Thursday, December 23, 2010

Visit To Highline Llama Ranch In Wyoming

Last week Pam and I visited the Highline Trail Llama Ranch in Boulder Wyoming, owned and operated by Al and Sondra Ellis. Al Ellis asked me to consider joining his staff at the ranch to work and guide llama trips into the spectacular mountains of western Wyoming. This was to be a visit Pam and I would take to help us come to a decision.

Al and Sondra Ellis

Al and Sondra's Home on The Ranch

The Ellis Log Home Ready for Christmas

It was a difficult trip to make in the dead of winter and so we succumbed to the icy road conditions not long after we passed Baker City on I84. We hit a patch of snow covered ice and spun our truck around, first hitting the outside guard rail and then the inside median. A lot of damage to the front end, but we were not hurt and we were able to drive on to Ontario without any trouble. We stayed the night in Ontario and the next day, which was Sunday, we were able to find a Firestone tire company in Boise that was open. We left our truck with them for repairs that would enable us to get back to Portland. But, in the mean time we needed to rent a car to get to Wyoming. The only car rental we were able to find on a Sunday was at the Boise airport, so we rented a car and were able to continue onto Wyoming. The weather improved that day, but under the circumstances we drove it slow. We arrived at the Highline Trail Ranch at 10PM Sunday night and had an enjoyable time with Al and Sondra before we hit the sake at around midnight. Al and Sondra were the consummate hosts the entire week we stayed with them; great conversation and amazing food.

Damage to Our Truck on the Way to Wyoming

I worked with Al on the ranch from Monday through Thursday with the goal of determining if this was the life I wanted to live for my next career. As I worked with his staff, Karen and Cathy, I learned as much as I could about the superior pack llamas that he was breeding. I don’t know of anyone else in the country that has incorporated the breeding goals which Al adopted in to his breeding program.

Pam, Al and Sondra at one of the Employee Cabins

Cathy and Karen Feeding the Boys

Joe, Al and Cathy Feeding the Boys in the Field

Joe Weighing the Llamas. They Get on the Scale One at a Time Just By Calling Their Name!

The Boys Coming in From the Field to Eat

Al is breeding what is called in the llama community, the “Classic Ccara Llama.” These llamas are specifically bred for working, which is what the word, “Ccara” means. Most Ccara llama breeders, like Al, use these llamas for trail packing and in Al’s case, packing in to the high mountains of Wyoming for multi day expeditions.

Spock, Al's Best Sire, Weighing in at Over 400 lbs.

The basic features of Classical Ccara llamas are as follows: Long and muscular legs, Muscular chest, Double coat of wool (a dense under coat and thin top coat, which is useful for working in both heat and cold), Short wool on the neck, Athletic ability, Strength for carrying heavy loads, and Endurance.

Most people in the llama breeding community use llamas for their wool and for showing in competitions. They are not as concerned with the working abilities of the animal. In fact, many Ccara llama breeders are disturbed that show competitions actually discourage the Ccara features of llamas, because judges are only looking for conformation that is suitable for beauty and not working ability. It would be like comparing Miss America with G.I. Jane. Which show girl would you want to carry your gear for 8 hours on mountains trails? Classic Ccara’s aren’t necessarily the prettiest llamas, but they are the toughest. It is believed that the Classical Ccara llama has been lost to us after Pizzaro came in to Peru in the 1500s and destroyed the great llama culture of the Inca’s. Al’s life goal is to restore these grand animals to their original working function. His llama ranch is a testament to his goals. He now has 200 Ccara llamas and he’s putting his ranch into a trust that will preserve his breeding goals after he is long gone.

Joe With a Yearling. As Large As My Four Year Old Sire, Apollo.

