Connecting with nature: llama trekking

By Cindy Brown
For the Taos News
Posted 8/31/19

A day spent trekking with llamas through the woods resets the rhythm of the body to a more ancient and natural pace. Under a blue sky in the quiet forest, distractions fade and the pace …

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Connecting with nature: llama trekking

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A day spent trekking with llamas through the woods resets the rhythm of the body to a more ancient and natural pace. Under a blue sky in the quiet forest, distractions fade and the pace slows. Llamas make agreeable hiking partners, walking peacefully by your side and carrying gear and food just as they have done for centuries.

On a recent late summer day, I joined Wild Earth Llama Adventures for a trek up the Columbine Canyon Trail. Our group of 12 people led nine llamas, climbing up gradually along Columbine Creek about 2.5 miles to a meadow where we stopped for lunch.

Stuart Wilde of Wild Earth Llama Adventures is in his 27th year guiding people and llamas into the forests and deserts around Taos. On a llama trek with Wilde, people have a chance to hear about the ecology, geology and history of our community's public lands. Working under permits from the Carson National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management, Wilde leads groups from March to November of each year - with summers spent in the high country forests and spring and fall in the Río Grande del Norte National Monument.

On the tours, Wilde stops to point out wildflowers, along with medicinal and edible herbs. Tasting herbs like nodding onions and oregano offers a chance for experiential learning - the kind that stays with a person for a lifetime. In sharing facts about the forest, Wilde shares something deeper, too - an ethic about how to be in wild lands, treading lightly and leaving no trace.

Families trekking

People come from Taos and all over the world to be part of these expeditions. On the recent hike in Columbine Canyon, experienced llama trekker Susan Gordon of Santa Fe and Houston invited her two siblings and their spouses to join her and husband, Rick, to try hiking with llamas. Brother Bill Houck and wife, May, from Minnesota and sister Barbara McNerney and husband, Paul, of Houston were on a tour with Wild Earth Llama Adventures for the first time.

Barbara says, "For all of us, it was a very unique one-of-a-kind experience. Crossing three streams with the llamas and the gourmet lunch at the meadow were the most memorable parts. We learned about the llamas themselves, along with geology, history, survival skills, forest preservation and how the forest and wildlife experience a rebirth after a forest fire to coexist and continue to grow even stronger. Stuart has an amazing wealth of knowledge and we thoroughly enjoyed his personality and enthusiasm."

A family of four from North Carolina was also trekking for the first time. Regan and Miles Coxe and their daughters Annamiles and Eliza had been horseback riding on a previous vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and wanted to try something new. Eliza spent time in Ecuador at a llama preserve and felt a special connection with llamas that she wanted to experience again. Younger sister Annamiles often led the pack with her gentle llama, Denali. The two said that they would remember the llamas and how they communicated their feelings through the unique sounds they made.

Backcountry lunch

A highlight of the day hike on Columbine Canyon Trail is an exceptional lunch at a meadow near Columbine Creek. Wilde brings supplies in the packs carried by llamas. Lunch was a backcountry panini bar that included cold drinks, bread, cold cuts, cheese, tomatoes, pesto spread and more, all finished off with chocolate chip cookies.

"Comfort food is one of the tools that I use to help people feel at home in nature," says Wilde. "I worked as the daytime chef at one of the resort hotels at Taos Ski Valley for a number of winters, and really try to take the food on these trips to the next level. On our overnight wilderness trips, we prepare and serve healthy, hearty meals, with fresh ingredients (organic and non-GMO when possible) like burritos and stuffed French toast for breakfast and salmon fillets, beef teriyaki or chicken fajitas for dinner."

As a local naturalist and someone who has an extensive knowledge of native plants, Wilde tries to incorporate local herbs and wild mushrooms into the meals.

Llama rescue

Wilde came to Taos in his early 20s. "I was the father of a young child and was looking for a way to carry all our gear," says Wilde. "I got a couple of llamas to help out and soon people heard about them and started to call." He took out a few groups and Wild Earth Llama Adventures was born.

The llamas on the trips are all rescues and each one has a distinctive personality. My llama, Diego, wanted to be at the front of the pack, but also wanted to stop so he could taste each leafy tree along the trail. Denali is so gentle that Wilde thinks he could be a service llama. The llamas are a cooperative pack but there is also subtle jockeying for position and posturing if one llama gets too close to another.

Llamas are a member of the camel family and are actually indigenous to North America. They are believed to have originated in the central plains of North America about 40 million years ago. Llamas migrated to South America and Asia about three million years ago and were extinct by about 10,000 years ago in North America. In the late 1800s and early 1900s llamas were reintroduced to North America by private animal collectors and zoos.

Wilde has been rescuing llamas for the past 25 years. "Our first rescue was from Hobbs, New Mexico, with a llama that had been passed around to several owners. They had him in with their chickens, and when he trampled one, they called us and said they were going to shoot him if we didn't come and get him," says Wilde.

"Since that time, we have rescued more than 75 llamas, from various unwanted, abandoned, neglected and often abusive situations. Most of the rescues will not become packers, due to either heath or behavior issues. The ones that are healthy and friendly enough and show an interest in working with people have an opportunity to join the trail crew. We only have about 12 that work with me on the trail. The rest just get to hang out at the ranch and integrate into the rescue herd."

When asked what he loves most about llama trekking, Wilde says, "The llamas help me to share the beauty and the magic of the New Mexico wilderness with people from all over the world. Many of our guests are not experienced outdoors people, and these llamas have an amazing ability to help people reconnect with the natural world. One of the great rewards for me on these trips is when I step back and see people, especially young people, bonding with the llamas and feeling at home out in the wilderness."

To find out more or make a donation to support Wild Earth Llama Rescue, visit llamaadventures.com.

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