by Melinda Van Bossuyt
In mid-July, we took off on a weekend pack trip with two goals in mind. We wanted to take a couple of our trainee llamas on their first overnight pack trip. We also wanted to condition both our regular packing llamas and ourselves. Of course we intended to relax and have fun too.
Graysun was one of the new guys on this trek. He just turned two years old at the end of May. His training to this point had included desensitization from birth, halter and lead training from four months of age, and saddle training at age two. He took many training hikes around our place on trails we designed for training. Conditions he encountered on our trails include a bridge, a water crossing, a narrow trail that drops steeply to one side, logs to jump over, low clearances that require ducking, switchbacks, and narrow passages between trees. He also went on longer walks on the roads where he had to deal with cars, bicycles, dogs, and horses. He spent time on a picket pin and tether. Finally, in early June, he went on a day hike at Silver Falls and carried a saddle. All of Graysun's training has been in the company of our experienced packers. This has provided him with good examples to follow.
The other new guy on our weekend trip is really a new guy to us. Jon-Jon, age five, was gelded last year at the age of four. His legs are long and provide fairly good ground clearance. He is not a real tall llama like the guys we raise at our ranch. When we weighed him, we found him to be a 300 pound llama. His condition at the time seemed to be on the lean side.
Jon-Jon came from Viki Jenkins at Dry Creek Ranch in Carlton. Over the last couple of years, we would look at Jon-Jon and say that he looked like he would make a good packer. Viki suggested that we try him out. He came to our place a little over a week before the weekend trip we had planned. We put this new guy through a crash course. He was already halter and lead trained.
We walked him on our training trails every day. He also experienced the perils of walking on the road. We noticed that he was a very thinking llama. When encountering something for the first time, he would pause and look. Then he would move calmly and resolutely through, over, or passed the obstacle presented. He never jumped or got excited. He received his saddle training in two days. We decided he was ready to go with us after only one week of training.
It never ceases to amaze me that it takes just as much time packing for a weekend trip as it does for a two week expedition. I was scrambling to get ready at the last minute. We were ready to leave about ten o'clock in the morning on a Friday. We reached the trailhead at 12:30 or 1:00.
Our party consisted of our family (Dave, Douglas and Melinda) and our friend and house and llama sitter, Wendy Ware. Since Wendy wasn't available to take care of the llamas at home, we had to arrange for someone else to take care of them. This was Wendy's first pack trip. She was pretty excited. We had five llamas. Our experienced packers were geldings, Red Cloud and Ranger, and our stud, Ebenezer. The new guys were Graysun and Jon-Jon.
We ate some lunch in the shade of a tree. The llamas needed grooming again, though we did it at home before we left. There was a lot of spit in the trailer and on the llamas. I guess the old guys had to work out their differences with the new guys. We saddled the experienced fellows first as examples to the new guys. The new guys did very well when they were saddled. We loaded the experienced guys with their panniers. We loaded the new guys. Graysun stood very well and took his load that was all of 12 pounds on each side.
We loaded Jon-Jon with a total of about 50 pounds. This was a shock for him. He had the saddle on only a couple of times. We had never put any weight on him. He went down. While we were dealing with this, Graysun suddenly went crazy. He jumped all around and threw his panniers all over the place. The panniers had not been tied down yet. We calmly waited and when he was through, we retied him to the trailer. Then we went about tightening his cinches, reloading the panniers, and tying the whole thing down with a strap under the belly attached to each pannier. This time he resigned himself to being a pack llama.
We turned our attention back to Jon-Jon. We made him stand up. We finished loading him up and tying down his panniers. Every llama was loaded and ready to go. It was two o'clock. We strung together our experience packers. Graysun and Jon-Jon were led individually. After obtaining our self-issued wilderness permit at the trailhead, we hit the trail.
