PCT for Pets: An adventure to help shelter animals nationwide...


Climbing into the southern Sierra foothills



Log ripped apart by a bear
(probably to get termites to eat...yum!)



Looking north along the Sierra Nevada



Looking south back to Owens Peak (center)



Fire charred decent into the "Domelands"



Lunch break!



Making sushi rolls in the backcountry!



Campsite along a soothing creek on the edge of the Domelands



Gentle trail through charred forest on the edge of the Domelands



Granite formations of the Domelands



The South Fork Kern River winds through a gap towards Kennedy Meadows



Descending into Kennedy Meadows


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Segment 11:
Walker Pass to Kennedy Meadows


This segment was probably the easiest of our trip so far, and yet it was action packed!  Banner and I were picked up at Walker Pass by Terry Thistlethwaite of Checkia Dog Rescue and whisked back to civilization...Ridgecrest, California, to be exact. After picking up my skis and a box of ski equipment which I had dropped off at Terry's home before starting on the PCT, I was deposited at a Motel 6 and checked into a cozy room which Terry had worked to raise money to pay for (Thank you Terry!). Soon after I settled into the room and began exploding my backpack onto the beds, I received a call from my friend, Matt Blakeley-Smith.  He was in Ridgecrest and would arrive at the Motel soon.  I was excited to see my friend, and anxious to see how Banner would react to him.  Since Matt would be spending the next month with us skiing the length of the Sierra Nevada, I hoped that Banner would take a liking to him!

As it turned out, Banner instantly fell in love with Matt, and this made me very happy to see.  Dogs have retained a pack mentality from the pre domesticated days of their wild ancestors.  Therefore, if a dog spends time with a particular group of people, he will begin to think of this group as his "pack."  Sometimes this type of pack bonding (in the dog's mind) can take just a few minutes, and the dog will then become very anxious if a member of his "pack" leaves or if the group becomes separated. When a pack member returns or the group is reunited, dogs have a greeting ritual which their instinct compels them to perform, including a lot of sniffing and mouth licking.  In fact, this is why dogs will often greet their owners so enthusiastically even after an absence of only a few minutes. Within seconds of meeting Matt, I could tell that Banner had welcomed him into our little pack of two.  We would see this pack mentality play out over the next few days as Banner would become anxious whenever he could not see one of us or if we got spread out along the trail.  Here in Ridgecrest, Banner became anxious whenever one of us left the Motel room, and he greeted us with wild enthusiasm when we returned.

Our room quickly transformed into an explosion of gear and food.  This would be a complicated resupply because we had to equip ourselves not just for backpacking but also for skiing and winter camping. We tried to trim weight as much as possible, but still ended up with packs that were heavier than we would have liked, and that would likely horrify any hard core light weight PCT hiker. This was difficult to avoid as we needed to add such items as avalanche transceivers, ski repair kit, climbing skins, and warmer clothing to our packs, not to mention our skis and ski boots. After considering the likelihood that we would encounter snow between Walker Pass and Kennedy Meadows (very slim), we decided to use the following morning to drive the bulk of our ski equipment up to Kennedy Meadows and leave it at the General Store there rather than carrying it through the 50 miles of this segment.  This turned out to be a VERY good decision!  Actually, Matt delivered our gear to Kennedy Meadows while I spent the morning trying to update this web site using a computer at the local animal shelter.

