'We're going on a llama what?'

October 10, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

SHARPSBURG -- It's a crisp fall morning, and you're bicycling along the tree-shrouded Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath, reveling in solitude, marveling at glimpses of red foliage and the golden and dull-yellow leaves of cottonwoods, elms and sycamores.

The thinning tree-cover allows glances at the rippling Potomac River. Maybe, you hope, you'll spook a white-tailed deer or spot a beaver in this remote stretch of the still-damp, leaf-covered towpath in lower Washington County.

Then you glance ahead, and here come some hikers -- and their . . . llamas?

Whoa! These are the Appalachians, where the deer and the red fox roam. These are not the Andes, home of the Incas and their traditional beast of burden, the llama.

But sure enough, you discover after chatting with these walkers, you're meeting Bosco, Magellan and Harpo, and four more llamas, all purposefully striding along, some with packs on their backs carrying lunch -- marinated chicken sandwiches, little containers of potato and fruit salads and chocolate chip cookies.

You've found one of the more off-beat aspects of leisure-time life in Western Maryland these days -- a bed-and-breakfast inn with a different idea for the Mid-Atlantic region -- llama hikes.

Inn owners Annette Thaler and her husband, Horace Stillman, led their first llama trek along the canal towpath four years ago after they opened their 1910 Victorian-style house here as a bed and breakfast. They were inspired by a llama hike they took out West.

"It just sort of happened," said Ms. Thaler, a collector of hats, baskets and things llama -- all prominently displayed in her inn.

"We didn't move here to open a bed and breakfast or to have llamas. We couldn't have planned it better."

The couple became enchanted by llamas several years ago after stumbling upon one at a petting zoo in Prince George's County. They soon found themselves raising and breeding llamas and have a herd of 16 -- including three that are expecting, said Ms. Thaler, a caterer who works in nearby Frederick and prepares hike lunches.

These regal animals have become part of the charm of Ground Squirrel Holler, a 2 1/2 -story inn nestled among trees and gardens on a 5-acre tract near the Antietam National Battlefield. Guests are free to lounge on a deck and watch the llamas.

"Llamas are nice stress-relievers," said Virginia Christensen, administrator for the Nevada-based Llama Association of North America.

"People who are stressed and own llamas don't mix cocktails; they go out and sit in the pasture and watch llamas graze," she said.

Llamas, typically found in the rugged Andes Mountains of South America, have become popular in the United States in recent decades. They number about 70,000 in this country. Most are in the Western states, where llama hiking and camping excursions are more common.

These sure-footed and undemanding animals were initially imported into the United States from South America in the 1930s, but most of the population now has been bred and raised here, Ms. Christensen said.

Like Ms. Thaler and Mr. Stillman, most people who raise llamas have a "deep love for them," she added. Llamas require little maintenance -- some occasional toe clipping -- and are grazers, but they eat about one-third of what a horse eats, she said.

Many people tend to be leery of llamas because they have this "bad reputation of spitting and kicking," said Mr. Stillman, an elevator installer who during the week commutes to and from his job in the Virginia suburbs of Washington.

"Llamas are really gentle animals," he said. "They don't spit unless you get in their face."

The llamas made their first fall outing of the year starting Oct. 1, accompanied by eight hikers from Baltimore, Rockville and Virginia.

Hikers did receive some advice, of course: Let go if a llama runs. They won't run far -- they're herd animals and prefer to stick together. Turn them in circles if they get jumpy -- it calms them down. And the towpath right of way belongs to bicyclists and hikers.

This was all old hat to Jane Stern, a Baltimore teacher, who was among the repeat visitors and didn't hesitate to take the reins.

"Each time, I bring a new group of friends, and they love it," says Ms. Stern, who lives in Randallstown.

Among the friends joining Ms. Stern was Alma Brown, a Baltimore school principal, on her first llama hike. "She dared us not to come," Ms. Brown says. "I said, 'We're going on a llama what? We're going to do what?' "

Like Ms. Brown, Marjorie Hunt, a retired Baltimore school administrator, was won over by the gentle, fuzzy animals. "I never thought I'd be walking a llama," Ms. Hunt says. "I might have to try it again, though -- it's very different."

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