L L A M A-TREKKING MONTANA'S CONTINENTAL DIVIDE
Story by Cindy
Ross as it appeared in the
March/April 1997 "MONTANA Magazine," photos by Bob
Reprinted with the
permission of Cindy Ross and Montana Magazine.
Part I....This is the first of a two-part series
chronicling the experiences of a couple who trekked the Continental Divide Trail through
Montana, accompanied by their two very young children, a good friend, and six stalwart
|WE WERE JUST SETTLING
INTO CAMP AFTER HIKING OUR SECOND FULL DAY ON Montana's Continental Divide Trail, when we
saw the riders coming from the opposite direction.
Last summer's two-month hike was only one
leg of our 3,100-mile odyssey on the National Scenic
Continental Divide Trail. Every year or two we drive out from Pennsylvania with our babes
and beasts to hike a 500-mile stretch and work on fulfilling our dream.
Only 48 hours into the hike and already
we had our share of challenges: reading guidebook data backwards since it was written for
those traveling in the opposite direction, and no blazes or signs marking the trail. The
first day we had asked directions from a local who had lived in the area for thirty years
and he misdirected us.
We lost the trail around Delmoe Lake and
were forced to scramble up a cliff. Steep slopes don't pose much of a challenge for
regular backpackers but we were traveling with a string of llamas, who carried our
supplies and three- and five-year-old children. A mid-size llama (350 pounds) can carry
between sixty and one hundred pounds and, like us, the better shape they are in, the
easier the heavier loads are to handle. Llamas can negotiate even the rockiest trails, but
as soon as it gets so steep that we need our hands to climb, they are forced to leap, and
it is much easier to leap without one hundred pounds of gear strapped to your back. And so
my husband, Todd, and our hiking companion, Bob Riley, unloaded all the llamas' panniers
and carried them up the escarpment, in their arms, in the rain.
"Hey! How's the trail around Whitetail Reservoir?" we asked.
"Marshes are as
deep as your hips. High as a horse's belly," they replied. We were skeptical.
headed?" they asked. "Canada."
They laughed. It was 500 miles away.
"Where'd you start?" they queried further.
"Homestake Pass from 1-15." Ten miles ago.
They laughed even harder. "Keep your sense of humor in the bog," they advised,
and rode off.
NO EASY FEAT
And it was Bob's fiftieth birthday on
such a day. You've got to find pleasure where you can under these conditions so we
planned a surprise party. I had baked a rich pound cake before departure. We strung up
balloons with dental floss in an arch inside our tent and called him over to sing and open
presents. The surprise was on us, however, when he said, "We're celebrating my last
day as forty-nine. Tomorrow is my birthday."
Some sections of the CDTs 961 miles
in Montana are well-marked and maintained: in the four wilderness areas and in Glacier
National Park. In other sections of the seven national forests, there is little traffic,
and the trail frequently tests you.
We continued to be tested that first week
as we came upon newly constructed fences totally blocking the trail. The men took their
axes and wire cutters and created a gate and then put the fence back together. There was
near constant map and compass work. Black cattle hid in the shadows and spooked the
daylights out of our adolescent llamas, who then tried to walk down the trail abreast
instead of in line, repeatedly sounding their warning call. Bob's older, wiser llamas
ignored the cattle.
The land was not extremely
exciting-forests broken by grass and sage flats and marshy meadows. There were signs of
civilization, cabins and gold mines long since abandoned, but other test holes looking
very recent proved there was still "gold in them thar hills."
After a week of challenges, I was
beginning to feel over-tested, but the tiny town of Basin restored us. When we walked
through town, people came out to greet us and ask about our trip. The sweet lady who runs
"The Helping Hand" free second-hand shop brought us a bag of donuts and bananas.
They took pictures of our children perched on top of "the boys," and some angel
asked, "I don't suppose you could use some homemade sticky buns?"
As we walked the eight miles of (,gravel
road out of town, an old logging truck pulled up driven by a Native American mountain man.
