Pack Animal Magazine

Encounters On The Trail

by Duane Ackerman (Summer 2013)

In 1994, my wife Carolyn and I rented two llamas and completed a seven-day pack trip into the Wind River Range of Wyoming. We had backpacked in the Winds and desired an easier alternative. Within two months of completing the trip, we purchased our first two llamas—untrained two year olds—then started a huge learning process for all of us. Since that time, we have packed in the Winds; Uintas and Logan Canyon of UT; Sawtooths, Seven Devils, Albion Range and Frank Church Wilderness, ID; and the Jarbidge Wilderness, NV. Encounters on the trail are unavoidable.

Meeting horses: We were taught very early on to get well off the trail, downhill if possible, when meeting horses. Even doing our very best, horses are unpredictable. Once in the Uintas, we were at least one hundred feet off the trail and well downhill to allow a pack horse and handler to pass. The horse didn’t bolt but started to bellow, very loudly, and continued until out of ear shot. We felt so sorry for the fellow leading the horse and wondered if he could ever hear again. Other times, groups on horses have passed close to where we were camped. In those instances, there’s not much you can do, as the riders are well aware the llamas are present. We’ve seen eight horses pass with no problem while the ninth in line goes ballistic.

Mules: These are interesting critters. We have six that graze on the BLM land right behind our property. They appear to love the llamas because as soon as we put them out to graze, the mules head for our fence to visit them—and they visit every day. Once, on a pack trip in the Winds, we met a packer leading one very large mule. He asked if he could introduce the mule to our two llamas, knowing it could be a train wreck. It actually went very well, though one of our llamas was very scared to be approached by such a large animal.

Cows: Many areas in the west are open to cattle grazing on public lands. Cows couldn’t care much about llamas, but llamas are very wary and could be easily spooked. They’ve probably seen several thousand cows, but they still maintain a very alert posture.

Sheep: Sheep grazing in our wilderness areas is a major practice in the Wind Rivers, and one that should be questioned in light of the pack goat controversy. The only problem we’ve encountered with sheep is the difficulty in getting through a huge flock and the reaction of the sheep guard dogs. Once a sheep herder charged over to us on his horse, accompanied by two dogs, then stood right next to the trail as we passed. Turns out he was from Peru and hadn’t seen llamas since he came to the US. Still, it scared the crap out of our llamas. All four were bunched pretty tightly up against me in the lead.

Pack Goats:

I once wrote an article for the BCL on a trip we did into the Winds and our encounter with pack goats. The goats and their humans were taking a break maybe twenty feet off the trail. We stopped our string to say hello and to visit a bit. The llamas were just fine until one of the goats got up to come over to visit. Basically, all hell broke loose behind me, with three llamas bullwhipping around. Thankfully, my lead llama held his ground and my Sopris saddles stayed in place. We had intended to camp about a half-mile further down the trail for our last night out, but the llamas would have none of that. Another eight miles and we were back at the safety of their trailer. We still refer to this as our encounter with the attack goats. All this happened about two miles after the sheep herder encounter.

Dogs: Our worst encounters have been with dogs. Although most wilderness areas have rules that dogs be kept on a leash, the owners do not care to follow the rules. We’ve had dogs come fast at us from just about every direction. We were once passing a fellow and his dog on a steep trail in the Winds. I asked if he had the dog under control and “yes” was the reply. I should have asked if it was under physical control, as the dog came after the last llama in line. Apparently, the fellow thought voice control was enough. It’s not!

A chirping tree: Probably the funniest encounter was with a tree. As we approached, we could hear the peeping of baby birds. They were in a cavity of the tree, right at llama eye level. Our lead llama walked right up and stuck his eyeball up to the hole. One can only imagine what those poor baby birds thought.

Wildlife: The most interesting encounters have been with deer. We’ve had them nose-to-nose with our llamas. The deer are calm and curious, just like the llamas. It’s what makes packing with llamas so special. You don’t see deer in a horse camp. We’ve also had a cow and calf moose spend the night with the llamas, elk herds wander through camp during the night and bull moose wander by with little interest in the llamas.

Funniest non-encounter: We were on a short pack trip in the Uintas during the black powder elk hunt. We were camped just inside the tree line next to a meadow and were packing up to leave. We heard an elk bugle, which turned out to be a hunter using a call. He was tracking four large elk (our llamas). All dressed in period garb, complete with the coon skin cap, he rode within twenty feet of our llamas, all saddled up and ready to go. He never knew we were there.