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Posts Tagged ‘hiking’

Did you ever think you would be contemplating llama breath? Well, I’m going to give you some information that you might not have considered before. For the most part, llamas have very nice breath, mostly neutral, but often tinged with a slightly sweet smell of the fresh hay or grass they have been munching.

Prince grazing

Or better yet, sometimes their breath makes you think of Christmas, and you know that they have been browsing on their absolutely favorite food, white pine needles.

Santiago eats pine needles

Their second most favorite food is just coming into season: the wild spring onion. And you have no doubt in your mind at all when they have been indulging in this llama delicacy.

wild onions

I’m sure most all of you are familiar with this scourge. It thrives almost everywhere that the urban homeowner aspires to have a lush, green, weed free lawn. They are strangely pungent and whenever I smell them, I’m thrown back to a time in my childhood when my Dad would mow the yard and the air would reek of a Greek salad.

We did a llama trek this past weekend in the Shenandoah River State Park. Llama trekking is our weekend business. We guide our customers on an invigorating hike through the park and I prepare a 4 course picnic lunch which we enjoy along the way. The llamas carry all the food, linens, utensils, and even folding tables for our meal.

SONY DSC

This day, we stopped for lunch in a meadow overlooking the Shenandoah River. It was a glorious day, sunny and warm, and the river was dotted with red and green canoes. And the meadow was dotted with lush green spikes of wild onions. The llamas had an enjoyable break from the hike, grazing in the grass.

SONY DSC

When we went over to load the llamas up for the return hike, we were blown away by the rank stink of their breath. As we walked along the trail, we followed in the miasma of their onion breath. And we also discovered to our dismay that an overindulgence in wild onions tends to make llamas quite gassy.

Fortunately, as a counterpoint to the malodorous onions, was the beauty of the Virginia bluebells, which fortuitously were at their peak bloom that day.

SONY DSC

A little touch of the agony and the ecstasy.

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Where did that rock come from? It wasn’t there when I mowed the barnyard three days ago.

Coming down the loft stairs with an armload of hay for the llamas, I walked over to check out the new bump in the grass. Yikes! A female snapping turtle had dug a nest and was laying eggs. I wasn’t successful in getting a photo of the blacksnake under the steps last week, but I was able to get back to the house for my camera before this ugly beast lumbered off.

With our farm nestled between two creeks, we are accustomed to seeing these repugnant reptiles on a frequent basis. They’ve taken up residence in our pond, and occasionally we’re lucky enough to witness a pair doing the turtle tango.

The snappers around here are known as the Common Snapping Turtle, as opposed to the Alligator Snapping Turtle found further south. They rarely come on dry land, spending all their time in the water. If you see a turtle walking about, it most likely is a female looking for a place to lay her eggs. They generally lay from 10 to 50 eggs which will hatch in 3 to 4 months. The female will dig a hole with her back legs, deposit the ping pong size eggs, then cover them back up with dirt and smooth it over with her tail.

Not only are they ugly, but they are mean. That neck can dart out in an instant and stretches to nearly the length of their body. I always hate to see them in the pasture, because I’m afraid that a curious llama might bend down to sniff a snapper and get his nose bit. Once I used a shovel and a wheel barrow to load a turtle and wheel her 100 yards to the creek, but today I decided to just let her be and keep the llamas in their paddock for the day.

Last year about this time, we encountered a large snapper while on one of our llama treks. We were hiking a trail along the Shenandoah River, and came upon this turtle laying smack in the middle of the trail. The first five llamas and their handlers passed her to her rear side, but with each passing llama, she got more and more agitated, and when the fifth llama walked by, the turtle spun around and thrust out that neck and hissed. Jesse, the sixth and last llama in the string, was not going anywhere near that turtle, so I called up to Tim to come get it out of the path.

He found a 4 foot long stick and starting nudging at the turtle to encourage it to move out of the way. This really ticked the turtle off and she started biting at the stick. The stick kept getting shorter and shorter, till it was only about a foot long. Finally she moved enough that we could scurry past.

I’m told that the force of their bite is greatly exaggerated. Apparently they can’t snap off fingers and toes, and they will let go before it thunders, but I, personally, am not taking any chances. They haven’t survived for 40 million years by being shrinking violets.

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Llamas on the Trail

“How in the world did you ever decide to get llamas in the first place?” We hear this from almost every group of people that come on one of our hikes. This past weekend marked the last llama trek for the spring season. As the summers here in Virginia are too hot and humid for the comfort of the llamas, we do not hike during the months of June, July, and August. We lucked out on Sunday and had perfect weather as well as a great group of thirty somethings that had driven out from the DC area for a relaxing day of hiking and lunching with our llamas. This is how it all started….

