Trip Report: September 2008

Llama Trekking in the Weminuche Wilderness

Photo Karem.

Telluride Blues and Brews Festival

Photo Stage at TBB.
Stage at TBB.

This page contains a brief report from our llama trek in the Weminuche Wilderness and subsequent visit to the Telluride Blues and Brew Festival. Connie and I made this trip in the fall of 2008.

Change of Plans

My plans for the trekking part of this trip changed at the last minute. My original plan was to hike up the Elk and Vestal Creek drainages in the Weminuche Wilderness. Thanks to Ken Hibbard at High Mountain Anglers, I found out that the Elk Creek trail had become impassable to livestock about 1.5 miles above Elk Park. A section of the trail along a rocky face developed a huge crack. After some further checking, I found that foot passage was still possible but the Forest Service warned that livestock could not be taken past this point. I gave many thanks to Ken, who was helping Buckhorn llamas that season, for alerting me to the trail problem, otherwise our trip would have abruptly ended shortly after it began.

The other major last minute change was that a couple that had been planning to accompany us no longer could go because of work related issues. It would be just Connie, me, and the llamas on this trip.

I had to devise a new route. I decided to hike up Vallecito Creek from Vallecito Reservoir. I had never been south of Johnson Creek on Vallecito Creek before although I had been farther north in the Vallecito Creek drainage on several prior trips. This route posed one additional problem. The third bridge (counting from the south) crossing Vallecito Creek was destroyed by an avalanche in the winter of 2004-2005. Hikers must ford the creek. After some research, I decided we probably could cross the creek with our llamas at this time of the year when the creeks have relatively low flow most of the time. I was worried that we could be stymied by heavy rain that might temporarily make fording the creek impossible, perhaps even for few a days. This would not be so bad if we were south of the crossing but if we crossed the river at this point and the creek then rose, we could be stuck for a few days. Alternative exit routes would take days. Here is the Forest Service's official statement, "Vallecito Creek is challenging to ford, and is especially dangerous during the spring runoff (mid May through Mid June). Please use good judgment and extreme caution if you choose to ford Vallecito Creek."

Llama Trek

Connie and I began our trip by leaving Amarillo on Friday morning, September 5. I had been curious about Navajo Reservoir so we detoured slightly on our way to Durango to take a look. I discovered that it is a much larger lake than I realized. We saw many large house boats moored at a marina similar to what we had seen at Lake Powell.

We continued on and met Ken at the ranch where the llamas were pastured on Florida Mesa, southeast of Durango. The three of us worked together to herd the llamas into a pen. We stretched a long rope across the pasture and walked with it to coax them through the gate and into the pen. We were then introduced to Karem (named after Lou Alcindor because he is so tall) and Beethoven. I have heard that the more famous Karem has a house in Mancos near Durango. We picked up two sets of panniers (saddle bags) so that we could pack them in preparation for the trail Saturday morning. We said goodbye to the Ken, Karem, and Beethoven and agreed to meet up again at the Vallecito Creek Trailhead the next morning. We drove on to Durango and up to Purgatory. We spent the night at our townhouse at Silver Pick

This was my fourth trip to use llamas. They are magnificent pack animals. Typically gelded males and sometimes a few females are used for packing. They can carry 60 to 80 pounds depending on the individual. This allows taking a few extra luxuries along on a trek. Usually each person gets one llama. They are very easy to handle. If you are an experienced backpacker, after an orientation lasting about an hour, you know enough to take the llamas into the backcountry without a guide.

They are very cooperative and easy to care for. They rarely balk when you lead them. When I talk about llamas, people often ask about them spitting. The llamas that I have rented from Buckhorn in the Durango area and from the Lander Llama Company in Wyoming do not spit at you. On occasion they might spit at each other but they do not spit at humans. Perhaps this has something to do with how Buckhorn and Lander Llama Company handle and train them.

Photo Connie, Karem, and Beethoven at the Trailhead.
Connie, Karem, and Beethoven at the Trailhead.

Caring for them is easy. In camp, you tie them out with a rope attached to spiral stake that you might see used to tie up a dog. To my amazement, they do not try to chew the rope or pull out the stake. I think they are powerful enough to easily pull the stake out of the ground (please do not tell them) but they always seem quite content to stay put, graze, and sleep. They browse on whatever is available on the trail or in camp so you do not need to feed them. They are related to camels so they only drink water every few days. In camp, it usually is not necessary to provide them water unless you are there for more than one night. Every day or so, while walking, they will stop at water and drink for a long time.

Saturday morning, we met Ken and his wife at the Vallecito Creek Trailhead. We saddled up Karem and Beethoven and headed up the trail. Dennis Gebhardt has an excellent description of the trail in his superb book, Backpacking Guide to the Weminuche Wilderness so I will not bother providing my own. Unfortunately this book is currently out of print. The pertinent excerpt can be viewed here. From the Maps, the trail gently gains elevation. As we ascended through the gorge, there was a lot of short, steep up-and-down walking making it more strenuous than the elevation profile would suggest. This section of Vallecito Creek draws extreme white water enthusiasts each spring when the river is raging. We stopped at the first bridge, about 3.0 miles up the trail, and had lunch.

