Pacific Crest Trail —

Canada/US international llama packing trip

By Brian Pinkerton

This article was originally printed
in the December 1998 issue of the Llamas and Alpacas, Coast to Coast
the Canadian Llama and Alpaca Association magazine.

The trip took place in August of 1998.

This summer I realized that people’s perception of llamas has changed. In 1981 when we got our first two llamas for hiking it was tough to make time on the trail. We would keep running into hikers with huge packs who would look enviously at the llamas and ask all sorts of questions as very few people had even seen a llama then, much less encountered one on the trail. Each hiker had to have their photo taken with a llama just to prove that they had actually seen one. Last August we were in heading south in Washington State, about half an hour from the Canadian border when we met a group travelling north. The first comment was “I didn’t think you were allowed to bring llamas across the border”.

Hopkins Lake

It began last spring when we were talking with our friend Janet Boyhan of Everson, Washington, who with her husband Tom, do several hundred miles in September every year with their llamas. Janet mentioned that this summer she would like to do the northern section of the Pacific Crest Trail that ends in Manning Park in British Columbia. Her problem was that she couldn’t take her llamas into Canada, as the quarantine restrictions are a little overwhelming. The solution to this was that we decided to meet her at the border with our llamas, and keeping the llamas a good distance apart, transfer our gear into her panniers and then we would hike south with her llamas. She would then take our llamas back to our farm and then return to Washington with our car.

It seemed simple enough, so in July we took a practice run to Manning Park to make sure that we would meet in the correct location. We spent three days and two nights there along with a few other members of the Fraser Valley Llama Club. It was a wonderful time; the weather was perfect, so we were really enthused with the idea of going down into the US with pack llamas.

The section of the trail in Manning Park is mostly in the trees so the scenery is much more spectacular above timberline in Washington state.

Around the middle of August, Janet and her friend Janet Franklin left Harts Pass in Washington and headed north. They brought three llamas with them that have had a lot of experience packing. Minstrel was the youngest and the most inexperienced but even he had hiked about five hundred miles. Panda had the most miles on him, twenty-five hundred miles, while Spyder had a couple of thousand miles on the trail.

Hopkins Lake

Janet had hiked this section of the Pacific Crest Trail twelve years ago, in fact that is when she met her husband. She is a wonderful photographer, as anyone who has seen her slide shows will testify, but on that trip she made one slight error. She took some great photos, but there was no film in her camera. This year she made sure the camera was loaded but the weather didn’t cooperate, as it was cloudy and foggy the whole way so again she didn’t get any photos.

Marie Seabrook, who with her friend Duanne van denBerg, had gone on the July trip again accompanied us to the border, but this time we were able to use six of Marie’s animals which made things much easier for the two Janets as they now didn’t have to return any animals to our farm and could go straight back to the US from Manning Park.

Spyder, one of Janet’s llamas, outside of our tent.

It hadn’t rained for a month, but on the day before we left we had a thunderstorm which produced some much-needed rain. That didn’t look too promising for a trip into the mountains and on the morning we left, sure enough, it was raining. By the time we got up to Manning Park, which is about a two-hour drive, the weather was cloudy with the occasional sprinkle. Heavy enough to put the rain covers on the panniers at one point.

Two Janets at the border

From the parking lot it is about eight miles to the border where there is a great campsite at Castle Creek. It even has an outhouse and a corral. We camped there on the Monday night and the next day, were about to get a bite of lunch and then head off down the trail to meet the two Janets when they arrived. They had made really good time, as there was no reason to stop and enjoy the views as the mountains were socked in.

The two Janets arriving at the border with the three llamas. Marie Seabrook is at the far left.

Janet had made notes on the way up so that we had up-to-date information on where water was still available and where the best camping spots were. She supplied maps with the route marked out so there was no possibility of us getting lost. Of course she wanted us to get her llamas back safely. After going over the route with us and teaching us how to put the saddles and panniers on, it was time to party and celebrate being part of the first Canada/US international llama pack trip.

Transferring all of the gear into each others panniers was quite a project and at one point Marie, who is super organized, said “I can’t stand all this, I’m going back to my tent!” What she didn’t understand was that we knew where things were, we just didn’t know where they were going. We also had fun finding things the next few days. Wednesday morning came and the weather had cleared up, not a cloud in the sky. It only took about four hours to get the tents and camping gear packed up and the panniers weighed and balanced. We suddenly realized that this procedure was going to take a good part of each day and if we were going to make any progress we would have to get up about six o’clock. That actually wasn’t too difficult as the mattresses were pretty thin and the ground was hard.

