The (ongoing) story of Lost Creek Llamas

Nederland, Colorado

We moved to Nederland from Eugene Oregon in 1983 with the intention of pursuing postgraduate schooling at UC Boulder. Not a week later, Jim came home excited to annouce that THERE IS A LLAMA FARM ON BASELINE ROAD!!! Llamas were not on Gwen's radar, but Jim knew somehow they were his destiny. The farm was Bobra Goldsmith's Rocky Mountain Llamas, and we soon visited, embarking on a lifetime journey and aso a friendship that lasted until Bobra's passing in late 2010.

We spent the next two years picking the brains and viewing the herds of every llama farmer within driving distance. And watching the already-out-of-reach-for-young-people prices just go up and up and UP. Still, it became clear to us that llamas needed to be in our lives, and that we were ONLY interested in pack llamas, period. NOT woolly llamas. Just working llamas. We had no llamas and yet we were already bucking the market trends! Our firm commitment to what was then considered a lower class of llama marked us as "stupid" in the eyes of the investment breeders (that is, almost every single llama breeder in North America). Besides, we weren't flush with cash; what good were we to them?

In 1985 and despite a student loan plus a mortgage, we'd both found side hustles and scraped together enough to purchase a yearling classic llama stud prospect — Spiritus Crystalli — and because we couldn't afford two, we boarded a second llama to keep him company. Spiritus received a lot of handling and attention from Jim in particular, and we were both impressed at how amenable and level-headed he was. Compared to Gwen's young horse, though, Spiritus was ... slow. Actually, he was slow compared to either of us, and that was without a load.

Dexter, Oregon

In early 1986 we returned to Oregon from Colorado, moving onto our much-loved 20 acres (with a serviceable albeit strange house) along the banks of Lost Creek. We had selected a second stud prospect, but could not pick him up for several more months. Again, we boarded another llama to keep Spiritus company ... and that second llama, full of difficult behavior thanks to packing part of the PCT with painful equipment at the behest of a completely llama-ignorant woman launched our keen interest in llama rehab, development of safe, comfortable llama packing equipment, and helping people interested in llamas get on the same page with reality.

In the summer of 1986, Jim picked up our second stud prospect, two-year-old Ranger Dusty, at a llama conference in Wyoming. Due to recent relocation by his breeder, Dusty had only had a halter on a handful of times, if that. We nodded when honestly told this information, but had no idea what that meant ... which was that Dusty basically had to be re-trained from the ground up. Dusty's halter was painful, a homemade affair with huge metal horse-halter hardware. As a result, he led REALLY well (to avoid more pain), but he had to be wrestled into a halter, even a kind, well-fitting halter. This experience led to a commitment to never allow a llama to leave our place without solid basic training ... and only with a comfortable, functional halter.

We were young, hungry for knowledge, and with more energy than we knew what to do with ...

... and it ALL went into llamas or working to support them.

Retraining Dusty somehow fell to Gwen. And somehow, that retraining led to the development of an amazing bond, far beyond anything either of us had ever seen between llama and human. We had certainly observed that llamas were very smart, but had a different take on things, and also a different perspective on a lot of basic stuff. In the process of seeing just how far her relationship with Dusty could go, Gwen not only engaged in some pretty extreme packing (Dusty was a rare 20+ mile-per-day guy, and able to keep up with Gwen to boot), but also performance showing and driving.

Gwen and Dusty performed off-lead (provoking strong responses from amazement to vicious backbiting). Gwen and Dusty competed sans lead and halter in an obstacle class at the Nevada State Fair in Reno against other entries (all on lead) and won. ALSA changed their rules to require llamas be on halter and lead at all times before Gwen and Dusty had even returned home from that show. Every year thereafter, once the show was officially over, show management for the Silver State Llama Show at the Nevada State Fair asked Gwen and Dusty to go through their most difficult obstacle course off-lead; each year they complied to the delight of all in attendance.

Gwen and Dusty also spent extensive time in the backcountry, fortuitously enabled by Gwen's then-seasonal non-career position with the USPS. From 1989 through 1997, they did extensive and detailed pack evaluations for The Backcountry Llama Newsletter. Despite Gwen's transition to full-time career employment with the USPS in 1996, packing was still their primary pursuit, with driving (for Dusty's conditioning) not far behind. Virtually all of their trail time was without other humans or llamas along — Dusty was an exceptional partner. They packed thousands of trail miles together in every western state except Alaska.

What was Jim doing all this time? Mostly packing short distances at slow speeds into nice fishable lakes not-to-far-from-trailheads because first Spiritus and then Sydney were just not all that swift. Syd was an improvement and sure looked the part, towering above Dusty by comparison, but he also just wasn't up to speed. Both were gelded for their unsatisfactory performance, and we both acquired yet another area of emphasis — figuring out what made some llamas good, some llamas great (like Dusty), and others, well, suck. AND applying that to the realities of selecting breeding stock ... which was by this time even more outrageously expensive.

