Monday, June 26, 2017

The Grand Gallivant: Covered in Bees

On our first day at Willow Creek, Kate and Billy told us that the guy who keeps their bees, Jeff, would be stopping by sometime when we were here, and that if we liked, we could go out with him to learn more about beekeeping. This opportunity finally came on the solstice when Jeff, a quiet middle-aged guy, drove down the driveway and invited us to suit up.

My name is Darth Vader! I am an extraterrestrial from the planet Vulcan!

We zipped ourselves into Billy and Kate’s bee suits, which look exactly like space-age sci-fi costumes, then tromped out to the row of hives along the back of their property, where Jeff was feeding sagebrush twigs into a large can with a funnel top and a small set of bellows attached to it. This smoker would help calm the bees and move them out of the way when we were working.

Jeff wore protective headgear, but worked with bare hands because it made it easier for him to move the parts of the hive more easily (he only got stung once). He lifted the lid of the first hive, Zach pumped some smoke onto it, and we looked down into a box filled with vertical frames hanging by little lips on either edge. Between the frames, chunks of honeycomb and bees swarmed. Jeff used a small pry bar, called a hive tool, to loosen the frame, then carefully pulled it out, crawling with bees, to show us. We saw the perfect hexagons built up all over the frame, some filled with shimmering nectar that would later be capped and become honey, some already capped with a matte white coating, others covered with a porous tan coating that held the “brood.” With the mesh over our eyes it was hard to process the swarming mass in front of us.

Zach loosening a frame so we can lift it out
The frames get heavy when they're full of honey! (Note Jeff's bare hands)

Looking for eggs

Jeff taught us how to look for larvae— little white curls— in the cells, and how to spot the rice-shaped eggs, which are much smaller than a pinhead, by holding the frame up so the sun shines directly in the bottom of the cells. Even then, it was hard to spot, and  took us both several tries to get good at. He pointed out the difference in coloration between younger bees and older bees (younger ones are lighter), and showed us how to identify drones. He found a queen on one of the frames and pointed out the way she moved and how the other workers responded to her. “You can tell she’s the boss,” he said. “But if a queen doesn’t do her job, the workers will kill her and hatch another queen to take her place.”

We inspected each of the frames, looking for eggs in the cells to indicate that the queen was laying. Then we scraped off extra beeswax and comb from the tops and bottoms of the frames, dumping the honeycomb into a bowl so the clear nectar could drain out. Zach and I moved clumsily, our hands encumbered by gloves, nervous of dropping the frames and losing track of which frames went in which box in which order. Jeff was incredibly patient.

After an hour or so, Jeff had us get a hive tool, and we inspected the hives by ourselves, although he still coached us through a lot of it. He had us repeat back what we were learning and explain what we were looking for. Our gloves got sticky with wax and propolis, and the bees became annoyed with us, crawling around our headnets, buzzing angrily. But at last we finished up the last hive, and with our heads swarming with the crash-course knowledge, we thanked Jeff and said goodbye.

Before that day, I couldn’t understand why vegans wouldn’t eat honey— what do the bees care? I thought. After that day, I understood. The sheer amount of bee-squishing was disturbing— we tried very hard not to kill any of the workers, but many of them got crushed as we moved the frames around and scraped off honeycomb. Jeff also taught us to destroy cells that were incubating drones, since they do literally nothing for the colony except mate with the queen, and I felt a little sick to my stomach as I scraped the hive tool along the drone cells and watched the larvae’s bodies burst into white liquid that streamed down into the grass. I have an emotional attachment to honeybees— I think they’re cute, and their collective intelligence is breathtaking— but is that a reason enough not to kill them? 

Most people swat flies and mosquitoes without a thought, and drive through river bottomlands in summer when nearly thousands of bugs are splatted across our windshield. Eating plain kale from my own garden came at the cost of hundreds of cabbage worms’ lives. A normal vegan diet means taking part in the deaths of millions of insects and even rodents and amphibians caught up in heavy farming equipment. But in our modern society of detachment from death, we lose sight of the sacrifice that is required for us to eat food. After working with the bees, I have a much more sensory feeling for that sacrifice.

That night, I poured the clear honey we’d collected through a strainer into a jar, and stirred it into a jug with some lemon to make honey-water. I felt a sense of solemnity as I drank.

