Atlas’ first multi-day backpacking adventure! 22 miles in 3 days. Camping at Kermsuh and Amethyst Lakes. How do you cross a swift moving stream with a dog? The always breathtaking High Uinta Wilderness didn’t disappoint.
Heading out of town for a Uintas adventure is always really exciting, but doing so knowing this was Atlas’ first multi-day adventure was even more so. I drove most of the 90 or so miles from Salt Lake City to the Christmas Meadows Trailhead with Atlas’ head sticking out the window, ears flapping in the wind. He had no idea what was about to happen to his little puppy brain. What didn’t really hit me was that I was heading into an unknown adventure too, while I’ve done a version of this trip many many times on my own, I’ve never done it with a 10 month old puppy. We were both in for an exciting few days!
Day 1- Christmas Meadows Trailhead to Kermsuh Lake
Backpacks on and ready-to-go we stopped by the trailhead kiosk for a quick look. I always take a photo of the map but sometimes they also have really great hiking quotes from Muir, Thoreau and others that I enjoy reading. This trailhead did indeed have a quote, it is one of my favorites and comes from the Wilderness Act of 1964: Wilderness is “…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain“. See what I mean? Sets the stage mentally for a great adventure.
My plan was to spend the 3 days adventuring from the Christmas Meadows trailhead: the first night in West Basin camping at Kermsuh Lake and the second in Amethyst Basin camping at Amethyst Lake.
The first 4 or so miles of the trail were really mellow with maybe 500 ft overall elevation change. The trail crossed a dozen small streams but was mostly a nice dirt trail through a wooded pine forest. Atlas found a giant water bowl in one of the steams and decided to carry it for a few minutes until it was obvious I wasn’t going to feed him, funny boy.
The trail up into West Basin left the main trail after about 4 miles and we were in for our first big test: we had to cross the Stillwater Fork, which at this time of year is a raging stream. Water crossings can be really tough unless there’s a strategically placed log to walk across. There were several great logs to cross but then it hit me, Atlas isn’t going to walk across the whole stream on a log! He looked like he was willing to give it a go, but I was worried that if he slipped off he’s be carried away or injured. Should I put his leash on? No, then we’d both be carried away or injured. Hmm?
Last resort for me is usually fording the water, especially in spring run-off season, but I didn’t really have an option if I wanted to get up into West Basin. There was a log a little upstream that looked like it would provide for a nice brace to the water’s swift current. I figured that if I held Atlas’ backpack handle in my left hand and braced against the log with my right hand, that we’d be able to resist the strength of the current and make it across.
Atlas sat very patiently at the water’s edge while I waded out a little to test it out. Satisfied that my plan would work I came back to get him. I grabbed him tightly by the handle on his backpack and also attached his leash to my arm just-in-case, then with an ‘okay let’s go’ he glanced at me trustingly and waded out with me. I took my time making certain I had good footing and making sure Atlas was firmly by my side.
The middle of the stream was pretty powerful but it felt totally fine with the log at my downstream side and Atlas on the upstream side. I’d love to hear Atlas’ version of events because the water was high thigh on me, so his legs can’t have been touching anything at all, it must have felt like I was carrying him like a suitcase. Ha. We made it to shore and I gave him a massive good boy pat!
The next mile climbed steeply out of the canyon and up into the basin. Once up there the trail mellowed out a bit and traveled through both forest and meadows before finally arriving at Kermsuh Lake near the head of the basin at 10,300 ft. The trail was beautiful but with it being June there was still a lot of water from snowmelt and so the trail was really wet and marshy in some spots. My feet were wet or muddy crossing most of the basin.
We arrived at the lake and scouted around the east side for a campsite for a while but only found muddy or wet options. We backtracked and made our way along the north shore and found a great spot overlooking the lake and Hayden Peak.
It had been drizzling most of the afternoon, but not enough to put my rain jacket on. That changed quickly when we arrived at the lake and were caught in a pretty heavy downpour of rain and then hail. I learned from Atlas’ first camping trip that it’s really helpful to be able to tie him up while I set up camp, otherwise he tries to run off and play fetch with things like my tent pegs. I found a good tree nearby to tie him under so he wouldn’t get too wet, then returned to set up my camp as quickly as possible. I’m pretty happy to say that after all these years I’ve mastered the art of setting up a dry and organized inside of tent despite all hell breaking loose with weather outside the tent. What challenges could a wet 10 month old Labrador bring to that achievement, I wonder?
The rain abated as I got everything setup. I let Atlas off and we ate dinner; the shores of Kermsuh Lake is a pretty stunning dinner table. Atlas ate his kibble and a cow’s ear for desert. I’m not into carrying a stove for short trips, so my dinner was my Uinta stable- a vegemite sandwich and for desert a Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut Butter packet.
