Hiking, camping and other outdoor activities draw millions to the breathtaking mountain views of Northwest Montana each year, but Swan Mountain Outfitters in Swan Lake offers an experience unlike any other.
Along with treks and trail rides on horseback, fishing and hunting trips, the company stands out as one of the few outfitters to bring llamas into the mix.
With ears like rabbits, necks like swans, wool like sheep and feet that look like a cross between a camel and a parrot, the odd creatures make for the perfect pack animal.
Agile and hardy, they’re capable of making long trips over tricky terrain with little food or water, whether you’re using them to haul of gear up a mountain or walk them like dogs along a wooded trail.
One of the company’s guides, 27-year-old Tucker Deady, drove her guests and a trailer full of llamas down back roads off Highway 83 for a day trip into the wild lands of the Swan Mountains on June 21.
At the trailhead, she stopped and unhinged the trailer door to reveal four perky-eared, long-necked llamas.
They hummed, an oddly cute sound of contentment and curiosity.
Boomer, the smallest of the four at only a year old, hopped out of the trailer without issue.
Brittany Scholz, 17, and her mother, Wendy Armstrong, ran their hands through the little llama’s soft brown wool as Ash, a larger gray-and-white female, unloaded and started snacking on a patch of grass nearby. Chompsy and Chaucer, two brown and white sisters, showed their stubborn sides for a moment when asked to start their work day, but unloaded easily under Deady’s experienced hand.
All four wore harnesses and leads much like horses, but only Chaucer, the lead llama, bore the burden of a pack. Deady strapped a small saddle onto Chaucer’s back, loading two large bags containing the group’s lunch on either side. Though capable of carrying up to 100 pounds in their packs, their v-shaped spines make them less suited for riding.
Non-native to Montana, the llamas, Deady said, act as a natural deterrent to bears that are unsure of what to make of them.
Other wildlife, like deer and birds, will stop and watch the forest strangers weaving through the trees, curious but cautious about the odd animals.
Originally from the Andes Mountains of South America, llamas adapt fairly well to the Montana wilderness, according to Deady, and have been used as pack animals across the state for decades.
Steve Rolfing, the founder of Great Northern Llama, first began using llamas in 1979 to carry his timber cruiser equipment through the treacherous forest terrain. Taking notice of the animals’ gentle temperament and agility, he started using them for trekking trips, thus becoming the first llama outfitter in the state.
Pat and Joanne Tabor, the owners of Swan Mountain Outfitters, bought Great Northern Llama in 2010.
Described on their website as “camels of the clouds,” llamas are camelids, capable of surviving for long periods of time with little water and deriving most of what they need from the plants they eat, much like their desert-dwelling relatives.
Their soft padded feet make them more surefooted and agile than horses or mules, enabling them to navigate trickier terrain and reach places other pack animals can’t.
The padded feet also make for less painful kicks on the rare occasion when they do get irritated.
Though known for their spitting, Deady said the llamas rarely spit at people, saving most of the foul-smelling gunk for their comrades as a defensive behavior or to establish dominance.
Out on the trail with their human companions, however, the llamas’ alert yet docile demeanor lends a calming, quiet atmosphere to the beauty of the mountain forests.
“They’re elegant in a strange way. They have this confidence about them,” Deady said.
According to Deady, each llama not only has a unique personality, but also its own preferences.
Chaucer preferred to lead and the sisters hated being separated. Ash tended to stick close to her handlers, sometimes stepping on their heels or breathing in their ears as they walked. Boomer, the youngster of the group, liked to lollygag and traveled at his own pace.
Scholz and Armstrong had stopped in Montana as part of a cross-country road trip from their home in Ohio.
With only four days to spend in the state, Scholz said they had to be selective in what they did. Glacier National Park was naturally on the agenda, she said, but a lifelong fascination with llamas made the trek a must-do on her list.
“It’s like a dream come true for me,” Scholz said. “I just think they’re neat.”
The pair elected to try the half-day trek offered by the outfitters, a 5-mile round trip to Bond Falls that included lunch beside crystal-clear water rushing over double falls.
Deady took the lead with Chaucer, while Armstrong followed behind with Chompsy and Scholz brought up the rear with her favorite of the group, Boomer.
Laughter bounced from the back of the group to the front and back again throughout the hike as the women took in the quirks and comedy presented by their long-necked companions.
“It’s so funny. They just make me laugh,” Armstrong said. “Definitely a lot more exciting than just a regular hike, a lot more fun.”
Deady, now in her fourth summer as a llama trekking guide and her second with Swan Mountain, said she still finds herself fascinated and entertained by the creatures.
According to Deady, it was her fiancé who first introduced her to llamas. A llama veteran himself, he has worked with the animals since age seven, and today the couple works together at Swan Mountain as guides.
“It’s a lot of fun. I really enjoy it. It allows you to get to and see places you might not otherwise,” Deady said.
“And in order to really get into it, you have to learn about each llama, their preferences,” she added.
She wore a t-shirt that read “Save the drama for your llama,” but she said that usually, it’s the llamas that have the most attitude.
However, with patience and repetitive handling over their lifetimes, the llamas used by Swan Mountain Outfitters maintain a calm and contented demeanor, even when asked to take on obstacles like steep, rocky inclines or rushing river crossings with novice llama wranglers.
“It’s exceeded my expectations, really,” Scholz said.
From Montana, Armstrong said she and Scholz planned to continue on to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park before making their way back home.
Scholz, however, made no secret of the fact that her llama adventure would stand out as the highlight of their trip.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.