September 2012


I woke at 4am on Saturday, September 22, my heart in my throat.

For years, Brother Dear has talked about doing the biggest off-trail “day hike” I know of in Glacier National Park – the route from Little Chief to Mahtotopa to Red Eagle – summitting all three.  He thinks the route involves about 10,000 vertical feet of elevation gained and lost, and about 25 miles, but he’s not really sure.  We know a couple of people who have done it, but they don’t really know the stats either, just that it’s a phenomenal day, and for those physically able, an awesome accomplishment.

I’ve never really worried about Brother Dear attempting such a feat, as he’s already done plenty of other huge “day hikes,” like the Skyline Traverse, which links Siyeh, Cracker, and Wynn, from Many Glacier to the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

I’ve climbed a fair number of peaks in the park, and been on some awfully long “day hikes,” but I’ve never even considered doing Red Eagle-Mahtotopa-Little Chief.  At least until this past week, when Pseudo Sista was convinced to go along with Brother Dear, Keith, and Neil.  Upon hearing that Pseudo Sista was in– and despite the fact that Brother Dear had not invited me along — I decided I was, too.

Why not?  Howard climbed Little Chief, and I promised myself I’d climb everything he ever climbed.  Plus, I’d just summitted Rising Wolf without issue.  Finally, a thought that frequently crosses my post-30 mind when weighing Glacier National Park adventures kept drumming through my head: I would be younger on September 22, 2012, than I ever would be again.  With strong, smart climbing partners and a perfect forecast — high of 74, sunny, winds of 7-9 MPH — it was now or never.

But I woke at 4am filled with doubt.  I tiptoed to the Warehome living room and tried googling everything ever written about the traverse.  Pretty much, there’s one reliable entry on summitpost.org, and while inspiringly written, it’s thin on detail.  Deciding that ignorance was probably bliss, and trusting Brother Dear’s guiding abilities completely, I made a pot of coffee at 5am and was in the truck with the rest of the crew at 6am, headed down the Going-to-the-Sun Road to the Virginia Falls trailhead.

At 9,541′, Little Chief loomed over us in the pre-dawn darkness, quickly broken by a smoky red sunrise over Red Eagle, our final destination for the day:

We flew down the trail, passing St. Mary Falls in first light, and Virginia Falls a few minutes later.  The one thing we did know about the day before us: every minute of autumnal daylight counted, and there was little time for photos.

The bushwhack up to Little Chief begins shortly after the Virginia Falls trail merges into the trail ringing the south side of St. Mary Lake.  A glance at the sign was sobering: even hugging the lake shore, more than 15 miles stood between us and our final destination, and we were headed up, up, and far away from said shoreline.

As we began the bushwhack, a bit of trail magic appeared before our eyes: the route through the overgrown underbrush and downed trees had recently been marked, and marked well, by some rogue climber with a roll of hot pink ribbon.  No, this is not legal, nor will it last through the next windstorm, so if you’re reading this post anytime after September 2012, don’t count on finding it.

But that doesn’t mean we weren’t tickled by our good fortune.

With fresh legs, we tromped right up the side of Little Chief, emerging into a dry waterfall at the base of the first tiered basin of scree and boulders that we would need to ascend.

Eye level with Almost-a-Dog Pass at about 9:30am.

Neil, foreground; Going-to-the-Sun Mountain, background

For the first time all summer, smoke from the many neighboring forest fires began to fill the St. Mary Valley, and we lightly cursed our misfortune while still mostly bubbling over with joy at the very fact of the day: no one was working, and everyone was doing what they like best — climbing in Glacier National Park.

After getting through the first big slog up Little Chief, we welcomed the more level goat trail that would lead us around the base of cliffs blocking the north and west faces from ascent.

At last, we came to a fun little chimney that led into the next big scree slog before the summit ridge.