When I got in to llamas I soon learned about the difference between Classical Ccara Llamas and their woolly siblings. From the inception of my llama program I too have been working toward purchasing and breeding Classical Ccara llamas, but I must say that in my limited experience I haven’t seen the kind of llamas Al is breeding. At least the llamas I see in the Portland, Oregon vicinity. I would compare his llamas to the Budweiser Clydesdale horses and the ones I know in my region and experience to the normal run of the mill horse. For instance, his llamas are all between 400 and 500 pounds whereas mine are about 300 pounds. Are his better? Do they perform better? Do they have more stamina? That is a question I have yet to answer and my experience in the years to follow will help answer these questions. I have been a strength and conditioning coach for over 20 years and I have learned with humans that size does not always translate into superior performance. I’ll find out.

Six Month Olds Being Weighed. As Large As Some of My Yearlings.

We came away from Highline Llama Ranch greatly impressed, but we could not conclude that we would be compatible with the lifestyle. For now we are staying in Portland, but with a much better understanding and appreciation for the Classical Ccara Llama.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My Llama Pilgrimage: Part II

I’ve had a lot of different reactions from friends, acquaintances, and co-workers about my llama ownership. Some people express curiosity, some fascination, and some even make fun of me. In any case, I find that people always want to know more about what I’m doing with these curious creatures. How did you get in to llamas? What are they like? How many do you have? And, on and on the questions go. I already gave the history of how I started with llamas, but there is more. Besides the fact that I was hooked on them as pack animals, I found out that these animals suit my “style” as a person. I am a busy person with other interests and responsibilities in life besides llamas. I don’t need an animal that is high maintenance and hard to train. Llamas fit that requirement. In addition, I admire them for their strength, athleticism, intelligence, quiet disposition, and noble beauty. I think the characterization of “beauty” is where many people depart with me. A lot of people think they look funky or goofy. One friend laughs at me because to him all llamas are like the one featured in the movie, “Napoleon Dynamite.” That llama was caricaturized as a weird and crazed llama.

After my first pack trip with Pam I knew that I had to get more llamas to expand my packing abilities. I purchased a few more pack sets and went back to Sherri to see if she had any more llamas to sell. She worked up a deal with me to buy three llamas that she thought would be perfect for my interests. So, my next purchase was Angel, Cher, and Fancy Pants.

2010 Summer Packers: Apollo, Rainy, and Cher. These three provided a lot of joy for Pam and I on two pack trips this summer. The rest of the llamas were too pregnant or too young!

To this day, I think this was my best purchase. At first, though, it didn’t feel that way. None of these llamas had been trained and they were already ten years old. I have found that it is harder to train an older llama; I think we humans are the same!

The first day I met Cher at Sherri’s ranch I approached her with a saddle in my hands, intending to easily put it on her, but instead of cooperating with me she spit in my face, which only made me more determined to saddle her. When I finally got the saddle on her, but before I could get it secured, she bolted away and drug the partially secured saddle with her all the way back to her barn, about a quarter mile away. I never want to lose a fight with a llama, so I patiently brought her back to tie her up at the original location and after a while she settled down enough to accept the saddle. Cher is a nervous llama by nature, but with a few pack sessions she became my best packer. In fact, over the years she has been a great pack llama leader and has trained all my other llamas in bridge, log and water crossings. She’s tall and a hard packer with a gentle spirit. I later found out that she is a descendant of the great pack llama, Poncho Villa, who is highly thought of in breeder circles. I wish I could breed her, but she has never accepted any male I’ve tried to breed to her. Her sister, Angel, was a descent packer, but her body conformation kept her from performing as well as Cher.

Cher was our first great packer and at 16 years old she still the best and trains the youngsters. She will always have a special place in my heart.

The third llama in this purchase was Fancy Pants. She was hard to handle at first because she was so nervous, but I was far more interested in using her to begin my breeding program than trying to make her a packer. I figured the best and most cost effective way to build a pack team was to breed your own llamas. She is the best athlete that I have, but I never have been able to take her on a pack trip until this past year. I’ve tried to keep her pregnant and producing babies; that’s how highly I think of her body conformation and abilities. She has produced three beautiful llamas since I purchased her; Columbus, Aspen and Summit.

