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.

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