Spectacle Lake was my first overnight trip with Dog. An easy to access hike in Wenatchee National Forest, Spectacle Lake featured an easy approach, solitude, and stunning fall color. Dog and I had an easier expected hike in, followed by a rougher than expected night, and I gained some perspective on dealing with Doggo’s more difficult anxious behavior.
“Sometimes it’s hard to be patient with her. When Dog is anxious she whines. She paces. She demands attention. But looking at her there by the lake, scared and needing reassurance, it was easy to remember: Six months ago the family she had grown up with, loved, and been loved by drove her to a local feed store, put her leash in my hand, drove away. She hadn’t seen them since and had no idea why.”
Choosing a First Trip
Picking a destination for the first Dirtbag and Dog overnight adventure took some serious doing. At the time, Dog and I were both recovering from recent injuries. It was late season, so most of the more popular backpacking destinations were already too cold or too sodden to consider. Most of all, it was my first trip out with my anxious flailing beast of an animal and I was very cognizant of the fact that—once we were up that mountain—I’d be stuck with her and whatever behaviors she chose to exhibit. No crates. No peanut butter Kongs. Nothing but me and whatever patience I could muster.
After consulting several guidebooks, I settled on Spectacle Lake—which boasted a moderate approach, the promise of solitude, and the assurance that–at 10 miles in–we wouldn’t get in over our heads.
The plan was: Arrive at the Pete Lake Trailhead in the late morning then hike the 6 miles to Pete Lake. There, we would make camp and see how things went. If Dog was a restless nightmare and wouldn’t let me sleep, it would be a short walk out to the trailhead the next morning. If not, we would head up to Spectacle Lake, camp, then do the ten-mile walk out the following day.
The Trailhead to Pete Lake
Easy and Isolated
We started our trip in perfect fall weather. The air was crisp, but the sun was out, and I hiked in short sleeves after the first mile. The Pete Lake trail is nice and wide, bobbing aimlessly up and down over the four and a half miles between Forest Access Road 4616 and its terminus into the Pacific Crest Trail. The flora fluctuates between young and established forests, with pockets of low chaparral where the trail snugs in close to the Copper River. At the time of our trip, fall color was coming into full effect and the deep greens of the conifer dense forest were punctuated by brilliant yellows, reds, and oranges from the lower shrubs.
We saw two people on the route up to Pete Lake, a couple hikers who started out nearly the same time we did. We encountered each other several times as one or the other party stopped for a break or pulled ahead, but the route to Pete was otherwise completely ours.
Pete Lake was stunning. A small, shallow, glassy lake reflecting snow-streaked mountains and cerulean blue skies back at us. The lake was surrounded by unoccupied campsites, but we made the mark at one in the afternoon, leaving me with some decision making to do: To stick to the plan and spend the rest of the afternoon and evening at the lake, or forge ahead and try to make Spectacle by dark?
Pete Lake to the PCT
Trail confusion, the ford at Lemah
I was feeling fresh, and Dog was behaving like an angel, so I decided to forge ahead. The trail had thus far been easy to follow, but branched as we headed up the east side of the lake. We took a couple wrong turns (I’d pass on the correct route but my voice record of this wound up corrupted) but after a little backtracking, we found the trail again.
After just over a mile of gentle hiking through mature forests, we hit Lemah Creek. Here, the trail crossed about 20 feet of shallow but swift creek before picking up on the other side. My guidebook (Backpacking Washington: Overnight and Multi-day Routes by Craig Romano) cited a ford here to be the faster route to Spectacle Lake, the other being a 1.9 mile detour to the right of the ford.
The water was fast and cold, but I decided to make a go. I tied Dog to a nearby tree, took her pack, then picked my way across the ford. Mistakes were made. Namely, not taking my shoes off or getting creative about my route across the creek. I made it, but not without entirely soaking one shoe in what turns out to be the deepest part of that particular part of Lemah.
Once our stuff was safely on the other side, I returned for Dog, who was whining anxiously and tying herself in knots around her anchor tree. Having learned from my previous trip, I took my shoes off this time and scouted around for a shallower route. Dog and I found one that looked manageable just twenty feet downstream and set out. Dog—who does not swim and looks at water dogs at the park like they are actual wizards—was decidedly unhappy about the whole procedure and I had to tow the line between jollying her along and demanding she mind. I’m pretty cautious about keeping things positive with Dog on the trail; it’s easy to add to an anxious dog’s sense of unease with too much scolding and unpleasantness, but there is a time for do-as-your-told, and my feet were getting frozen fast! I eventually got her across with a modicum of growling.
When the lead comes off
Up to this point, I had kept Dog on leash. While she has improved considerably on recall, I wasn’t sure I trusted her in exciting situations—like meeting other hikers or dogs on the trail. She is as unfailingly oblivious as she is friendly and I didn’t want to run the risk of having my lolloping hound accost anyone against their will, or have her approach any unfriendly dogs.
