Our dusty rental car pulled off the dirt road onto the Wallowa Llamas farm after a 6-hour drive from Seattle. It was the end of June with nearing purple skies and we had just passed through Halfway, Oregon – a town so small that the one and only main street proudly frames a large poster of each graduating high school senior, one per light pole, smiling down on any passerby.
At the end of the driveway stood a group of llamas just beyond manicured grass set-up with a croquet game next to a large outdoor table. Each llama was tied to a fence post. My nieces Camille (age 12) and Josie (age 9) were there on standby while Uncle Larry and his friend and llama-wrangler Steve immunized the furry animals against tick-borne diseases. Behind them, the late afternoon setting sun lit up the grass, soon to be baled hay, like a yellow blanket underneath purple skies.
Backpacking with Llamas?
Fortunately for us, the amazing Uncle Larry and Aunt Louise Rasmussen, the Wallowa Llamas owners for over 35 years, really are family – Kymber’s aunt and uncle. So we were excited for the chance to see them and more relatives from far and wide (even wacky Uncle Bruce from Colorado). We were also excited to share ‘the deep outdoors’ with the younger generation – our daughter Beija and her cousins Josie and Camille.
I’ll be transparent. Even though we are comfortable traveling internationally and have done treks in Nepal and Mexico, for me, the idea of going backpacking feels like a harder proposition. Where do we go to really get away from it all? Where can we see as-untouched-as-possible-nature without being surrounded by so many other campers? And do we even have the right equipment? Do I really want to carry all of that stuff?
All those problems were solved by taking our trip with Wallowa Llamas and it was an incredible experience it was for the kids.
Three great reasons why hiking with llamas is awesome for kids…
#1: Kids LOVE the Llamas
If you had told me that we’d be loading ten llamas into the back of a short school bus… well it didn’t phase the kids who were asked to help retrieve each furry friend and walk them over to Larry for loading through the back school bus door. The llamas were great with the kids (apparently they don’t spit at humans unless you inadvertently get between them and an antagonistic llama). Also, they aren’t so big like a horse to be intimidating for even smaller Josie.
With Uncle Larry at the wheel, we traveled in the front of the bus with the gear, winding about two hours along National Forest dirt roads. We passed green pine forest which is only accessible in the summer months after the deep snows have melted. Arriving at the Boulder Park trail head, Uncle Larry backed up to a raised bank where the llamas could easily step down.
The kids were overjoyed to attach the saddles to the llamas and place the pack bags. “Moe” and “Tristan” and “Dominick” and “Max” and “Harry” – you’d think the llamas were like puppies they way the girls talked to them, petted their soft cheeks, and uh… even kissed them on their grassy llama lips.
#2: Backpacking Made Light and Easy
We set off towards Eagle Meadow, many of us with easily found walking sticks. The llamas came up in the rear loaded with all of our stuff, including the meals that Louise had prepared earlier. We would discover later just how amazing the food was. Despite being miles into the wilderness, we would soon be overfed with fine cheese hors d’oeuvres, gourmet lasagna, cake, and even boxed wine options for adults!
With the llamas carrying most of the load, we all moved unencumbered except for a light day pack (think sunscreen and water). The kids were able to listen to Uncle Bruce’s stories, and when that got too much, fall back to walk with Grandma and Grandpa. They crossed streams without the fear of getting gear wet, and their energy and enthusiasm endured, thanks in part to their easy load.
Once we got to Eagle Meadow nestled beneath granite peaks, Uncle Larry knew exactly where to drop the gear. The girls enjoyed setting up their own tent, building some new camper skills. Evening chores required their help too, pouring water in a bowl for each of the llamas who were staked out in plush green meadow grass nearby.
Camping in the pristine wilderness also emphasized the value of leaving no trace. The girls practiced putting all trash (even food waste) into the appropriate bag after meals. And as for going to the bathroom, we all took turns with one of several hand-shovels. Any trips into the woods for a ‘number two’ required the digging and complete burying of that waste.
#3: Easily Experience the Remote Wilderness
In Eagle Meadow, the first night we fell asleep to the rhythmic noise of Eagle Creek with a pulled-back rain fly to let in the moonlight. The girls slept in their own nearby tent and we all awoke to the sounds of birds and Larry up making coffee. After an oatmeal breakfast with fruit and nut toppings, the girls were wowed to discover a nonchalant deer grazing about 100 feet away.
Leaving the llamas to graze during the day, we hiked the second day to Culver lake, about two hours away. The kids crossed a near freezing stream using water shoes to safely make it across. (Don’t ask me about going barefoot, throwing my shoes across ahead of me, and having one shoe miss the bank and fall into the stream. My relatives, however, will tell you that story over and over again if you ask them.) The girls reached Culver lake first and identified our lunch spot, cheering on Uncle Joel as he dared to go swimming for a record-breaking 26 seconds in the snow-melt pond. The following day, we traversed in a different direction to Eagle Lake with even more magnificent views (where Uncle Joel also dove in for a quick swim).
Beyond the saturated green and blue views and lightly traveled foot paths, the kids also got to experience some of the more challenging aspects of being outdoors including mosquitoes at dusk, dodging stinging nettles on the trail, and even discovering a recently-dead fawn. Still, the kids handled it with enthusiasm and curiosity.
Back at the Farm
After returning back to the farm, we were welcomed by more family members for a final reunion feast and we enjoyed a last celebration before loading up the car the next day. When we left, it was hard to say goodbye. It was hard for the girls too – though I’m pretty sure that for Beija, Camille, and Josie, it was a llama that got the last hug goodbye.
What’s so great about a llama pack trip like the one we had with Wallowa Llamas is that they do all the logistics, gear gathering, incredibly-gourmet food prep, and then have the llamas carry it all so that we could focus on each other and the remote experience. Yes, Larry and Louise are family, but even if they weren’t we’d recommend this kind of a trip for any family with kids!