Inyo Mountains - Beekeeper of McElvoy Canyon

Desert Mysteries:
The Beekeeper of McElvoy Canyon

by Wendell W. Moyer (1994?)

The mighty canyons located on the east side of the Inyo Mountains are truly wonders of nature. Over eons the sparse precipitation of the area has carved out these steep, deep, often narrow tortuous gorges. Originating high up along the 10,000 foot Inyo ridge, they snake their way down the eastern escarpment to the 1,100 foot Saline Valley floor in a mere four miles -- as the crow flies. The terrain through which they are cut is about as rugged, remote, and generally inaccessible as any place in the continental United States outside of Alaska. Despite the aridity, many of the canyons have year-round water flows through long sections, although this water rarely reaches the valley floor as surface water.

For the average "tourist" only the mouths of these canyons or short distances up from there can be appreciated due to the ever-present waterfalls (both wet and dry) which are often virtually impassible. Access to the upper reaches of these canyons is limited for the most part to those few hardy individuals possessed of strong nerves and a fair degree of technical rock climbing skills. Thus, each of the great canyons has the intrigue of the unknown. What's up there? Where does it go? What secrets are hidden within the rocky shrouds? It is safe to say that few people indeed have ever penetrated their interiors.

Of the eight or so major eastern Inyo canyons my favorite by far is McElvoy. A good trail leads up into the canyon on the south side bringing you in about one quarter mile to the beautiful fern grotto -- a towering overhanging wall covered with maidenhair ferns, continually bathed in a gentle shower of water from a waterfall high up on the wall. Monarch butterflies are frequently seen in the area. Year-round water flows through the canyon in a rapidly moving stream from the upper reaches of the canyon high on the slopes of Mt. Inyo continuously to just beyond the mouth in Saline Valley.

Another half mile up the canyon, on a well-used trail through a jungle of vegetation, and up over a couple of rock falls, brings you to the first "serious" waterfall. It is a moss-covered nearly vertical cascade dropping some 50 feet to a 10-foot diameter pool at its base. Here is encountered the first of the mysterious ladders of McElvoy canyon -- ladders constructed of two strands of heavy baling wire with 1 1/2 half inch diameter log rungs. I remember well the first time I saw the strange wire ladder in the early 80's. I was both amazed and intrigued. Most first-timers there also have the same reaction. Who made this unusual ladder and where does it lead to? The ladder was in remarkably good condition at that time, although I didn't feel like trusting my life to it. Could it have been installed by miners? Serious mining had ceased in that area many years before, but then who knows how long a ladder of that type would hold up in that desert environment.

Inquiring to the "old timers" of the valley (Saline) about the strange ladder, I was informed that they were, in fact a series of ladders up the waterfalls of the canyon (no one knew exactly how many, nor had they seen more than the first two themselves); and that they were all installed by the "Beekeeper" -- a peculiar, hermit-like recluse about whom no one had any reliable information. According to the talk, however, this strange fellow was believed to have lived up in the canyon, occasionally accompanied by his brother. He was known to have kept bees since a case of mason jars full of local flower honey had been found cached near the mouth of the canyon a few years earlier. The beautifully constructed stone hut on the north side of the canyon mouth was also reputed to be his work.

Fascinated by the story of the mysterious Beekeeper and eager to see first hand the upper unknown reaches of this great canyon, I organized a climbing expedition a few years later. Our party was composed of two old friends (Doug McLean and Mike Riley) and me - - Doug McLean possessing the climbing skill necessary to keep the other two of us out of trouble if it came to that - - and it did!

Equipped with full rock climbing gear (rope, chocks, carabineers, slings, piton, etc.), we started up the canyon one fine October morning. The going was difficult and slow right from the beginning (since we were establishing our own new route and definitely not using the Beekeeper's ladders which had deteriorated noticeably by then.) The end of the first day found us high up in the heart of the canyon at the base of the beautiful 4th serious (ladder-containing) waterfall. It had taken all day to work our way up and over the three lower falls -- the 3rd of which had to be close to 150 feet in height! The Beekeeper/Ladder Builder had to be one very brave man with nerves of steel to climb that one -- believe me!

On the second day, we finally located a Class 4 route around the otherwise impassible waterfalls # 4 and #5 (very close together) -- without resorting to installing a bolt ladder. The going got easier -- except for the ever-present thorny jungle of vegetation that filled the canyon floor. Three more relatively easier ladder falls finally broke us out of the deep, tight portion of the lower canyon into the upper more open and accessible region.