A few days later, Jeff invited us to look at his hives down the road, and we eagerly agreed. This second time, I had a much better feel for what I was doing and what I was looking for; Zach and I worked together in a comfortable rhythm, and Jeff showed us some techniques for mixing up the frames in a way that encourages the bees to put away more honey and expand into other boxes. Sweaty in the sun, we were surprised when Jeff invited us to town for a cold beer, and we eagerly agreed to that as well. 

I’m not sure if beekeeping is feasible with the yard size we have (if we intend to keep chickens as well), but the experience definitely piqued my interest. But most of all, working with the bees helped me to appreciate them even more than before— and to be respectful of the sacrifice that brings me the sweet golden liquid to drizzle on my toast.


Monday, June 19, 2017

The Grand Gallivant: A Weekend in Idaho

Last weekend, we had two days off to explore the area, and we wanted to try our hand at some proper four-wheeling. Since the canyon road is often busy on weekends, Billy and Kate suggested that we drive on a private road that a friend of theirs owns. Armed with a map, we both hopped onto a four-wheeler and took off down the dusty road under an unbroken blue sky (Zach driving, me clinging to him and trying not to fall off).

We rode up the side of a mountain (Zach would call it a hill) about two miles, glancing at the landscape behind us— we could see the Magic Reservoir twenty miles away as a skim of blue beneath a line of mountains. We drove till we came to a fence, then hopped off, crawled through the barbed wire, and took off onto a wild landscape of sagebrush hills.

We followed dirt roads and cow trails (and ran into quite a few cows as well) for almost an hour, trekking up and down the undulating hills, until we reached a hot spring that bubbled out of a white mineral deposit. (There was nowhere to bathe, but that was okay because the sun was glaring by this point and we were soaked in sweat.) Here we ate the chicken-pesto sandwiches I’d packed for us, then made the long trek back, admiring wildflowers along the way. Then we sped down the mountain on the four-wheeler, the wind howling by as if we were weightless.

Hot springs!

On Sunday, we got into our nicest clothes and headed to the Fairfield Community Church (Kate said the pastor bought honey from her and was super nice). After the service, we chit-chatted a bit with the congregation, then headed out for lunch at The Wrangler, a homestyle diner with excellent low-cost food, especially the blackberry milkshake, which was as thick as a St. Louis “concrete.” (Incidentally, Fairfield has another awesome restaurant that Kate took us to: The Cliff, a pub with amazing fish and chips.)

We tried to call our dads for Fathers Day, but the SIM card in our phone is acting up so we weren’t able to. Instead, we drove down the highway a bit and wound on a dirt road until we reached the Centennial Marsh, a huge wetlands preserve. Armed with binoculars that Billy had loaned us, we spent a good while bird-watching. We saw coots (with babies!), cinnamon teals, dozens of yellow-headed blackbirds (which I had never seen before), a ruddy duck (it had a blue bill, which is cool), and a couple of sandhill cranes (which look unreasonably huge when they’re flying). We also spotted an antelope with twin fawns!

With still most of the afternoon left to spend, we headed to the Solider Mountain ski area, where Kate had said there was good hiking. Sure enough, we found a trail with a fairly straightforward-looking map, and began hiking up the mountain, sweating profusely in the hot sun.

The trail followed the edge of a rushing creek, and we were shaded by pines and aspens with trembling leaves. I panted and struggled up the slope, blaming it on elevation as usual, but the air grew cooler and soon we saw patches of snow along the trail. To our right, the hill turned into a rocky ridge with dramatically-jutting rocks. Bright yellow flowers resembling daisies surrounded the trail. Zach said it reminded him of the northern California part of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Finally we broke out into the open, along a ridge that turned into huge glaciated peaks next to us. From this vantage point, we could look out across the Camas Prairie and see snow-capped mountains that were probably in Nevada. Talk about a view! 

Unfortunately, here the trail split into four different paths, and we spent a lot of time wandering around and looking at our not-detailed-at-all map before we finally decided that we weren’t adequately prepared to get lost in the backcountry (we didn’t even have our water filter, and were running low), so we just headed back down the way we came. The whole hike was probably eight or nine miles, maybe longer— it felt good to walk a long distance.

We drove home, cooked up some pasta and tuna, picnicked on the patio, then played darts until the first stars began to come out. It was a good weekend.


The Grand Gallivant: Life at Willow Creek Nursery

Our house is just to the left of this photo

Once again I find myself caught up in the moment and not writing. This is the point of such immersive travel experiences, of course, but it’s not very good for the blog. So today I’ve determined to sit down and actually write about what we’ve been doing the past week!

