Packing and Camping with Llamas

By Sam Webb

Think back for a minute to those days when you were a boy scout and you went on back packing trips into the mountains. Remember those wet, cold nights and all that powdered and dried food? After a couple of pack trips I was ready to kill whoever invented powdered eggs.

I loved the high mountain air, the spectacular scenery and the great fishing, but I hated having to carry a weeks worth of food and sleeping gear on my back.

As I grew older I wished that there was a simple, easy way to pack into the high mountain lakes. I also wished that I could set up camp with a few of the luxuries, like a real pillow, a table and chairs and some real food — none of that powdered or dried stuff.

Well, my wish came true. I found the perfect way to pack just about anything you want into the back country — all the comforts of home without any of the work.

It all started when I got a call from Terry Bullington and Marybeth Surrarrer of Sedona, Arizona. Terry and Marybeth had been working out of Sedona with Anjin, Tonka, Java, Quattro, Beamer and the rest of their "boys" for about six years. The "boys" were llamas and the "boys" had a problem. They simply got too hot during the Arizona summer to do much work. With all that thick 'wool' the llamas inherited from their ancestors (who lived and worked in the high mountains of South America) they overheated easily and you can't do much with an overheated pack llama.

Terry and Marybeth wanted to bring the "boys" to the southern Utah high country during the summer to escape the heat and to provide an exciting new experience for their clients — a llama pack trip adventure.

The call I got was an invitation to be a guinea pig — to go on the first llama pack trip into the Boulder Mountains — to work the bugs out — and to help explore the high country.

It took me about 30 seconds to arrange my schedule so I could go. The Boulder Mountains are at the top of my list of places I love to pack in to.

But what about the llamas? The only time I had ever seen a llama was in the zoo. If they were anything like the mules I have been associated with, I didn't want anything to do with them and I had heard that they spit. Being spit on by a llama was not on my list of things to do to have a good time.

Soon I got a letter explaining more about the llama adventure. The first category was 'eligibility.' Just who should or could go on a llama adventure? 'A llama adventure is for anyone in reasonably good health who enjoys the wilderness and has the ability to hike between four and eight miles a day. Children are welcome if they can comfortably walk the distance and enjoy being outdoors." There was a warning when it came to children: "Warning — llamas and children become fast firiends — you may find a llama on next year's Christmas list!"

I certainly found that last statement to be true. Every youngster and a whole lot of the oldsters that we passed on the trail or who came by our camp had to stop and look at or pet the llamas and there were always a million questions.

After spending several days with the llamas they really do become fast friends. They have such interesting personalities, they are so easy to handle and they are so willing to work that you find yourself talking to them as though they could understand every word you said — and, sometimes it seemed as if they could. Now I am sure that not all llamas are as well behaved and well trained as the "boys." It very quickly became apparent that Terry and Marybeth are excellent animal trainers and have great love and respect for their llamas. And, the llamas responded. They were excellent companions and I never was spit at or on. As a matter of fact I never did see the llamas spit at all.

When I read the next category mentioned in the letter I knew I was going to like the trip: "Meals — Our meals are a special part of our trips. We serve fresh, homecooked food that is imaginative and delicious. We joyfully accept assistance in our wilderness kitchen and enjoy sharing our techniques and ideas so don't be afraid to pitch in. We provide three meals a day."

Three homecooked meals a day!! No powdered or dried food!! This definitely was the backpack trip I had always dreamed of.

But, what did I need to bring and how were we going to get all that delicious food into the back country? The letter explained: "Our hardworking companions, the llamas, add an exiting new dimension to wilderness adventures. Each llama will be carrying between 70 and 95 pounds. This means we need to think of traveling light but comfortably. We will provide the tents, sleeping pads, tables, chairs, cooking equipment, utensils, food, wine for dinner (if you drink) and apertifs. We limit each guest to 20 pounds of personal gear including your sleeping bag."

So, as all I had to bring was my sleeping bag and personal items. Everything else was taken care of. My sleeping bag weighed in at about five pounds, my personal items only weighed a couple more pounds and that meant I had about 12 pounds left over for my pillow and fishing rods and gear. By planning in advance, the llamas can even pack a float tube or small rubber raft into the high mountain lakes.

There was one note at the bottom of the "what to bring" category. It said: "No one ever brings radios, firearms or pets on our trips."

Thursday the 8th we met in Torrey (see the map) and after a round of howdo-you-do's we headed toward the North Slope Road and the trail head. The llamas were waiting for us. We loaded our gear in a downpour (you always have to be prepared for a thunderstorm in the high country) and then headed up the trail.

We were going to hike up the Fish Creek Trail (along Fish Creek) but some preliminary hikes with the llamas indicated that there was a problem — they were afraid of running water. The "boys" had been raised and trained just outside of Phoenix, Arizona and the only water that they had ever seen was in a bucket or coming out of the end of a hose. A whole stream full of water, moving water, was more than they could comprehend. They simply would not wade across the stream.

The compromise was to hike up the road for a mile or so (the road was too rough to pull the trailer up) and then take the Blind Lake Trail. There were no streams to cross on this trail but there was one swampy area that the "boys" would not walk through. They simply jumped it even though they were carrying between 70 and 90 pounds each. Bullington said that with a little training the llamas will get used to the streams and they won't be a problem.