But after the chimney … I don’t know if my knee had swollen up without my realizing it, or if the smoke was getting to me, or if overall I’m just not as strong as I used to be, but I did know one thing as I slowly picked my way up: just about everyone was far, far ahead of me, and getting further away.  The oldest ones on the trip, and the Hot Buns, Pseudo Sista and I brought up the rear and stuck fairly close together, shouting occasional words of encouragement to each other as we alternated losing purchase in the steep, rotten talus and shale, and tearing our hands to shreds in the process.

But I kept glancing at the watch I had worn for the sole purpose of making an intelligent decision about summitting and returning safely to my Maggie Rose and my Honeydew — after ascending the first basin, I had thought we’d be on the summit of Little Chief by 11am, maybe 12.  That would give us seven hours of daylight to navigate the gorgeous ridge between Little Chief and Mahtotopa, and then on to Red Eagle, and down.  From my limited research, it seemed to me that getting up Little Chief was the bulk of the day, and so that time frame seemed reasonable to me.

Except that it was 1pm when I glanced at my watch, and the tiny figures of Brother Dear, Nancy Reagan, Neil, and Keith kept getting tinier.  They were keeping a careful eye on us, and leaving good cairns for us to follow, but they were a little too far away for a discussion about aborting the mission.

And so we kept going, Pseudo Sista and I finally making the nearly-smoked-out summit around 3pm.  We did not even sign the register, so great was our exhaustion and anxiety about the balance of the day.

Looking north and east from the summit, high above St. Mary Lake, Mahtotopa, and Red Eagle.

South, at a sea of smoky peaks.

West, at Almost-a-Dog, Mt. Jackson, Dusty Star, etc.

It was, we knew, far, far too late for a late September ridgewalk to our intended destination, though we did, in all our enthusiasm and depletion, discuss the possibility, and even head in that direction before making the right call: to descend Little Chief the way we’d come up.  Even with this decision, we knew we’d be hiking out in the dark.

Though it was his dream trip, Brother Dear took the change of plans in complete stride, gallantly leading us down exactly the way we’d come, picking out the easiest routes for Pseudo Sista and I, singing Corb Lund songs, and passing around salami and crackers at our brief breaks.  He is very fine company in the mountains, as were all of our companions.

The sun slipped behind Dusty Star at about 6:30pm and I got frustrated in the loose scree for a moment and promised to come back in my next life as a glacier and PULVERIZE the rocks the previous glaciers were too lazy to finish off.  Everyone laughed, and that powered me through the next big steps down through a dry waterfall, steps I took on my rear end.

When my feet finally touched the spongy, alpine vegetation edging the rocks at dusk, I wanted to kiss the ground, but didn’t think I could get back up if I tried.  We continued as quickly as we could until we found the start of the pink ribbon trail, where we paused to chug water, inhale the last of the guacamole and coconut macaroons, and strap our headlamps onto our foreheads.

Scrambling through alders and false huckleberry, twilight tumbled down the mountain, and we were in the full on dark before we even thought to turn the headlamps on.  To ensure that we’d woken up every bear in the area, we sang:

Almost heaven, Little Chief mountain

Rocky Mountains, Glacier National Park

Life is old there, older than the glaciers

Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Pink Ribbon Road, take us home, to the place we belong

Near Babb, Montana, Mountain Mama

Take us home, Pink Ribbon Road

and

Day-o, daaaaaaayooooo

Daylight gone and we wanta go home.

Oh, did we.  Even with the ridiculously closely placed pink ribbon ties, we lost ’em more than once, and were happy to have 6 headlamps to catch their flourescent flutter.

When we finally staggered out onto the actual trail, every critter in the park surely heard our cries of delight, and again, when we hit the impossibly smooth pavement of the Going-to-the-Sun Road.  It was 9:15pm, but the smoky red moon cast the park in an eery, midnight glow.

Too tired to even lament the beer cooler, waiting 15 miles away at the Red Eagle Lake trailhead, we headed for home.

