Sure-footed beasts from the Andes add novelty and ease to a pack trip.
WALLOWA MOUNTAINS, Ore. — “There’s just something hilarious about llama ears,” I proclaimed as I hiked up the Eagle Creek trail in Northeastern Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness.
This was my first backcountry pack trip using llamas, native to South America’s Andes, 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; swiveling 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.
Into the Oregon Alps
We accompanied seven other guests 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 (9,826 feet) 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.
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.
20 pounds of stuff
Each guest could bring 20 pounds 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 28 pounds per side.
Larger, stronger llamas carried big plastic coolers or custom-made metal cargo bins.
Getting to the trailhead the first day was an adventure itself. At Rasmussen’s llama ranch outside the remote community of Halfway, Ore., we climbed aboard a well-traveled 1967 Blue Bird 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.
Through aspens and paintbrush
It was a four-mile hike to our base camp at 6,300-foot Eagle Meadow, with 1,300 feet of elevation gain through groves of white-barked 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.
This was the outfitter’s starter-level trip. It was challenge enough for the flatlander family from Michigan that was part of our group. Others included a couple from San Diego and two neighbor friends from Corvallis, Ore.
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 9,018-foot 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.
When four-footed friends haul the food, you eat like a king. Nothing was freeze-dried.
Happy hour was at 6, with sliced vegetables (some fresh from Rasmussen’s garden), ranch dip, crackers, hummus and a choice of chardonnay or merlot (from boxes).
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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, llamas took it easy and the rest of us took day hikes to scenic lakes nearby.
The first day, after 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 7,200 feet.
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, Mich., 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 7,500-foot 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 sun-warmed 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 Teri Ritter, from Dexter, Mich., 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.
If you go
My 4-day guided llama trek into Eagle Cap Wilderness with Wallowa Llamas included a tent and all meals. Trips into Hells Canyon and the Wallowa Mountains from April through August 2016 will range from 3 to 6 days, priced from $795 to $1,395, starting from Halfway, Ore. Trips can fill early; 541-742-2961 or wallowallamas.com.
More llama treks
A sampling of other llama outfitters around the West:
• Yellowstone Safari Co. offers llama treks in Yellowstone National Park: yellowstonesafari.com/all-safaris/llama-treks
• Swan Mountain Llama Trekking, in Northwest Montana: llamatreksmontana.com
• Lander Llama Co., in Wyoming’s Wind River region: landerllama.com
• Buckhorn Llama Co., in Utah and Colorado: llamapack.com
For more, Google “llama pack trips.”
Visiting the Wallowa Mountains: traveloregon.com/cities-regions/the-wallowas