GRANBY — When I arrived at Pinetum Farm I found that my hiking companion for the morning would be Stone, a mature fellow with a few gray streaks in his dark locks. He liked to hum as we hiked through the woods — when he wasn’t chomping on pine boughs, maple saplings, and ferns. Stone is one of 12 llamas in the Pinetum Farm herd, and, truth be told, he’s rather blasé about hiking. The chance to browse seems to be what lures him out of the barn.
Dave and Karen Seiffert started keeping llamas in 1994 after earlier adventures with dairy goats and a couple of sheep. Karen uses their soft undercoat for knitting and weaving. After a few years of tending and falling in love with llamas, she and Dave decided to offer llama-accompanied treks on their 50-acre property on the south side of the Holyoke Range.
“Llamas have a personality like a cat,” Karen told the six of us gathered for a hike. “They’re curious and they’ll walk up to you, but then they’ll turn away. By the end of a hike, though, they’ll warm up to you and be happy to be petted and hugged.”
Just don’t try to scratch their heads. “As a prey animal,” Dave said, “they depend on their eyes and ears for protection. They don’t like it when you reach for their heads.” And when llamas are startled or annoyed (mostly with each other), they spit. Stay out of their faces, though, and everyone gets along famously.
In fact, llamas are so gentle and unflappable — and so goofy looking with their split lips, protruding front teeth, and floppy banana-shaped ears — that they are often used as therapy animals. Just being around them makes it hard to feel grumpy or depressed. Karen has even taken one particularly sweet llama, Estee, to visit in nursing homes, where she rode in an elevator.
The Seifferts consider fall to be prime time for hiking with the llamas, although they keep going through the winter if there’s no deep snow or ice. The llamas get July and August off, though, as the heat and humidity pose too much stress for creatures that hail from the chilly uplands of the Andes Mountains.
Just as distantly related dromedary and bactrian camels are called the “ship of the desert,” llamas are sometimes known as the “jeep of the Andes” because they are used as pack animals in the treacherous mountain terrain. Indeed, two llamas in our group of six were fitted with saddles that supported panniers to haul the provisions we each had brought for a “wilderness” cookout. (As the old man of the group, Stone didn’t have to tote a load.)
The hikes tend to take about two hours and neither the pace nor the terrain is terribly challenging. Each of us was paired with a llama and we had leads attached to soft head harnesses to guide them. We did go up and down, and took a few sharp turns in the woods. Because the llamas have a pacing gait and a leather-like patch on the bottom of their two-toed feet, they are extremely sure-footed. Dave cautioned us not to wrap the leads around our hands, as a llama could unintentionally pull us over if it was startled. “As long as you control their heads,” he said, “you’re in charge.”
That was easier said than done with Stone, who was taking full advantage of the smorgasbord of edibles in both the woods and the pasture. There was little that he wouldn’t eat, although the glossy wintergreen underfoot didn’t seem to appeal to him as much as the leaves of deciduous trees. As we neared the crest of the hill, Dave and Karen warned us to keep the llamas from eating mountain laurel, which is one of the few plants that make them sick. Stone was too interested in a spruce bough to notice the laurel. Hiking with a huge herbivore (llamas weigh 250-400 pounds) on a leash was like taking a very big dog for a walk.
Stone and I moseyed along at the rear of our forest caravan. He hummed and browsed, and I enjoyed the sunlight filtering through dappled foliage. His thick fur felt soft and somehow comforting. His utter calm was infectious.
In less than an hour, we reached a clearing in the woods where the Seifferts have built a stone fireplace and set up a picnic table. The llamas were placed in a rustic corral of saplings lashed to tree trunks. As herd animals, they were content standing around together.
Dave quickly built a fire and we unpacked the panniers to get to the hot dogs and hamburgers that Dave would cook for us. The Seifferts don’t have a food vendor’s license but they do provide condiments and bottled water. As we all sat down to lunch, the llamas waited patiently. When we were finished, Dave broke out a bag of feed and we took turns letting the llamas nuzzle the feed out of our hands with their soft split upper lips.
We all went home with the ones who brought us, walking down a woodsy path from the ridge until we came to a broad pasture. The llamas would have happily spent the afternoon grazing on clover, but after a 10-minute pause to indulge them, we continued the hike back to the barn. The other llamas seemed to know we were coming and they poked their heads out open windows to greet the fellow members of their herd. Some of our hiking llamas even went over to nuzzle those that had stayed behind.
Dave led them, one by one, back into the barn, and yet the six of us lingered, not quite willing to let go of the experience. A few hours with the gentle llamas had been a soothing respite from everything: therapy animals, indeed.
PINETUM FARM LLAMAS
Two-hour hikes $20 per person (four person minimum). Reservations required. 7 Harris St., Granby, 413-467-7146, www.pinetumfarm.com