The Blind Lake Trail winds past several small ponds nestled in grassy meadows and surrounded by stands of quaking aspen and pines — perfect for postcard-like photos. At several points the trail moves out along a ridge or saddle and a panoramic view opens up that almost takes your breath away. Looking out across the Teasdale Dome and its deep canyons carved by the Fremont River, following the Waterpocket Fold with its jagged beds of lime and sandstone tilted skyward at nearly 45 degrees and watching thundershowers sweep the deep purple slopes of the Henry Mountains produces a deep reverence for the beauty and wonder of nature.

Standing next to your pack llama, awed by the sheer beauty unfolding before you, your soul is freed of the confinement of the city, its deadlines and pressures, its crowds and cars, its smog and noise. You swear you will never go back and for at least three days, you don't!

About a mile and a half down the trail you come up over a ridge and there spreading out before you is Blind Lake, the largest lake in the Boulder Mountains. Overpowered by sheer basalt cliffs on the far side and nestled in the arms or glacial moraines running perpendicular to the cliffs, its deep blue waters are a welcome sight and mean that the trail's end is near. Time to set up camp and get serious about some fishing.

Blind Lake is unique in the Boulder Mountains because it contains not only brook trout, but splake (a cross between a lake trout and a brook trout). The lake is deep, almost 80 feet in spots and supports an excellent population of these unique fish. The state record splake came out of Blind Lake in 1988. It weighed 2 pounds and 14 ounces.

The 1989 fishing proclamation says the fish weighed 21 pounds 4 ounces but that is because someone accidently got things confused. There are splake in the lake that are pushing three pounds and the record will probably be broken soon. Blind Lake also supports an excellent population of brook trout, some of excellent size and weight.

Within a few minutes hike of Blind Lake are Pear and Fish Creek Lakes. A little further out but no more than a couple miles hike are Lower and Donkey Reservoirs. All these lakes and reservoirs contain excellent populations of brook trout and either rainbow or cutthroat.

Several of the Boulder Mountain lakes contain record class brook trout with some weighing up to about 8 pounds. The trout grow so big because of several factors. First, there is abundant food. The lakes and reservoirs are teeming with scud and cased caddis. Second, there are only limited numbers of fish in the water.

The lakes have achieved a delicate balance between the food supply and the number of fish. The fish grow slowly because of the high elevation and cold water. However, because of the abundant food supply they will eventually get big, but only if they are left in the water and not taken home and eaten. The problem comes when the fishermen want to take a fun limit of big fish. At times the large brook trout are relatively easy to catch and they are a highly sought after trophy. Once the big fish are removed from the lake or reservoir, it takes years before they are replaced, if ever.

The DWR can either manage the lakes, as trophy fisheries or as put and take fisheries — not both. If the fishermen are determined to harvest as many fish as the law allows then the DWR has to manage the lakes as put and take fisheries. That means the lakes are stocked with more fish than the natural food supply can handle. The increased number of fish provides good fishing for those who want to harvest a large number of fish but it dramatically reduces the fish size. Because there is simply not enough food to go around and because most of the fish do not remain in the lake long enough to grow big, the average size of the fish is reduced. It is almost impossible to have heavy fishing pressure, large fish and liberal limits.

The number of large brook trout (of trophy size) is rapidly declining. The only way to preserve the tremendous brook trout fishery provided in the Boulder Mountains is to encourage catch and release, reduce the number of fish harvested and protect the larger fish. I guess what I am saying is that the Boulder Mountain lakes need special regulations if we are to preserve and enhance the trophy fishery.

What I would like to see is the limit reduced to two brook trout on many of the Boulder Mountain Lakes. I would also like to see slot limits introduced where any fish over about 14 inches long must be immediately returned to the lake.

This would allow the DWR to manage the lakes as trophy fisheries, protect the larger fish and still allow the fisherman to have a fantastic trout dinner in the high country. This also would keep the fisherman from stocking up his freezer with big brook trout.

The Boulder Mountain fishery is highly unique and deserves as much protection as the wilderness itself. Whether you are packing with a llama, on foot or on your favorite horse, you deserve to see the Boulder Mountains at their best. That means each of us has to do our part to protect and enhance the wilderness and the fishery.

The llamas turned out to be the perfect companions. They packed all the gear and equipment and made life mighty easy. Terry and Marybeth were excellent cooks and the food was better than I would ever have imagined. When I sat down to eat I couldn't believe I was actually several miles from the nearest road and at about 10,200 feet in elevation. The three days flew by and I found myself dreading the thought that I had to go back to civilization.

In spite of my protests the time came. As I hiked back down the trail to the waiting trailer I tried to figure out a way to buy myself a couple of llamas. I knew that I didn't have the place or the time to properly take care of them but I had a dream of hiking all through the wilderness of southern Utah with a couple of llamas in tow. When realism set in on the drive home I realized that I had better keep Terry's and Marybeth's phone number nearby. I knew that they were my only link to another llama expedition into the high country of southern Utah.

Red Rock Llamas also offers llama backpack trips in southern Utah.