The Dogs We Love: 2018 Adventure Dog Contest
BEST STORIES: THE DOGS OF THE LONG TRAIL
Nearly every dog has a story to tell. Or at least their owners do. This year, many of the best stories centered around dogs as hiking companions, including a few who have thru-hiked the Long Trail.
(1) Winner: Sam, St. Albans
This summer, Sam earned his own trail name: The Ambassador. The little 20-pound dog accompanied his owner, Betsy LeBlancet, on a 273-mile thru-hike of the Long Trail to raise awareness and funds to support suicide prevention in Vermont.
“I never felt like I was by myself,” says LeBlancet of her solo thru-hike. “He’s pretty good at staying at my heels.”
LeBlancet says she and Sam weren’t always that close. “It took us a while to bond, and it wasn’t until we started hiking together than I came to understand the term ‘man’s best friend,” she says.
LeBlancet says that Sam’s friendly demeanor helped her to connect with other people hiking the trail. “There’s something about having a really friendly dog that puts people at ease. I was really amazed by how much people opened up to me about really personal things.”
He must have been effective. LeBlancet’s hike was dedicated to raising money for the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center’s UMatter Program, which offers training in suicide prevention and in how to support survivors of suicide. She beat her initial fundraising goal of $20 per mile hiked and raised $6,000.
According to a report published by the Vermont Department of Health in December 2017, suicide was the eighth leading cause of death among Vermonters in 2015. It’s affected LeBlancet personally through her own struggles with depression and she has lost several friends to suicide.
“I went through a really dark period about three years ago. Taking care of Sam got me out of bed every day. Once I realized how happy hiking made him, that would start to transform how I was feeling,” said LeBlancet.
She says she plans to hike the Long Trail annually for her No One Stands Alone project, and would like to establish a non-profit to help other women who struggle with depression gain access to the outdoors.
“My hike was an effort to demonstrate a tool kit I’ve found for managing this issue [depression and suicide] in a healthy way. Exercise is a great way to deal with mental health issues, and being exposed to natural places, connecting with people, can play a big role in our wellbeing,” says LeBlancet.
Sam proved to be a great trail dog, carrying ten to 20 percent of his body weight the entire trip. As LeBlancet tells it, even the tricky ladders that lead to the summit of Mt. Mansfield’s iconic Chin on the Long Trail were no trouble for Sam. The dog flew right up them without even a boost from her owner. “He did better than I did,” she says. “I got blisters!”
LeBlancet used Sojos dehydrated dog food from Pet Food Warehouse to lighten Sam’s load (he could only carry about four pounds at the most). She recommended doing overnight training trips with your dog, not just to test gear, but to learn how they will behave when sharing a shelter with other hikers. “You may have a really well-behaved dog, but you never know exactly how they will respond in a new situation,” she said. For example, Sam loved sneaking into other shelter guests’ sleeping bags. “Usually people were pretty cool with a snuggle, but it was pretty funny.”
(2) Runner up: Summit, Chester, VT.
“I’m always amazed by how dogs are so much more resilient than humans,” says Brett Mastrangelo of Chester. “A dog can sleep out on a rock when it’s windy and cold and be psyched. It gives you perspective when you’re backpacking and brings you back to what’s important.”
That optimism helped power Mastrangelo and a group of five or six high school students on a school-sponsored thru-hike of The Long Trail in the summer of 2016. Since that first backpacking trip together, Mastrangelo and Summit have hiked for weeks at a time in Maine and on the Pacific Crest Trail through Oregon. Next summer, they’re eyeing the Continental Divide Trail.
Summit’s favorite activity on that first Long Trail trip was to visit each member of the group in their sleeping bag every morning as the sun was rising. “He was good for morale. He’d even sit and watch the sunset with us, and he was laughably pensive, which I’d never known about him until that trip,” says Mastrangelo. When parents resupplied the group, Summit received dog treats and the occasional hot dog.
Throughout the trip, Summit carried 15 to 20 percent of his body weight in dog food in a Ruffwear Approach pack. “We run together [with the pack] for about an hour or so every day and I’d done a lot of mountain running with him on the weekends,” says Mastrangelo of their training for The Long Trail. Although Summit lost about five pounds, Mastrangelo says he didn’t suffer injuries. “Other than a little chafing towards the end, he did great.”
(3) Runner Up: Ramona, Charlottesville, Va.
“She wasn’t a hiking dog before I adopted her,” says owner Alyssa Godesky of Ramona, her four-year-old dog from Charlottesville, Va. This summer, Ramona, mix of Labrador, Airedale Terrier, Chow Chow and Pit Bull, accompanied Godesky on more than 150 miles of the Long Trail, while Godesky trained to challenge the fastest known time for a woman completing the Long Trail from end-to-end. In July, she broke that record with a time of five days, two hours, 37 minutes.
According to Godesky, who spent the summer in Winhall and Stowe, Vt., Ramona was a big part of that. “There were a lot of days when I would run a 20-mile section in the morning and then hike for two to four hours in the evening. A lot of it was about scouting out the trail, and it was really nice to have a companion,” says Godesky.
The hardest part about hiking with a dog? “Planning for her eating
and drinking. A dog can’t stop and be like, ‘hey, I’m thirsty!’ But it took my mind off my own fatigue and suffering on longer training days,” Godesky says. She treated Ramona’s waste like human waste, burying it 200 feet off-trail and away from water with a backpacking trowel.
She recommends the Outward Hound DayPak for dogs, which features a side saddlebag design and four pockets for stashing your dog’s dish and food.
Ramona’s favorite part of the trail was chasing chipmunks with an enthusiasm that Godesky found contagious and inspiring. Although Ramona was not with Godesky for her record-breaking ultra-run, she says, “I don’t think I would have done that [broken the Long Trail FKT] without Ramona.” — Abagael Giles
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