This is Fancy Pants on the Left and her one year old daughter Aspen on the right. Aspen will be a fine breeder and packer.

This is Fancy Pants with her most recent cria, Summit. Summit is now 6 months old and I have not seen better body conformation in a llama!

Columbus was Fancy’s first cria and our first cria! I bred her with one of Sherri’s studs, Canadian Mountain Man; a llama with an eager but gentle disposition, which is exactly what you want in a packer. Columbus was actually born on Columbus Day, so Pam appropriately named her. He quickly became our pride and pleasure. He was a beautiful llama with wonderful wool coloring and the most gentle disposition I have seen in any llama. He would right up to Pam and rub up against her, seeking her attention.

But, at six months something bad happened. About the time Columbus came of age to be weaned, at six months, I purchased a male stud by the name of Apollo. Apollo was two years old and was a fine llama in the lineage of the famous pack stud, Black Thunder. Pack Llama breeders often speak of Black Thunder with glowing expressions. Apollo had just come from a herd of 5 or 6 males who had all been fighting with each other, which is what llamas do, since they are always jostling for a position within the herd. So, when Apollo and Columbus were joined together it was a terrible match. A little six month old with a near full grown two year old! Apollo chased Columbus all over the field repeatedly tackling him. After a week together I came out to the field and found Columbus hiding in a black berry thicket, shivering. I gathered him up in my arms and took him to an isolation pen so that I could feed him and care for him. From that day on Columbus’ health declined rapidly. Within a week he died. At that time I wasn’t sure what had happened to him, but my first deduction was that it was a parasite problem. At the vet’s instructions I took him in for a necropsy when he died. After the Vet was done he came out to the waiting room and told me that he had never seen such a bad case of twisted gut before. Twisted gut is where the intestines of the animal get tied so that the animal cannot digest food. Apollo had chased him down and tumbled him over one too many times. I later found out that you don’t put a two year old male with a six month old male. The two year old is still going through his terrible twos and you are asking for trouble when putting a two year old with a young llama. Well, I got trouble, and the worst kind. Pam was so disappointed, because she bonded with little Columbus more than any of the other llamas. I felt terrible for not knowing this basic principle of herd management and from that experience I became more determined to better understand these creatures and how to manage them.

Our First Cria, Columbus. Born on Columbus Day he was a very special llama to Pam. We miss him!

A few months later I figured that I had to increase my breeding female stock, so I purchased another female from the Joyful Llama Ranch, operated by Joyce O’Hollaran. Her name is Kissy and I found her to be an aggressive packer, though a bit temperamental. One time I had Kissy leading a pack train of llamas on a trip in to the Indian Heaven Wilderness and she got in to a conflict with Cher. She abruptly stopped on the trail and plopped down, as though she were a spoiled two year old child. I couldn’t budge her, so I disconnected her and took all the other llamas around her and went up the trail while she stubbornly laid there. She spat at each llama as they passed her on the trail, as if to say to the them, “I'm trying to teach Joe that I'm the herd boss!” Normally, she is just fine.

This is Glacier at one year, born to Kissy just a few days before Aspen. She is a beautiful llama with a lot of potential as a packer and breeder.

Between Kissy and Fancy Pants I felt that I had two fine breeding females. Apollo wasn’t ready to breed at that time he came in to the herd, due to his age and inexperience, so I put one of Joyce’s other breeding studs, Quartz, with the two girls. A year later I had two babies (Cria, as they are called by llama breeders) born to the Fancy Pants and Kissy. Fancy birthed Aspen and Kissy birthed Glacier. At the time of this writing these two females are a year and a half old and they are as big and as fine as any pack llamas I have ever seen. I intend to use them as breeders, but they are already looking to be fine packers, as well. I learned from Joyce O’Holloran to get the females pregnant in the spring, pack with the pregnant females during the Summer, and then birth their Cria in the next spring. So, that’s the philosophy I am following.

