Updated: Apr 30, 2019
I made some charming new friends at Moose River Farm near Old Forge, NY.
There’s something mysteriously peaceful about looking up at Adonis, his ears slightly curved inward, wispy strands of white hair blowing gracefully in the breeze. He wiggles his soft nose sniffing to learn something about this new human acquaintance who has appeared in his corral this sunny spring day. His large gentle eyes look over at his sidekick Bravo who’s exchanging similar pleasantries with his new friend. Clicking lead ropes onto their halters, we give the two llamas a slight tug and they willingly step along beside us, their soft two-toed feet beating a steady rhythm on the grassy ground.
Adonis steps cooperatively into the wooden shoot used to hold him steady for grooming. This is the first stop on our Llama Trek, as it will give us a chance to begin bonding with the animals, their owner Anne Phinney tells us. As I pull the comb through the llamas’ long luxurious hair and pat the thick springy layers of fleece on Adonis’ back, I can see what she means.
Anne is a sixth grade science and math teacher at the Town of Webb School District in Old Forge. So she takes the opportunity to teach us a bit about llamas before we set off on our trek through the Adirondack forest.
“Llamas are native to the Andes mountain region,” she says. “They’ve been domesticated for hundreds of years for work as pack animals. They’re related to the camel and the wild guanaco.”
She goes on to explain that, “Llama fiber can be used for clothing but is mostly used for utilitarian items like rugs and blankets because alpaca is so much softer and desirable for clothing.”
And that reputation for ill-tempered spitting? It’s undeserved. This only happens when llamas aren’t handled properly when they’re young. Anne says she has never seen Adonis and Bravo spit at anyone since they arrived at Moose River Farm, although she says, “They can look at each other and start to gurgle a little.”
Llamas are not much trouble to care for, Anne tells us. They leave their manure in one spot in their paddock which makes it quick to clean up and it works well as garden fertilizer. They need to be shorn just around their middles to be cool enough in the summer and they need to have their toenails clipped, two chores Anne does herself.
“My llamas eat all the hay they want, graze on grass and are fed a specifically llama formulated pelleted ration that we buy at the feed store,” she says. “The cost of feeding four llamas is equivalent to feeding one horse, so not very expensive when compared to other farm animals.”
Llamas naturally have a distinctive scent, something like popcorn. It’s pleasant enough for people, but Anne says her horses don’t like it. “The horses won’t go near them!”
After 15 minutes of grooming and learning about our llama companions, we set off on our walk down the woodland path. Sunlight streams through the trees leaving dappled shadows on the leaves and yellow wildflowers that cover the forest floor. We walk down a grassy hill, pass a sparkling pond, and then step onto a sandy part of the path.
Suddenly Adonis drops to his knees, folds his feet under him, and rolls over on his back twisting and turning happily scratching and tossing a cloud of dust in the air.
“They love dry sand,” Anne says. “Anything to do away with that nice brushing job.” We all laugh as we watch Bravo throw himself on the ground and join in the fun. After a couple of minutes of dusty frolicking, they’re up on their feet and on their way again, walking beside us.
Anne Phinney, a life-long animal lover, moved to Moose River Farm with her husband Rod 14 years ago. Rod built the house, barn and other structures himself and together they’ve given a home to many animals over the years including dogs, chickens, horses, goats, donkeys, iguanas, tortoises, pot-bellied pigs, and now llamas. She has written stories about her adventures with all of these creatures and more in her books, Finding My Way to Moose River Farm, Living with Animals in the Adirondacks and her newest They Teach Without Words, the Animals of Moose River Farm, (both available from Amazon.)
She first heard of llama trekking through Dakota Ridge Farm in Ballston Spa where she bought her llamas in December 2017. Liking the idea, she decided to offer the experience at her farm just north of Old Forge too. By this summer she plans to add another male and a pregnant female named Bluff who will give birth to her cria next April. All of the adult llamas will be able to trek with visitors and the baby will tag along on short treks.
[Update April 2019: Bluff's baby was born without trouble and is a healthy baby boy.]
As we continue on our trek, we turn down a smaller path lined closely on both sides with young pine trees. The llamas swerve out into the trees brushing their long hair through the branches.
“That’s another thing they like to do,” Anne tells us. “At Dakota Ridge Farm there was one place along the path with prickly tree branches that were covered with llama hair where they had been scratching themselves.”
The path grows steeper, but the sure-footed llamas step carefully down until we reach the river’s edge. A scene as tranquil and idyllic as an Adirondack watercolor painting greets us at the bottom of the path. We stop to admire the sunlight sparkling on the water and absorb the stillness of undisturbed nature.
Walking back toward the farm, Adonis suddenly makes a cooing gargling sound in his throat. “They hum like that when they feel anticipation,” Anne tells us. “He’s anxious to get home to his hay.”
“They make another sound -- like the one you hear on the radio when there’s a test of the emergency alert system -- to sound an alarm. We’ve heard the llamas do it when they see a deer come into the yard or our potbellied pig gets too close to their pen.”
When we arrive back at the farm, we unlatch the lead ropes and let Adonis and Bravo loose in the horse paddock. They scamper, romp, roll and pull up a few mouthfuls of grass to munch, joyful to be off-duty after their hour-long hike.
Anne retired from teaching this year and looks forward to spending more time offering llama treks mostly year round. She says the llamas love cold weather and winter treks offer scenic sights in the Adirondacks too, but spring, fall and most of July will also be available. In August, black flies will keep the llamas off the trails. I think most people would agree with them.
She can create a customized trek for any group. She has a shorter less strenuous path that takes about an hour to walk which is ideal for young children and older adults. She can also design a longer hike for people who want a more athletic experience. For long treks the llamas can wear saddle bags and carry water bottles and any picnic lunches trekkers may want to bring along. Other animals like the two donkeys Frankie and Bing and the three frisky goats can also join the trek.
The llama treks will cost $25 per llama. So if a family of two parents want to bring their children and take turns leading two llamas, the fee would be $50 for all. If a group of four friends each want to lead a llama, they would pay $25 each. Now that Anne has fallen in love with llamas, her herd is likely to grow quickly. So there will be plenty of fleecy friends to go around.
(This article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of ACCENT Monthly magazine, published by the Utica Observer-Dispatch.)