Bob Jonas and Sarah Michael have carried thousands of pounds on their backs during a lifetime of hiking through Alaska, Idaho and other rugged wilderness areas.
In summer 2016, the couple decided to give themselves a break and let others do the backbreaking work. The others — two llamas named McShane and O’Reilly — ferried tents, personal items and food on a seven-day, 50-mile trek from Trail Creek Summit through the Pioneer Mountains, saving some of the wear and tear on Jonas and Michael’s 75- and 71-year-old knees.
It worked out so well, in fact, they decided to do another walkabout this summer, an even more ambitious trek that covered more than 500 miles and six mountain ranges over 81 days. The trip, which went through the Smoky, Sawtooth, Salmon River, Boulder, White Cloud and Pioneer mountain ranges, was labeled “a trip of a lifetime” by Sawtooth Wilderness Ranger Ed Cannady.
“This is a walkabout, not your classic Sun Valley trek,” said Jonas, who estimated they’d be knocking off 10 to 20 miles a day. “But what an experience! How could anyone say, ‘No!?’ We live here—this is something we couldn’t pass up.”
Jonas, who resembles Abraham Lincoln with his gaunt face, beard and gentle smile, asked people to make pledges for each mile, with the money going towards Wild Gift, an organization he started years ago to develop young entrepreneurs’ problem solving and brainstorming skills as they trekked through Idaho’s wilderness.
And he used the knowledge he’d accumulated during careers as a fishery biologist, mountain guide and ski outfitter to construct an itinerary and 10 food resupplies, including two that would be airlifted into the Middle Fork of the Salmon River country.
The day following the Fourth of July, Jonas and Michael met up with llama packer Dennis Duenas, a lean, muscled man with a raven’s mop of unruly hair and a Tom Selleck mustache, near Richardson Summit in the backcountry west of Hailey.
The couple weighed bags containing Tasty Bites pesto pasta and salmon, seven grain rice, an organic hot flax oatmeal and Endangered Species dark chocolate bars with mint and orange peel flavoring that they slung over the llamas. They stuffed several items concocted by Wild Gift Fellows, including Play Hard Give Back trail mixes and energy bars and Kuli Kuli bars, featuring the super food Moringa.
Duenas showed them how to clip their llamas’ nails, putting his shoulder into the llamas’ chests as he held up the hooves. He showed them how to check the llamas’ temperature and to inject a muscle and joint pain relief and ibuprofen by needle should the llamas fall and injure a shoulder or encounter cactus or porcupine quills.
“Llamas will kick, so this protects you from an accident,” he told Jonas and Michael.
The llamas, which the couple rented from Wilderness Ridge Trail Llamas in Idaho Falls stood like statues while being packed. Each llama carried 70 pounds stashed in two bags hanging from their A-frame saddles.
With that, the trio set off through the sagebrush cover hills into the Smoky Mountains, with llamas named McShane, Johnny, Timber, Apple, Granite and Milton plodding behind at scarcely more than one mph.
When Jonas planned the trip, he could not have forecast the record hot temperatures he would encounter. Nor the record snowfall that would dump 28 feet of snow on Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain, causing dangerous river crossings and neck deep snow on trails in July.
Less than 90 minutes, into the trek, two of the llamas overheated, forcing the group to stop for three hours in the only shady spot next to water. Milton wilted under the heat. And McShane, who had been their sure-footed companion through mountain scree the summer, before couldn’t handle the heat, either.
“Llama suffering, human suffering and only day one with 80 more days,” former Blaine County Commissioner Michael said.
The trip did not get any easier. A friend who joined them for a few days succumbed to altitude sickness and had to hike out with Duenas when they arrived at Apollo Lake 10 days later. Michael hiked out, as well, to rest a sore knee, while Jonas traced a new route through the Sawtooths, thwarted by 12 feet of snow on the passes he’d intended to cross.
“I was concerned about crossing a snow bridge with pack animals,” he said. “I had a friend taken under water when he attempted that. Besides, we would have been post-holing in deep snow.”
The llamas had no qualms about going up and down loose rock on 45-degree slopes, over downed trees, plowing through chest-deep water or traversing snow fields.
Timber was trail-wise and adaptable. Hot Johnny Llama, reliable and sweet. But Granite liked to crowd people and llamas, which led to a lot of spitting.
As the difficulties mounted, tempers frayed among the two-legged trekkers, as well. Michael became angry with her mate for choosing such an ambitious trek that involved off-trail travel, as well as hiking on trails.
“It’s one thing to take an arduous wilderness trip with someone at age 50 when the relationship is fresh and you’re still in love,” she said, recalling the 2-year sojourn she and Jonas spent in Alaska. “But now, with all the wear and tear of routine and habit, I find that the relationship easily fragments into impatience, not listening and frustration, which is exacerbated by excess fatigue from days of hiking that are too long, too hot and too hard.”
With rest, however, she changed her tune, realizing she and Bob needed to help one another get through each day.
Even at higher elevation in the Sawtooths, 90-degree temperatures persisted, forcing the two to soak shirts, hats and kerchiefs at every creek only to have them dry within minutes. Jonas found his brain hazing and his body overheating if he missed just one liter of the six to eight liters of water he needed every day.