At the time of this writing I have a total of 13 llamas and most of them are yet to be proven. They are young and full of potential. In due time I will be able to saddle them up and wander off in to the sunset as far and wide as one desires.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

My Llama Packing Pilgrimage: Part I

When I decided to purchase my first llama five years ago it was the beginning of a whole new world for me. It wasn’t something I fell in to, or a sudden knee jerk interest, as it was with the genesis of a few other interests I have taken up over the course of my life. I had a long time fascination with these exotic, woolly and majestic creatures.

My interest in llamas began early in my adult life after hearing about hikers using them as mountain pack animals. At that time I was an avid backpacker, but having been raised a city boy on a minister's salary I could not envision owning or keeping llamas. I considered them an impractical luxury I could not afford, so they remained in the curiosity box of my mind for many years.

Then, five years ago a friend of mine and I were backpacking in the rugged wilderness of Hells Canyon. I was carrying a heavy pack and I began experiencing pain in my left hip not long after we began the long and grinding climb up to Freeze Out Pass. That night, while we were camping on the rim of the canyon, for no particular reason that I can recall, I started sharing with him my interest in llamas and their use as pack animals. He happened to own a 32 acre farm not far from where I lived in my Portland Suburb, and he said to me with an excitement that surprised me, “let’s buy some llamas and put them on my property. They can carry your gear for you and it would take the stress off your hip.” I never expected that kind of interest from Matthew, because he is not an animal person. He loves the world of machinery and technology with little patience for any kind of animals.

As we talked it out over the camp fire that night we concluded that it would be a win/win situation for us to own llamas. I would take care for the animals on his property and he would get a property tax deferral for keeping and using animals on his property. I would pay him a small fee for his tax purposes. He wouldn’t have to do anything. The plan materialized that fast! Suddenly, what I thought was out of reach for me was now within sight. I was going to be a llama owner and packer!

When we got back to Portland I called the first llama ranch I could find on the internet, Hidden Oaks Llama Ranch, owned by Sherri Talmon. We purchased three llamas from Sherri; one owned by me, one by my friend Matthew, and one by his step father, Mike who also lived on the property. We didn’t have much money to spend, so Sherri sold us some inexpensive rescue llamas. These llamas were abused or neglected by their previous owners, so that they needed to be “rescued” from the poor conditions in which they were being managed. Sherri was not in to packing with llamas, but her focus was on the woolly type of llama that makes a good show animal at county fairs. Although she was solely into showing llamas she knew enough about pack llamas to direct us toward what she called the, “light wool” llamas, which she knew packers like to use. I now refer to them by their proper title, “Classic Llamas.” Classic Llamas are a breed of llama that have light wool on there necks, long legs, muscular but sleek bodies, and cat like athletic ability.

The Llama I picked out was a gelding named, Mr. Smokey and Matthew’s llama was a female named, Rainy. Juliet was the third llama, who was picked by Matthew’s step father, Mike. Juliet was not right for packing due to her small stature and blocky body type. But, Mike liked the way she looked and chose her on that basis. As Matthew and I had planned over the camp fire a month before, I took responsibility to care for all three of them, but I would also have the benefit of using all of them for packing if I chose to.

My first llama, Mr. Smokey

I started out by purchasing only one saddle and pannier set, mostly because they are spendy. Pack equipment doesn’t come cheap, even used on Craigslist. Also, I was experimenting and you never want to go in to something whole hog when you are in the experimental phase. I was totally in the dark about training and llama packing techniques, yet I had a couple of things going for me, enthusiasm and access to internet information. Although in retrospect, both served to make me able, but dangerous. If I had to do it over I would never start out the way I did, but at the time I was floundering in darkness. In those early days I wish I had personal access to people who were experienced packers and knew what to look for in a llama, how to train them, and what kind of equipment to use. The internet information on llama packing is quite sparse and there is no substitute for a mentor or teacher.

