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Looking across the pastures to the south and west you see the great snowy peaks known as the Three Sisters. Early Oregon settlers named them Faith, Hope and Charity, but they are now less idealistically called North Sister (10,094 feet), Middle Sister (10,054) and South Sister (10,354). Behind a sturdy pole fence in one of the pastures is a herd of llamas. They go together pretty well, those tranquil mountains and these stately, long-necked animals. The first glimpse of them together is unforgettable.
Llamas are among the world's best pack animals. The trails in the Three Sisters wilderness area and nearby wilderness areas are among the finest in Oregon, or about as good as you can find anywhere. The combination is irresistible; when you look at the llamas you automatically think about hiking over those forest paths with a llama to carry your pack.
The pastures are on the Richard and Kay Patterson ranch just outside the town of Sisters in the Cascade Range of central Oregon, about 150 miles southeast of Portland. The Three Sisters area at the base of the three peaks lies west of town, and it contains 240 miles of mountain trails leading to lakes, meadows, waterfalls and campsites. To the south of the Three Sisters area is Crater Lake National Park, with more trails into more remote country, and to the north the Mt. Washington wilderness impinges on the Mt. Jefferson wilderness. This is probably more scenery than is really necessary, a long, narrow strip of magnificent mountain country, uninhabited and roadless, approachable only on foot or by pack animal. It is a parklike region, and while the mountains are not as high or as steep as the northern Cascades or the Rockies, they seem to rise straight up from the flatland.
"We love llamas," says Richard Patterson, indicating 350 of them scattered over the pastures. "We'd like to build up to 500 or 600 llamas. We currently have about 200 babies a year, all born between six in the morning and four in the afternoon. We are making genetic studies and are already beginning to improve the breed, but we want to do more research in this direction."
Patterson began working with animals at 15, when his father, a machine-tool manufacturer, and he started raising Arabian horses in Ohio. He acquired a bachelor of science degree in biology from Denison University, and a masters in business administration from the University of Akron, then put in nine years in the machine-tool business before he was able to devote himself to both horses and llamas.
Actually, he first devoted himself to the guanaco, an ill-tempered relative of the llama, which itself is a relative of the camel and a native of Peru. Patterson soon switched to the more tractable llama. When he moved to Oregon in 1972 he had about two dozen. He now has the largest herd in the U.S. And while the principal business of the ranch is raising Arabians, the sight of all those llamas gives rise to a lot of questions. Patterson answers them with the zeal of a missionary. He is a tall, hearty individual who delivers a steady flow of llama information as he opens and closes gates or opens bales of hay. "I never lie to my llamas," he says. "I never call them unless I have something for them. And I talk in one tone of voice, and I always bring them hay, and they always know what to do."
He leans over the gate and yells, "Llamas, llamas! Come on, llamas!" Then he adds, "Come on, girls!" explaining that this group consists entirely of females. About a quarter of a mile away, a few animals gradually bunch together at an intersection of two pastures, as though holding a meeting or waiting for everybody to catch up. Then they take off toward Patterson, running fast along a fence beneath a screen of pines. They stay so closely together they suggest a distant view of a bunched horse race. When they reach the main gate most of the llamas stop a few feet away, while half a dozen approach Patterson and his visitor. Approach is not the right word. A llama you have never seen before will walk right up to you and push its nose against your cheek, looking you right in the eye. It might be an endearing gesture, except that llamas have a haughty, disdainful expression, and as they step back, with their long necks extended and their heads in the air, they call to mind Margaret Dumont affronted by some gross impropriety in a Marx Brothers comedy. And when a llama rises unexpectedly from deep grass and stares at you fixedly, he suggests nothing so much as the Loch Ness Monster.
Found originally in the highlands near Lake Titicaca, the llama (Lama glama) is closely related to the vicuna, guanaco and alpaca, though bigger. Llamas weigh 300 to 350 pounds on the average and stand about 3� feet high at the back, but their heads extend two feet higher, and their long ears, which they can project forward or backward—and wiggle one at a time or in unison—make them seem taller than they are. They seem to think they are more majestic than they appear to be. Llamas have no upper teeth in front, and as they draw near, chewing their cuds and looking superior, they have the sort of dignity and bearing you might attribute to an elder statesman who does not know he has lost his upper plate.
Llamas are nevertheless unequaled as packing companions in the wilderness. They can withstand heat, rain and cold and can work at all altitudes. Two summers ago a 23-year-old Oregon backpacker named Craig McKay set out with an untrained llama to walk the Oregon segment of the Canada-to- Mexico Pacific Crest Trail. It winds for 359 miles around the flanks and sometimes over the crests of mountains, with a labyrinth of side trails leading to rivers or lakes. The llama (called Fernando) carried supplies in deerhide packbags that McKay had made; McKay toted a knapsack with his camera, compass, maps, diary and warm clothing. They started north at a point west of Klamath Falls, where the trail crosses a highway. "It was late afternoon, and it looked like rain," McKay recollects, "so we got off the pickup and started up the trail in a hurry to make camp before the storm. Fernando was no trouble at all."
Through a gradual climb in a dry country of low wooded ridges, the trail led to Sky Lakes, jewel-like pools in a silent alpine forest, and into the Seven Lakes Basin, 7,600 acres of lakes and meadows, famous for its wild roses and huckleberries. One branch of the trail climbs to 7,582 feet. "We could make 10 miles a day if we wanted to," McKay says, "including a summit." But he planned to spend two months covering most of the 359 miles, so they usually went slowly. Beyond Crater Lake, where the trail passes near the 2,000-foot-deep crater—about 50 miles on their way—McKay picked up speed. The volcano that produced Crater Lake also created the Pumice Desert, with cracked brown soil, no grass, no running streams and only occasional shade where lodgepole pines poke through the rock. The August days were so hot that McKay decided to cross it at night. "We started at sunset, when the sky was still light," he says, "and we kept going all night. There was just enough light to see by, and there was a meteor shower. By morning we were in green country again. Fernando went right through without stopping. But I don't think he would have done it by daylight."