He turned off the truck in the middle of the road and said, "You bring those animals
up to my place for the night. My girlfriend just baked bread."
This was just the lift we needed.
Long-distance hiking restores your faith in humanity. At no other time are you in such a
humbled, vulnerable state, and it opens us up to gifts like nothing could in our other,
"safe and secure" lives.
The horsemen weren't kidding about the
bog. I went in up to my waist three times. Many llamas don't care for mud but one in our
string gravitates toward it. To get him out, Todd had to jump in and shove on his rump
while Bob pulled on his rope. We wiped dozens of mosquitoes off our arms in one swipe.
My children were crying softly. Bryce
said he couldn't breathe. Sierra asked if we were going to die. I did the only thing left
and said, "Let's say a quick prayer to keep us safe." Within thirty seconds, a
brilliant, full-arched rainbow appeared across the canyon over a peak, and it hadn't even
been raining. The children's eyes grew wide and they agreed, "We're going to be
This seemed a little coincidental. But
half an hour later, after we were better rested and the rainbow was gone, we traversed the
back side of the knoll and once again headed into the wind. My children again became
frightened. We repeated their prayer and the rainbow reappeared.
The small miracles of a life lived in the
You may wonder what we're doing with such
tiny youngsters in the wilderness. The fact is, long-distance hiking has been a way of
life for us for decades. And now that we have children, the trips include them. The
experiences we have teach us about ourselves and our world, and bond us as a family. Our
children may come to know what hardship is and what it is to be frightened, but they also
experience the joys of sunsets, howling coyotes, swims in mountain lakes, and being with
Mom and Dad twenty-four hours a day. They're learning, at a young age, that one kind of
experience makes the other even more precious.
The trail from Rogers Pass and Flesher
Pass north into the Scapegoat Wilderness rolls along the divide's backbone, mostly above
timberline. The wildflowers were profuse and the wind blew incessantly. It was here that
my children learned what faith in a higher being truly meant. The wind had been getting
unbearable and we needed to brace ourselves with every step. We took our children off
their llamas and Todd carried Bryce in his arms and I held Sierra in front of me as we
walked. As we descended into a saddle, the wind funneled up and flattened us. We lay on
our backs, unable to move. Sierra's Ilama's saddle blew around and dangled under his
belly. He panicked, and we screamed for help at the tops of our lungs. The guys were only
ten yards away, involved in their problems, but they couldn't hear us over the roar of the
wind. We managed to crawl into the scrub brush nearby, and then composed ourselves.
NORTH TO CANADA
The country keeps getting better as you
head north into "The Bob," a wilderness named after the late Bob Marshall, a
"heavy" in the early conservation movement. For fifteen miles, the great Chinese
Wall is your backdrop, a 1,000-foot vertical continuous rock cliff that curves and winds
through the heart of this land.
Horsepackers heavily use this country and
it is better to go later in the season, if possible, to allow the fifteen-foot-wide mud
trail to harden. Llamas are just as sturdy as horses or mules, but their two-toed, padded
hoofs have a much lower impact on the trails than horse hoofs.
The Scapegoat and The Bob are home to the
largest non-park population of grizzlies in the lower 48. As you proceed north toward
Glacier, their density increases. Griz were probably our biggest fear before coming to
Montana to hike. We thought our children would need to be older, adolescent perhaps,
before we could travel safely. But we learned, prior to departure, that our llamas would
likely keep the bears at bay. Park officials said there has never been a bear incident
involving stock in the park, nor with a party larger than three. Our group of five hikers
(plus six llamas) and the amount of chatter and singing we produced, helped keep us safe.
It was difficult to walk in fear in such
a place of beauty. Glacier National Park has been referred to as being the most
astoundingly beautiful place south of Canada, and having walked 7,000 miles in many of our
country's major mountain ranges, I agree.
The park is a jumbled sea of peaks,
knife-edge ridges, and shimmering lakes. Waterfalls and cascades drop thousands of feet.