Continuing up the canyon for a mile or so, passing the remains of two obviously quite old stone miners' huts, we were astonished to see before us, protruding from the center of the vegetation-choked valley floor, a stove pipe! With a little effort we located the badly overgrown but well-constructed stone pathway leading to a hut.

Upon entering we all had that eerie feeling of guilt -- that we were intruding into someone's home; the hut was in such good shape. The single room structure measuring about 10 X 12 feet was constructed of meticulously placed stones forming the walls. The roof was formed from tree boughs still mostly intact. In the center was a small pot-bellied stove with stove pipe extending above. Along the walls were roughly built but entirely functional table, bench, cabinets, and bed. Two hand-made stools and a chair constituted the furnishing.

Except for the badly overgrown vegetation surrounding the hut, and the debris,dropping, and nests of the present rodent occupants, one got the feeling that the owner might appear at any time. The wall shelves were stocked with food stuffs such as beans and flour, as well as the usual condiments, all stored in sealed glass bottles. Utensils, pots,pans, and tools of all sorts were neatly stored in their proper places. On the bed constructed of logs with split wooden staves was a bedroll somewhat the worse for wear due to the resident pack rat. Outside we observed many ore samples and crystal clusters commonly found associated with mining sites. But, more significantly, we also found four wooden beehives boxes of the type used by professional apiarists. We had, indeed, located the home of the Beekeeper of McElvoy Canyon.

Who was the mysterious owner and builder of the incredible ladders and this hut? Had he vacated the area or was he only temporarily gone? When was he last here? No direct evidence was present: no names, no records, no pictures. The only clues as to the identity of the hut's owner were a couple of publications on the care and tending of bees and a number of copies of "The Watch Tower", that all too familiar tract of the Jehovah's Witnesses dated in the mid-60's.

Proceeding on up the canyon another mile or so, we came upon the remains of the old McElvoy Mine and mill site. This site was also quite a surprise with its extensive and intricate stone work rivaling that of the Inca's in places. The remains of what was once a fine stone house with a large beautiful fitted stone fireplace still stood, although obviously abandoned for some considerable time. Evidence of mining and ore processing were scattered about over a wide area.

The ore vein that attracted the miners to the area originally was still evident. Angling diagonally upward on the north side of the canyon, the vein had been worked at the surface where it was exposed and by several tunnels sunk into the hillside. Slag from the mining littered the hillside.

While poking around the area, what do we find in one of the more snug and protected mine tunnels but another cache of the mysterious Beekeeper -- unmistakable evidence. In addition to another bed roll on top of a fine layer of soft straw, as well as food and other provisions, we found an "official" Beekeeper's pith helmet, complete with netting, a number of other items associated with beekeeping, and two cases of glass mason jars, all in perfect condition.

The return to Saline Valley was accomplished in a mere 8 hours -- compared to more than twice that time for the ascent. It helps when you know the route and have a good rope. A s climbs go, it was a good one (although we always say, "any climb that you can walk away from is a good one"), but in this case, especially the memories lingered on. We had not really solved the mystery of McElvoy Canyon. The whole story could not be known until more was known about the elusive Beekeeper himself. I was now on a mission.

My mission has taken several years and some effort: talks with the area "old timers", a number of letters and finally some help and prodding from the Lone Pine chapter of the Jehovah's Witnesses. I am now happy to report that I have actually located the real and true Beekeeper of McElvoy Canyon -- live and in person. To be more specific, he is one Marion Howard, c/o General Delivery, Lone Pine, California.

Like most legends in their own time, the average person meeting Marion Howard and not familiar with his exploits probably would not be greatly impressed. Akin to the ignorant people of the Bishop area referring to the great Norman Clyde, that renowned Grand Master of Sierra Nevada climbing, as "Filthy McNasty" in the flagging years of his life (this derogatory sobriquet no doubt alluding to the fact that he was reputed to neither bathe nor change his clothes with any regularity) various unflattering terms possibly also could be directed toward Mr. Howard. In years past, terms like "vagabond", "tramp", or even "bum" might have been used. But now-a-days, with our new vision of social awareness, he would likely be labeled as "homeless" or societally disadvantaged." While all of the preceding epithets are technically correct, I feel that they do the man a grave disservice. A far better description, in my opinion, is "independent soul" or "free spirit."

Marion Howard is now approaching 84 years old, lives in the Owens Valley, near Lone Pine in a funky, small, old round-shaped trailer with (would you believe) a stove pipe prominently extending from the center of the roof. This "home" is relocated to various sites in the Owens Valley as necessitated by the BLM or other forms of officialdom requesting a change of venue.

