Hik­ing with lla­mas

These camel-like crea­tures are use­ful porters and cute com­pan­ions for a trekking trip.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By BRIAN J. CANTWELL For more info, see wal­lowal­la­mas. com

“THERE’S just some­thing hi­lar­i­ous about llama ears,” I pro­claimed as I hiked up the Ea­gle Creek trail in north­east­ern Ore­gon in the United States.

This was my first back­coun­try pack trip us­ing lla­mas (which look like camels but are na­tive to South Amer­ica’s An­des moun­tains) to carry gear.

It was July, and my 23-year-old daugh­ter and I were hik­ing “sweep” for our group – bring­ing up the rear, to be sure no gear fell off – so we had a clear view ahead of a line of 10 lla­mas, in­clud­ing 20 fuzzy, ba­nana-shaped ears.

At any one time, each pair of ears could be do­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent: arch­ing for­ward, if the llama was forg­ing up the trail; cock­ing backward in pique, if the llama was be­ing poked in the rear by a pushy co­hort; swiv­el­ling about like a weather vane (who knew why) or one ear arch­ing for­ward while the other an­gled to the side in re­sponse to the rus­tle of a chip­munk or the gush of a wa­ter­fall.

An old proverb says the eyes are the win­dow to the soul, but with lla­mas? Maybe it’s the ears.

The Ore­gon Alps

We and seven other guests were on a four-day trip with an out­fit­ter called Wal­lowa Lla­mas. Since 1985, they’ve led hik­ers into the rugged Wal­lowa Moun­tains, nick­named the Ore­gon Alps, where one of the high­est peaks (2,995m) is, in fact, called Mat­ter­horn.

A llama trek isn’t like a pack trip with horses, where some horses carry rid­ers while oth­ers carry tents and stoves. You don’t ride lla­mas, you hike along with them.

The ad­van­tage to a llama trek is that these tough, in­tel­li­gent, good-na­tured (for the most part) and sure-footed beasts carry the gear and food. They can nav­i­gate steep and nar­row trails high into the wilder­ness while all you carry is a day pack.

Un­like horses, lla­mas don’t wear metal shoes that can tear up trails; a llama’s soft but tough foot pad – a bit like a dog’s – leaves less mark on a trail than a hiker’s lug-soled boot. And at the end of the day they graze in a meadow like deer, with no need to pack in spe­cial feed that might bring weed seeds.

So you get a load-free, low-im­pact hike into the back­coun­try, with the bonus of get­ting to know lla­mas. And they do have per­son­al­i­ties.

Spit­ting crea­tures

My fa­vorite was the ad­ven­tur­ous llama named Clark, who has wan­dered off from pack trips three times, once spend­ing three months on his own in the wilder­ness be­fore be­ing found.

“He got away from me at Hawkins Pass be­cause he re­ally likes it up there,” said Raz Ras­mussen, Wal­lowa Lla­mas’ 63-year-old owner and trip leader, a man with deep smile lines in his weath­ered face.

“He looked great after three months, maybe we should do that with all of them!”

A blond-haired llama named Mo was es­pe­cially vo­cal through­out our trip, emit­ting fre­quent “meeps” and a sort of don­key bray. Mo’s full name is Modigliani – “you know, after that Ital­ian artist who painted all the long-necked women?” Ras­mussen ex­plained. (It’s a llama joke; you come to ex­pect them.)

Then there was Perseus, sort of the llama ver­sion of a bar brawler, who bit off part of an­other llama’s ear – though the vic­tim, Do­minic, is known as a bit of a bully, so maybe he asked for it.

And yes, as you may have heard: Lla­mas spit. But not usu­ally at peo­ple.

“Lla­mas spit at each other all the time, it’s one of their pri­mary meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” Ras­mussen ex­plained. “They don’t spit at hu­mans un­less you get them re­ally up­set with you. We try not to do that.”

Our group was nice to the lla­mas. We got through spit-free.

An­i­mal porters

Each guest could bring 9kg (20lbs) of gear to be car­ried by lla­mas. That in­cluded your own sleep­ing bag, pad and cloth­ing. The out­fit­ter pro­vided tents, meals and cook­ing gear.

Bal­anc­ing packs for the lla­mas was an art in­volv­ing a hand­held dig­i­tal scale. Lla­mas car­ry­ing guests’ gear were fit­ted with ny­lon packs mounted on a spe­cial sad­dle, bal­anced at 13kg per side. Larger, stronger lla­mas car­ried big plas­tic cool­ers or cus­tom-made metal cargo bins.

Get­ting to the trail­head on the first day was an ad­ven­ture it­self. At Ras­mussen’s llama ranch out­side the re­mote com­mu­nity of Halfway, Ore­gon, we climbed aboard an old school bus con­verted into a cus­tom llama trans­port.

Up front sat the paying guests. Halfway back, a cus­tom-built wooden wall di­vided the bus. Be­hind it, lla­mas loaded through the rear emer­gency door for a 90-minute drive through Pon­derosa pine forests to our trail­head.

