Don’t they spit?
Not unless they feel threatened.
Do they bite?
Not unless you’re a bush or a low-hanging juniper branch.
Do they kick?
To protect themselves, yes. Otherwise, no.
But ... llamas as pack animals?
Many folks fear llamas because they just don’t know much about them. Last weekend, Joyce Bittner, owner/operator of the Ranch at Fossil Creek aimed to educate residents and visitors of the Rim Country that llamas are excellent pack animals and pets. The Bittners run the Fossil Creek Creamery and Ranch, selling goat cheese and fudge, besides offering their llamas for rent as pack animals.
Bittner brought three of her nine llamas from the ranch to run a family hike for the Pine/ Strawberry Trails Day celebration Saturday, April 21. Since the two hamlets act as gateway communities for the Arizona Trail, an 800-mile path stretching from Arizona’s border with Mexico to its border with Utah, the Pine/ Strawberry Trails Day introduced visitors to the possibilities a stop in Pine or Strawberry offer.
Trail trekkers can find a place to lay their weary heads, clean their clothes, grab a micro-brewed beer or eat at a great restaurant.
Day-trippers can spend hours exploring the shops in the villages before or after a vista-filled hike.
The Trails Day also offered a three-hour tour of the Arizona Trail to give day hikers a chance to experience the trail.
Families met Bittner and her llamas, Sierra, Lakota and Abigail, at the Pine/Arizona Trail trailhead outside of Pine.
All of the families came from the Phoenix area. Bittner hopes to make future visitors comfortable with renting a llama.
“Llamas can carry a third of their body weight,” said Bittner, “Enough to carry an ice chest with fresh veggies and foods.”
To prepare for the hike, Bittner distributed the llamas amongst the hikers, she had Kelley Schneider, a fourth grade teacher from Ahwatukee, lead Abigail. The Schneiders own a cabin in Pine and come up to visit a couple of weeks out of every month.
“We found out about this hike from the newspaper,” said Schneider.
Schneider had her husband take pictures of her with Abigail to share with her fourth grade class the next week.
Abigail patiently stood for the photos, but as soon as the hike started, she showed her frisky side.
She pranced and bolted, attempting to move to the front of the line, but Sierra would have none of it.
Bittner explained that the llamas have a definite hierarchy. On the trail, they settle into their assigned positions. Schneider had to ultimately scoot to the middle of the pack after Sierra. Lakota happily took up the rear, munching throughout the hike.
Bittner went on to explain that llamas have a cloven hoof, but unlike horses, they have a soft pad at the back of their foot similar to a dog paw. So a llama’s foot doesn’t tear up the trail.
Bittner said llamas spit like a dog barks. “They usually only spit at each other when they’re annoyed,” she said.
Llamas also make excellent guard animals, a real advantage for her goat farm — or for hikers making camp. Their scent keeps predators away, said Bittner.
The Arizona Trails Association and the Forest Service hope the Arizona Trail brings gateway communities economic opportunities, such as the llama rental service.
On its Web site (www.aztrail .org), the Arizona Trail Association has an interactive map that highlights the gateway communities and gives a brief explanation of each community, including the elevation, a bit of history, nearby sites of special interest, and amenities.
At the Pine Trails Day, visitors wandered the shops, enjoyed live music, and spoke with representatives from the Pine/Strawberry business community, Arizona Trail Association, Tonto Rim Search and Rescue, and the Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park. Restaurants and cafes opened their doors and vendors set up shop along the road.
The hike with Bittner’s llamas took two hours and meandered through wooded areas next to creek beds, then dropped down into a canyon and ended up on a plateau offering views of Pine and the surrounding mountainsides before dropping down into the parking lot.
Bittner gave each hiker a chance to lead a llama. Nine-year-old Dimitri Taylor took a turn with Abigail, but often it seemed the llama led Dimitri, instead of the other way around.
“Pull her head toward the trail,” said Bittner. Abigail and the other llamas, took any chance they could to wander off trail to enjoy a bit of fresh greens.
Dimitri soon got the hang of leading Abigail. “It’s interesting to see what they do and how they walk,” he said.
For all the hikers, the day opened their eyes to the possibilities the Arizona Trail and Pine can offer. “We want to start hiking,” said Schneider, “We try to come and support what we can.”