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Together Again--a Doc and His Dog

January 24, 1991|BERKLEY HUDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ashley came home.

Ashley, an 18-month-old whippet whose formal name is Sporting Field's Ashley II, was separated from her owners during a Jan. 13 hiking expedition in Angeles National Forest near Mt. Wilson.

Today, she's back home in San Marino after a series of misadventures her owner can only guess at.

Stephen Rappel, a cardiologist, knows the beginning of the story. And he knows the happy ending. He's just baffled at what happened to Ashley during the seven days in between.

During the hike, Ashley was spooked by some people who were throwing rocks down a ravine.

"All of the sudden the dog would not come," said Rappel, who went to get his wife, Evelyn, in hopes that she could lure the dog back.

But when they returned, there was no sign of Ashley.

An avid hiker in the United States and abroad, Rappel has traversed the trails to Mt. Wilson close to 20 times; Mt. Lowe, 10 times, and Echo Mountain, 30 times, each time with Ashley by his side.

The dog, he said, knows the trails as well as the master.

So the Rappels decided to drive back to Altadena and the base of Eaton Canyon where the hike had begun, to see if the dog had walked there to the day's beginning point. As dusk fell on the foothills, still no Ashley.

Despondent, they returned home, hoping someone would find Ashley and call the phone number on her tag.

"I was as depressed as could be. I walked down this whole trail, screaming for the dog," said Rappel, 50. "We were eating our hearts out."

There was also the guilt factor. Ashley had been a Christmas gift to Rappel in 1989 from his daughter, a recent medical school graduate. "Besides loving and missing this dog, it was my fault," he said. "My son, my daughter, everybody was blaming me: 'You should have never left the dog!' "

The next day he had to perform an emergency heart catheterization at 7 a.m. and then had an emergency consultation at 9. But by 11 a.m., he took off for the Mt. Wilson trail, getting colleagues to fill in. He left his Monterey Park office and headed for the hills.

But after three hours on the trail, "no dog, No nothing," he said.

After two days, he said, "we gave up on the dog, to tell you the truth. We figured this dog is dead and gone."

He could not bear to look at the back yard where the pet had once lounged in a poolside chair.

But on Jan. 20, a week after Ashley vanished, Rappel returned to the mountains to hike--this time on the Sam Merrill Trail to Echo Mountain, perhaps a dozen miles by trail to the southwest of where he lost his dog.

His mind on his own loss, he stumbled across something potentially much more tragic: a woman hanging for her life on the side of a canyon.

Rappel joined the crowd trying to save the woman, who was rescued without serious injury. Then he struck up a conversation with one of the rescuers, a woman he had met on previous hikes.

He began to tell his sad story as they walked down the mountain. Then came a sound from the brush.

"There's your dog," the woman said, pointing to Ashley, whose bones were practically poking through the white, black and tawny fur on her sides.

"Dirty, skinny and frightened," Rappel said. "God only knows how the dog got there."

With six ticks, a few minor scratches on her legs and her weight down to 22 pounds--about one-third less than when she went into the forest--Ashley checked out fine with the vet the next day.

"It's hard to believe that the dog could live seven days, seven nights in the mountains with coyotes, no food, no water," said Rappel, unaware that whippets were bred in Europe as speedy rabbit-chasers and also have a reputation as proficient rat-killers. "I don't know what the dog ate."

The incredible journey is confirmed by Paul Downing, who manages the Henninger Flats Visitor Information Center of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Downing was among the many authorities Rappel had notified about his missing dog.

"Seven days is fantastic. It's an unusual situation when you have a domestic dog that survives more than two days, because of the coyotes or even the bobcats. Four days max," Downing said.

For Rappel's part, he said, "I just want to let people know about my story to let them know there's always hope, even when you think there isn't."

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