“The biggest challenge was knowing that the next day would be even harder as my aging body began to break down,” he said.
Jonas was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma at 30. He underwent a rigorous “cut, burn and poison” regiment involving surgery, a month of radiation and year of chemotherapy. Fortunately, he said, he was working in Denmark on a salmon aquaculture project at the time and doctors there were doing cutting edge work with lymphatic cancer.
“But they wouldn’t give me a prognosis of two years. They performed surgery to cut off a tumor the size of a fist on my neck, gave me a chemical cocktail of 35 drugs and injected mustard gas into my veins. My daughter Nina was just an infant. I’m so glad I got to see her become a woman,” he said.
Still, Jonas’ treatment left him with a degenerative spine exacerbated by carrying heavy packs on his 137-pound, 5-foot-8 frame. He has to prop up his head as he walks. And he needed stem cell therapy and multiple braces to steady a gimpy knee.
In the Sawtooths the couple encountered so many fallen trees that it took hours to go five miles. Only an hour-long logging effort by nephew-in-law John Benson and others friends using Sven saws cleared enough trees to allow them to cross a particularly gnarly stream crossing. There was a moment’s scare when Johnny’s load got hooked on an overhanging tree.
“He was a no-drama llama, but I was a nervous wreck imagining the possible calamities,” Jonas said. “I’m furious that the Forest Service has no money to hire trail crews to clear trails in Idaho’s beloved Sawtooth National Recreation Area. And I am furious that the Idaho congressional delegation’s mantra for decades has been cutting taxes and shrinking government to the detriment of those who want to enjoy our beautiful lakes and mountains.”
There was no place to pitch camp that didn’t have widow makers. Jonas once saw a wilderness firefighter killed by a falling snag, and he jumped at every tree cracking and branch crashing to the ground.
The bright spot was Jonas Benson—John Benson’s 45-pound 8-year-old—who joined the group for a few days, carrying a heavy backpack and happily volunteering to wade llamas across streams so the adults could stay dry crossing logs.
“I want to go for another 6,500 days,” he told the adults.
“The llamas really dictate the pace,” noted Ketchum resident Louise Noyes, who joined the trekkers for a week as they made their way east of the Boulder Mountains. “They need rest and you spend a lot of time brushing them and packing them. But we went through some long beautiful valleys I had never seen before.”
As Jonas and Michael made their way down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, they found rafters so enthralled by the llamas that they invited the couple to share lunch, sending them away with three days of food.
A trail crew cleared the trail just ahead of them to Velvet Falls. But, after the crew left, it was like trying to navigate through pickup sticks, perhaps downed by a microburst. By then, the Yellow Pine Fire had started, enveloping them with dense smoke and falling ash and preventing planes from bringing resupplies. They backtracked to the highway where Ketchum resident Andy Munter gave them a ride to the headwaters of Big Creek.
“We had friends that will no longer go into Middle Fork because they lost a couple horses when they fell off unmaintained trail. We thought that, if we kept going, one of us or a llama was going to get hurt,” Jonas said.
When the lightning-sparked Ibex Fire blocked their intended route, they headed into the rugged Big Horn Crags, walking through miles of trees killed by fire and beetles that they dubbed “Valley of the Standing Dead.” After spending a few days at a friend’s ranch along the East Fork of the Salmon River, where they watched the solar eclipse, they returned to the Sawtooths to cover the route they had skipped earlier.
They then trekked through the newly established White Clouds Wilderness Area and into the equally new Jerry Peak Wilderness. A crew from Idaho Public TV joined them atop Trail Creek Summit in the Pioneers to film an interview for an “Outdoor Idaho” show that will air in December.
Michael then retreated home to rest up for a guided gourmet walking holiday through Slovenia, while Jonas continued south to the Pioneer Yurt near Hyndman Peak.
Exhausted from the heat and smoke, Jonas made his way through a cold rain for a few days of rest. He intended to finish the remaining six-day leg across the Copper Basin to the final stop near Craters of the Moon National Monument. But he decided he was done after spending his rest days scouting the country that would include Blizzard Mountain near Craters of the Moon and Iron Bog Lake near Moore.
“The prospects of walking for six days in snow and rain didn’t sound very enticing. And I hadn’t known how many fences I would have had to take down to get the llamas through. It took the wind out of my sails,” he said. “Besides, I found hunting camp after hunting camp and the terrain rutted by four-wheelers. It didn’t have the wilderness I was seeking.”
Even though he wasn’t able to follow his itinerary, Jonas figures he walked more than 500 miles by the time he weighed the scouting he did along the Middle Fork of the Salmon and in the Pioneers. He and Michael raised more than $12,000 for the Wild Gift program. And, yes, they’re planning another, much shorter trip with llamas next summer.
“Even though the Smoky Mountains are not designated wilderness, there’s still a lot of beautiful backcountry well suited to a trip like this. And the area from the Summit Creek to Pioneer Yurt in the Pioneer Mountains really should be designated wilderness—there are no roads on top at all,” Jonas said. “I feel deep gratitude that there is still so much wilderness in an area that I explored as a child. “