Tails from the Trail: Late-Season Camping at Songdog Ranch, California

Tails from the Trail: Late-Season Camping at Songdog Ranch, California

By Natalia Martinez

Willow will turn 6 years old come January 2018. Having a young and very active dog as an adventure buddy is great, especially if you share a love for being outside. She is ready to go at the sound of that word — “Ready?”

Corbin the wise Lab; photo by Natalia MartinezHer big brother Corbin, however, is a wise old man at 13. Don’t let his slower pace and preference for soft, flat trails and beaches fool you though; he is still very much an adventure dog. Corbin’s idea of adventure does not involve miles of exploration, speed or a ton of adrenaline, no. He has taught us to make an adventure out of the often quieter, simpler things (no Fitbit necessary): A gentle walk to the water with lots of stops along the way to sniff, see what’s under your feet, the moss on the trees, catch a glimpse of sun through the trees, taste the breeze and take as much time as you need to summit that hill, forgetting your agenda.


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During a road trip down to Huntington Beach, California, we stopped along the high desert for the night at a place called Songdog Ranch. We left San Francisco a little too late to take the scenic route and in order to make it to our campsite at a semi-decent hour, we took the faster route.

Willow and Corbin didn’t mind though; interrupting their car naps to watch the landscape roll by. Trips like these remind me why I love the freedom to work remotely, retouching photos on my laptop while Bill was driving.

The welcome rain provided a colorful palette of entertainment across the sky. That, along with the sound of snoring dogs, and an endless array of podcasts and a carefully curated playlist of road trip classics made for the five-plus hour drive just as much a part of our destination.

Willow and Corbin enjoying a car ride through the California countryside Grazing cattle; photo by Natalia Martinez

We reached our campsite at Songdog Ranch well into the night. There was no moon, but settling in was a breeze with the amount of starlight shining on this high desert scene. The landscape was quiet and still but for the fluttering of an owl or the song of coyotes at a distance.

Willow’s nose working fast and thorough, scanning the stories served by this place. I could tell we were all really going to love it here.

I can’t remember the last time we had seen stars this bright! So many of them, as if crowding against one another to vie for your attention.

Starry skies and a glowing tent; photo by Natalia Martinez

It was our first night in a canvas tent like the one at Songdog. The luxury of space to stand up, stretch and move around was very welcome after almost six hours in the car. Glamping or not, by lights-out, all four of us were cuddled together, the way we usually do in our small tent. We fell asleep to singing coyotes and it was probably one of the best nights of sleep we have ever had.

One of my absolute favorite things about camping with our dogs is observing them take in a new place and then happily settle to sleep come bedtime, like they had always been there; home is wherever we are together after all.

The next morning, roused by the chatter of a flock of quail and inspired by Corbin, we indulged in a bit of a slow morning. It’s funny, I can’t remember the last time we did that. It is so easy to get caught up in assignments or your to-do list.

The dogs were content to stretch their legs, sniff everything, all of it, twice and then once more; then came back to the tent. When they see Bill or I settle with a book, or a cup of coffee, they pick a spot and snooze, likely dreaming up their own novels.

Bill and Willow lounging in the tent; photo by Natalia Martinez Bill, Willow and Corbin relaxing in the tent; photo by Natalia Martinez

Though the early morning was misty and grey, Corbin was convinced the sun would come, so he settled on his bed on the deck. Old dogs are wise that way. The sun indeed showed up, just in time for breakfast.

Camping in November in Southern California is quite lovely, especially if you have some good layers to keep you warm or peel off if you need to. Keeping our dogs warm and comfortable while camping in fall and winter is very important, especially if they don’t have a natural undercoat or, like Corbin, are in their golden years and benefit from warmth to stay limber and protected.

I adore that space and time just after breakfast. Fresh cup of coffee in hand and a pair dogs in that blissful state of post-meal sleepiness; a crisp morning and a warm dose of vitamin D. Yes, please.

Bill and I would watch Corbin, cozy on his bed, eyes gentle and squinty. His nose would suddenly catch a scent and wiggle, then he’d let out a deep, satisfying sigh and rest his chin on his paws. So we followed his lead and gave it a try, paying attention to the sounds around us, the smell of coffee and campfire and savoring the warmth of that morning sun. Why don’t we do this more often? Maybe dogs held the secret to mindfulness long before we ever did.

Corbin, Bill and Willow enjoying a slow morning; photo by Natalia Martinez

After packing up and before hitting the road, we decided to go on a short hike prompted by Willow. She seemed to know this was a different kind of hike though, exploring and sniffing, but never straying far from Corbin, who took his time alongside Bill. When hiking with older dogs, it is important to have a buddy system and stay close to each other, in case they need a hand or get too tired. Or, if like our Corbie, they become hard of hearing, we can make sure they find their way back to us.

Natalia, Willow and Corbin; photo by Bill Parsons Willow, Bill and Corbin; photo by Natalia Martinez

They did not want to leave, and truth be told, neither did we. Yes, it was a beautiful setting and a fantastic and comfortable glamping experience, but it was so much more than that. It was savoring our time there, no agenda or schedule, no matter how short or how long our stay, enjoying it with every sense and in very good company.

It was listening to the wise lessons of an older dog and putting them into practice.

Corbin; photo by Natalia Martinez

About the Author and Photographers

Natalia Martinez and Bill Parsons

Willow, Natalia Martinez, Bill Parsons, and CorbinNatalia and Bill are business partners and family. They’re a small but mighty creative team who knows the life-altering power of that one dog. The game-changer. The one you tattoo on your skin. Their journey as animal photographers began when their young black lab, Corbin, got cancer (and then beat it, lucky dog). They fought alongside him, willed him to live, and photographed him, marking the moments as a family. Photographing the human-hound connection quickly became their life’s passion, and more than a decade later, they make a living doing what they love for commercial clients and passionate entrepreneurs. In 2012, Nat and Bill adopted Willow, a wolfish dog with mysterious eyes, satellite ears, and a flare for the dramatic. Together, the pack of four feeds their love of nature and each other through hiking, camping, and getting lost in the forest. Affectionately dubbed The Labs & Co., Bill and Nat draw by hand, shoot with film, and sip tequila. Follow the pack at Instagram @thelabsand.co and @willowthewildandco and visit http://thelabsand.co/.

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