Our journey to Willow Creek Nursery took us down dirt roads, around buttes, and into the beginnings of a canyon surrounded by hills (with their bluish sagebrush, yellowish new growth, and pinkish clay soil beneath the creamy blue sky, the hills are quite a rainbow of color). Billy and Kate live on five acres in a little “subdivision” of houses clustered around the road, and their acreage is covered in blue spruce, curly willow, and a host of other trees that they’ve grown to sell, sometimes in neat grid rows, sometimes scattered around the open lawn. A row of beehives are tucked away in the back, and if you hop the barbed wire fence and walk through a muddy field that was recently flooded, you’ll find Willow Creek rushing along.

Buttercup Mountain, as seen from the field behind their house

From the moment we met Billy and Kate, we loved them, and they seem the kind to love pretty much anyone they meet. They recently celebrated 11 years of marriage and have the kind of friendly familiarity that comes with the years, but they’re also as madly in love as newlyweds, which is adorable. Our first night they offered us beer, showed us around the property, and got us set up in the modular home adjacent to their house (it used to belong to Billy’s brother before he moved back east). We have a bedroom, a living room, a fully-stocked kitchen and a patio all to ourselves! They left some eggs from their chickens on the counter, along with some fresh oregano and two items that they sell: local honey and bee pollen.

Billy and Kate sat with us and drank beer the first night and we chatted about this n’ that. Billy gave us a piece of advice that’s stuck with me: “Remember to look up,” he said. “You never know what you’re gonna see around here, so don’t get too focused on your work— look up.”

Me with a weedwhacker. Power tools are cool.
That was the beginning of our first lovely week (we’re here for another week, then heading back to Portland). Within a couple days we settled into a routine: we wake up around 8:30 or 9, which allows us plenty of time to make breakfast for the day. We cook it, but Kate and Billy supply all the ingredients. For instance, last Friday I grabbed some bacon that they had cured and smoked themselves, eggs from their chickens, and Idaho potatoes, then fried all three in bacon grease! We washed it down with coffee (for Zach) and a glass of orange juice sprinkled with bee pollen (me). Talk about delicious!

Work begins at 10, and so far we’ve done a variety of jobs, from seed-planting and weed-whacking to hauling logs and rototilling the garden to washing out bottles so they could bottle up a batch of homemade wine. I’ve learned to drive both a riding lawn mower and a four-wheeler, and have so far managed to only run into a tree once. 

Whereas the last farm involved a lot of reading and thinking, here I find myself living in the moment a lot more: mowing and weed-whacking are fairly right-brained activities because of the constant spacial thinking, so I have a hard time holding a coherent thought when I’m focused on trying not to cut down anything that’s not supposed to be cut down. The work here is so meditative that time seems to cease; I’m always shocked when 4:00 hits and I realize that I’ve been pruning or weeding for three hours without feeling that time had passed. Through it all, I try to remember to look up, and have been rewarded with the sight of western tanagers flitting through the trees, swallows wheeling overhead, or clouds drifting over the peak of the snow-streaked Buttercup Mountain in the distance.

In the evenings, we cool off in myriad ways: taking walks, exploring the creek, surfing the web as usual, watching movies, playing an instrument they’re loaning us called a hangpan, or challenging each other to games of darts (which we’re slowly improving on). 

A short walk down the road takes us to this view.

Then it’s time for the highlight of the day: dinner. Kate was a professional chef for many years, and it shows— every single thing she makes is exquisite: grilled salmon with rice and Mediterranean salad; roast chicken with stuffing, cranberry sauce and butternut squash; venison-stuffed peppers with seasoned pinto beans; pizza topped with ham, onions, red peppers, fennel, and banana slices... We eat huge portions slowly, always accompanied by homemade wine, and talk for an hour or more, enjoying excellent food and excellent company.

On the weekend we had two days off, and we got to do some exploring in the area, but that’s another post unto itself. In short, we’re having a fantastic time here: learning, working, being inspired. I can’t wait to see what this week will bring!


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Grand Gallivant: On the Road to Idaho

After three solid days in Glacier, it was time to head out for our next destination. We decided to split the drive into two days for Zach’s sake, and to give us a little more down time before getting to our next farm. So on Saturday, we only had a four-hour drive, allowing us to bum around Agpar Village in the rain all morning. Off we drove, retracing our steps to Kalispell through a maze of tiny tourist traps (advertising huckleberry pie, preserves, ice cream, soda, pastries, sauces, wine, and anything else you could possibly put huckleberries in), then heading south.