“You asked about spit­ting? Take a look in the back of the bus, the walls look like a Jack­son Pol­lock paint­ing,” Ras­mussen con­fided.

So un­fair!

It was a 6km hike to our base camp at Ea­gle Meadow (al­ti­tude 1,920m), with 400m of el­e­va­tion gain through groves of white­barked aspen and but­ter­fly-swarmed stands of paint­brush, columbine and cow parsnip.

Progress was slowed slightly by the cu­rios­ity of ev­ery down­hill hiker, paus­ing to quiz Ras­mussen about his beasts.

“That’s so not fair!” cried one hiker with a gi­ant back­pack, eye­ing our food cool­ers strapped to the lla­mas.

The base camp meadow was a stunner. A wide ex­panse of grass and tiny laven­der daisies edged the pretty creek next to plateaus of glacier-scraped rock. At one end tow­ered 2,749m-high Nee­dle Point, a con­i­cal peak of bare gran­ite. An ad­ja­cent ridgetop was ser­rated like sew­ing scis­sors.

After un­load­ing the gear, we teth­ered lla­mas across the meadow to an­chors that corkscrewed into the ground. Dur­ing our stay, we took turns car­ry­ing buck­ets of water to the lla­mas and moved them twice daily so they wouldn’t over­graze any spot.

Eat­ing like kings

When four-footed friends haul the food, you eat like a king. Noth­ing was freeze-dried.

Happy hour was at 6pm, with sliced veg­eta­bles (some fresh from Ras­mussen’s gar­den), ranch dip, crack­ers, hum­mus and a choice of chardon­nay or mer­lot (from boxes).

Our first din­ner was a cur­ried chicken dish with red quinoa and Scot­tish oat bread, plus mocha truf­fle cook­ies for dessert. Ras­mussen’s wife, Louise, pre­pares and freezes most dishes in ad­vance. Ras­mussen re­heats the en­trees in a fold­ing, por­ta­ble oven atop a gas burner.

As we ended the day around a camp­fire, with deer wan­der­ing among the lla­mas, Ras­mussen broke out a choice of liqueurs served from small plas­tic jugs: Ir­ish cream or amaretto. On this trip, no­body suf­fered.

As sun­set painted peaks with a splash of pur­ple be­fore dusk dark­ened our val­ley, Ras­mussen wan­dered the meadow to check on his furry charges. I heard him call out to them, “You guys sleep well!”

He’s a man who likes his lla­mas.

Hik­ing to lakes

The next two days, the lla­mas took it easy and the rest of us took day hikes to scenic lakes nearby.

The first day, after a break­fast of Swedish pan­cakes with rasp­ber­ries and ap­ple but­ter from Ras­mussen’s farm, we went a cou­ple miles up to Cul­ver Lake and Bear Lake at 2,195m.

On the way through the sprawl­ing meadow, we got a bonus botany les­son from one of our fel­low hik­ers. Kelly Ams­berry, a botanist with Ore­gon State Univer­sity, told us about the lovely blue gen­tian flower and the pink-topped swamp onion.

Rick McNew, from Grand Rapids, Michi­gan, brought along a por­ta­ble spin­ning rod and caught and

re­leased trout in the stream and lakes.

That night, a sur­prise treat: au­then­tic, slushy mar­gar­i­tas made from snow har­vested from a snow­field at Cul­ver Lake, to go with our Mex­i­can din­ner. Yes, the lla­mas, bless them, had packed tequila.

Cold­est water ever

Our fi­nal day hike was to 2,286m-high Ea­gle Lake. Star­tlingly aqua­ma­rine water filled a per­fect cirque below Nee­dle Point. Some of us brought swim­suits. It was the cold­est water into which I’ve ever can­non­balled.

“I al­most couldn’t breathe when I came up, it was a lit­tle scary!” said McNew.

Af­ter­ward, we sat on sun­warmed rocks and ate sliced Swiss cheese on rose­mary crack­ers.

The next day, ev­ery­one brought the lla­mas in from the meadow for pack­ing, and pitched in to weigh the packs and help sad­dle up.

“They’re gen­tle an­i­mals, you don’t have to speak harshly,” said hiker Teri Rit­ter, as she ma­neu­vered a pack into place.

Ev­ery­body seemed to bond with the lla­mas, who made our trip what it was. And as the lla­mas headed down the trail, their ears all seemed to arch for­ward for once – all happy to be headed home.

All ex­cept Clark, of course. – Seat­tle Times/Tri­bune News Ser­vice

— Photo: TNS

A trip up Ea­gle Creek trail in north­east­ern Ore­gon, United States.

— Photos: Seat­tle Times/TNS

The azure water of Ea­gle Lake, in Ea­gle Cap Wilder­ness, Ore­gon.

The hik­ers en­joy­ing mar­gar­i­tas made from moun­tain snow at the base camp.

Lla­mas bed­ding down at the base camp meadow.

Ras­mussen leads lla­mas across Ea­gle Creek.

Un­load­ing lla­mas from the con­verted school bus at the Ea­gle Creek trail­head.

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