This year I experienced my first acute llama injury while remote wilderness packing. My plan was to make a late August 2019 exploratory loop hike in the lightly travelled Twin Buttes region of the Wenaha Wilderness in the Blue Mountains of SE Washington State and NE Oregon. I checked with the forest service regarding trail conditions and was informed the Grizzly Bear and Slick Ear trails were cleared all the way to the Wenaha River, but the interconnecting Wenaha River trail was not cleared so I’d be taking my chances there. This is about a fifteen mile loop, but I figured if I encountered impassible conditions on the river trail I could always return the way I came in and still have a very worthwhile trip.
I decided to take RR Rowdy (one of Peppercorn’s progeny) with me on this trip, for three reasons. One, he has accompanied me on many trips in very difficult terrain. Though not very large he’s agile. We’ve bushwacked into places nobody would think a llama could possibly get into. So with potentially difficult obstacles he would be a good companion. Second, at 14 years old he’s getting closer to retirement age and I’d like to spend time with him while we still can – and this path was supposed to be mostly clear sailing. Third, as one of my primary packers he’s comfortable with me and sticks close, following off lead and staying with me in camp without tethering. That’s convenient and hey, what can I say other than we’re just good friends.
Leaving the Twin Buttes trailhead, the upper elevation of the Grizzly Bear trail (about seven miles or so) was clear, though got very faint to nonexistent shortly before the steep descent due to a deadfall sending people in all directions so a bit of searching is necessary to find the trail to the gorge below. The decent itself was pretty clear as it’s open terrain but once into the valley the trail became overgrown with brush and had lots of small to large blowdown. Some of this blowdown was obviously there for years as it was scorched from a fire a few years ago while lying horizontal. The forest service obviously had inaccurate information (which I informed them of afterwards).
I cleared about a quarter to half mile of small branches and brush and we navigated numerous deadfall, but our progress was slow and I suspected we wouldn’t make it the last mile to the river before nightfall. I asked Rowdy to hold tight while I scouted ahead. What I discovered was only more of the same. I decided that it just wasn’t worth the effort and it would just be another difficult slog on the return trip due to all the deadfall. I also didn’t want to turn around and pack Rowdy all the way back up to the high country fully loaded as I knew he wouldn’t be real happy about that and there wasn’t any water up there. I decided instead to cut a short trail to the small stream that flowed through this valley and set up an overnight camp. I had packed relatively simply on this excursion – no tent, just a Wiggy’s bivvy bag, mattress and chair, which was quite comfortable, and four days of provisions. An overnight rest and Rowdy should be fine to pack back out the next morning. I had also brought, along with my bear spray, a SALT gun. The reason is that in addition to the bear population here, the largest wolf pack in Washington State resides in this wilderness.
In the morning following breakfast we loaded up and headed back. As with several others one of the very long and large deadfall required a steep climb up and around, only this time things didn’t go as planned. While traversing the soil covered slope headed for the best spot to drop back down to the trail, the ground that Rowdy was walking on and I had just passed over gave way. We had triggered a rather large landslide with everything under his feet suddenly moving! I was standing just outside it but poor Rowdy got swept away. Instantly he did just the right thing and dropped to a cushed position with pannier outriggers, protecting his legs and avoiding a head over heels tumble to the valley floor, the panniers providing some stability from rolling. He rode it down to the bottom, crashing into branches that stopped the descent next to the trail. He hit them sideways so the panniers took the impact and also shielded him somewhat from the material following him down. Again, he did the right thing and didn’t panic or try to scramble out of it, but just looked up at me and made a frustrated growl, like “what’s your next bright move?… don’t just stand there, get me out of this!... and don’t think I won’t forget this, either!”
I hurried down and quickly removed his panniers. I dug around with my hands and under all the soil found one front leg twisted into an awkward position by a large rock that was part of the slide. After relieving his load and straightening the leg as best I could, I stepped back and asked him to stand. He popped right up onto all fours. That was a big relief and after walking him a short distance he appeared to be fine. The upper compartment of one of the Flaming Star Master Panniers did end up with a puncture wound from one of the branches that tore through the canvas. Better that than Rowdy!