Another storm quickly approached, this time with lightning and thunder to complement the rain and hail. Time for bed! I packed in a small camp towel to try to dry off Atlas, but after a day spent jumping into every body of water he saw, merely damp was as good as I was going to get the young lad. I made him sit and wait while I shedded my wet shoes and layers and climbed into the tent. When everything was situated I called him in and what do you know? The little guy curled up on his insulated mat and was the best behaved I’ve seen him. I snuggled with him as the storm passed overhead, but he was unfazed by it. What a good boy!
I’m still trying to figure out a good sleep system for him. On the practice backpacking trip we took in April, I brought his sleeping bag, but every time i’d wake up he had thrown off the top cover of it. So, this time I brought just the insulated mat and paired it with his winter doggy jacket, because he can’t throw that off. Unfortunately I underestimated just how much he has grown and it didn’t fit, not nearly close! Argh. Sorry Atlas. It still fit over his head, so it was more like a doggy cape than a doggy jacket and did the trick just fine.
Day 2- Kermsuh Lake to Amethyst Lake
We made it through the night with just one bathroom break. Atlas woke at 5:30, about 2 hours earlier than i’d like to have woken up, but once he’s awake, resistance is futile. I let him out to run around while I packed up camp and did my dynamic stretching routine.
We were on the trail by 7 a.m. Today we walked back down from West Basin, down the main canyon a mile or so, then up Amethyst Basin for another 3 or so miles. Descending West Basin was really wet, owing to the storms last night.
Ascending Amethyst Basin was a long steep slog. There’s a bunch of places to camp in the basin, including a giant meadow, an unnamed lake and then Amethyst Lake itself at the head of the basin. I wanted to get to Amethyst and so pushed on to the top, and i’m so glad I did. We found a gorgeous camp on a ledge on the south-west side of the lake at 10,800 ft.
We got to camp at about 2 p.m. and so spent the afternoon sleeping on a rock overlooking the lake, sleeping in the tent during one of the many hail or rain storms, or walking around the east-side of the lake.
The only bummer about the Uintas is that its beauty is matched by the relentlessness of its mosquitos. I hate those evil vampires. I’d brought with me Thermacell’s new Radius a portable usb rechargeable device that creates a dome of repellency around wherever it is. It’s a great little device that’s winning camping gear awards. I was super happy to have it with me because without it I probably would have had to hide Atlas and myself in the tent all afternoon. I’m somewhere between light and ultra-light when it comes to gear on the trail, generally it’s just the necessities, so this is a luxury item for sure. At a mere 6oz though there’s no way i’m venturing into bad mosquito land without it, especially for a weekend trip if I have any time to kill around camp. I’m excited to be a gear tester/ trail ambassador for Thermacell, but if I wasn’t I’d be getting a Radius for my upcoming Wind River Range trip for sure. Here’s a few shots of what it looks like so you know what i’m taking about:
Day 3- Amethyst Lake to Christmas Meadow Trailhead
It rained or hailed, heavily, on-and-off all night. Atlas woke at 4:30 and wanted to get going. I managed to keep him still another 30 mins, but as soon as the current rain storm finished, he was up. I let him out to explore while I packed up my and his backpacks.
Mr Atlas is catching on quickly, he knows that doggy backpack means doggy adventure and he sits patiently while I get it attached. Dogs can carry somewhere between 10-25% of their bodyweight, Atlas is about 68 pounds now so can carry 7 pounds or so, but still being young I want to keep it light. For this trip he carried his Fido Pro Airlift, water bowl, doggy treats and some of his kibble.
Airlift is a really cool product that I hope I never need to actually use! The company’s founder, Paul, is a friend of mine I met in Nepal at Ama Dablam Base Camp while we were both attempting to climb it 6 years ago. In fact the mountain in Fido Pro’s logo is that mountain. We’ve stayed in touch and exchanged adventure stories over the years, but one story in particular resonates very strongly with me now that I have Atlas. He and his pup, Remi, were ski touring and she got injured a long way from the trailhead. Paul had to carry her back in his backpack to get her medical attention. Following the ordeal Paul realized there wasn’t a product on the market he could buy to help with backcountry dog rescue, and from there Fido Pro was born and the Airlift created. Read about it on the website, it’s an amazing story. Atlas and I are super stoked to be trail ambassadors for Fido Pro.
We were on trail by 6 a.m., thanks to Atlas. 6:30 was always my ‘I wish I could be walking by’ time when I hiked the CDT, so to be out-of-camp by 6 was great. Thanks for getting my lazy ass moving so early, Atlas!
It was really pretty watching the sun slowly filter into the basin. The first rays finally hit me 3 miles later at 8:00 a.m. after i’d finished the massive descent back to the canyon floor and Stillwater Fork.
The final 3 miles along the main trail went by quickly and I was at the carpark by 9:30 a.m. Mr Atlas was a happy but tired boy when we made it back to the trailhead. He did so well, i’m a very proud doggy-mummy. I still have a lot to learn about backpacking with a dog, but this trip really helped me dial in a few things. I’m so excited to think of all the adventures we have ahead of us.
Thanks for reading.