Lost llama finds his way out of wilderness

BEND — Nickolas, a 10-year-old llama, disappeared during a hiking trip in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, and the 18-day search for him included hikers, forest workers and more llamas. In the end, he wandered out of the forest on his own.

Marilyn Holler was camping with friends above a meadow near Table Lake in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness on Aug. 9.

The campers brought 11 llamas with them. Holler walked into the meadow, to check on the llamas, and saw her llama Nickolas was gone. Holler scanned the meadow’s edges and didn’t see him.

Somehow, Nickolas had gotten free of the tether holding him to the pack. Maybe, Holler thought, he’d gone in search of his regular pack, which remained at home. Holler and her husband, Jess Holler, live south of Prineville and own eight other llamas.

Holler and her friends searched the area for the rest of the day, but they couldn’t find him.

They broke camp Aug. 10 and headed home.

“It was terrible. It was like leaving part of me up there,” Holler said.
The Hollers returned later that week to search the Table Lake area again, staying four days. Marilyn Holler estimated the couple walked about 45 miles during the search.

The search parties posted fliers at trailheads across the forest. Reports came in from hikers, U.S. Forest Service employees and campers. Nickolas had been seen along the trail and on roads in the area.

On Aug. 24, the Hollers were deep in the wilderness, well out of cell phone range. They searched along the Pacific Coast Trail, following a tip that Nickolas was seen in that area. They were going to stay most of the week, but Holler said it felt as if the search there was going to be fruitless. The couple left two days later, earlier than planned.

Once she had cell phone reception, Holler checked her phone and found a dozen messages.

“I knew something was going on,” Holler said.

Many of the messages were from her sister, Fran Latham, describing a search for Nickolas that had begun while the couple was searching the PCT.

Just more than two weeks after Nickolas’ disappearance, a hiker saw the llama near the Allen Springs campground, which sits along the Metolius River.
Latham heard of the report on Aug. 25 and left immediately for the campground.

With friends, Latham searched the campground, walking up and down area roads with Doc, one of Nickolas’ pack mates. Latham hoped Doc would help draw Nickolas out. But after two days of searching, Latham and friends had no luck. Still, Latham said she was happy.

“It was a good feeling because I knew he was OK,” Latham said. “I was totally astonished because he was (near) Camp Sherman. It’s so far from where he was lost. I think he was trying to get home.”

Though Latham and Holler stayed optimistic, there was no certainty Nickolas would survive.

Chris Sabo, trails specialist with the Deschutes National Forest, said staff members had watched for Nickolas, but not everyone thought he’d make it out.

“There was a number of us who thought if it was gone for very long that, yeah, a cougar or something could bring it down,” Sabo said.

Then, the couple loaded two llamas into a trailer and drove toward the Green Ridge fire lookout, which sits above the Allen Springs campground. A volunteer at the lookout had seen Nickolas after the campground sighting, Holler said.

They pulled up to the lookout’s gate, and before they unloaded the llamas, Marilyn Holler heard a noise in the woods. When she turned, she saw Nickolas running toward them. He sniffed the other llamas, his pack mates.

“I just couldn’t believe that after all the miles Jess and I had walked in that wilderness, that he just comes running up to us,” Holler said.

Holler estimated that Nickolas had walked more than 25 miles.

Holler took Nickolas to the veterinarian later that day. He suffered a small puncture wound, probably from some brush. He weighed about 315 pounds when he left the meadow and lost about 40. But Holler expects him to fully recover.

“(The veterinarian) said he was in excellent shape, considering 18 days out there,” Holler said.

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