Shylie's Last Hurrah: Backpacking in the Desolation Wilderness for an Old Dog

Another day, another view of a dozen lakes in the Desolation Wilderness.
Another day, another view of a dozen lakes in the Desolation Wilderness. Kara Guzman
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My partner Jacob and I don't have children. We have a dog, Shylie—our 10-year-old wolf-like black-and-tan mutt.

We are insane parents. Shylie gets filet mignon on her birthday. She has an Instagram account and a blog. We’ve designed Shylie-themed t-shirts, calendars, and bumper stickers. We sing to her all day, every day, that she’s the best dog in the world. This dog is adored.

Shylie's bred for dogsledding, but she's spent her whole life on the beach, in Santa Cruz, California. Jacob and I are aware that she has only a few good years left, so we decided this summer, before she gets too old, to show her what she's made for: the mountains.

A big yawn from Shylie.
    Kara Guzman
A big yawn from Shylie. Kara Guzman

For two long weekends each month, we've gone backpacking near Lake Tahoe, in the Desolation Wilderness, 200 miles northeast of San Francisco. It's dog heaven: pine forests and wildflower meadows full of chipmunks and dozens of alpine lakes to jump in.

We already knew that Shylie loves running at altitude, in cool mountain forests. We’ve taken her mountain biking near Lake Tahoe dozens of times (since unlike Santa Cruz, the trails are dog-friendly and don’t have poison oak).

But Shylie’s never gone backpacking before. As much as we love this dog, we’ve never spent four days and nights around the clock with her. Days of quality time with her humans, and of all places, in the mountains? It was a no-brainer. We knew she would have the time of her life.

Shylie faithfully follows the author on the barren climb to Middle Velma Lake.
    Jacob Meyberg
Shylie faithfully follows the author on the barren climb to Middle Velma Lake. Jacob Meyberg

What we didn’t realize was that the 100-square-mile Desolation Wilderness, with its roughly 130 lakes and patchwork of creeks, is perfect for dogs. We don’t carry water for Shylie since there are freshwater stops less than a mile apart on almost every trail. Plus, she loves to jump in, shake, and cool off.

Out here, the old dog plays like a puppy. At dusk, when we pitch our tent at one of the hundreds of lakeside campsites, she freezes in a play stance, with her butt in the air. Then she’s off, careening around the campsite like her tail’s on fire.

It turns out the Desolation Wilderness is perfect for Jacob and me, too. We had snowball fights in July. We taught ourselves to fish for trout. We swam naked to granite islands in ice-cold lakes all to ourselves. We were surprised by a hailstorm on an 80-degree day and huddled for cover with the dog under a warm, sun-baked boulder. We hiked portions of the Pacific Crest Trail, and as according to custom, made trail nicknames. (Mine was ‘Squiter Heaven.)

Shylie briefly tolerates a portrait with a juniper tree overlooking the Desolation Valley.
    Kara Guzman
Shylie briefly tolerates a portrait with a juniper tree overlooking the Desolation Valley. Kara Guzman

Another highlight during our Desolation excursions this summer have been the meals. Jacob’s parents gave us a food dehydrator, and I’ve been using my backcountry cookbook. In my pack, I lug a bear canister stuffed with homemade dried goodies, like duck soup, carrot salad, and even masoor dal.

One night at Dick’s Lake, we had peanut chicken stew under the stars, watching bats eat mosquitoes. While the food heated on our tiny stove, Jacob hand-fed Shylie her kibble, which I portioned into plastic bags for each meal.

The nights are cold and windy in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, so Shylie sleeps in our tent, where she pins me like a wrestler as she snuggles my sleeping bag. Then each morning, we climb a new granite peak and count all the lakes.

Occasionally, Shylie surprises a grouse on the trail, and it heaves its plump, brown body into flight, drumming its wings before gliding to a branch. Yellow-bellied marmots—chubby gopher-like rodents that look like teddy bears—squawk as they poke their heads from the rocks, like a real-life game of Whack-a-Mole.

Each day, there are new flowers, too. This summer the Desolation Wilderness was simply blooming with wildflowers, after the first wet winter in a five-year drought. Each weekend, the landscape’s colors have shifted and I'm constantly delighted, as we hike from one terrain to the next.

My partner Jacob checks out a snowbank while Shylie looks for chipmunks
    Kara Guzman
My partner Jacob checks out a snowbank while Shylie looks for chipmunks Kara Guzman

Shylie, meanwhile, constantly sniffs for chipmunks. When she hears the tiniest squeak, she surges up rocky cliffs or down steep ravines, like a kamikaze pilot.

Some of the trails are made of sharp, granite shards, which are tough on Shylie’s paws, but the terrain doesn’t phase her. She’s at home in the mountains. She runs twice as far and as fast out here compared to anywhere else.

She's finally doing what she's meant to: She’s exploring the wilderness with her "pack."

And in a way, so am I. When I can go consecutive days without seeing a screen, I’m happy. That little voice in my head, the one that worries about stupid things, disappears. My focus narrows to the view at hand and the trail ahead.

Part of me though, hears the ticking clock. It knows this paradise won’t last, and these weekend escapes with the dog are numbered.

Shylie hangs her tongue after climbing to the top of the Bayview Trail. Eagle Lake is seen from above.
    Jacob Meyberg
Shylie hangs her tongue after climbing to the top of the Bayview Trail. Eagle Lake is seen from above. Jacob Meyberg

The cruel trick of loving a dog is how fast they age. I’m dreading the future, when Shylie’s eyes are too cloudy to see and her hips too creaky to chase. And—I don’t even want to write it—I’m dreading that horrible veterinarian appointment, when we say our goodbyes.

If my crazy love affair with this dog has taught me one thing, it’s to be conscious and aware of every single moment. I’ve literally spent days gazing into the dog’s eyes, wondering what she’s thinking, what that voice in her head sounds like. I mean, is she barking in there?

After months of observing Shylie, I’ve realized that she is the ultimate Zen master. She’s not thinking at all.

When she’s outside, she’s listening for chipmunks. She’s sniffing coyote markings on a tree. She’s picking a line across a granite scree. She’s scratching her back on a pile of pine cones. She’s tasting the snowmelt.

Take note. This is what life is about.

The author follows Shylie on the descent to Granite Lake.
    Jacob Meyberg
The author follows Shylie on the descent to Granite Lake. Jacob Meyberg

TIPS:

  • Backcountry camping permits cost $5 per person per night. Campers must pick a “zone” for their first night, then are free to camp anywhere on their next night.
  • Reservations can be made online, but most of the popular zones are filled through September. A limited number of walk-in spots are available for each zone. Same-day walk-in permits are available at the four Forest Service Permit OfficesForest Service Permit Offices throughout the Lake Tahoe area. The line starts forming around 7 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, so get there early.
  • According to the rules, dogs should be on-leash in the Desolation Wilderness, but most owners don’t follow those rules in the backcountry. However, if you’re going to take your dog off-leash, it should be well-trained, and know the “come” and “leave it” commands. Some wildlife can be dangerous to dogs, such as porcupines and ticks, etc.
  • Many of the trails in the Desolation Wilderness are rocky and tough on dog paws. We’ve used Musher's Secret wax with some success. (Our dog likes to lick it off.) Others use booties for their dogs.

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