claws in. With my right hand firmly on the planted ice axe, I grab her by the handle on her harness before she could slip off the trail. We make one last push and scramble up a snowy embankment and back to the scree path.
Once back on the rocks, I tell Elu, “You did such a good job, puppa! You were amazing!” I hug her tightly and she wiggles and wags her tail with delight. I used to be a military diver, but this glacier crossing with a heavy pack is one of the most dangerous things I’ve ever done. I kiss Elu on the nose then kiss my ice axe, thankful that I carried it all those miles for this 100-yard stretch of glacier.
One last section of scree requires our intense concentration to foot placement, then we stop to get a drink of water. I award Elu the status of Epic Adventure Dog.
After our exciting crossing of Packwood Glacier, we are rewarded with the most incredible views of Mount Rainier and the Pacific Northwest. We hike along a rocky knife edge of trail and see mountain goats on the slopes. The trail leads a few miles along the mountain ridge and down to a meadow full of lupine and snowmelt streams where we set up camp in a sandy area near a copse of trees. Elu and I sleep well that night and wake the next morning at sunrise to hike again. In eight days, we backpack 80 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail from near the Oregon border, through Goat Rocks Wilderness in Gifford Pinchot National Forest and to the small town of White Pass. With Elu by my side, I am never lonely or afraid of other people. She really is the best adventure buddy.
After graduating from the United States Coast Guard Academy in 2008, Tenley Lozano spent five years as an officer in the US Coast Guard. During her tenure, she worked in the engineering department on a ship that patrolled the Pacific Ocean from Vancouver to the equator conducting counter-narcotic missions. She then attended Navy Dive School and spent two years as a Coast Guard Diver leading deployments around the United States.
Tenley’s writing has appeared in the web series Permission to Speak Freely, O-Dark Thirty, the War Horse, and in the anthology Incoming: Veteran Writers on Returning Home. She recently won Crab Orchard Review’s John Guyon Literary Nonfiction prize and has a creative nonfiction chapbook Ascent/Descent forthcoming in 2017 from Broken Leg Books. She graduated from Sierra Nevada College with an MFA in Creative Writing (Nonfiction) and works as a naval engineer in San Diego. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter, and visit her website.