by Kristie Perry
Over the past 20 years, Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa has logged more than 6,000 trail miles in the company of canines.
LaRuffa’s journey to becoming an expert on backpacking with dogs started with a chance encounter while thru-hiking the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 1996.
He and a buddy had been on the trail for about a month when in mid-March they reached the Bald Mountains, an 841-square-mile sub-range of the Blue Ridge Mountains. They made camp atop 5,516-foot Big Bald Mountain, which offered them a 360-degree panorama of the North Carolina–Tennessee border and a fierce wind.
“We’d been getting beat down by the wind all night long,” LaRuffa recounts. “Our tents were hitting us in the face. We hadn’t gotten any sleep. It was cold. There was snow on the trail.”
By 3 a.m., LaRuffa and his hiking buddy had had enough. They packed up their gear and headed down the mountain, collecting three more friends who perhaps more wisely had opted to stay in a lower-elevation shelter.
They all trudged into the sprawling little town of Erwin, Tennessee. At that time, Erwin was a one-motel burg notorious for being the site of an elephant hanging in 1916.
“When I finally got to my motel, I was greeted at the front porch by this little mutt,” LaRuffa says. “I just sat down and played with him.”
Saved from the pound
For many weeks that little mutt had been following thru-hikers in and out of the Smokey Mountains. When LaRuffa and his friends were ready to hit the trail again, they decided to take the mutt with them.
“The motel owner was threatening to take him to the pound,” LaRuffa says. We went to the store across the street and bought him a two-dollar collar and a bag of Gravy Train. We didn’t want to leave him in a town famous for hanging an elephant. We figured we’d keep him if he stuck with us.”
Officially dubbed Erwin, the dog stuck with LaRuffa and his friends all the way to the Maine border.
Along the way, he was repeatedly skunked; hailed by hikers who’d encountered him elsewhere on the trail; and equipped with a pack and ID tag by Damascus Dave of Mt. Rogers Outfitters in Damascus, Virginia. He faked an injury in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to get out of wearing his pack. He was examined by a veterinarian in Troutville, Virginia, who pronounced Erwin bulletproof.
Throwing up liverwurst
LaRuffa’s parents collected Erwin when the pair arrived at the New Hampshire-Maine border so LaRuffa could continue on to Mount Katahdin in Maine’s Baxter State Park, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, which prohibits dogs.
“After spending the better part of three and a half months with Erwin, parting with him was one of the toughest parts of my AT thru-hike,” LaRuffa says. He and his hiking buddies ... cried. “There were many days when we wished Erwin was with us as it was the first sustained stretch of good weather on the entire trip and I could envision him enjoying the romp through the Bigelow Mountains.”
After LaRuffa and his friends returned to the trail, LaRuffa’s parents discovered Erwin wasn’t so bullet proof, after all.
“My parents like to tell the story of bringing my ‘feral dog’ home,” LaRuffa says. He speculates that Erwin had been tossed from a car and abandoned at some point in his life, causing him to tend toward carsickness. “I told my father to give Erwin Dramamine and showed him how to pry open Erwin’s jaw and shove a pill down his throat. My father was too nervous to do that so he bought some liverwurst and put the pills in it. To quote my father, ‘there’s nothing like going down I-95 and having a dog throw up liverwurst in the back of the car on a 95 degree day’.”
LaRuffa pounded out the miles, finishing up his AT adventure about three weeks later. When he returned home to New York, Erwin, naturally, was overjoyed, and greeted LaRuffa in a quintessentially canine way: “I remember lying on the floor of my parents’ kitchen with my pack still on my back, just loving on him.”
LaRuffa and Erwin spent the following two summers patrolling a 75-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania as Ridgerunners.
Ridgerunners provide an important service on the Appalachian Trail, acting as ambassadors, educating people about Leave No Trace Principles, doing light trail maintenance, administering first aid, and discouraging bad behavior. “The program is designed to keep a pulse on what’s going on out there in the woods,” LaRuffa says. “It was a great gig in the summer for a college guy who liked hiking.”
And it was a great opportunity for LaRuffa to hone his backpacking-with-dog skills. Erwin almost always wore a pack on the trail. “And that was back in the day before doggie backpacks were popular,” LaRuffa says. “That always disarmed people and encouraged them to ask questions. It also raised a lot of spirits. It can be really lonely out there for thru-hikers.”
The dog comes first
LaRuffa and Erwin went on to log many more trail miles throughout the United States, including within the South Dakota Badlands and the Cascade Range. Erwin accompanied LaRuffa on his first trip to the top of Mount St. Helens.
For that outing, Erwin got a special jacket—fleece with a waterproof shell.
LaRuffa had no nervousness about that climb because he had already walked 5,000 miles with Erwin. “Having a dog with me at times can help calm my nerves,” LaRuffa says.
Still, climbing or backpacking with your dog is a lot of work, LaRuffa acknowledges. “If you’re going to do those things, you need to understand that it really becomes your dog’s outing.”
“You have to take care of your dog before you take care of you. If your dog is having a bad time, you’ve got to leave.”
For the Mount St. Helens climb, “The hardest thing was teaching Erwin to hike behind me so I wouldn’t step on him with a crampon. The main femoral artery in a dog is right through their leg. If they get cut there, they’ll bleed to death.”
Erwin has also been up through Mt. Hood’s Pearly Gates.
Erwin has also been up through Mt. Hood’s Pearly Gates.
After 13 years of hiking together, LaRuffa said goodbye to Erwin when he could no longer walk. “Thanks to Erwin, I developed a deep love for hiking with dogs that continues on.”
Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa is a Leave No Trace Master Educator. Over the last twenty years he has shared his tips with countless people who want to backpack with their dogs and has helped spread the gospel of how Leave No Trace principles can be applied to dogs in the backcountry. He shares his home in North Portland with Suzy, his wife of 12 years, and Karluk, a black lab mix adopted from the Oregon Humane Society in 2008. LaRuffa is a brand ambassador for Ruffwear Dog Gear, TurboPup, Barker Bags, Gossamer Gear, Mont-bell, Sawyer, Toaks, Purple Rain Adventure Skirts, Salazon Chocolate, UGO Bars, and Point 6 Socks. To learn more about Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa and his tips for traveling in the backcountry with dogs, visit his website at www.allgoodsk9adventures.com.