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    Llama Love | Fall 2011 Out Here Magazine

    Llama treks range from easy to difficult and include wooded trails and creek crossings.

    Gentle pack animals make hiking more fun

    By Rob Payne
    Photography by Steven Bridges

    When Sandy Sgrillo left Miami’s fast-paced life to fulfill her dream of mountain living in East Tennessee, she planned to support herself by starting a magazine.

    As she was getting situated in her new life, Sandy took a guided llama trek into Smoky Mountain National Park, a place where she had vacationed many times and felt comfortably at home. It was there, hiking in the shady forest with the gentle, quiet, South American cousin to the camel that she realized her future was in pack animals, not publications.

    She had fallen in love with the llamas and was confident she could create a business that combined her loves for llamas and nature.

    “I love to hike and I love animals. I didn’t know (whether) it would work,” she recalls. “I just knew I would give it my all — plus 50 percent.”

    She started with one llama and gradually added to her herd, learning about buying and training from other llama owners. She now has 11 llamas and two alpacas.

    When she launched Smoky Mountain Llama Treks in 2001 in Sevierville, Tenn., she kept her regular job and scheduled guided hikes on her days off. By the third year, her business was robust enough for her to quit her job, and by the fifth year, thanks to enthusiastic marketing of her unique venture, it was highly profitable.

    “I mailed photos of the llamas to lots of newspapers and magazines throughout the South,” she says, “and people seem to love them almost as much as I do.”

    On the Trail

    Rosemary Macek, of Lakeland, Fla., was looking for fun activities for her children when she discovered Sandy’s llama treks.

    “It is so peaceful and serene on the sides of those mountains, walking along those streams. I love the serenity but I also love the fun,” she says. “I could find serenity hiking trails by myself but the llamas make me laugh and they are happy to carry all my things for me. I really bonded with Peanut — he’s such a stinker and always full of energy.”

    Indeed, most of her customers get friendly with the llamas very quickly. Even if a trekker starts out afraid — a common misperception is that they spit; they may spit at each other when fighting for dominance, but they rarely spit at people — they soon give in to the llamas’ gentle charms, and in less than 30 minutes, most are hugging their furry hiking companion.

    Customers can choose their own llama from her website before they arrive to hike. Or Sandy will match each trekker with the perfect llama upon their arrival. Repeat customers often ask for “their” llama from their earlier trip — and just as often want to be introduced to, and fall in love with, a new llama.

    Treks are limited to 12 hikers or less and the time and distance depends on which hike you choose. The Bears Den Trail, classified as “easy,” is a 5-mile, five-hour trek along a flat wooded trail with small creek crossings. The Stairway to Heaven Trail, ranked as “moderate to difficult,” is a 2-mile, two-hour trek up steep hills, across rocky spots and water. It leads to a swinging suspension bridge over a cave with a 60-foot waterfall.

    Llamas, with their gentle nature, confidently navigate bridges, steep inclines, and other challenges. They have, after all, historically have been used as pack animals because of their docile personality, ability to learn, and adaptability to a variety of environments.

    And with their soft, two-toed footpads — not hooves like horses or cows — llamas have little impact on the Smoky Mountain terrain.

    Before trekking, Sandy shows each hiker pictures of the poisonous plants along the way: rhododendron, mountain laurel, and dog hobble. Though they add to the scenic beauty of the mountains, just a mouthful can kill a llama before the end of the hike. Trekkers let the llamas graze along the trail — and drink from the clear, cool mountain streams — as long as they avoid the deadly plants.

    Sandy’s treks aren’t just for summer; she schedules them any time of year.

    “The snow treks are some of my favorites,” she says. “There is nothing like coming up on a meadow just after a fresh blanket of snow. It feels like you are first person to ever see that piece of heaven on earth.”

    The only trek she won’t do anymore is the overnighter.

    “I decided the day trips were enough to do what I want to do: introduce folks to llamas while enjoying the beautiful Smoky Mountains,” she says. “Besides, I prefer sleeping in my own bed. After all, it is my dream I’m living.”

    Rob Payne’s llama companion on his Smoky Mountain trek was Afrika.
    **Editor’s note: since this story was published, Sandy Sgrillo has sold her llama hiking business.