Fortunately all that happened when it did, because thanks to The Bank of Mom and Dad, we were finally able to shop for a female llama. One. We told everyone that as soon as we bought, the $15K-and-up prices would plummet. Sure enough, that's exactly what happened. But as Sahalie grew and matured, it was clear that we'd developed a better eye and also understanding of crucial performance flaws and attributes in llamas. Sahalie was a huge improvement over Syd and Spiritus, and she kept up with Jim just fine. BUT ... nobody packed female llamas — they were "for breeding"! Well, Gwen (eternal tomboy) was having none of that, and Jim had to either see it Gwen's way and re-evaluate his perspective of Sahalie ... or re-evaluate his perspective of (and relationship with) Gwen. Needless to say, Sahalie hit the trail in 1993 and was Jim's go-to and much appreciated packing partner for the remainder of her life. Jim's article on his experience packing with a female llama for The Backcountry Llama Newsletter in the August 1994 isue and subsequent championing of the cause created first a great deal of consternation followed by a slow but unstoppable shift to where we are today — accepting that female pack llamas are completely capable pack llamas, and even more desirable than males or geldings for some people. Thanks to Jim and Sahalie, several commercial outfitters ran or still run all-female strings, and organizations had to backpedal their initial attempts to ban female llamas from trail trials and competitions.

From problem llama rehab to hands-on rescue

And it was a good thing for llamas that Jim and Sahalie pioneered packing female llamas when they did. As we predicted, the price of llamas peaked in early 1990 and then fell like a tank. Female llamas "only for breeding" were now worse than good for nothing because (1) they ate and (2) they "only" made more llamas, which also ate. However, helping female llamas' acceptance in the backcountry was just a drop in the bucket — anyone who has llama packed will tell you that many if not most llamas of either sex don't cut it on the trail.

We had been taking in problem male llamas for rehab training ever since that second spitty, defensive boarder llama, and it was a no-brainer that we were among the first to identify the need for llama rescue.

Llama rescue, indeed! There was no such thing. Yet. We got personally involved at the ground level, made a significant and loud stink about it with the breeders (who just continued to make more llamas), and started the LANA Lama Lifeline (with Eva LaMar) as a committee. We were told outright by most of the LANA BOD that it was NOT acceptable for appearances sake to have "llama rescue" as anything more than a semi-secret committee, so we then broke off in the year 2000 to form the first 501.c.3 nonprofit llama rescue organization, Llama RescueNet. No more time for llama shows and social gatherings for us! Llama RescueNet quickly became national in scope, rescued and rehomed several hundred llamas, and just as quickly shrank to the western US, then regional and then increasingly local. Support for and interest in rescue had mushroomed and multiple other groups sprang up nationwide. The genie was out of the bottle; that part of our job was done.

We got older and wiser

People get older. So did we. Hands-on rescue became increasingly exhausting and our resources, like everyone's, were finite ... and we found the limits! But, how do you say no?

At one point in the summer of 2003, we had 50 llamas on our 20-acre property, most from two large emergency rehoming situations. Our own llamas — our valued, carefully selected Classic pack llama breeding herd — were not getting the attention they deserved. Giving them up was a nonstarter. The lack of any Classic pack breeding stock, let alone high-performance pack breeding stock of any kind, continued to be painfully clear, and we knew we owed it to our llamas and to future llama packers to see that their uncommon and proven working genes were not lost.

This was our wake-up call. We had to (1) get some boundaries, and (2) figure out how to continue passing along the unique and important knowledge we had gained from 17 years of rehabbing llamas with a range of problem and dangerous behavior. With both reluctance and a great sense of relief, Llama RescueNet was disbanded. Our ongoing contribution to rescue and rescue prevention is free llama behavioral consultation for anyone who needs it. Judging from the constant flow of emails we receive, that was a sound choice.

Back on track ... and the trail

Our herd numbers have returned to fluctuating in the mid-twenties, and although we spent a lot of time and financial resources on llama rescue that could have gone towards saving more Classic llama genetic resources, we still succeeded in preserving some important traits and ancestry in our Classic llama breeding herd. Throughout our various detours into other aspects of llama welfare and activities, we maintained herd numbers and bloodline diversity. We could see that the few other pack llama breeders around were not only failing to focus on sustainable genetics, but they were all actively engaging in painting themselves into genetic corners.

After what seemed an eternity, in 2018 we finally retired from "those other jobs" to realize our goal of enjoying, raising and packing with llamas full-time. And we also began another extensive, important project — replacing the aging house thatover the years we've realized is plagued with far too many poor construction techniques and materials to salvage. But we've learned something — we're doing it on a timeline that prioritizes our llamas and other animals!

As from the beginning, we continue to delve daily into the less tangible and yet supremely important realm of our llamas' minds. We want to become the best possible friends and companions to each one according to the needs of his or her personality (llama-ality?). Having more time has definitely turboboosted this part of our journey!

Being free from full-time employment is also allowing us to improve our educational offerings as well. Helping people and llamas get on the same page is something we both love to do, and that our llama and human students greatly appreciate.

As a result of these ongoing efforts to truly understand llamas as they are, and to help them be understood by other humans in turn, we offer you this evolving website, books and seminars through Lost Creek Llamaprints, and the also-evolving Get Connected! clinics and hands-on educational opportunities here on the farm.

And that is where we are today — learning, growing, and enjoying llamas!

Llamas truly complete our existence.