The next day, I marveled over the fact that I was able to get out of bed, and on a lighter note, that my two week old Shellac manicure had survived the hand-over-hand, digging-for-purchase, at-times-hanging-onto-the-side-of-the-mountain-by-literally-my-fingernails adventure.  A little off topic, but for the one-special-occasion-per-year that calls for a manicure — I officiated a weddin’ on Lake McDonald two weeks ago — I’m a Shellac devotee!

The day after that, my right knee resembled a cauliflower, and I really almost couldn’t get out of bed.  As a result, I am at peace with the knowledge that I will admire Little Chief for the rest of my life from the valley, and from the tops of other, less worthy mountains.

If your knees are strong, your lungs are deep, your companions are solid gold, and your Glacier National Park abilities tested and primed, go do Little Chief.

Before you turn 30!

photo credit to Jim Egan/SummitPost.Org 

And take climbing helmets when you go – we keep meaning to buy them, and we keep forgetting.  They would have made our ascent/descent of Little Chief a little bit less stressful.

This has been your occasional public service announcement from Glacier County Honey Co – have fun!

2012.  Glacier County Honey Co.  Some photo credits to Sanford Stone.  All Rights Reserved.

As I wrote last week, I took a few precious hours off on what would have been Howard’s 28th birthday, to go hiking — after all, my baby brother loved Glacier National Park in that same marrow-deep way that I do, so I thought my time couldn’t have been better spent.

I don’t remember the first year we hiked the Highline Trail as a family, though I suspect it was in 1989.  We probably parked at Logan Pass, with the throngs, and ventured a few feet down the trail, gawking at goats.  Howard would have been almost five years old at the time; Brother Dear six and a half; me, just turned 9.

As the years passed, and our hiking in Glacier National Park increased in difficulty, I’m sure we hiked various parts of the trail together many times, though I’m sad to say I can’t recall those details.  But at any rate, I always love placing my feet where I know Howard’s crossed, and on this particular trip, my heart was light as I cruised to Haystack Butte with Maggie Rose on my back, Brother Dear, Nan, Chuck and dear family friend Bruce and his daughter, Kara.

Chuck, Nan, me, Maggie Rose, Brother Dear – September 19, 2012 at Haystack Butte

The Highline Trail is insanely popular for many reasons: it’s more level than it is not.  The Sound of Music could easily have been filmed on it, and it’s not uncommon to hear hikers singing “The Hills Are Alive” as they drink in the endless views west of Logan Pass, where the trail begins at the apex of the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road.  The Highline Trails also offers entre into a number of excellent destinations, depending on your abilities and desires.

You can hike just a few feet from your car, and commune with the mountain goats, or you can hike all the way down down to the Loop, not quite 12 miles.  You can hang a right 7 miles in, at Granite Park Chalet, a incredibly special spot in an already ridiculously singular national park, and hike over Swiftcurrent Pass and out to the Best Porch in the World, in Many Glacier.  Also from the Chalet, you can keep heading north to famed 50 Mountain campground, and on into Canada, if you have a backpack and a permit.  Or you can just hike the 4-ish miles to Haystack Butte, and have a picnic, and turn around, which is what we did.

The Going-to-the-Sun Road is currently closed west of Logan Pass for construction; the Highline Trail parallels the west side of the Road, just above it, and as a result of the road closure it was wonderfully silent as we hiked along.

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Whereas normally the Trail is throbbing with people, and passing on its more narrow stretches can be frustrating, especially when hiking behind slower people lacking in trail etiquette (i.e., let those faster than you pass – duh – why is this such a hard concept for some folks?), on September 19th we hardly saw another soul.   These odd circumstances especially pleased Chuck – isn’t this a great picture of him?

When we arrived at Haystack Butte, we picnicked with only the Columbian ground squirrels and chipmunks for company — unprecedented in all the times we have collectively hiked the Highline.  If possible, I will never hike it again in any month but September!

Looking north and west from Haystack Butte.

Looking east.

Because in addition to all this unusual solitude, Autumn has painted the Highline Trail in colors that a Canon just can’t capture, and my heart wept a little at the beauty of it all, beauty that will change by the hour until it is all covered up by the first snow – surely not long off now.

