We are interlopers, invading upon a space where we don’t belong.
We are hikers, traversing trails that take us into the wilderness to breathe fresh air, hear the quiet of nature and drink in the beautiful vistas Mother Nature has laid out for us.
Yet we don’t belong there. We are humans and dogs who are taking over the space where wild species live, where flora and fauna want to simply exist.
Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa, an adventurer and thru-hiker with more than 6,000 miles under his boots, has come up on moose and black bears and elk and marmots … so many marmots.
And with every step he’s taken, he’s gained a greater level of respect for the world in which they live.
“It’s hard enough for wildlife to survive as it is,” LaRuffa said. “We add stress to their lives by being in their world, and we make their survival even harder.”
A child of rural New Hampshire, LaRuffa grew up in the outdoors and developed a passion for long-distance hiking. In 1996, he was hiking the Appalachian Trail and a stray dog latched onto him.
Erwin claimed LaRuffa for his own and became his best trail buddy. Together, they worked on the Appalachian Trail in the 1990s as Ridge Runners, providing education and support to hikers on the world’s longest hiking-only footpath.
Erwin had a high prey drive and LaRuffa quickly learned what happens when he allowed his dog to roam off leash.
“It was our second week together and he met two different skunks,” LaRuffa said. “You want a skunked dog in your tent? I thought, ‘How are we going to tie him outside the tent?’ Because he was not coming inside with me.”
He and Erwin hiked many miles together, but it wasn’t until they moved out West and put down roots in Oregon that he started to tune into leashing his dogs. He stopped to get a permit for Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and the ranger advised him to keep his dog on leash. The area was known to have the highest concentration of cougars south of the 48th parallel.
Dog vs. cougar is not a fight anyone needs to witness.
A necessity at times
Hikers should have established recall and trust in their dog. A longtime believer in “on-leash only,” I recently faced a situation where I had to let Bella off her lead.
The day before, a friend and I landed at the Evans Landing trailhead in North Idaho, great gusts of wind had blown down a number of trees. Tall, gorgeous pines now lay strewn across the trail, obstructing access and in some places completely tearing out the path.
We had to climb up and over, squeezing through branches to get to our beach destination at the bottom.
I had no choice but to unclip Bella and let her get through on her own, hoping she wouldn’t roam off while I fought through branches.
“Look, you have two choices,” LaRuffa said. “You can either have total verbal control or you can leash your dog.”
Bella stayed. Good girl.
Now I’m determined to keep practicing with her so we can hike off leash confidently when we can and need to.
LaRuffa can be confident that Karluk never strays too far. The “Mile Monster” has hiked all through the Northwest states and the Sierras – on leash and off.
“He hikes behind my knees,” LaRuffa said, “and when we’re hiking in a group, I always tell the person who likes to be in front that my dog is No. 2, has to be No. 2. He will hike on your knees.”
LaRuffa is a master educator for Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, a group that promotes careful enjoyment of the outdoors. He gives group talks to hiking and conservancy groups all over North America, advocating the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace.
No. 6 is “respect wildlife.”
“We shouldn’t disturb or harass wildlife,” LaRuffa said. “We’re visitors in their environment. You know, a marmot has a pretty rough life. He survives on grass. We don’t need to make that life more difficult. We don’t need to let our dogs run free and chase the marmots.”
He often sees dogs harassing marmots and other small wildlife while he’s hiking. He does his best to educate the humans on the trail.
“I’d feel really bad if my dog killed an animal,” he said. “Wouldn’t you?”
LaRuffa just wants everyone to keep their dogs under control and give the wildlife a wide berth.
It also lends to everyone enjoying their day on the trail, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic has created an increased demand on the trail systems through the Pacific Northwest.
“Look, a leash is the right thing to do for wildlife and the polite thing to do on heavily trafficked trails,” LaRuffa said. “People can be afraid of dogs. You don’t want to ruin someone else’s day.”
For hikers who choose to let their dogs run off leash, he advises them to consider using a short leash that stays on the collar and allows for a quick grab when needed. As a Ruffwear ambassador, he likes the Quick Draw. Bella and I use the EzyDog Neo Mongrel, that’s more like a handle and doesn’t get caught up in Bella’s long legs.
LaRuffa knows adventures are better with a dog at his side. He figured it out years ago when he was just 18 and Erwin became his best bud.
“Yeah, from that moment we were never apart,” said LaRuffa of his four-legged friend who died in 2008. “I had a lot of days of just me and my dog.”
Karluk is 13 years old, and he does have to stay at home for LaRuffa’s longer hikes and overnight backpacking trips. The old boy has arthritis, so he’s limited to car camping but he can still churn out a 3- to 4-mile hike on his good days.
He knows what his backpack looks like and he seems to be bummed when he doesn’t get to go with Dad.
“He’s my best friend in the world,” LaRuffa said. “We’ve done a lot, just the two of us. It’s always more fun when he’s with me. And he can really pick up my spirits on a rainy, rough day.”
He appreciates why Karluk can’t join him but wishes he could still be there.
“We get to see the world through their eyes,” LaRuffa said. “When you watch them sniff and explore the world, it forces you to stop and enjoy a moment. They slow the world down.”