I reloaded the panniers and we continued on, up the steep trail out of the valley, with everything seemingly normal into the high country but gradually he began to slow down, then needing occasional rest stops, which got progressively longer. I didn’t push him, we had all day after all, but when we got to 2.5 miles from the trailhead he decided he really couldn’t go any farther. We were down to only about 50 foot spans before cushing to rest and it was getting rather late in the day. I suspect he had pulled a muscle or tendon and it was getting increasingly inflamed as time passed, and increasingly painful. Fortunately for all he had pressed on most of the way back with his injury. I figured it would be best to spend the night and try again in the morning. He should be well enough after an overnight rest to make it the last couple miles of essentially level terrain. However, he needed water, which was on the llama limo at the trailhead. I carried out several heavy items to lighten the load and returned with a bucket of water for him, which he sucked dry.
The next morning he looked fine and I loaded him up and we were off – about a hundred yards and down he went. Uh-oh. This didn’t bode well. At that point I figured it would be best to make it as easy as possible for him and I left him there, packing out the panniers myself using the top load straps between the panniers as shoulder straps, returning with another bucket of water, which he sucked dry. (Note, don't omit the top straps even if you aren't top loading.) We travelled about a half mile, taking cushed rest breaks, when during one I suddenly heard a wolf calling out repeatedly. It was not far away, over the nearby forested rise. It sounded like only a single one, perhaps calling out position to the others. This was not good.
There was a mild crosswind blowing west to east, we were heading north, and the wolf was to the east. I knew that a little farther up the trail we would be crossing directly upwind of the wolf and in this condition we were lame ducks. To make matters considerably worse, I had packed out the bear spray and the SALT gun with the rest of the load. Figuring the wolf wasn’t yet aware of our presence as we had remained quiet the whole time, I removed Rowdy’s saddle to eliminate that weight and sprinted back to the trailhead carrying it, returning with more water, a bag of hay and the SALT gun, which I test fired at the trailhead to make absolutely sure it was ready to use.
He hadn't moved an inch while I was away and using the hay as incentive to keep walking and eat at the same time, we made better but slow progress back to the trailhead. Once there after a brief rest break he jumped into the llama limo without difficulty and Rowdy was safe and sound.
Once home I gave Rowdy some oral Meloxicam (NSAID) and he seems to be fine now.
One lesson from this is that a shot of banamine (NSAID, anti-inflammatory) can be a useful item for the first aid kit but it’s not something I normally pack with me or even keep on the llama limo.
Two weeks later I took the same trip starting in the opposite direction, accompanied by Sir Robin Williams, his first real pack trip with just him and I together. He was a little tentative going in, unsure of his surroundings, which was on lead, but once at the river he soon adjusted and began enjoying himself, occasionally doing a little happy dance during our next day hike and subsequent return hike, both not on lead which he really enjoyed. He did very well, navigating all the obstacles we encountered without any trepidation.
The Slick Ear trail to the Wenaha River does have a few blowdown, all passable, and is brushy in places -- overall in decent condition. Views are quite impressive in places.
There are a few nice established campsites along the river near Slick Ear, some with names, like "Your Mom's Camp" (pictured), "Happy Camp" and the aptly named "Big Camp". Forage is quite plentiful for the llamas in these camp areas.
The Wenaha River trail is brushy in places, has numerous blowdown but most are in the one foot range and easily passable, though there are two large ones in particular that cannot be circumvented and one of those also has a steep, long dropoff -- both impassible to any stock. An agile person can climb over. The trail is also a bit treacherous in a couple spots due to steep, loose, pebbly rockslide covering the trail.
Although this second excursion was twenty-one miles of hiking in all, three days over the busy Labor Day weekend, day two spent day hiking, I saw nobody the entire trip except for a couple bear hunters at the trailhead. If you want seclusion, this is a good area to hike and camp.
Bugs were not a problem though the black flies were somewhat numerous and pesky during the heat of the day in camp. No biting insects and no ticks were encountered. Lots of bear scat but no bears were actually sighted. Overall an enjoyable trip, but the Wenaha River and Grizzly Bear trails do need clearing.