Equipped with my one pack set and a slightly trained Rainy, my wife Pam and I went on our first llama pack trip to Duffy Lake, just below Three Fingered Jack in the Central Cascades. I didn’t take Mr. Smokey on this trip for one simple and practical reason, Rainy was easier to handle. I had no idea that it was unorthodox to pack with only one llama. Llamas are very social creatures and function far better in a pair or in a group. They need each other… they feed off of each other.

Our first llama pack trip to Duffy Lake with Rainy

The trail to Duffy Lake was only a three mile hike, which I found on the internet listed as a good llama training pack trip. After we packed her up and snapped the trail head pictures we were starting out on our first pack trip as pleased as two dancing dervishes. But, shortly after starting up the trail our dancing turned to disappointment. We didn’t get 200 yards before Rainy laid down on the trail. Pam was leading her and I was up ahead taking pictures of her and Rainy coming up the trail. As I watched her stop and drop to the ground I remember looking at her with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I did not know this could happen, but then, I had never been llama packing before, either. I think Rainy laid down on the trail at least six times on the way up that day. In the five years of my packing experience I haven’t found anything more frustrating on a pack trip than to have your llama lie down on the trail, so that was a tough experience to endure. They can be stubborn and, as some llama handlers like to say, they are masters of passive resistance.

It wasn't her fault that she laid down on the trail; I take all the blame. I made two mistakes on that inaugural pack trip besides bringing her without a companion: I didn’t properly prepare her in training and I over loaded her. Llamas can technically carry a third of their body weight and she weighed about 300 pounds. I must have had all of a hundred pounds on her, but this was her first pack trip and as I was about to learn, you don’t do that to a llama who hasn’t packed before. That was probably the longest three miles I ever hiked in my life, as well as the most exhausting. Try getting a stubborn llama to stand up they don’t want to. For a few hours I felt like a Sumo wrestler, pushing, circling, butting, pulling, and lifting his opponent.

Then, in addition to that frustration, when we were only a quarter of a mile from our destination, we came to a bridge crossing where she abruptly stopped at the wood bridge deck. Here was yet another gap in her preparation; bridge crossing. Llamas are fearful animals by nature, which is one of their defense mechanisms. They don’t like to cross bridges because it’s scary for them and they need to learn through patient training that bridges are not a threat to them. I never trained her to cross a bridge before that trip. It never crossed my mind that bridge training was needed. Of course, I tried the gentle and patient approach of trying to coax her across the bridge, but that didn’t compliment my disposition at the time, given the Sumo matches I had with her earlier. It wasn’t long before I was pushing and Pam was pulling. Once the inertia was broken and she got her feet on the bridge she slowly crossed, but not without cautiously looking down from one side of the bridge to the other, as if she were a tight rope walker unsure of himself. But, how do you tell a llama that it’s less scary not to look down?

Mercifully we arrived at our campsite without any more obstacles and we gave Rainy a well deserved rest. Despite the trail obstacles, we had a great time on that first pack trip. I learned more about packing with llamas from that singular trip than any other time in the next five years, even if it was learning the hard way. After that trip I started preparing Rainy and other llamas much more rigorously, which included going up hills. She never became the barn storming llama that I wanted her to be and through training other llamas I learned that some are not strong packers by nature and some are. Just like humans, some have it and some don't. Rainy has always had a tendency to be lazy or slow, but she didn't lay down on the trail again and bridges became a walk in the park.

After arriving at the lake my frustration from the hike up gave way to a satisfied thankfulness to have her. For the first time in my backpacking experience we had creature comforts with us that we could never have carried by ourselves. That night we enjoyed a gourmet dinner with a glass of wine seated in chairs at the foot of our camp fire; all of which was carried by our mysterious and peacefully friend guarding our tent for the night. Instead of being dissuaded by the day's experience I was hooked on llama packing.