After the standard photos at Monument 78 at the border we headed up the trail into the US while the two Janets went north to the highway using Marie’s animals. There were three of us, Jane and myself along with a friend, Chris Chow. The trail is well marked and ascends at a steady, but easy, grade. Most of the trail in this area is in the trees, but every once in a while it crosses an avalanche path and you can see the surrounding mountains. As it was sunny and hot, we were quite happy to be in the shade of the trees for most of the day. We only had to go about seven and a half miles so there was no hurry. The idea of this trip was to take lots of time and enjoy the scenery and take lots of photos.

Hopkins Lake

After lunch at Castle Pass, the trail continued up to Hopkins Pass and then descended a bit to Hopkins Lake. This is a beautiful small lake that is half surrounded by steep rocky cliffs. There was a fellow camped there who told us that the fishing was great and that he had caught a fish with every cast. Naturally we hadn’t packed fishing rods. However the llamas enjoyed cooling off at the edge of the lake and soon we had our tents set up. Of course no one could remember where things had been packed and it was usually the sixth pannier before the needed item was located.

We camped by some trees a bit above the lake on the edge of a wonderful grassy meadow where we tethered the llamas. It gets dark early in the mountains and also gets cool so by around 8:30 the warmest place was in our sleeping bags. I was suddenly awakened at 11:30 by the sound of rocks crashing down from the cliffs high above us. Then I heard rocks thudding across the meadow and grabbed the flashlight and hurried outside to check on the llamas. Minstrel was lying there contentedly chewing his cud but I could see three rocks within five feet of him that hadn’t been there earlier. The rest of the night was spent wondering what caused the rocks to come down and whether there would be a repeat.

Hopkins Lake. Jane, Chris, and the llamas are on the far shore.

Two Janets at the border

Next morning we woke to a clear sky and managed to break camp and get the panniers loaded by 10:40. Janet had done a good job of instructing us but this was the first time completely on our own. On leaving the lake the trail heads up the aptly named Devil’s Staircase. Although the trail isn’t steep, the cliffs are and the view from some of the switch backs seemed to be straight down. The trail then stays on the side that provides a magnificent view of the lake and the mountains in the Pasayten Wilderness of Eastern Washington. To the west we could see the Cascades and could even make out the cone of Mount Baker.

The Devil’s Staircase with Hopkins Lake below.

Powder Mountain

Ahead of us the trail wound across the ridge and then descended across some steep rock slides where the view was ignored as we watched our footing very carefully. By the time we got to Woody Pass it had clouded up and was threatening rain but we stopped for lunch and then had a long haul down from the pass and up to the next ridge. The route was much easier after that going across a side hill. We did eight miles that day and around five o’clock got to the spot that Janet had recommended for camping to find a tent already there.

Woody Pass goes through the shoulder of Powder Mountain in the distance.

As it looked like rain we found a spot to camp under some trees which seemed quite protected and put up our tents. Around dusk there was an alarm call from the llamas and a doe and a two-point buck came wandering into camp.

Ground squirrel

During the night we were treated to a thunderstorm which dumped half an inch of rain. Our tents were on a bit of a slope and the combination of slippery sleeping bags and Thermarests resulted in us sliding to the bottom of the tent along with all of the water that had pooled up outside and then flowed into the tents. Luckily our schedule called for a rest day so we managed to get things dried out as the sun came out fairly early in the day. While we were moving the tents a coyote came by.

There were also lots of ground squirrels peeking out of their holes and there were still a fair number of wildflowers but they were past their best. In the afternoon we took a hike to Lower Goat Lake, but soon decided we had better get back as the sky was getting black and we could hear thunder in the distance. Pretty soon we had a display of thunder and lightning and had dinner under a tarp but the rain didn’t amount to much. By midnight there was not a cloud in the sky and all night long we could hear deer coming through the camp.

This pika was quite curious about the llamas.