After our hike, we took Kara to see the famed Best Porch in the World …

… and at her request, on a bear hunt.  Well, Many Glacier is the spot to see bears, and she did not disappoint on September 19.  We saw the fattest grizzly I have ever laid eyes on — this time of year, bears are in what is called hyperphasia, as they finish fattening up for winter, and I have no doubt that the griz in question will make it through just fine.  No pictures of Fatty, but here’s another griz we saw, a few minutes later.

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Isn’t she lovely?

The best thing we saw in Glacier National Park?  The absolute joy on Nan’s face on what is normally a very sad day:

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This picture is such a keeper.

Thanks, as always, Glacier — we love you so.

2013.  Glacier County Honey Co.  Some photo credits to Charlie Stone, Sanford Stone, Bruce Valley and Kara Bestler.  All Rights Reserved.

The comb honey is almost sold out, so if you’re in need, you’d better get it while the gittin’s good!

In addition to the $19 finished comb honeys, we’ve also added an “unfinished” comb honey product to the website — unfinished/imperfect comb honeys are still fabulously delicious, but the bees didn’t completely finish making them, so they don’t quite weigh in at a 1/2# like the finished ones do.  They are priced at $14 each – so you save $5.

Finished v. unfinished/imperfect comb honeys.

Unfinished/imperfect comb honey, all dressed up and ready to ship to you. $14.

If the unfinished comb honeys weighed less than 1/4#, we made chunk honey out of them, and that’s now available on the website, too!

As you may recall from last year, we got the idea to take the beautiful, unfinished comb honey, cut it in half, place it into a sparkling-made-in-USA-Ball-jar, and smother it with liquid-raw-the-best-honey-you’ve-never-tasted.  They were a huge hit last year, so again, git ’em while the gittin’s good!

Cutting unfinished Ross Rounds into halves for chunk honey.

Though unfinished, aren’t they beautiful?

Placing them into Ball jars — after this, they’re topped off with fresh, raw Glacier County Honey — and shipped to you!

And one last thing … help us celebrate National Honey Month: enter SWEETSEPTEMBER in the comment box of any http://www.glaciercountyhoney.com order for 20% off any order over $20, excluding shipping — 20% off does not apply to bulk beeswax, 12# or 35# buckets — offer good through September 30.

2012.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved.

I often write about Howard, my baby brother, who died eight years ago in a fraternity house fire at the University of Mississippi, especially on days that cause my heart to yearn all the more for his good judgment and ability to see the rainbows through the clouds, like on the anniversary of his death, and on his birthday.

Yesterday, I was happily too busy honoring his memory by hiking in Glacier National Park to write about him, though I penned many thoughts in my head as I traversed the Highline Trail with Maggie Rose on my back and family and good friends in tow.  I’ll get to the hike in a separate post, but it was a magical day to think about what would have been Howard’s 28th year — fall has cast the high country in that most golden, perfect light, and it eased the sting of his absence.

At day’s end, we returned to Hillhouse and gathered together with the rest of our crew at the memorial site that Jordan, one of Howard’s best friends, designed, built, and spent the last week installing:

Many days of prep work ensued, as the two pieces of the form — delivered via 18 wheeler to the Warehome — waited patiently.

Everyone helped, including Neil and Keith in their off hours.  Thanks, guys.

Loading one of the two pieces of the form onto one of the two beekeeping flatbed pickups.

Maggie supervising.

Loaded and headed down West Shore Road – the order of our entourage: the two flatbeds; me running with my camera and pushing the stroller wearing Danskos and blue jeans; Jody in the supersized forklift; Jordan in her rig.  Finally, I ran out of breath and stopped to take this picture:

The gawkers were many.

Arriving in the Big Field for installation!

I ashamed to say that I have not yet taken an awesome picture of the finished piece – they’re all too far away, or too blurry, or filled with people and equipment …. coming soon, I promise!  Just a reason to keep y’all coming back every couple of days or so, right?

