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Let Your Llamas Do the Lugging : . . .Or, How We Stopped Carrying Our Packs and Learned to Love the Sierras

May 19, 1996|MARK SAYLOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Saylor is entertainment editor for the Times' Business section

TOMS PLACE, Calif. — . . .Or, How We Stopped Carrying Our Packs

and Learned to Love the Sierras

In far Tibet

There lives a lama,

He got no Papa,

Got no Mama. . .

--Ogden Nash

The children knew we were going camping for summer vacation--real camping in tents, away from the supermarket and VCR--but they didn't know we had a treat in store for how we'd do it.

On the five-hour drive from Los Angeles to the trail head in the Eastern Sierra, I suggested they memorize an Ogden Nash poem and hinted that it might have something to do with our camping trip. They thought their father was being a little eccentric, but 12-year-old Sam gave it a game try and got all 11 stanzas.

When we drove up to the trailer containing the five strange-looking animals, they still didn't get it. "What are those?" asked Katie, 7, pointing at the exotic, long-necked, woolly beasts that seemed to have leaped straight from the pages of Dr. Seuss. "Are they camels?"

Then it clicked. "They're llamas!" Sam said. "Remember? 'In far Tibet. . .' "(OK, the poem was about the other kind of llama, but it's pronounced the same.)

And so began four days and three nights of camping in the Sierra with pack llamas last August. Like many parents who enjoy--or once enjoyed--the outdoors, my challenge was this: how to get three children, ages 7, 10 and 12, into the back country. My partner, Nora, and I had gone car camping, but never taken the kids into the wilderness.

We had several options, of course. Horses, boats or even two adults carrying 70 pound packs. (Not!) Llamas were the most intriguing.

We began our vacation by driving to Toms Place, a smattering of buildings about 20 miles south of Mammoth just off California 395. We spent the night in a rental cottage there, and the next morning met our guide at the Rock Creek trail head, about a 29-minute drive from Toms Place.

From Rock Creek, elevation about 9,500 feet, trails lead to dozens of lakes and mountains. We were headed for the Hilton Lakes area, a valley about 4 1/2 miles away on the other side of a nearly 11,000-foot pass. For our purposes, llamas were just the trick.

Llamas, which are, in fact, related to camels, have been domesticated as pack animals in the South American Andes for centuries. Their popularity is now growing in the United States, and hundreds of Californians raise them for pets, for their wool or for trekking.

An adult llama stands about four feet high at the shoulder and weighs 300 to 400 pounds. They have a soft, wool coat that is usually white with blotches of brown or black. Well-conditioned animals can carry as much as 200 pounds, but llamas used for camping in California typically carry up to 100 pounds.

Llamas have pads, not hooves. This makes them unusually sure-footed and leaves little damage to the trail. As one llama owner told me, "It's like hiking with deer."

Best of all, they are friendly, curious and gentle creatures, a cross in size and character between dogs and horses.

My children quickly bonded with them. Each animal had a distinct personality, and soon Nora and I were hiking not only with Sam, Ben and Katie, but with Shadow, Amigo, Larry, Lonnie and Regal.

Our guide was Art Hamlin, who raised llamas at his small Valley Center ranch in San Diego County. Hamlin and his assistant, 17-year-old Brandon Melanese, packed our gear--clothes and sleeping bags--with the food and camping equipment that they supplied. Naturally, we brought too much and had to leave some behind. I explained to the kids that they would not be changing clothes until they were really dirty. "Cool," said 10-year-old Ben.

*

Each of us was assigned to a llama, but first our guides gave us the llama basics: Keep some distance between the animals, hold the rope with some slack and they'll keep a steady walking pace with you, pet them only on their necks. And, oh, by the way, if the llama's head rises up and you hear a guttural sound, duck.

It seems that, when irritated, llamas spit regurgitated food--though usually only at each other, not at people. Nevertheless, the prospect of getting a face-load of half-digested llama chow kept us on our toes.

(There was only one spitting incident on

our journey. On the way back, one of the other llamas got too close to Larry, who let one fly. It happened so quickly it was over before we realized it. We were all, fortunately, out of the line of fire.)

We started up the trail about 11 a.m., Hamlin walking in front of the caravan and Brandon walking behind. I got to lead Larry, who was a leader among llamas (and men) and, in general, a very refined and elegant animal. "I'm in charge here," I would say firmly to Larry. Then Larry would shove me aside with his head and take the lead. "Just a minute, chief," I'd tell him as I struggled to regain my illusory authority.

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