We woke Saturday morning to low cloud and fog but it had cleared up by about ten. We got packed up and then the trail drops a long way down to Holman Pass. We made really good time, as this was the first time that it was all downhill. It was getting pretty warm and again we were quite happy to be in the trees, After Holman Pass the trail climbs again and we got to Shaw Creek around three o’clock. I was overdue for a chiropractor’s appointment before we left and it caught up to me now. Jane and Chris set up camp while I lay down with back spasms. It was a good place to camp as the llamas had a grassy area right by small pools of water.


The next morning was foggy and cold. The tents and sleeping bags were all damp and there was no sun to dry them out. We only had about five miles to go that day so we slept in until seven o’clock. Just past the camping area there is a “boulder garden” which had lots of good grass for the llamas so we let them graze there while we tried to get some close-up photos of a marmot. Looking up the boulder garden, Jim Peak disappeared into the fog and as the trail wound up a ridge called the Devil’s Backbone we knew that we would be in the fog fairly soon.

This marmot was rather elusive but also wanted to see what was going on.

Foggy Pass

The rest of the day was spent hiking in the fog. Sometimes you could see about fifty feet and sometimes not that far. It was eerily pretty though as the tamarack or larch trees were covered with droplets of moisture. The llamas loved to grab bites of the smaller tamaracks as they passed which of course caused the moisture to flick off the trees onto us. The name on the map in this area is Foggy Pass. They were right. By the time we got to Windy Pass we were all cold and wet and the campsites were not too appealing in the fog.

For some reason, this area is called Foggy Pass.

Janet had mentioned there was a yurt in the area down an abandoned mining road. We envisioned a hippie type of dwelling, full of mice but I went down the road in the fog to see if I could find it. I came to an old log cabin with a big covered porch in front and figured at least we could keep the equipment dry. Just past this cabin I saw the yurt, so I went back up to where Jane and Chris were waiting with the animals and led them back down.

Once they had a look at the yurt, there was no way they were putting up the tents. The yurt is owned by North Cascades Heli Skiing and there is a note on the table saying that you are welcome to use it in an emergency. Jane and Chris decided that it was an emergency as we were all very cold and wet and I had back spasms again. The building is two stories with a wood stove, propane heater, beds, tables and chairs. It is made of canvas around an expanded wooden frame and is about thirty feet across and at least twelve feet high. What luxury and just when we needed it. We didn’t light the stove, as there was not much firewood but certainly appreciated being out of the fog and being dry.

Interior of yurt Interior of yurt

The interior of the yurt was unexpectedly comfortable with thick foam mattresses!

The next morning dawned clear but soon clouded up briefly and by 9:30 the sky was again clear. This was our last day on the trail and the packing up was easy at there were no tents to fold up and as well we were finally getting to know where things went in the panniers. The loads changed a bit each day as the weights changed as supplies were used up and the llamas ate their grain rations.

Leaving Windy Pass

Back up in Windy Pass we let the llamas graze in the meadows and then headed south again. The scenery in this area was spectacular and we didn’t travel too fast as we were stopping to take photos fairly often. Besides it was only five miles to Harts Pass where Janet had planned to camp and then come up the trail to meet us.

Leaving Windy Pass.

Meeting Janet

About half way we could see a couple of people coming north on the other side of a valley and soon we recognized Janet. She and her friend Leah were excited to see us and there was a warm reunion. We passed the cameras to them, as this was the first time we could get photos of the three of us together. When you have a llama lead rope in one hand it is rather difficult to use a camera.

We were excited to Janet and she was very happy to see the six of us!

Nearing Harts Pass

An hour or so later we had arrived at Harts Pass where Janet’s truck and van were parked. After unloading all the gear and putting it into the van, Janet suggested we tie the llamas to some tamarack trees and take a drive up to the viewpoint on Slate Peak. You can drive part way and then the hike up to the top is much steeper than the PCT but the view is worth it. The top of the mountain is 7,488 feet and it seems that you can see forever. In the distance to the north we could see some of the passes we had come through.

As we neared Harts Pass, we could see the tower on top of Slate Peak.

Harts Pass Sign

We had travelled only forty miles but it was certainly a satisfying feeling looking back. There is something special about hiking — with llamas this is where they belong. It gives you a renewed appreciation of the classic llama that is agile, sure-footed and completely at home in the mountains. Thanks to Janet and Tom’s well-trained animals we had every confidence in our llama friends no matter how treacherous the footing looked.

At Harts Pass we naturally had to have our photo taken with the sign.