Life

Hoofing it with llamas? You can do that in Eastern Iowa

Couple near Shueyville taps into rising ecotourism industry

Tiara Phillips of North Liberty, Veronica Spriggs and Travis Vanzuiden of Davenport (background) walk last Monday along
Tiara Phillips of North Liberty, Veronica Spriggs and Travis Vanzuiden of Davenport (background) walk last Monday along a trail during a llama hike at Prairie Patch Farm near Shueyville. Andy and Kahle Boutte offer llama experiences and farm stays through Airbnb. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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SHUEYVILLE — Veronica Spriggs and Travis Vanzuiden, a couple in their early 30s from Davenport, were surfing the web for something fun and different when an unexpected advertisement popped up.

“Hike with Llamas.”

It was an offering from Airbnb Experiences, which features “one-of-a-kind activities hosted by locals.”

“I was just curious,” said Spriggs, 33. “It seemed fresh and original and fun.”

The couple was looking for just this sort of off-the-grid type of activity, and few other animal-oriented options existed in the vicinity. It was beekeeping in Chicago or this, they said. So they signed up.

A gravel driveway leads to a barn on the edge of a private nature preserve called Prairie Patch Farm just south of Cedar Rapids. Soon the couple are up close with four llamas and an alpaca named Simon, stroking their velvety soft necks, feeding them pellets and brushing their woolly coats.

The property owners Andy, 33, and Kahle Boutte, 36, share about the history of llamas and their origins 40 million years ago in the central plains of North America. Then, they detail the rich history of the land before guiding an hourlong hike side-by-side with the llamas on the 48-acre prairie featuring 1.5 miles of maintained trails.

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“It’s relaxing. It’s therapeutic,” said Vanzuiden, 32, who bonded with an 18-month-old, 250-pound dark brown llama named Applejack, or AJ for short. “They seem in tune with you and follow your lead. They are incredibly friendly and loving. Each one has its own personality and quirks.”

They have returned twice more.

Ecotourism boom

The Bouttes are tapping into the booming ecotourism industry, in which tourists seek experience, authenticity, immersion and education with an environmental angle, according to a 2018 University of Utah College of Health outlook.

Hiking with llamas is an increasingly popular option. Llamas are seen as good companions for short or extended hikes because of their calm demeanor and ability to haul gear.

Visitors have traveled to Prairie Patch Farm from as far as Chicago and Milwaukee, saying it was the closest place for such a personal experience with animals, Kahle Boutte said.

“People are wanting experiences, and there is a llama craze right now,” she said. “They have become a popular, trending animal. People want to enjoy the outdoors and the opportunity for experiences with animals you would not get in a zoo.”

In Iowa, ecotourism often manifests as agritourism.

“Prairie Patch Farm is a great example of the type of creative agritourism that is popping up in Eastern Iowa,” said Jennifer Banta, vice president of Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce who recently visited. “Kahle’s llama hikes are a unique and enjoyable way to spend time with family and friends on her beautiful property.”

Word spreads

Since the Bouttes started offering llama hikes this past fall, they’ve hosted 50 to 55 excursions and word is starting to spread. They envision their regular season as April through December but have been offering one-off hikes on nice days through the winter, such as New Year’s Day or by appointment.

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The experience lasts about one and a half hours and costs $18 to $20 per person, although discounts exist for groups of up to 15. Farm visits are by reservation only. For more information on booking, visit go to PrairiePatchFarm.com.

The Bouttes have lots of different ideas of where to go from here with the llamas.

For February, they have offered something called Valentine’s Day “llama-grams,” in which people can order live llama visits for their special someone. That’s sold out.

They have advertised “selfies with and snuggles with llamas” and are planning wine-and-cheese hikes at some point in the future.

Kahle, who has a background in music therapy and mental health, envisions training the llamas as emotional support animals, another quality for which they are becoming known.

The llamas have attracted visitors for all types of occasions: dates, birthdays, anniversaries, work outings, family gatherings and more.

“The llamas are great with kids,” Kahle Boutte said. “They are amazing animals.”

Legacy lives on

The Bouttes are new to Iowa, but Kahle’s family has a notable history here, as does the land.

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The land was owned by her uncle, Stephen Atherton, a well-known conservationist who helped reintroduce trumpeter swans and peregrine falcons to the area and was a passionate advocate for wetlands and prairies, she said. He died unexpectedly in 2008.

He was a 25-year educator in parks and natural resources at Kirkwood Community College and instrumental in the creation of the Macbride Raptor Project, a cooperation between Kirkwood and the University of Iowa. A 600-acre wetland managed by Kirkwood, which uses it as a teaching laboratory, is named in his honor. Atherton Memorial Wetland is on Ely Road just south of Ely.

Atherton bought what then was farmland in the 1980s and tilled up the corn rows, planting Iowa grasses and vegetation instead. It now is a wildlife preserve, Kahle Boutte said.

While the farmhouse he initially lived in remains, he also built a new home on the property for him and his wife, Kahle Boutte said, who also offers the housing as lodging for visitors.

The Bouttes view their efforts to make the land accessible — they also are exploring opening camping and expanding trails — as a way to continue Atherton’s legacy of conservation and love of the outdoors.

“We said let’s do something to share my uncle’s legacy, which means a lot to us,” Kahle Boutte said. “Without him, we couldn’t be doing this.”

She grew up in Colorado but recalled visiting during her childhood.

After Atherton’s death, Kahle’s brother lived on the land for several years before moving to Michigan. The Bouttes had been living in California before moving to the land three years ago “chasing their what if,” as Kahle Boutte explained it.

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She was “always obsessed with llamas” since she was a kid who would often stop at a llama farm on her way to skiing trips, she said. In Iowa, they befriended a breeder in Alburnett and soon got their first two llamas.

“Llamas were in our five-year plan eight months ago,” she said. “That got fast-tracked really quick.”

The llamas require minimal maintenance, they said. They graze most of the year and are fed hay with alfalfa in the winter, she said. Llamas cost $500 to $1,200 each and can live 15 to 25 years, she said.

The Bouttes’ 4-year-old daughter, Mahry, moves between the llamas and hugs them. Aside from the stray goofy face llamas are known to make, they are calm and patient with her. During a hike, mom Kahle puts Mahry on AJ’s back when she gets tired.

‘Watch out ... They spit’

Vanzuiden holds a rope connected to a harness around AJ’s head to guide him. The llamas offer little resistance as they walk alongside humans on grass and dirt paths with gentle slopes through rolling countryside and through pine groves.

Two of the llamas jockey with one another to be in front. Some are especially affectionate.

“Watch out, though, they spit,” Kahle Boutte cautions on a hike earlier this month.

Tiara Phillips, 23, and Colin Underwood, who live in the Iowa City area, first came to Prairie Patch Farm on a date in the fall. Then they came back a second and a third time. Phillips is an animal lover without much experience with the outdoors, while Underwood loves the outdoors.

The experience was a good blend for the two, plus they enjoyed the history lesson about the land and llamas.

“They are super sweet animals and smart,” Underwood said. “There is no barrier to do it. You just grab the lead and hike.”

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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