The Story of a Lost Llama and How His Adventure Became Our Own
by Melinda Van Bossuyt
Deep down inside I knew we were in trouble. Moments before, Douglas calmly said, "Magma is loose." This rarely happens, but after 22 years of packing with llamas, we have had a few exciting moments when one of our guys manages to get free and wanders around eating in places he couldn't reach before. We have a routine or a protocol we follow. Nobody gets hurt. Nobody gets lost. And soon everybody is where they are supposed to be once again.
This time we were packing up after a nice weekend outing just before Fourth of July. We had two young newbies with us learning the ropes for their virgin hike from two pros: Magma, our 12.5 year old stud, and Goddard, an eight year old gelding and son of Magma. It was a beginning-of-the-season pack trip meant to get us all in shape and into the packing mode. The four llamas were tethered in the meadow as we stuffed sleeping bags, rolled up our tents, and filled and balanced panniers.
Magma had managed to unclip himself while rubbing his neck and head on the ground. It was really our fault. The duct tape wrapped around the clip was last year's old stuff and didn't hold. The bugs were bugging the llamas because we hadn't yet sprayed them for the day. We intended to take care of that when we brought them in for saddling. Magma wandered away from his spot with his head down eating. Dave grabbed some llama pellets and a rope. It was just a routine escape. Shake the pellets. Llama comes for pellets. Clip a lead rope on the llama. No big deal.
The Great Escape
Just as Dave turned to walk in Magma's direction from our campsite, Magma realized he was loose. He ambled over to the creek, plowed right across, and, once on the other side, ran up the trail. Dave and Douglas followed behind him. Once at the main trail junction, Magma turned and ran at full speed down the trail in the direction of the trailhead.
After a couple of minutes with no llama and no Dave or Douglas, I told Kelsey that we had better pick up the pace and get the gear loaded fast. I was already calculating how to distribute the load meant for four llamas onto three. One of those llamas, Boulder, was only three years old and according to our standards should be carrying no more than 40 pounds including the saddle. Obviously, we were going to have to break the rule.
I figured Magma was headed for the trailer. He had been to this spot many times. He knew exactly where he was and where the ride home was parked.
I had started balancing panniers when Dave returned to camp. The last time he saw Magma was about one mile down the trail. Magma was gleefully running for the trailhead. Douglas continued down the trail to gather up Magma at the trailhead and stuff him into the trailer. Dave helped Kelsey and me saddle the llamas and load up. Insult of insults: the other llamas not only had to carry Magma's load, but one of them also had to carry his saddle. Young Boulder ended up with 60 pounds. Goddard carried about 90 pounds. Webster, a newbie yet old enough for a full load, carried close to 85 pounds. Yeah, we carried a lot of luxuries on this weekend outing. But it wouldn't have been a problem if we had all four llamas doing their share.
As we hiked down the trail we meant incoming hikers who had seen Magma. Finally, we met some folks with two big dogs who had seen him come out at the trailhead. "Good", I thought. "Douglas has him and they will be waiting for us."
Magma Disappears, Flat Tires, Pilfered Fuel, and the Search
When we got to the truck, we found Douglas and no Magma. Douglas had never seen Magma after the one mile mark. He followed his tracks all the way to the trailhead. We speculated that Magma ran in fear when he encountered the big dogs at the trailhead.
Douglas was thirsty. He had been without water all this time and had no keys to get into the truck. There was another problem. The right rear tire was flat on the truck. We unloaded the llamas and offered them water and hay in a shady spot. Douglas and Kelsey went to work changing the flat. Dave took one of our two-way radios and looked around the trailhead area. Then he headed back up the trail to take the turnoff to the horse camp. The plan was that I would drive around to the horse camp with the truck once the tire was changed.
It took over an hour to change the tire because of tight lug nuts and trouble getting the tire down from under the truck. Luckily I had two engineers on the job. Having no WD-40, I gave them the left over squeeze butter to loosen the lugs.
Finally, I headed down the road and found Dave. He had been to the horse camp and talked to people there to let them know to be on the lookout for a lost llama. Dave stood in the back of the truck while I drove slowly along the nearby dirt roads. I spotted Magma's tracks almost immediately. He has a rather distinctive footprint. Further up the road we found more prints. But we concluded those were the print of an elk. There was a big clear-cut next to the road where Magma's prints were. We thought that would be a good place to look later on.
By this time it was late afternoon and very hot. We went back to the trailhead and learned that Douglas had noticed that the right rear trailer tire was also flat. It seemed highly suspicious to have two tires on our rig flat and on opposite sides at the same time. We went about changing that tire. Douglas and Kelsey made a run with the truck calling and looking for Magma. We did the same in the woods around the trailhead. I wrote enough notices about our lost llama to put on every vehicle at the trailhead. We also put them in the wilderness permit box and on the bulletin boards at both the trailhead and horse camp. By this time, we were completely out of water. We made the decision to load up and head for home. It was a very sad moment. I felt that we would never see Magma again.
Dave drove. He checked the fuel gauge and switched to the auxiliary tank. Both tanks were almost empty. The second tank had been almost full when we arrived at the trailhead. Dave was furious. It was obvious that in addition to the two flat tires someone had siphoned our gas. We coasted into the Detroit Lake gas station on fumes. Once refueled, we stopped briefly at the Detroit Ranger Station to leave one of my handwritten "Lost Llama" notices on the bulletin board. The ranger station was already closed for the day.
The rest of the way home we planned our next moves aimed at getting our llama back. That night I sent out a "Lost Llama" notice to all the llama people in Oregon on my email list.
