Lunching with llamas
Pack animals prove worthy companions on and off the trail

Lois Bartig-Small, aka the “Llama Lady,” coaxes her llama Dreamcatcher to begin the trek back down the mountain at DMR on Sunday./Photo by Jennifer Reeder

The activity’s title said it all and sounded too good to be true: “Hike, Lunch and Wine with a Llama.” Since my boyfriend, Bryan, and I bought a house in Durango West last month, I’d been casually suggesting that instead of a dog, we get a pet llama. Our Realtor, friends and parents gave Bryan sympathetic looks whenever I would mention my great idea, but he kindly placated me with “We’ll see.” So the chance to go hiking, dining and wining with llamas last Sunday seemed the perfect stepping stone toward making one a pet.

The San Juan Mountains Association started sponsoring Sunday llama treks last year at Durango Mountain Resort, and last Sunday was this season’s first. Despite the challenge of rising before noon on a Sunday, Bryan and I made it to DMR by 9:30 a.m. with water and rain gear in tow. We met San Juan Mountains Association volunteer Larry Eads, who would be acting as the naturalist on the hike. I asked him a question about llamas, and he said I needed to wait to talk to the hike leader, Lois Bartig-Small, who was driving the llamas up to the trailhead with her husband, Ed Small. “We call her the Llama Lady,” he said with a grin.

So I kept my questions to myself as we rode up Lift 4 on the way to “meet the llamas.” The lift operator had been full of questions too when she heard where we were going. “Do you ride the llamas?” We shouted “no” as we rose up over kids chasing chipmunks on the putt-putt golf course. At the top, we met our fellow hiker, Gail. Being a nondrinker on the Atkins diet who would be unable to eat the “cracker” part of the cheese and crackers, Gail admitted she was there on a fact-finding mission: She had recently bought llamas.

The small group soon was introduced to Lois and Ed, who were packing the necessary provisions onto the backs of Dreamcatcher, a 9-year-old llama, and his 4-year-old son, Rio. The Llama Lady introduced us to them with one caveat: They don’t like to have their heads touched. I tried to swallow my disappointment that I wouldn’t be able stroke their snouts, and Bryan tried to get over the names (“As far as I’m concerned, the only name for a llama is ‘Pepe,’” he’d said in the car.)

Rio the llama takes a break to sample the local vegetation. A relative of camels, llamas get most of their water from eating plants. The pack animals, which originate in South America, have the lifespan of a horse – about 20 years./Photo by Jennifer Reeder

Lois soon distracted us by talking about the special traits of her llamas, like their alert natures. Llamas have different personalities, she said, and some aren’t too interested in trails or even walking. But we weren’t to worry. “These two really like to see what’s around the next bend,” she assured us. Lois went on to stress the general qualities of llamas that make them ideal stock animals, such as their soft, two-toed feet that don’t tear up trails as horses’ hooves do. An added bonus: their scat feces is smaller, more akin to that of deer. As if on cue, Dreamcatcher spread his back legs. “He’s going to demonstrate!” Lois laughed as I took a step back.

This directly led into Lois’ next piece of llama trivia. Llamas take long pee breaks, so “every time they stop and take a leak, it’s a good time to eat something because it’s gonna be awhile,” she said. Relatives of camels, llamas drink little, retaining moisture through plants they eat.

At 300 pounds, Dreamcatcher is considered medium-sized and usually carries 60 to 70 pounds. Lois said larger llamas can carry up to 100 pounds. I eyed the bags she strapped to Dreamcatcher’s back, hoping one of them held an oakey cabernet.

We started on the 3-mile hike to Castlerock, and it was soon evident how Lois earned her “Llama Lady” nickname. “They’re strong, like a ballet dancer with very long legs,” I overheard her gushing to Gail.

Lois said she developed her love of llamas when, because of a health problem, she couldn’t carry a heavy pack. Not wanting to stop hiking, she realized llamas could be the solution to her problem. She began working at a local llama boarding and outfitting operation, where she met Dreamcatcher. She was instantly “hooked” and eventually bought him.

“They’re great companions, like a cat – there if you want to spend time with them but independent and aloof if you don’t,” she said, adding that some of the bigger training challenges are teaching them to step over obstacles like logs or water instead of jumping (“They’re great jumpers!”) and accepting a saddle and its pack (“They dance around the first million times.”).

Lois, who has been involved with the San Juan Mountains Association since it started in 1988 and served as the group’s president from 1993-98, said the walks are a great way to introduce people to llamas. Coincidentally, the walks also are a great way to combine her passion for the environment and llamas to raise funds for the group. Lois, who, along with Ed and Larry, volunteers her time, said the work pays off in other ways. “You feel so good about contributing to what you have a passion for,” she said. “The more you give the more you get back – that’s what makes my summer go ’round.”

Bryan Fryklund, possible future llama owner, tries his hand at guiding Dreamcatcher. Considered a medium-sized llama, Dreamcatcher can carry around 70 pounds of gear, wine, brie and crackers./Photo by Jennifer Reeder.

As we meandered up the trail, Lois and Ed called to a group of fast-approaching mountain bikers to slow down. “There are llamas on the trail!” they warned. Ed said it can be frustrating when cyclists don’t know trail etiquette, which gives the right-of-way to stock animals. Often, it takes a few moments to get the llamas to the side of the trail, and if cyclists don’t slow down, it can get ugly. But Ed didn’t fault the cyclists entirely. “It’s not their fault; they just haven’t been educated,” he said.

The pause in the action provided Larry a chance to identify wildflowers, such as wild geranium, parsley, osha and something called louse wart. “Not something you want to call your husband or wife,” he chuckled as Rio and Dreamcatcher munched on the flowers he’d just identified.

After a few hours, we reached Castlerock, our picnic spot. We gazed down on Electra Lake and up at the gathering thunderclouds as Lois, Ed and Larry unpacked brie, red and white wine, and turkey wraps. The wine went down smoothly – maybe a little too smoothly – and we found ourselves laughing instead of packing when we heard discussions about shutting down the DMR lifts over Lois’ radio: “Another boomer, dude – definitely closer.”

Thunder began to echo around us, and we donned our rain gear. Lois said the llamas don’t like lightning and sometimes hum to soothe themselves. She said they’d probably “kush down,” and keep their heads low to the ground as we hiked back to DMR. Perhaps to alleviate the impending stress, Lois hugged Dreamcatcher and declared, “I love you” as she loaded him up. Then she turned unapologetically to us and explained, “I never had dogs or cats or even kids, and finally I get in my 50s and I can’t leave a llama alone!”

And she’s not alone. Llamas have become increasingly popular with baby boomers who don’t want to carry heavy backpacks anymore, she said. There’s even a national newsletter for llama owners just like herself. Like their cousins the alpacas, llamas have their roots in South America. But whereas alpacas are bred for their fur, llamas are bred to be pack animals, particularly the males. A trained male llama fetches $1,500 to $2,000 locally, she said.

The rain never got too heavy, and I led Dreamcatcher back down the hill as Ed entertained the crowd with the antics of a crazy friend in Mexico: “Then he started knocking over furniture 85 the Federales came and didn’t even knock.”

We made it back to the trailer, and Dreamcatcher had only hummed a few times. Gail and I brushed him, and then we all said our goodbyes. As Bryan and I drove back home, I waited a few minutes and then started bugging him about a pet llama again. We agreed to revisit it again in 15 years. In the meantime, I know where to find the Llama Lady.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 


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