We started hiking at the Marion Trailhead. This trail leads to Marion Lake. The trail is a steady uphill. It is wide and well maintained. Our experienced llamas were leading the way. We encountered our first backpackers after only a few minutes. They courteously stepped off the trail. Some of them sat down. I led the string of experienced packers passed the backpackers. Next came Graysun followed by Jon-Jon. Just as Graysun and Jon-Jon passed the hikers, the seated backpackers stood up. This was frightening to the inexperienced llamas and they startled. The shudder went all the way up through my string of experienced guys. Jon-Jon threw his panniers askew even though they were tied down. We had to stop and take care of the problem. After this incident, neither Jon-Jon nor Graysun startled at backpackers again.
The experienced llamas were carrying loads that were lighter than usual for them. Even so, they were breathing heavily as we chugged up the hill. We stopped for breathers several times as we climbed. At the outlet to Ann Lake the trail crosses rocks. The water couldn't be seen, but it could be heard rushing through the rocks beneath our feet. The llamas walked over this place as if unaware of the water gushing under them.
As we approached Marion Lake, we took the trail that crosses the outlet stream with a big bridge. There were people standing on the bridge with a dog. We waited for them to get off the bridge before we started across. Graysun was afraid of the dog. We have no dogs at our house so he is not used to them. The water that the bridge spanned was a rushing torrent. Thanks to all the snow melt, the surf definitely was up. The water made an enormous roaring sound. This added to Graysun's anxiety. The experienced string crossed the bridge with calm confidence. Graysun would not go and found himself caught between the dog and the bridge. Jon-Jon paused and considered the situation. He proceeded across the bridge bravely. Graysun was faced with crossing the bridge or being left behind by the other llamas. He nervously chose the bridge and hurried across to the other side.
As we continued along, we enjoyed lovely views of Marion Lake. At this point, the trail resumed climbing upward. We pressed on. Rest stops were short thanks to hungry mosquitoes. At one point we had to travel over a large snow drift. None of the llamas blinked an eye at this. They were probably too tired. Once or twice we had to pick our way around a fallen tree that was too large to hop over. This was not a problem for the llamas. We arrived at Jorn Lake at six o'clock. Within a half an hour we had found a spot to camp. The llamas seemed relieved to be relieved of their loads. We staked them out on the hill near our camp. We had traveled a little over seven miles with nearly a 1,500 foot elevation gain. Not bad.
After we had set up our tents, I began preparing dinner. As I stirred the pot, it occurred to me that we had not trained Jon-Jon to be tied to the picket pin. I panicked for a moment, but realized that it didn't matter. He was doing fine. In fact, when he got his rope wrapped around a tree, he thoughtfully and pointedly unwound himself. "This is a smart llama." I told everyone.
The next morning was warm and clear. After breakfast, I read The Last of the Mohicans out loud. Then we explored around and found a meadow with grass above Red Butte Lake. We went back to camp to get the llamas. Dave and Douglas sat with the llamas while they munched the grass. By lunch time, the llamas had quit grazing. We brought them back to camp and had lunch. We did more exploring around the lake. I found a great spot I wouldn't mind camping in the future. I did some wandering around by myself. I couldn't help imagining that I was stealthily moving through the woods to avoid capture by Magua. The Last of the Mohicans is a great book to read in the wilderness.
In the evening, we fed the llamas and ourselves. I read The Last of the Mohicans out loud until it was too dark to see. I really was reading it to Douglas, but Wendy and Dave listened too. When we went to bed, we could hear insects that sounded like crickets all around our tent.
On Sunday morning, we made bread on a stick for breakfast. We filled the holes in the warm, fire-baked bread with honey. I read The Last of the Mohicans until it was time to pack up and go. The llamas saddled and loaded without incident. We cinched the saddles down real tight because of the long downhill ahead. We started hiking about 11:30 or so. As before, experienced llamas were strung together. Graysun and Jon-Jon were lead independently.
The first part of the hike was a fairly level walk around Jorn Lake and other lakes and ponds in the basin. Then we began the descent toward Marion Lake. The trail took us through a forest of old growth trees. These were really big trees. These were really tall trees. I was still thinking about The Last of the Mohicans.
We had not gone far when we came upon our first downed tree. I was leading the string of experienced llamas and took them around it until the trunk was low enough to hop over. Then there was another tree across the trail. And then there was another tree across the trail. Finally I lost count of the trees. It got a little tricky at times. Sometimes we could hop right over the tree. Sometimes we would have to go up the tree or down the tree to get around. There were tree limbs and debris to walk through. At one point the trail was very steep on both sides of us. We were lucky. We did not have trees at this point that forced us to go very far off the trail.
