Features & Stories
THE LOW DOWN ON LLAMAS


THE LOW DOWN ON LLAMAS

Story by Trudy Frisk
Photos by Ken Chantler
Location: Cariboo Mountains, B.C.

 
Atlas, Marko, Latigo and Proctor- led by Len Leduc.

The traditional image of a pack train is a string of horses striding along, their loads safely secured by the diamond hitch; or early prospectors with mules carrying their gold pans and rock hammers. Recently a very different animal has been muscling in. Llamas are touted as handy hiking companions for non-horse people.

How good are llamas? Can a South American ruminant closely related to a camel be reliable in rugged northern terrain? I had to find out. So I asked Ken Chantler.

Ken, a life-long outdoor enthusiast, has been going into the back country since he was a twelve year old fishing and hunting with his father and uncles. His excursions have taken him into wild areas throughout central B.C., the Kootenays, Peace River country, and the Fort Nelson area, and into every zone from mountains to desert. "From the wettest of the wet to the driest of the dry," as Ken describes it. His favourite? "The alpine. It's God's country!"

 
Into the Trees

In 1995 Ken's uncle, Len Leduc, heard about using llamas for packing and decided to buy some. "Previously, what did you have for pack animals?" I asked. Ken grimaced. "Me!"

Since 1995 Ken has gone on approximately ten different trips of varying lengths with llamas. He has owned llamas for packing. His opinion of them?

"They are very intelligent animals on the trail. They'll walk beside you and look around very intently as if they like seeing new country. They are also very good at spotting game. Some are more attentive than others. Those are the ones you want in the bush."

How well do llamas go through thick brush? "They're good. They don't require a manicured trail. Only if they can't jump a log, do you have to cut it. (A llama can jump a four foot high obstacle from a standing position.) If their packs get hung up in trees, they'll fight for a bit, then quietly wait for you to come back and untangle them."

 
Heading for the Ridge

"They're very agile and can go up and down steep slopes easily. If they find a place they don't think they can go, which rarely happens, they'll balk."

Llamas, Ken adds, aren't limited to forests and sub-alpine areas. They have a pad and two cloven hoofs on the bottom of each foot. Weight is carried mostly on the pad, the hoofs are used for traction. Because of the pads they are very sure-footed on rock.

Sounds like a mountaineer's dream. But, what about food? Do llamas require special fodder? Ken laughs. "They are very low maintenance and trail hardy." On the trail, the only food he carried for them was COB, corn, oats and barley mixed with molasses. They aren't big eaters and they can live off the land.

"The bush is a smorgasbord to them." Ken states. "I've seen them eat green alder leaves and dry alder leaves within ten minutes. They seem to like a balanced diet! Llamas will eat almost anything, including wild rose shrubs, and thrive."

Does weather bother them, I wondered. Since llamas don't shed, their coats need to be trimmed every two years to keep them cool and prevent the hair getting too long and tangling. As for cold, "As long as they have a little bit of shelter, that's all they need."
Ken notes. "We've had them bed down around camp with their backs to sleet, snow and rain. "

Because llamas are social animals and very protective, they are extremely watchful. They'll give a warning call, a combination of a whistle and a donkey's bray, to alert the camp to bears or other predators. Llamas can kill a coyote and have been known to fight with bears.

In fact they have been used as guardian animals for other species, such as sheep. Ken points out that only one llama is used at a time. "If there were two guard llamas, they'd go off by themselves and socialize."

Llamas will defend creatures entrusted to them. And, apparently, they are also chivalrous. In one instance, two males, in separate pens, wouldn't jump the fences to fight with each other, but both jumped another fence to protect a female llama threatened by a bear.

Llamas rarely get spooked in the bush, but, if they do, they can end up back at the camp or trail head. "They only run if they have a reason to." Ken observes.

In camp no outside animal, human or otherwise, has a chance of sneaking up without the llamas warning.

What's Ken's response to stories about llamas' bad tempers? "They rarely bite. They don't kick unless someone is working on their hoofs. And, the majority of times, when they spit, it's at other llamas. You may just happen to be in between."

Ken emphasizes it's important that llamas get accustomed to people early. "Spend time with them. Don't yell, be calm, don't move fast. Groom them; just not around their faces and legs. They don't like their faces being touched, and, when fighting with other llamas, they hit each other on the legs. The more you handle them, the more familiar they are with you, the better they'll be as pack animals."

They shouldn't have much weight on until they are at least two years old. Gelded males are used for trailing; females are too expensive. Like all creatures, they have their personalities and pecking orders.

"Putting them in line in the right order takes trial and error, but it keeps bickering to a minimum and limits llama conflicts." Ken advises.

Once a new llama has been out in the bush it begins to enjoy it. It learns how to get around and what it can jump. It also learns that the human is in charge. On the trail, your quotere the leader. Llamas walk behind you. In a clear place, like a meadow, they can walk beside you, but don't let them go ahead." Ken warns.

Of course, not all llamas like trailing. "You look for the ones built to pack," Ken says, "the ones with spring in their step"

A full-grown llama may weigh up to four hundred pounds. A llama in top shape can carry one third of its weight on a good trail. "If you plan it right, they'll carry the weight. Presto,more gourmet dinners! "Ken chortles.

He is adamant that, because llamas are such sociable creatures, they should always be kept in pairs or with another animal, never alone, in their home pastures. "They don't need a lot of space, but they need room to run and play."

How does a person transport these frolicsome fellows to the trail-head? Well, Ken says, some very well trained llamas have been transported in the back of a mini-van! They can be hauled loose in a stock trailer. A llamas' first reaction to being in a vehicle in motion is to lie down. Ken put his two in a hunter's canopy on the back of his truck Gear went in first, llamas last. They'd lie down patiently and wait till they got where they were going.

There you have it. Llamas are alert, agile, adaptable pack animals, which rarely spit at people.


Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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