The Search Resumes
The next morning, the day before Fourth of July, Dave was up at five o'clock and on the road in his little fuel efficient car headed for the trailhead. He was equipped with cell phone, hand held two-way radio, water, food, llama pellets, lead rope, hay, picket pin, binoculars, and day pack. Back at home, I took the truck and trailer to get the tires fixed and back on the truck. Our suspicions were correct. The tires were not damaged. Someone had just let the air out of them. I made calls to the Forest Service at Detroit Lake and the Linn County sheriff's department. (While Detroit Lake is in Marion County, the Duffy trailhead is in Linn County.) I reported the lost llama, the flat tires, and the stolen gas.
Already calls and emails were coming in from llama folks on both sides of the mountains. Word travels fast in the llama community. I really appreciated the words of encouragement and offers of help.
At 9 o'clock, Dave called. Thankfully there was cell phone reception at the top of the clear-cut. He was scanning with his binoculars and getting ready to hike down through the clear-cut in his search for Magma. He had already been at the trailhead and had hiked two miles up the trail and back calling out Magma's name looking for Magma's tracks. He saw no sign of Magma. Dave also told me he regretted forgetting the insect repellent as the mosquitoes were pretty bad.
Magma Turns Up
About 10 o'clock, the first call came from some hikers who saw Magma at the trailhead about 9:30 am. Shortly after, more calls came from people who had seen Magma up the trail a half mile and one and a half miles. They all had the same story. They said that Magma came up to them and looked them over. They said it was as if he was looking for someone. I repeatedly called Dave's cell phone to let him know to go back to the trailhead. It was clear to me that Magma must have heard Dave calling and had made his way back to the trail to find him. About 11:00 I connected with Dave and gave him the news of the Magma sightings. He went immediately to the trailhead.
Douglas helped me pack up the truck with sleeping bags, food, water, insect repellent and two llamas and their food and water. I figured the llamas would be helpful in luring Magma back into captivity if it came to that. About noon, just before I was ready to pull out, Dave called to say he had Magma. What a relief!
It seems that some hikers met Magma on the trail about a half mile from Duffy Lake. That is about three and one-half miles up from the trailhead. Magma came right up to the people. These folks had seen our notices about the lost llama at the trailhead. One of them reached out and gently took hold of Magma's halter. He led Magma down the trail. Dave met up with them about a mile or so from the trailhead. The man leading Magma was relieved to turn him over to the owner. He said he hadn't figured out what he was going to do with Magma once he got to the trailhead. Magma's finders refused a reward. But back at the trailhead, Dave emptied his wallet for a total of $25 and gave it to the hikers for buying refreshments on the way home.
I unloaded the two llamas from the trailer. I wouldn't be needing them! Then I set off for the trailhead. I stopped for gas and again for a potty stop along the way. While that may seem like an unnecessary part of the story-telling, I mention it because I believe those delays changed how the events of the rest of the day altered our adventure.
Thunderstorm, Freaky Winds, and Trees in the Road
About 3:00 p.m. I neared the turn-off from the highway onto Big Meadow Road. The sky was dark with angry clouds and raindrops spattered my windshield. Once on the forest road, it began to rain in earnest. Then it poured buckets. Then marble sized hail pounded my windshield. I braked to a stop. Tremendous gusts of wind pressed down on my truck from above. Finally, it let up to a light rain and I drove forward.
Just ahead across the road lay a big tree. It was about 24 inches in diameter. I got out to have a closer look. A chunk of the tree about the width of my truck had broken out the middle of the fallen tree. I pulled on one of the needle covered branches in frustration. To my surprise it moved. There was so much hail on the road that the piece of tree slid easily for about 30 inches. Then the hail melted and I couldn't budge the tree. I walked up the road trying the two-way radio to see if I could raise Dave. Just around the next curve I made contact and explained the situation. He said he would drive out to see if he could help me.
I went back to the tree just as a big pickup with a young family pulled up behind mine. Using a chain I had, the truck's owner used his rig to pull the chunk of tree out of the way. While preparing for this maneuver, Dave radioed me to say that there were at least three trees on the road leading out of the trailhead. He decided to hike Magma to the trailer. That way, at least Magma would be safely contained. The family with the pickup decided to head back to the highway. I pulled through the narrow space where the chunk of tree had been. Dave radioed again and told me to stay put. He said there were more trees down and I might not be able to turn around. After a bit, Dave and Magma arrived at the truck.
Trapped at the Trailhead
Dave reported there were other people stranded at the trailhead with their vehicles: some folks with three horses on a day ride, several backpackers, and day hikers. Not only that, altogether there were six trees across the road between us and the trailhead and another couple of trees at the trailhead. It was a miracle that no one was hurt. I pondered the fact that if I hadn't made stops along the way I would have been a few minutes earlier. I too would have been stranded at the trailhead. Or worse, my rig might have been hit by one of the falling trees.
By this time it was about 4:00 p.m. We found a man camping in the horse camp who had a 14 inch chain saw, an ax and a small cross cut saw. He was a retired Forest Service jack of all trades. He volunteered to help and started to work on the next tree up the road, a 28 inch diameter behemoth. One of the refugees from the trailhead hiked down to help. Dave and I drove about 10 miles back to Marion Forks to see if we could get some help. The State Police made it clear that since no one was injured, it would be several hours or the next day before help would come. We drove back to report to the others.
Trees Cleared, Home Again
The little saw ran out of gas before the last tree. The cold and wet hikers and equestrians chopped and hand-sawed the final fir out of the way. They were very determined. Finally, a caravan of vehicles headed out. We retrieved Dave's car at the trailhead. It was after 7:00 p.m. We dragged ourselves home after 10:00 p.m. Magma hurried into his stall and made for the poop pile. He had been saving it up all day!
The next day Magma rested and napped. It was apparent that he was tired from his great adventure. We too were tired from our part of the adventure. But we were much relieved and very happy to have Magma home again.
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