At about 4.1 miles, we found an excellent campsite in a flat meadow beside the river. We decided to stick to our low key attitude for this trip and stop early. We set up camp and I went fishing. The creek contained lots of small brook trout. That evening we enjoyed lounging around the campfire savoring our wine from a box.

Photo Caveman TV.
Caveman TV.

We slept an incredibly long time, perhaps 10 or 12 hours. Because we had slept until about 10:00 AM and because we liked our current camp site so well, we decided to stay put an extra night rather than hiking farther up the creek as I originally had planned. I spent the better part of the day fishing. Connie read. I caught lots of 6 to 8 inch brookies and one 16 inch rainbow. Most of the time I do not kill the fish but this time I kept enough for dinner. We had a delectable dinner of super-fresh pan fried trout. The rainbow trout was so big I had to cut it in half lengthwise to fit it into the pan. We again wiled away the evening "dreaming the fire".

The next morning we headed up the creek. At 6.5 miles from the trailhead we reached the former site of the Soda Springs Bridge. The avalanche debris pile was amazing. It left a huge tangled mass of full grown trees ripped from the ground and snapped into bits like matchsticks. The trail was mostly cleared but at one point the trail was blocked by a couple of logs about two feet high. I easily stepped over them but Karem simply refused to go over them. I found this rather odd. Most llamas want to follow you where ever you go. Beethoven had easily stepped over the logs without a hitch. I was unable to convince Karem that he should do the same. We had to detour way up and around the obstruction.

Crossing Vallecito Creek was easy on that day. The water was about mid-thigh deep and there was a stout rope stretched very tightly across the creek to use as a handrail. I learned something about llama behavior while crossing the creek. Connie and I put on shorts and the water shoes we had packed for this purpose. Holding the rope handrail, I led Beethoven across without a problem. I hitched him to a downed tree about 30 feet downstream from the rope. I went back across and then started across with Karem. He wanted to angle across the creek diagonally, walking directly to where Beethoven was tied slightly downstream. He pulled me sideways as I desperately clung to the rope. Despite Karem wanting to lead rather than follow, we made it across without me taking an impromptu swim. Connie them came across flawlessly. The initial crossing of the creek that had been making me apprehensive was over.

Photo Tending the Fire.
Tending the Fire.
Photo Second Campsite.
Second Campsite.
Photo Karem Gets a Treat.
Karem Gets a Treat.

We continued up the creek and found a nice campsite by following a side trail to an old outfitter's camp just south of the Johnson Creek Bridge, 8.5 miles from the trailhead. This proved to be a quite commodious spot. We spent the next two nights here with me fishing and both of us lounging. I hiked up to the Johnson Creek Bridge and crossed over. There were a number of good camping spots on the west side of creek. For a second time, we ate fresh trout for dinner.

As mentioned above, it is not necessary to carry feed for the llamas. We did bring along a few pounds of cracked corn (provided by the outfitter) which they love. Besides providing them a nice treat, it is useful if one of the llamas gets away from you. If you accidentally let a llama loose, I am told that sometimes they will come to you if you shake the bag of corn and you can grab them while they eat from the bag. Fortunately, I have not needed to use this trick on any of my llama outings.

On evening of the fourth day it began to rain. It rained all night and we awoke to a view of fresh white snow on all of the peaks. It continued to drizzle intermittently. I spooked a mule deer doe on my morning constitutional. We decided that it might not be that much fun to hang around camp in the rain and I was uneasy about the effect of the rain on the river crossing. We packed up and headed back a day early. As we descended, it warmed up, the rain stopped, and it became a beautiful day. The creek crossing was no different than when we had come by two days earlier. I made sure not to repeat the mistake of giving Karem a downstream target when crossing.

We reached the trailhead in early afternoon. We called Ken and he came and picked up the llamas. We bid farewell to our faithful servants, Beethoven and Karem, and drove back to Silver Pick.

Telluride Blues and Brews

Photo Connie.
Photo The Hops Queen.
The Hops Queen.

The next day we drove to Telluride for the Blues and Brews Festival. We met our son who drove over from Denver. The festival was wonderful as usual. I have written more about it from one of our previous trips here: Telluride Blues and Brews Festival 2006.

I was mesmerized by Susan Tedeschi's performance. It was so intense it made me break sweat. Here is a sample from her song, "Talking About" from her latest album, "Back to the River."

The beer was pretty good too.

Photo Susan Tedeschi.
Susan Tedeschi.
Photo Susan Tedeschi Band.
Susan Tedeschi Band.