But at any rate, to finish out Howard’s birthday, last night we all gathered together at the memorial site, drank a glass or two of champagne, and offered various toasts, all heartfelt and yet so vastly inadequate.

We wondered aloud if he would have gone to law school, and then begun working for the FBI, as he dreamed of doing, helping to keep this country safe from harm.

I wondered privately if he would have married a kind, clear eyed woman by now.

I wondered what he would name his children.

Happy 28th birthday, Baby Bro.

Brother Dear background / Howard and Joe-Dog, foreground

2012.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved.

Processing this year’s comb honey crop was sad for me, as the bees finished less than a third of what they did in 2011, but I will say that what they did finish is absolutely gorgeous!  They didn’t touch the Bee-O-Pacs this year, but did love on the Ross Rounds, and we’ll sell the finished Ross Rounds, each weighing about a half pound, for $19 each.  They are now available at www.glaciercountyhoney.com!

What are you going to do with your comb honey?  I like it with a spoon, and if I’m in the mood to share my private stash, I really like to cut it into cubes and garnish honey infused cocktails with it … quite the presentation!

Check back tomorrow for information re the unfinished/imperfect Ross Rounds, priced at $14, and our beautiful chunk honey, too.

2012.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved.

Honeydew has been beekeepin’ all his life, but Glacier County Honey Co. is just over three years old, as we incorporated it together shortly before our marriage.  In the years since, each month has brought a few more folks dropping by World Headquarters.  If we’re extracting honey, and the visitors don’t resemble ax murderers, we always offer a tour, as we’ve found that most people are curious about how stuff works — we certainly are.

So, for all of you that haven’t yet dropped by World Headquarters, here’s a little virtual tour to tide you over until the 2nd Annual Fill Your Own Bucket Day  — Saturday, August 10, 2013 — when we would love for you to come by, tour the extracting plant, and taste the real thing!  After all, it’s hard for your taste buds to appreciate the freshest and best honey you’ve never tasted through a computer screen.

This is the Warm Room.  In the summertime, when Honeydew and Keith return at the end of the day, they unload all the honey supers — boxes filled with frames of honey — that they’ve harvested into the room, where it waits in the 90-100F heat — about the same temperature as the hive — to be extracted.  Each morning, and all day long, I come into the Warm Room with a hand truck and grab a stack of 7 honey supers that Neil and I will extract.

I bring them into the Extracting Room, and load the stack onto the Super Elevator, the machine pictured in the left portion of this photo.  As I empty each box of its frames, and move it aside, this machine keep the boxes coming up, so that my back hurts a little less at the end of each day.  Honey is heavy stuff!

The job that I do is referred to at Glacier County Honey Co. as “the Loader” position – I am the one who loads the frames onto the conveyor belt, and decides whether or not they need to go through the uncapping machine.  In addition, I do a little work with my hive tool to clean up the frames and boxes, so that they’re easier for Honeydew and Keith to work with, out in the field.

Above is a picture of a full honey super — you can see the tops of each of the 9 frames, and the fact that the bees have been extra industrious and built more honeycomb on top of the frames for even more honey storage!  Good work bees, but that extra comb will create a heck of a mess over time, and make the frames not fit very well in the boxes — so part of my job is to take my hive tool and scrape this extra wax/honey off of the frames and the insides of the boxes.

All clean!

Once the loader has the frames cleaned up, it’s time to make an important decision: does this particular frame of honey need to go through the uncapping machine?  The bees secrete flakes of beeswax from glands on their backs, and we’ve read that it takes about 850,000 flakes to make half of a pound.  Wow.  Anyway, the ladies take the wax and create the beautiful hexagonal comb.  They tilt each hexagon slightly upwards, so the honey doesn’t run out.  When they’ve got the comb filled with honey, they secrete more wax and “cap” the comb off.

Above is a mostly-capped frame of honey.

