Stepping Stones and Stumbling Blocks
How We Started a Llama Trekking Business
“Quirky Getaway”.–That’s how Jim Yenckel, the Mid Atlantic Travel Expert, described Twin Creeks Llama Treks on a weekly edition of NPR’s Metro Connection. I think most of our friends and family would agree with that description. When we first broke the news that we were buying llamas and were going to start a hiking business, our friends would smile a blank smile and nod vacantly, as if to humor the mentally unstable. Those who have come to visit and have experienced the gentle nature of the llamas and the pleasure of their company on a hike have come around to our way of thinking. But I’m sure most of our acquaintances still inwardly think of us as “quirky”. But that’s OK with us, ‘cause we’re having a ball.
The question we’re inevitably asked, (that is, of course, after “Do they really spit?”), is “How did you ever decide to get into llama trekking?” There is no clear answer to that question, because it is not something we ever planned to do—it just sort of evolved—like serendipity.
After spending 24 years in the Air Force, Tim retired and took a job in Northern VA. As we were living in Southern MD at the time, and hating life on the beltway, we decided to buy our dream getaway in the mountains of the Shenandoah Valley. Well, that’s not quite true, because, again, we never planned to do this. We drove out to the valley on a 3 day Valentine’s Day weekend in 1998, and, on a whim, dropped into a local realty office just to check out prices for the area. We described our idea of the perfect piece of property, (several acres, pasture, woods, mountain views, a stream), and when the agent drove us out to see a piece property that was for sale, and it was 100% what we had envisioned, we bought it on the spot.
We had always thought we would someday like to have horses, but when we settled in and started thinking along those lines, I was afraid that horses were more demanding and expensive to maintain than I was prepared for. But we wanted some kind of livestock to make use of our pasture. I certainly wasn’t going to raise anything that was ever going to end up on someone’s dinner plate, and after months of research it seemed like llamas would be the perfect additions to our family. The next dilemma was what we would do with them. Again, serendipitously, I read an article about llama picnic hikes and thought that might be just the ticket. Here we were living in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains—and we love hiking and meeting people—and we’re, well, sort of “quirky”.
Tim was coming up on his 50th birthday, so I planned a surprise trip with a group of our close friends to go to NC and take a llama trek. We loved the experience—the llamas were so captivating and cute and added a whole new dimension to the adventure of hiking. So the decision was made to go forward.
The next hurdle was finding the right llamas. It would have been ideal to buy llamas that were already pack trained and trail wise, but we would have had to travel some distance to find them. It was important to us, as new llama folks, to buy our llamas from a farm close by, from people who could mentor us and offer us support. We also wanted to find llamas that had the right temperament, were trained to lead, and easily handled. We found the perfect match with Laurie and Harry Molin of Shangrila Farms in Callaway, VA, who sold us 3 llamas, and Nancy Sottosanti of Persimmon Hill Llamas in Luray, VA who sold us our 4th boy. Over the next few years, we added 4 additional boys to our pack string. We have been very pleased with our selection of llamas. They all were easily trained to carry a pack and all are very enthusiastic about going on hikes.
We faced several hurdles during our first year, but the biggest was negotiating with park authorities to get permits to use public lands. We were hoping to use the trails at the Shenandoah River State Park as it was only 5 miles from our farm and the park had beautifully maintained trails. I think it was a bit of a shock to everyone we spoke to in the Virginia State Parks system, as no one had ever asked about admitting llamas into the parks before. I think this actually worked to our advantage in the long run, because there wasn’t an existing policy regarding llamas. I remember my first conversation with the state director. He was immediately intrigued by the idea of people hiking with llamas in the parks, but didn’t have any guidelines as to rules and regulations. He mused for a moment and said, “Well, if you walk them on a lead, maybe we should treat them more like dogs than horses”. To my knowledge, most areas that are public lands treat llamas as pack stock and restrict them to the trails that are open to horses. The state park, however, was concerned about llamas sharing trails with horses, as they had recently opened a riding stable on the premises, and were concerned with the liability presented by horses spooking at the sight of a llama.
In dealing with a bureaucracy, persistence and patience are definite virtues. After a year of calling and nudging, they finally agreed to a meeting to be attended by the State Director, the Regional Director, the Park Manager, the owners of the horse stables, ourselves, and our llamas. We loaded up our 2 best boys and took them over to the park. The meeting was held in a wooded picnic area. We tied the llamas to adjacent trees a few yards from the table where we sat. No one present had ever seen a llama before, and observed them closely during the meeting. The llamas behaved like angels, waiting patiently and nibbling at the grass. Napoleon would circle the tree he was tied to until his lead was completely wound, then reverse his direction and unwind himself. The horse person was impressed and commented that it looked almost as if Napoleon were entertaining himself. She admitted that her horses would never be able to figure out how to unwind themselves.
I feel sure that it was the llamas, rather than our incredible negotiating skills, that finally swayed them over. By the end of the meeting, they had not only agreed to let us use the trails in the park, but had allowed us to use the foot trails, open to hikers only, and by far the prettiest, most interesting trails in the park. We have fostered a good relationship with the park service. By practicing “leave-no-trace”, we have demonstrated that llamas are trail friendly animals.
Again, serendipity stepped in, in the form of the Washington Post. Quite unexpectedly, just a couple of months after we began our hikes, the travel editor of the Post called, wanting to do an article on llama trekking. A wonderful article, with photos, appeared in the Sunday edition of the paper, and the phone has not stopped ringing since.
We’ve just completed our ninth full season, and are on summer break. With our seasons here in Northern VA, we have decided to hike year round with the exception of Jun, July and August. We only hike on weekends, since we’re both still working and have chosen to do only day hikes. Part of our hiking package includes an hour introduction to the llamas at the farm. We teach people about llama “personalities”, let them help groom them, teach them how to properly halter a llama, and how to put on the packs and panniers. I think our guests enjoy this part most of all. If they came in with anxieties and reservations about handling the llamas, by the time we hit the trail, they feel perfectly comfortable with leading them, and jump right in to help load and unload the equipment. We have a couple of different trails we use, depending on the interests and abilities of our guests. They range from 2 to 4 miles and from easy to moderate in difficulty. The llamas carry folding tables and seats and we stop about midway to have a very nice and relaxing picnic lunch. Our guests are more interested in feeding the llamas their lunch of grain than they are in eating lunch themselves.
The most rewarding thing about our venture has been the wonderful people we have met. It’s especially enjoyable to watch the children with the llamas. There seems to be a special bond there. The llamas seem especially gentle and cooperative with young people, and the kids can hardly contain their enthusiasm.
We have no long range plans. As tends to be our style, we’ll round the next corner when we get to it. The only important thing is that we continue to have fun.
For more information and pictures of our hikes, please visit our WebPages at www.twincreeksllamas.com.