In the high desert of southeastern Oregon, surrounded by rolling hills of dry grass, rocky ridgelines and juniper forests, Lisa Wolf holds a pool noodle. Once neon green, it has been faded by the sun and dulled by dust during its unusual employment as a training tool for pack llamas.

Lisa waggles the noodle at a rebellious llama. It chews its cud, looks down its long nose at her and doesn’t budge. But after a few gentle taps on its rump, the llama begrudgingly trots through a gate and into a pen at Burns Llama Trailblazers outside of Burns, Oregon. Here, Lisa and her partners raise and train pack llamas, shaping these stubborn but capable animals into reliable partners for backcountry exploration in this vast and wild region of the Pacific Northwest.

Lisa is no stranger to this kind of land — or trekking ample distances through it. She once hiked into the remote Green Craggies in southwestern Oregon and discovered a new plant species, much to the surprise of the Forest Service who considered the area only accessible by helicopter. Even as a young girl, Lisa was restless, and she ached to set out on her own into the backcountry.

“I wanted out,” Lisa says. “My family had a 50-acre farm. It had a river running through it. It had woods, it had fields, and I would go sneak off. I’d just walk up the river toward the mountains because there weren’t any people around.”

With this combination of moxie and adventure in her veins, it’s fitting that after roaming as far north as Canada and as far south as the Mojave, her path brought her here to Burns, surrounded by tenacious creatures like herself. Llamas are extremely adept animals, but without training they’ll often refuse tasks. Lisa immediately connected with the animals and set out to build something with them.

Each llama is different. They all have their different personalities, and I have to learn how to work with and teach each personality,” Lisa says. “I do not know the llama’s hearts completely, but I work with them enough to have a pretty good idea of what’s going on.

Lisa Wolf

The core mission of Burns Llama Trailblazers is simple: to help people and llamas work together. In addition to raising and training their own herd, Lisa and her partners provide mentorship and training for other owners, sometimes charging only travel expenses. The Trailblazers also lead training trips, provide gear transport services and guide llama-assisted backcountry trips and day hikes in the region.

“God took all the spare parts and put ’em together — and guess what he got? A llama. These llamas we work with, their job is to interact with humans. And my job is to teach ’em how to do that and be functional in the backcountry. Do what I tell ’em when I tell ’em.”

A trained llama is an ideal companion for any application that involves walking long distances and carrying heavy loads. They are intelligent, work well together in groups and follow the instructions of a trusted human. A llama can carry heavy weight and is quiet, very agile and athletic. Their large padded feet are sure-footed on unstable land — which is ideal for the variable terrain near Burns.

“Each llama is different. They all have their different personalities, and I have to learn how to work with and teach each personality,” Lisa says. “I do not know the llama’s hearts completely, but I work with them enough to have a pretty good idea of what’s going on.”

During training, Lisa traverses the wide-open landscape of lichen-covered boulders, bitterbrush and ancient juniper trees with a group of young llamas. As the llamas walk with Lisa, they learn to cross hazards such as mud and fallen trees, to walk in a group without being distracted by the edible bushes and how to conquer their fear of tall grass, gusty wind or standing water.

“Even if I’ve been there and I’ve trodden that path into dust, there’s going to be something new. Following the coyote tracks or watching what the deer are doing. Sometimes the ravens come to talk or I’m just keeping track of the wintertime, watching how every day the eagles fly north at four o’clock in the afternoon. There’s always something different.”

Seeking out the empty, wild places of the American West is a romantic and compelling story — but it’s also an exhausting and lonely pursuit. Walking alone across valleys and mountains and deserts for years forces one to be patient and relentless. It cultivates a quiet maturity that is uniquely separate from the bustle of humanity. As Lisa roams the rugged landscape with the llamas, she listens to the juniper trees around her.

“Why do I do it? For me it’s a kind of freedom that I really enjoy,” she says. “I can go if I want to. There’s always something new to learn, and there’s always something new to explore.”

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