Arriving in bliss with the llamas and our dogs, high in the John Muir Wilderness, we chose a relatively off the beaten path lovely lake to set up camp for our week. While the Kearsarge Pass trail gives access to both the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail and thus sees lots and lots of backpackers this time of the summer, Matlock Lake is a hidden gem. We are the only ones here. It is in a basin surrounded by gnarled weather bent White pines and granite outcroppings against a backdrop of jagged minarets. From here we can explore Flower Lake, Gilbert Lake, Heart Lake, and Bench Lake.
Packing with llamas gives us some luxuries backpacking must deny, such as a commodious tent, extra thick sleeping mats, a hammock, a table and two low Crazy Creek chairs, my small inflatable boat the “H.M.S. Sassenatch” launched summers ago on Crabtree Lake into Bench Valley, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables and other delectables.Feeling immeasurable gratitude for all their exertions in making this possible, I wanted to offer the llamas something in exchange. Down by the banks of the lake I saw a wonderful garden of fresh green bunch grass, their favorite. I could liberate them from their stake out line, up the required 200 feet from the lake, and let them enjoy an hour of grazing while I paddled across Matlock Lake in my little boat on a reconnaissance mission.
Paddling H.M.S. Sassenatch with Beau and Tashi on Matlock Lake
Jim had warned me that that he had seen Kalmia Polyflora,a toxic form of heather, the same noxious neurotoxin that had killed Llao Llao’s grandmother Hopi on a pack trip many years ago. I had seen a bit of that plant down by the lake but felt that there was so much good bunch grass available for the llamas that they wouldn’t eat it, especially if they were only allowed to graze there at the lakeside for an hour.
Last night we climbed into our tent early, read for awhile, buttoned Tashi and Beau into their bright red fleece sleeping jamis and fell fast asleep. That is, until I was awakened by my muse to write ” The Zen of Llamapacking in the Wilderness” as Jim and the dogs snored on. I finished writing just before turning out my headlamp to go back to sleep. But not quite! I heard a disturbing noise. Was it a llama choking and sputtering? I knew it could be the worst. Terrified, I pulled on my camp mocs and jacket, and rushed out of the tent to discover my worst fears realized.
Llao Llao was frothing at the mouth, just like his grandmother Hopi had done before succumbing to paroxysms of neuromuscular trauma and death. OMG. At least this time I had fully stocked our llama emergency first aid kit and was prepared with activated absortive charcoal, a camelback and tube for intubating a poisoned llama, as well as an injectable bio-sponge to absorb toxins from the gut.
At first, so chagrined that I had not heeded Jim’s admonition, and dreading the inevitable “I told you so.” I hastily mixed the granulated charcoal in water in the camelback and tried to administer it by myself to the downed llama. As soon as I approached Llao Llao with the hose to intubate him, he got to his feet and I knew I couldn’t wrestle 325 lbs of even a sick llama by myself.
I had no choice but to swallow pride and wake up Jim for help. Torn between terror about losing Llao Llao and dreading Jim’s reprisals, I called out imploringly to him. Aroused, he snarled, “I knew it!” but pulled on his pants and shoes and came to my side. Realizing we had to figure out a way to immobilize Llao Llao’s head and incredibly strong neck, I haltered him and led him to a large granite rock, pulled his head down onto it, wrapped the lead rope under and around the boulder and handed the rope to Jim to immobilize him while I tried to get the hose down his throat and into his stomach, not his lungs. Not easy at all, as naturally he fought with all his might and when I did snake the tube in he tried to grind it up with his molars. He didn’t try to bite my hand inside his mouth per se, but I did get some cuts but somehow managed to pump quite a bit of the bladder full of charcoaled waters into him. We released his head and watched for awhile, until we figured there was nothing more to do for him but pray. Charcoaled water all over my clothes and feet, I looked like a refugee from a coal mine.
Jim couldn’t resist telling me that I had shown way too much hubris. Meekly, I replied that I thought it was misguided compassion more than stubborn pride. Nonetheless, deeply sobered, I realized it was definitely time to practice, to breathe, to meditate, to embrace humility and calm, not get feisty and defensive. So, exhausted, we returned to our tent and fell back into deep slumber.
The following morning at daylight we checked on our patient and to great relief found him standing and even tentatively chewing his cud. To be extra safe, remembering Hopi,’s prolonged fatal poisoning ordeal, we repeated the procedure this time with the orally injectable bio-sponge. The whole drama was such a practice opportunity! Breathing in my humiliation, breathing gratitude that a potential tragedy had been averted, and that Llao Llao would not die, I realized that compassion and gratitude must be tempered by good judgement and common sense.
Confirming the crisis had passed, I was able to feed and water the llamas then stake them out far from the lake and the heather. Assured they were cared for, secure and safe, we were able to actually take a great day hike, climbing to the top of spectacular Kearsarge Pass at 11,804 ft. Surrounded by jagged minarets, we found a new vantage point overlooking our breath-takingly beautiful high Sierra world!