Through all the tree hopping, all llamas did just fine. A couple of times we had to hop over tree trunks that stood taller than the distance from the llama's belly to the ground. At one of these, Jon-Jon waited and pondered for a very long time. Finally he hopped over and scraped his belly as he went.
After about two hours of hiking, we began crossing bridges and creeks. Some of the bridges were no more than split logs across a boggy place. Some were much more. A couple of the bridges were very long. As we crossed these bridges, I thought about how fortunate it was that we had trained with our bridge at home. Everyone marched across the bridges without incident. In the distance we could hear a mighty roar of water. It got louder and louder as we got closer. Soon the source of the noise was in view. It was a tremendous waterfall. It was scary, even to me. I wondered how the llamas would take it. There was a bridge directly over the crashing water. The llamas marched across that bridge without blinking an eye. It was over in just a moment. The waterfall was behind. There had been no llama incident. I knew Graysun and Jon-Jon really had proved themselves.
We stopped for lunch on the east side of Marion Lake. We could see people in rafts out on the lake. A Golden Mantle Ground Squirrel joined us for lunch on a log. The llamas got a rest with their panniers off. After an hour's break, we loaded up and took off again. We encountered the wilderness ranger and her dog. She asked about our wilderness permit. She wanted to know how much our llamas could carry. Graysun did not want to stand still for this conversation. I think he was nervous about the dog.
Farther down the trail, we met more people. Then we came to a spot where the trail crossed a talus slope that plunged down to the lake. The view was fantastic. There was a tremendous photo opportunity. The llamas marched along fearlessly.
The hike continued beyond Marion Lake, by Ann Lake, over the rocks with water underneath at the outlet of Ann Lake, and down the switchbacks of the wide well-maintained trail that leads to the trailhead. I took photos at the switchbacks. While walking, I took out my prized Snickers Bar and began munching. (Llama packing is the only time I ever get to have a Snickers Bar.) We paused to rest and to take a picture. Some hikers caught up with us as we continued along. They weren't going fast enough to pass us. Jon-Jon was aware that they were just out of sight behind him. He didn't like it and became antsy. He tried to move ahead of his human. We decided to put him in front of all the other llamas. This was okay for a while. Then he decided he would lie down. We made him get up and resume the hike. He did without much argument. We emerged at the trailhead just after five o'clock.
It was hotter than blazes. We could see a string of horses saddling and packing down the road. We hurried to unload our llamas and get them in the trailer and underway. Within 15 minutes, we were headed down the road toward home.
While driving, I had time to think about the success of our trip and how well the trainee packers had done. Graysun still has a few teenage llama things to get out of his system. All in all he performed wonderfully. Perhaps I am putting human thoughts and emotions onto this llama, but I perceived that Graysun was very impressed to see his father, Ebenezer, out in the woods packing. It was almost as if Graysun was trying to be just like Dad. Ebenezer appeared to be proud of Graysun. He didn't try to beat Graysun up once even though Graysun is an intact male. Graysun followed Ebenezer down the trail. Graysun was staked out next to Ebenezer. It's as if Ebenezer knows that Graysun is his boy. I know that Graysun will be an outstanding packer.
Jon-Jon was remarkable. He performed like an old pro. I still am impressed by his apparent intelligence. That doesn't mean Jon-Jon wasn't frightened at times. In fact, after some new experiences I could tell that he was shaking a bit. But he put his trust in the other llamas and us. He thought the whole thing through. This is his special gift. Jon-Jon will never carry much more than 70-75 pounds because of his size. Regardless, he is going to be a fine packer. I've decided I like this llama a lot.
Did llamas and humans get into shape for the next packing adventure? I can say that a 1,500 foot elevation gain going in and 1,500 foot elevation drop going out with a total of about 15 miles covered in one weekend proved that I'm not in such bad condition. Our next trip will be our annual two week trek in California coming up in August. I think we're ready to roll.
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