By the time we made our departure from Lemah I was tired of juggling pack, hiking poles, and Dog, though. I had managed thus far by clipping her leash to my waist belt, but she was frequently confused as to where she should be in relationship to me. I could sort of “fence” her with my left pole–using it to block her from walking out ahead of me–but this only worked if I noticed that she was about to do so, and seemed (and no wonder) to make for a less pleasant hike for her.
Our tangles were coming more from confusion than bad behavior, though, and we had enjoyed a trail that was almost completely our own. Leashes aren’t strictly required for the backcountry, so I hazarded a little experiment. Dog’s pack has a loop in the middle of her back. I stuck the leash through the loop, then did enough of a loose crochet chain with it to keep it from dragging on the ground, then let her loose in front of me. It worked great. With a few exceptions, Dog stayed 10-15 feet ahead of me of me on the trail, keeping pace and managing her pack and body without the added complication of mine.
Watching her, it was clear that she understood that she had a job to do: Carry her pack on this trail, at a moderate pace, heading in an outbound direction. She was so fixated on her task that she didn’t so mush as stop to sniff, much less go off trail. I even had a hard time getting her to stop with me while I purified water or took a rest–she kept pointing her nose down the trail and heading out at that same shuffling trot. It was a testament to what will happen when a dog understands exactly what is being asked of them, and what can happen when you put a little trust in a difficult animal.
Lemah to Spectacle Lake
Stunning scenery, and the roughest part of the hike
Pete Lake Trail continued through two miles of the most mature forest yet before terminating in the Pacific Crest trail. Not long after hooking up with the PCT (westbound) we hit some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever had the pleasure to see. According to my guidebook, this area was ravaged by a wildfire in 2009. In the intervening years, undergrowth has grown up between the bleached bones of the trees that remain, and at the time of our trip it was turning sherbert color in celebration of October. Wind-born seeds floated over a surreal landscape of pinks, oranges, and reds, all held under a deep blue sky.
It was in the middle of this that the first significant elevation gain of the hike occurred. The PCT cuts a switchback (gentle, as switchbacks go) through the burn-out, gaining 1,000 feet over the next couple miles before the turn onto the Spectacle Lake Spur trail.
Dusk was approaching as we climbed the last half mile of trail and caught our first look at the lake we had come to see.
Spectacle Lake is a calm, glassy body sitting among stunning dark stone outcroppings that were–at that time of year–covered in wild blueberry bushes boasting both scarlet fall foliage and copious amounts of fruit. The route down to the lake is a complicated labyrinth of trails that seemed almost designed to cause confusion. We meandered down to the lake, pausing periodically to taste the berries and gaze rapturously at the landscape. I wished that I had more time to take in the scenery, but dark was definitely coming and I wanted to have plenty of time to troubleshoot camp before it fell completely.
Night on Spectacle Lake
A cold night and a nervous dog
Remember what I said about the power of giving a dog a job? Having reached our goal, Dog’s pack came off, her task came to an end, and her anxiety began. As I began to set about setting up my hammock and both of our tarps–and as the dark began to come–I watched the truth of the situation slowly dawn on my big girl. It had been the best kind of day for her; lots of time with her person, with lots of movement, and plenty to do and see—but now it was beginning to dawn on her that we weren’t going to go home.
First her ears dropped. She tracked me around the camp with her eyes, occasionally glancing around nervously. When I walked away from camp to cook dinner and hang my bear bag she followed with her tail tucked between her legs, whining occasionally. I tried to comfort her, but she was too anxious to accept much and would pace away from me almost as soon as she approached for touch.
I got camp set up and us fed just in time for dark to fall—and for the wind to start. Sundown brought ferocious gusts that came howling through the most exposed side of my camp. It was too late for me to move my own set up but I scrambled by headlamp light to move Dog’s tarp to more sheltered location—just to find her snuggled down in her blanket on the most exposed rockface I could imagine when I got back.
Decision time. I had spent the last hour and change with an anxious, pacing animal and was now faced with a choice. Do I move her to the sheltered spot I had prepared for her and take the risk that she wouldn’t settle back down? Or, do I let sleeping dogs lie, and let her stay in the spot she had chosen? I settled on the later, and rolled myself up in my hammock, trying not to engage in irrational speculation as to how much cold and wind it would take for a dog to die of exposure.
It was a rough night. My tarp rattled in the wind, and—while I like to sleep cold—my under and top quilts were not quite up for this kind of beating. I found it difficult to get more than a couple minutes in at a time. It’s hard to tell when Dog got up the first time, but I think it was a couple hours after I got in the hammock. I did what I should have done from the beginning when I saw her sit up; got her tarp, used to create a little shed roof off of mine, and put her to sleep under me.