By the early afternoon we were ready to hit the trail and Terry once again whisked us back up to Walker Pass. Terry's help was so critical to the success of this resupply...we owe her our deepest gratitude and we hope that the donations we are able to send to her (thanks to all you folks!) will help her in some small way to carry on her mission of caring for the dogs in her charge. Our itinerary forced us to hike into the night this first day since we began in the mid afternoon and our first water source, Joshua Tree Spring, was more than 11 miles away. On the following day we were again forced by our itinerary to hike a long distance (more than 16 miles) to reach the next feasible camping area with water. At this point, I learned a crucial lesson about hiking the PCT that I had not fully anticipated. You see, because Banner and I had already traveled several hundred miles and had survived numerous 16+ mile days, this distance did not seem unreasonable or daunting to us.  In fact, Banner led the way during most of this distance. For Matt, however, to complete more than 16 miles on his second day of hiking was a considerable challenge. Matt is in excellent shape, but unfortunately his rigorous training regime for this trip had been interrupted by a repeatedly sprained ankle during the last few months. So, by the time we reached our camp on Chimney Creek, Matt was exhausted and sore and one knee was hurting rather badly. This was very worrisome to both of us, and we could only hope that his stamina and his knee would improve over the next couple days in which we would only need to travel about 8 miles per day to reach Kennedy Meadows on schedule. I learned here that one must be very careful when inviting friends to join a PCT through hike for short sections. Although these folks may be very fit, hiking 15-20 miles per day with a heavy pack is just a whole different ball game from the kind of exercise that even the fittest people engage in on a daily basis in civilization.

Matt's knee seemed to improve somewhat over the next couple days as we traveled through a region known as the "Domelands," because of its profusion of giant granite domes and other formations. With so much exposed granite around us, this section truly began to feel like the real Sierra Nevada. We followed the South Fork of the Kern River down into the open sagebrush expanse of Kennedy Meadows. The name "Kennedy Meadows" seemed strange to me since there is very little grass here and a great deal of sagebrush. I speculated that this is due to past grazing. When the region around the Sierra Nevada was first settled, ranchers would drive their animals up into the Sierra during the spring and summer, and alpine meadows throughout the range were subjected to intense grazing, mostly by sheep. When these alpine meadows are overgrazed, sagebrush tends to invade and prevent the native grasses from recolonizing the meadows. Even now there is extensive grazing (mostly by cattle) in this southern region of the Sierra, and we saw much evidence for this (poop and hoof prints) along the trail. The famous 19th century naturalist and writer, John Muir, joined one of the early sheep drives into the Sierra Nevada, traveling with a flock into the Tuolumne Meadows area of Yosemite. One day, Muir decided to descend from the meadows into the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada where he was able to enjoy views of Mono Lake. While hiking in this area, Muir writes about meeting Native Americans who were harvesting grain from windswept fields of natural grasses whose stems rose above their heads! Today, where these lush meadows once waved, we find only sagebrush. Having spent so much time in the Sierra Nevada, I have seen the impacts (current and historical) of human beings throughout the range, and I often wish that I could travel back in time to see what this landscape looked like in the days when it was only sparsely populated by Native Americans and very few people sought to enter or cross the imposing wall of the Sierra.

Upon reaching Kennedy Meadows, we reunited with our ski equipment and our food boxes which Matt had delivered to the General Store there a few days earlier. We braced ourselves for another gear shuffling epic as we would need to load up all our ski equipment and 10 days worth of food for the next segment of our journey.

Traveling with Matt has been an absolute blast! Matt is just a great guy, an ideal traveling companion as he is extremely mellow in the face of difficult decisions and hardship, and he is very flexible when it comes to making choices along the trail. As I mentioned above, Banner loves him and has welcomed him into our pack. Whenever I get ahead of Matt on the trail, Banner needs to continually stop and look back to make sure Matt is still coming along. When Matt gets ahead of me and out of sight, Banner is torn between staying with me and running ahead to check on Matt. This results in Banner doing a great deal of running back and forth. I started to put Banner on leash so that he would pace himself better (and also so he wouldn't waste energy chasing every moving thing he sees off the side of the trail), and this meant that when Matt got ahead of me, Banner would start pulling me and would not stop until we caught up with Matt again. I have found myself being extremely talkative and goofy during this segment. After so many silent days on the trail, the human companionship is a wonderful change. I'm sure my looniness is also due to the fact that both Banner and I just feel so strong and healthy at this point of our journey. Our only concern (and it's a big one) is that Matt's knee continues to hurt him, and we will be taking on quite a bit more weight during our next segment. In fact, we have not yet reached snow, so we will need to carry our skis on our packs and hike in our ski boots for some distance until we have enough snow to ski...


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