Hauling by llama is short on drama

Outdoorsman Mike Edwards finds this well-mannered pack animal is the perfect accessory
Monday, December 26, 2005
BILL MONROE
The Oregonian

Mike Edwards' llamas don't spit anymore, but they don't retrieve, either.

And it's no problem. Edwards has Labradors that do retrieve, and he gets more than enough mileage out of the llamas as it is.

Literally.

Edwards, a registered nurse in a Portland hospital and an innovative outdoorsman addicted to hunting, fishing, camping and backpacking (when he's not horseback riding or hiking with his wife and son), is a fixture every duck season on Sauvie Island's state-owned Wildlife Management Area.

He picks and chooses from a stable of four llamas to pull a cart full of duck and goose decoys into Sauvie's maze of marshes, ponds and fields, where he's one of the island's best regular hunters.

"We call him Llama Mike," said Mark Nebeker, manager of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Sauvie Island Wildlife Management Area. "Everyone knows him."

Llamas, which Edwards said were oversold as exotic pets the past decade or so, nevertheless have far-ranging values for serious outdoors people.

Edwards' llamas, for example, pack fly-fishing gear and tents into the high Cascade Mountains, where llamas remain popular pack animals because of their intelligence and -- especially -- their low impact on fragile soils.

For late summer and fall bow hunting, Edwards designed a special seat to fit on his decoy cart and uses it much like a sulky cart.

"A llama can pack 40 to 60 pounds, but pull 300," said Edwards, 37, a 186-pounder who can pack along an entire spike camp and food for three to six days. "We go into roadless areas (in northeast Oregon) up to five or six miles. The guys on mountain bikes can't stand it."

Edwards said his llamas are much more intelligent (and cheaper to keep) than the family's three horses. But even they have "train wrecks," a familiar term used by horse owners to describe their animals' flighty natures and trail accidents under saddle and pack.

"Llamas have train wrecks too, but the learning curve is so much quicker," Edwards said. "I never use ground ties; just stake them down with a rope and they learn that if they're caught up, they can just shake it off and wait. Horses are much more flighty."

He shears and sells llama hair for money to buy their tack.

Edwards uses a small motor home to tow a trailer designed to carry the llamas and his hunting cart. He spends the night before each hunt parked far enough toward the front of the line to get a good blind.

Edwards said his dogs and those of other hunters on the island's popular hunting area get along well with the unusual animals.

"I've been pretty impressed. I was worried at first, but the llamas will just give a (strange) dog a gentle kick and that's the end of that," he said.

For other hunters, Edwards said, "In llama language, if it reaches out to touch your nose, just use yours to touch it back and you're friends for life."

Edwards said the most-often asked question, usually tongue-in-cheek but sometimes with genuine curiosity, is whether his llamas retrieve. They don't, he said, but they will go into water to about halfway up their legs before balking or backing out.

All four are mostly beige-colored, easily blending with the island's winter backdrop of cut-corn and dead vegetation. Tied to the cart or tethered to a stake, the llamas wait patiently, sometimes napping, for the hunt to conclude. The Andean mountain animals aren't bothered by the cold.

Horses, with heavy bodies and dirt-pounding hooves, are banned from the state-owned area, but Edwards has a special use permit to take his light-stepping, deerlike llamas onto the area in the winter.

Shooting isn't a problem, Edwards said.

"They're naturally curious creatures. They'll actually walk toward gunfire," he said. "I don't take them when I fish the Deschutes, though. I don't like taking them into rattlesnake country. They'll stick their nose into a rattling rattlesnake, and if they get bitten on the nose, that's deadly."

Edwards doesn't have any llamas that spit, but he did.

"They're really easy to train," said Edwards, who credits his 15-year-old son, Tony, with most of the educational work. "We just use a good old garden hose. If they spit at me, I get out the garden hose and spit back . . . and I can spit a whole lot more than they do. They get it right away."

Edwards and his wife, Jackie, 35, ride horses together and even hunt together for some of the earlier fall bird seasons. But, he said, she doesn't like all the standing around waiting for ducks; so while Edwards, Tony, a yellow Lab pup and the llamas head for the duck blind, Jackie and their second, older Lab hunt pheasants.

Llamas became trendy and popular several years ago and, Edwards said, "Everyone thought it was going to be a big industry." Hollywood stars, he said "bought them for ridiculous amounts and suddenly there was a llama on every five-acre parcel in Oregon."

But the market was heavily oversold.

"Now you can't give them away," he said.

Edwards has two llamas that were given to him, one that was born on their acreage outside of Oregon City and a fourth, "Pahto," that he bought for $50. Pahto is named after the Native American word for Mount Adams.

The others are Sam, Llily and Dolly.

"Everyone's got to have a Dolly llama around the house," Edwards said.

Bill Monroe: 503-221-8231; billmonroe@news.oregonian.com


2006 The Oregonian