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.

Coffee Bean Nabs a Hat

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.

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Bonny and Mayzie

Someone recently asked me how old Bonny, my oldest Bearded Collie, was and I replied that she would be 14 in a couple of weeks. That got me to remembering a birthday several years back that turned out to be an outstanding doggie occasion.

I had almost forgotten it was Bonny’s birthday until that morning. I generally like to do something that makes the day a little special for the dogs and Bonny was turning 9 years old that day. We used to enjoy hiking in the woods with the dogs, but recently, we had been hiking almost every weekend with the llamas and our weekend llama trekking business and the dogs had been a little neglected in that department. We were just starting our summer break, having stopped the treks the weekend before due to the hot and humid Virginia summers. Mayzie, our younger beardie was now a year old and had never been on a real hike. So the plan was hatched.

The temperature was supposed to soar to the ninety’s later in the day, so we prepared for an early start. I quickly made a picnic breakfast of bacon and egg sandwiches and orange juice and packed plenty of water and Gatorade. I filled the doggie canteen with fresh water and grabbed the extend-o-leashes and we were off. Some friends in the area had told us of a local trail that leads into the Shenandoah National Park and joins a park trail that terminates at the top of the Skyline Drive. The trail is a couple of miles from the house, so we drove to the trailhead and parked the car. We had not looked at the trail map before heading out, but had an impression that the trail was only about a couple of miles to the top. We figured it would take a couple of hours to go up and back and we’d stop along the way and eat our sandwiches.

The trail was beautiful. It is known by the locals as the Browntown Toll Road. It was built a couple of hundred years ago, long before the government claimed the mountain as a National Park, to provide an access for people on the other side of the mountain to ride into Browntown, a bustling little town for the early 1800s. The trail is still in excellent condition. It cuts through dense forest and luckily was well shaded, but we were sweating profusely in spite of our early start. We have a pretty good feel for distances as we hike about 4 miles of trails with llamas every week, so after about 2 miles, we started anticipating connecting with the Skyline drive. We covered another mile or so and were still not there.

The dogs were hot and tired and panting heavily. We were stopping frequently to give them water. They were plodding along dutifully, but the excitement and novelty had worn off. They weren’t as alert and observant as they had been earlier on, so it took us all by surprise when a doe leapt from the woods and crossed the trail no more than 10 feet in front of us. Bonny and Mayzie were instantly on guard and ready to take chase. Luckily we had them on leashes. I wondered briefly why the doe didn’t run down the hill away from us instead of choosing to run right in front of us the way she did.

We continued on up the trail about a quarter mile, when Tim pointed at a spot on the edge of the trail and said “Look”. At first glance, there was a sunny patch covered sparsely with low growing ground cover. But as I focused on the area, I detected a round brown hump with small white spots on it. At the other end of the hump were two pointed ears and two very wide eyes. We all had walked within inches of this new fawn and not even the dogs had detected its presence. It was incredibly tiny, and probably only a couple of days old. I was just saying to Tim that its Mom had given it strict instructions to stay put, and it was doing as it had been told, when it occurred to me that we had just encountered Mom. It became apparent why she had darted right in front of us on the trail. She was trying to lure the dogs away from her baby. We took a quick photo and moved hurriedly on so as not to distress the fawn any more than we already had.

We now guestimated that we had walked about 4 miles and still weren’t at the top. I had not come dressed appropriately for a strenuous hike. Anticipating the heat, I had worn shorts and tennis shoes. The trail in places was very rocky, and the bottoms of my feet were becoming increasingly tender. In other areas, the grass and weeds were a foot tall, and I had spied a goodly amount of poison ivy along the trail. We were debating on whether to turn around or keep going. I was spent, and starting to favor turning around. Tim wanted to see where the trail ended. We speculated that Murphy was on the trail with us, and that if we made the decision to turn around, the trail’s end would be a couple hundreds yards further on. However, if we continued to walk, it would be another mile at least. Finally we compromised. I found a log to sit on, and I stayed behind with the dogs, and Tim went on ahead to find the elusive end of the trail. He found it about a half mile up, and took photos to prove he was there.

The downhill hike was much easier than the going up. It took about 2 ½ hours to climb to the top, but we made it back down in about 1 ½ hours. The dogs were much livelier on the way down, having again found the bounce in their step. As soon as we opened the door to the house, they plopped down on the cool tile floor, and went instantly to sleep, dreaming, no doubt, of chasing deer all through the forest. I’m sure Bonny had the best Birthday a dog could wish for.

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