She settled down to sleep under her blanket, but I tossed and turned for most of the night. I wasn’t worried about safety– wasn’t cold to the point of shivering–but my legs were so cold that it made sleep impossible. When Dog got up a second time and poked her big moon colored head over the edge of my hammock, I did something I hadn’t even considered as a hammock camping possibility.
I reached down and pulled my 60-pound dog in with me.
Dog seemed as relieved as I was to have a little extra body heat to snuggle up to, because she settled right down and went back to sleep. I arranged her blanket over both of us and quickly descended into the first real sleep I enjoyed that night. It was cramped, and I found myself waking up every couple hours to shift Dog around, but it was warm.
Morning on the Lake
I woke up more refreshed than expected after such a rough night. Dog was pretty happy to laze in the crook of my arm for an extra half hour of snooze time, but as the day got brighter demanded to be let out to continue her nervous pacing.
I got up and set about breaking camp. The wind had stopped and a beautiful morning was unfolding itself all around us. Dog paced after me as I took down the tarps, fetched the bear bag, made breakfast, and cleaned up the dishes; ears back and tail between her legs. The only thing different from the previous evening was that, with the night behind us, she was more able to accept comfort; snuggling her body against me and tucking a head under my armpit when I knelt to hold her.
Sometimes it’s hard to be patient with her. When Dog is anxious she whines. She paces. She demands attention. But looking at her there by the lake, scared and needing reassurance, it was easy to remember: Six months ago the family she had grown up with, loved, and been loved by drove her to a local feed store, put her leash in my hand, drove away. She hadn’t seen them since and had no idea why.
It’s easy to forget how very much at our mercy our dogs are, how quickly and inexplicably their lives change. Her former mom had found her scheduled for euthanasia, a short-haired dog of much-maligned breed in an Alaskan kill shelter. This woman had taken Dog home, nursed her back to health, tolerated her terrible behavior, and loved her for a year and a half—till a work transfer to an area with a breed ban forced her to give Dog up. While everyone else involved understood exactly why Dog had to go live with me, Dog didn’t know it was happening at all until after her mom was already well down the road.
While I had poured over the guidebook and maps, made the timetables, and worked out the details of our ascent and return, for all Dog knew, we’d hiked up to Spectacle Lake to stay. It was up to me to help her through her nerves and build her confidence till she knew that I could be counted on and that I would always take her home.
A rapid return
Once camp was struck, we suited up and spent a little time exploring the lake. Spectacle is separated down the middle by a spit of land covered by small, wind wizened trees and blueberry bushes. Pack on, task on, Dog was a different animal–nose pointed down the trail and ears forward. We cruised around the spit enough to scout what looked like some epic summer swim spots, and see (at considerable distance) the only two people we were to see at Spectacle Lake. Then returned to the maze of social trails and hit the trail again.
My phone died early in the morning, so I don’t have many pictures from our second day on the trail—and due to a mistake on my part, it turned out to be a blazing trip back to the parking lot anyway.
Feeling more rested than I had any right to be, we tackled the PCT at a good pace and fairly flew down to Lemah. After a short rest, we moved on with the intention of stopping at Pete Lake for an easy afternoon after our rough night. It wasn’t till I reached a familiar bend in the Copper River—one I remembered from a pit stop we made the day before, that I realized we had overshot the mark by a couple miles.
Decision time number three. Thus far I had done well, moving on and making Spectacle in the first day, and letting Dog keep her spot on the rocks; but this one I now view as a mistake. Given the choice of either doubling back for two miles or forging on, I chose to keep moving.
The first hours were alright, but as the afternoon wore on I started to feel the hard night sleep, and every bend in the road started to feel like it should be the last before the end of the trail. Over and over I came to what felt like it should be the terminus of the trail, only to find miles more forest ahead of me. After hiking from sun-up on, with a brief stop for a nap in the middle of the day, we emerged just before dark. Our rough night caught up with me eventually, and the hours on the trail were hard on me physically. I’m afraid we missed the chance to enjoy the land we passed through—but at least Dog was happy to be on the move.
People on the trail, regrets and future trips
Given how much attention I paid to the solitude we enjoyed on our Friday ascent, it should be noted that we saw considerably more people and dogs on our descent–a good 11 up from the two of the day before. We had hiked in on a Friday, and left on a Saturday, and many of these people were likely day-hikers who were not venturing beyond Pete Lake.
It should be obvious from my description of our decent, but I would avoid doing this trip as an in-and-out overnight. The second day was grueling and not as enjoyable as I would have liked, but I would also be loath to make a day of it at crowded Pete Lake. Next time—and there will be a next time—I’ll scout a second camp site off one of the trails that branch off of the Pete Lake Trail.
Till then, we’ll see you out there,