Erin and Brian Caramadre are from Thousand Oaks, but they visit Santa Barbara often because they love our trails. One of their favorites is Romero Canyon because of the variety of scenery and the views from the top of the crest.
Early last July, they headed up the trail looking for a good workout, perhaps six or seven miles total, following the canyon trail to the old jeep way, up to the top of the mountains, then east across remnants of the old Ocean View Trail and finally back down Romero.
The couple reached Romero Saddle about 1 p.m. It was getting hot, but they’d brought plenty of water, more than a gallon and a half between the two of them. They even had enough to share with two mountain bikers who asked them for water at the saddle. Atop the ridge, the temperature was reaching the high 80s, but a breeze cooled them off and they relaxed, enjoying the 360-degree views.
After a last glance over the backcountry, Brian and Erin started down the switchbacks. Not too far down they heard a woman crying for help. “She just kept screaming ‘Help! Help!’ over and over,” Brian remembered.
A few minutes later, they reached the point on the trail where it was cutting across a particularly steep section of the canyon. “I could hear the woman down in the bushes, off the trail,” Erin explained. “Brian scooted on his butt down the hillside to get to them. It was so steep that he had to hold on to branches to keep from falling.”
When Brian reached the woman, he could see that she was desperately clutching two golden retrievers who’d most likely headed off the trail in search of shade. “They were caught in the brush,” Brian told me, “and that was all that was keeping them from plunging another 100 feet or so further down the ravine below us.”
Erin yelled down to the woman, “Where’s your water?” The woman, who was dressed in shorts and a tank top, pointed to a small bottle of Arrowhead water, which was all she had. “I was shocked,” said Erin, a veterinarian, “that she would be out here in the middle of the day with two 100-pound dogs and not have enough water for them.”
Using half of the water they had left, Brian began pouring it on the female retriever’s head, frantically trying to cool it off. But within minutes, the dog died. Moving it out of the way, Brian grabbed the male retriever and put every effort into hauling it back up to the trail where Erin could assess the dog’s condition and see if there was anything she could do to save its life.
At this point, another hiker came by, but unfortunately he didn’t have much water and the Caramadres only had a few quarts of their own left. “Unfortunately, our efforts were too little and too late. The dogs were beyond the point of surviving before we ever got there,” Brian explained. By this time, the woman had left the area, too distraught to watch what was happening.
“Poor Brian and I had to sit there and comfort the dog in its last breaths,” said Erin, who had worked as a post-Katrina volunteer in New Orleans and seen her share of tragedy. “The thing that was so frustrating was that I knew this was preventable. I knew exactly what I needed to do to save them if I had the proper resources, but I didn’t have them. : It felt so helpless to know what needed to be done and know there was absolutely nothing I could do. This was a very bad thing to watch.”
A day after, Santa Barbara County Search & Rescue (sbcsar.org) came down to retrieve the dogs. Longtime team member Jim Frank explained that this was not an isolated event. “Three dogs died last year from heat stroke,” he said, “and we rescued another that had fallen off Mission Falls which is about three-quarters of the way up Tunnel Trail. When I’m out on the trail, I’m constantly seeing dogs that look like they might be in trouble.”
“If there is anything good that can come of this,” Erin concluded, “it would be that every dog owner will learn how easy it is for a dog to die out on the trail if they don’t have access to cool water and shade. This woman wasn’t more than an hour’s hike from her car at the top of the mountains, but it was midday, very hot, and where she was heading had no water and very little shade. Given where they were heading, there was a good chance they wouldn’t make it back.”