We wound along the edge of Flathead Lake, which is the largest-area freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. Clouds hung low over it, giving the water a glassy gray shine. We soared along the deserted stretches of highway and crawled through the little towns, listening to The Who’s Live at Leeds. (“A young man ain’t got nothin’ in the world these days,” Roger Daltrey howled, and Zach remarked, “See, young people have always complained about everything.”) 

After rejoining Interstate 90 (and its awesome 80 MPH speed limit), we soon left the trees behind and took the open plains, bordered by mountains and patched over with farmland. 

Cute doggie!
Our stop for the night was Anaconda, where a couchsurfing host had offered us a place to crash— except we found out last minute that she wasn’t going to be there. She seemed perfectly comfortable with the notion of us staying there, though, and just left the door open. Maybe it’s my big-city ways, but I was paranoid that she was some sort of creative ax-murderer trying to lure us into her house. Inside, we found a friendly note on the kitchen counter and a blue heeler (Australian shepherd) who was terrified of us at first, but soon warmed up and nearly loved us to death. We spent a relaxed evening cooking dinner, and slept like rocks that night. But it was definitely the strangest couchsurfing experience I’ve had yet!

Sunday’s drive took us into even more open plains, where hawks perched on the barbed wire fences, antelope roamed through the sagebrush, and magpies and ravens scavenged for roadkill. We listened to Frank Zappa’s song “Montana” in honor of our last day there, then passed the rest of the state listening to Ziggy Stardust. The unchanging miles— sagebrush, farmland, distant mountains— rolled by as we passed into Idaho.

Zappa's song discusses his plans to move to Montana to become a dental floss tycoon.
Therefore, here is a picture of me in Montana with dental floss.

We had noticed the day before that our route to the farm took us past Craters of the Moon National Monument, so we made plans to stop. I’m so glad we did! The park covers several acres of weird volcanic landscape, and thanks to our national parks pass, we got in for free.

Looking down into a crater

We hiked a 3.5 there-and-back trail over mounds of lava in different stages of crumbling, from smooth bubbles of gray rock to dust-like particles that looked like asphalt. Cones and columns of lava jutted out at odd angles. 

The wildflowers were in peak bloom as well— rarely more than two inches high, they had tiny flowers in muted pastel colors, evenly spaced so their root systems could gather precious water. The winters here are arctic, and the summer ground temperatures can reach 150ºF, so I greatly admire these hardy little plants.

After Craters of the Moon, it was time to reach our next farm! We got a bit lost wandering the dirt roads, but at last found the right house and were greeted by Kate and Billy, who gave us a tour of their property, including the two-bedroom house that we get all to ourselves. That was two days ago, and our time here so far has been fantastic... but that’s another blog post. Welcome to Idaho!


The Grand Gallivant: Two Medicine, Glacier NP

After our hikes on the west side of the park, Zach and I decided that we should make a trip to the more easterly part, where the mountains are more dramatic and the hikes more intense. We didn’t want to drive nearly three hours to get to the most iconic part of Glacier, so we decided on the southeastern corner, a little area with few roads called Two Medicine. A ranger gave us some hiking suggestions, and off we drove, skirting the park’s southern edge on wide curving mountain roads. 

Two hours and a nice sing-along to Yellow Submarine later, we arrived at Two Medicine’s central hub, which consists of a camp store and a ranger station perched on the edge of a lake. As we stepped out of the car, a ferocious wind whipped about us, and we saw that the lake was covered in whitecaps. Still, the cool weather was so welcome after the muggy heat that we didn’t mind too much.

We ended up piecing together a route that generally looped around the main Two Medicine Lake, with a few spurs, both incidental and multi-mile, to visit waterfalls, scenic overlooks, and Upper Medicine Lake. The route was well over ten miles, so it took up all late morning and early afternoon, as we strolled through wetlands, huffed and puffed up steep switchbacks, and trekked through arid alpine forests. 

Near Upper Two Medicine Lake, the trail disappeared into a foot of water, and we had to hop up onto snowfields and find our way from there. Everywhere we looked, the gorgeous scenery felt overwhelming in the best possible way. 

After our hike, we chilled for a while in the camp store, looking out over the lake with its impossibly gorgeous scenery. It was a good day.