The land is green and lush with wildflowers and wildlife everywhere. We were able to get
only a few yards from bighorn sheep and snow-white mountain goats.
But no griz. It wasn't that there weren't
any, because other hikers were seeing a half dozen a week. Campsites were being closed in
many areas of the park to minimize danger from the bears. Certainly our llamas sensed the
bears were there somewhere. Normally the llamas grazed, and then rested and chewed their
cuds afterwards, but in the park they stood at attention. They were our guards and they
enabled us to relax and enjoy ourselves. They must have smelled wildness and danger
everywhere, for it was like they were wired with electricity, day and night.
To make such a beautiful lush, green
place requires a lot of precipitation and this part of Montana gets much snow and more
than one hundred inches of rainfall a year. We experienced snow, rain, hail, and sleet in
that hundred-mile stretch through the park. Each child often wore four layers of long
underwear and two layers of thick pile pants and jackets. After a particularly windy
traverse of the divide one day, I asked my son if he was happy out here. He replied, while
crawling on the ground and stuffing his face, "Yes, I love to pick berries."
Children are so resilient.
The weather we had in late summer,
however wet and windy, was nothing compared to the extensive flooding the park had
experienced earlier that season. Thirty-seven bridges had been washed out and trail crews
had had to raft across usually small streams. The park superintendent had wisely advised
us to plan our hike going south to north, reaching the park at the end of the
season, when the water would have receded. Sound advice.
There is a balance out here. There is
order and fairness. If you want wildflowers and waterfalls, you must experience rain. To
appreciate gifts of kindness from people, you have to experience deprivation. To see such
beauty from high mountain passes, you have to push your body to get there, weathering wind
It isn't really hardship. It's just full
living that covers the range of emotion and life. When we top a pass and the world
stretches out below and we're feeling like monarchs accumulating all our gold, my daughter
takes my hand and walks with me and smiles. She knows, too.
The 1988 Scapegoat Wilderness fire that
blew out of control was really a verybeautiful place to
walk. The fire-charred hillsides offered an advantage: unobstructed views of distant peaks
and tremendous wildflowers. The blackened trunks were sculpted by the flames into strange,
curving shapes that made a striking contrast against all that color and light.
|Cindy Ross: is a
freelance writer from Pennsylvania. She has been published in numerous periodicals, and
has authored several books on hiking with children and with llamas.
and children are a natural. Llamas have a keen ability to sense a child's vulnerability,
and they tend to tolerate the abuse doled out by small children. Llamas rarely spit at
humans and usually try to move away from the annoyance. Children are constantly
entertained by their presence and curious behavior, which helps tremendously to combat
boredom on a hike of any length.
child can begin to ride around two or three years old. A medium-sized, in-shape llama can
carry up to a sixty-pound child. An older, trail-wise llama is a good bet, but a very
mellow, gentle disposition is the most important trait for a successful child carrier.
Once a lead rope is on
a seasoned packer, they will follow wherever they are led, even at the pace' of a small
child. Pony saddles do not fit a llama so we use the flexible, wooden-slatted Mt. Sopris
Saddle made in Carbondale, Colorado. We roll closed-cell foam sleeping pads and attach
them to the tops of the panniers and across the back to stabilize the child. This helps
them remain in the saddle should the llama unexpectedly jump. Pony stirrups work well for
older, longer-legged children who are too heavy for their llama to be carrying the
additional weight of panniers and pads.
Use discretion when
leading your llama across rough terrain such as steep slopes, slippery traits, snow, and
various bridges. This goes for encounters with dogs, horses, free-range cows, and more.
When in doubt, take your child off and have them walk.
Rocky Mountain Llama and
Alpaca Association first
sponsored Cindy and Todd and their two children in 1993, when they completed the 470-mile
Colorado Trail that runs from Denver to Durango. RMLA and its members will again be
assisting them on their Continental Divide Trail hike through Colorado in 1998.
Go to Part II Along the Great