The uncapping machine is essentially a set of bicycle chains that take the top layer of wax cappings off of each frame that so that the honey can flow freely and be extracted into drums and bottles.  Here goes:

So, here’s the frame after it’s been through the uncapping machine:

You can see that all of the cappings have been removed, along with some the honeycomb, and that the frame is dripping with honey and wax.

However, the frames don’t need to go through the machine if they haven’t been capped and/or if the comb hasn’t been fully drawn yet by the bees.

Other times, there is so little capping on a frame that it makes more sense to uncap the frame by hand:

In this instance, the frame doesn’t need to go through the uncapping machine  and hand scratching — which protects the depth of the otherwise uncapped comb from the uncapping machine’s chains — is sufficient.  After I hand scratch these cappings, I’ll throw the frame over the top of the uncapping machine, where it will probably hit Neil, because I have very poor aim.

At any rate, whether the frames are thrown over the uncapping machine, or sent through the uncapping machine, the frames of honey travel down the conveyor belt, where they are greeted by Neil, who loads them into one of our two spinners — each holds about 120 frames of honey, loaded vertically.  When they’re filled with frames, Neil turns the spinners on, and they start spinning, gradually increasing in speed and literally whirling the honey out of the honeycomb.

Neil’s position is referred to around here as “the Extractor,” since he’s the guy loading the spinning extractors, but he’s also in charge of pretty much everything else in the Extracting Room, since the Loader’s job is to send as many frames through/over the uncapping machine as fast as possible.  While the Loader is loading, the Extractor is also keeping an eye on the equipment, tinkering with the pumps, cleaning out the wax spinner, moving full pallets of supers out into the storage bay, etc.

Neil, standing in between the 2 spinners, and behind the uncapping machine/conveyor belt.

When the spinners are done, it’s time to unload the empty frames, putting them back into the honey super boxes.  If it’s early in the season, we’ll put them right back out into the field for the bees to again fill with honey; if it’s late in the season, we’ll stack them on pallets and store them in Warehouse #1, until the next year.

Meanwhile, the honey and wax slurry has drained out of the spinners and into our stainless steel sump, where it is sucked up by a big pump and pushed into a flash heater installed on the wall.  Inside the heater are copper pipes — the kind you might use for a plumbing project — filled with heated vegetable oil.  The honey and wax tumble over the pipes and are warmed to about 100F.  We’re pretty picky about the settings on this heater — to sell raw honey, like we do, you need to keep temperatures as low as possible.  The bees keep their hives around 100F, so this temperature is acceptable.

Now that the honey and wax are again warm, and easy to work with, the heat exchange dumps them into the wax separator – Honeydew and I are not entirely certain how this piece of equipment works, but we can’t do what we do without it, and we love it dearly!

Somehow, as the honey and wax slurry is spinning in this machine, the wax, dirt, dead bees, and other detritus dumps out of the bottom, and the clean honey goes over a baffle and into another stainless steel sump, where it is then pumped into one of our 1,000 gallon tanks, to be barreled and shipped, or into the bottling machine, to be bottled for your enjoyment!

And that’s how the honey gets from the frame to your table.  Hope y’all enjoyed the tour!

2012.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved.

This summer will surely be the one for the record books, as far as the press and Glacier County Honey Co. are concerned.  I think three articles in three months by three local publications says a lot about the quality of journalism here in Montana – journalists are interested in the Montanans who work in this area and who work hard to employ others.  Yes, the big problems back East and on Wall Street and in the Big Easy and beyond America’s borders concern us, but we Montanans also want to know how our friends and neighbors are doing.  Thanks so much to the Flathead Beacon, the Daily Interlake, and now, Rural Montana magazine — the publication of Montana’s Electric Cooperatives, and a favorite of Honeydew’s —  for reporting about our young business, and our enthusiasm for the same.

Here’s a shot of the article – Rural Montana is online, but I could not locate this particular article on the site:

Thanks so much for featuring us, Rural Montana!  And thanks for keeping the lights on, too.  Pretty tough to extract honey on a commercial scale without electricity.

2012.  Glacier County Honey Co.  All Rights Reserved.

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