When I met with him recently, he was located on the east side of the Owens Valley, at the end of the Manzanar-Reward road (about a mile from the Inyos) -- a site with little to recommend it except that "the price is right." Parked nearby was his venerable and now trade-mark old yellow pickup truck. With his trusty truck he essentially makes his living these days scouring highway 395 for items of value: Cans, bottles, plastic, etc, I am told by the locals that he can be seen with regularity along the roads there. Contrary to my expectations of a taciturn, retiring, hermit-like fellow, I found him to be pleasant, open, and quite ready to discuss his "exploits," as best he can remember them now. Our conversation during the hour and a half period I spent with him rambled over a number of subjects. Summarized below are some of the more cogent details.

- Born and raised in a small town in NW Pennsylvania about 20 miles from Lake Erie. Had (at least) two brothers, who also came west and a sister still living in Pennsylvania.

- Drafted into the Army during World War II and served 28 months in Iran. A reluctant soldier.

- After the war worked several years for Chrysler in Detroit. Didn't like the ides of bosses "watching him."

- Moved West (date as yet unknown) to the Lone Pine area where he has resided more or less ever since.

- Worker summers as an itinerant, seasonal farm laborer in the strawberry fields of Oregon. Winter months were spent in the Lone Pine/Inyo Mountains area.

- Lived for some time in a mine tunnel at or near the Silver Spur mine -- "Board Flume Canyon" -- his description for the area named for the wooden board flume built by a miner to transport water to his cabin.

- Although a long time resident, he is never-the-less ignorant of the official names of many of the prominent Inyo features and of the trail system. He is apparently unaware of the Pat Keyes trail, among others, and refers to McElvoy Canyon as "McElroy."

- First went up and over the Inyos into McElvoy Canyon in the middle 60's. Evidently climbed "overland," meaning that he did not use established trails, either up the west side or down the east.

- Was active in the McElvoy Canyon area from the later '60s up until about 1980.

- Originally was unaware of a road in Saline Valley until he observed car lights down in the valley at night.

- Built the hut in upper McElvoy single-handedly. Was somehow able to move some good sized rocks in the process.

- Decided to put in the waterfall ladders as maybe an easier way to get to and from his hut.

- Traveled back and forth across the Inyos "about once a week" throughout the winter months crossing the ridge at the highest saddle between Mt. Inyo and Keynot Peak. The crossing required one day each way.

- Snow in the mountains was often a problem but did not inhibit his regular crossings. Claims to have had to crawl many times through the snow using pine boughs for support. Can recall several memorable (difficult) snow crossings.

- Descending into the Owens Valley, it was his custom to spend the remainder of the night near the Lone Pine dump, lighting a fire for warmth.

- No pack animals were used at any time. A wheel barrow was used on the Lone Pine side to move his supplies from Lone Pine to the base of the mountains. From there everything was carried on his back, mostly contained in a big, old duffel bag thrown over his shoulder. "That way you can throw it down and rest when you get tired."

- Made a good effort to raise honey bees and did so for a while but they were "done-in by the wax moths." "Bad place, those Inyos, for wax moths."

- The ladders were constructed and placed by him single handedly over a period of a few years. He hand carried all wire for the ladders from Lone Pine over the Inyos to the sites.

- All ladders were constructed from the top down -- "just lowering them until they finally hit bottom." An effort was made to keep them out of the water, although he agreed that "you got plenty wet when you used them."

- Was very modest about his courage in using the ladders but admitted to at least two close calls: once when a kinked wire strand of ladder #3 (the 150 foot long one) broke when he was half way up; and another time in the dead of winter, with much ice in the canyon, when he "shouldn't of kicked that big icicle."

- Had two brothers, Brian and Andy, who accompanied him on occasion. Neither contributed significantly to his projects.

- Constructed the hut at the mouth of McElvoy Canyon. Built the hut around some really big stones, but otherwise moved all others by himself. Brother Andy may have helped here. This hut was not used much. A freak wind blew the roof off and it was never repaired.

- With the ladders in place and trail through the vegetation of the canyon clipped (used hedge clippers), he was able to make the trip from the canyon mouth to his upper hut in about half a day.

- Considered spending the summers there also, but decided against it. "That sun in Saline was so hot and bright it kind of dazzled me. I figured Oregon couldn't be any worse."

- Commenting about his simple, back-country life style, he remarked that if it wasn't for the (generous) welfare system of the cities, "there would be more people out here like me."

- When asked why he stopped going into the mountains, he replied: "Got a pick-up truck; pickup truck doesn't climb mountains."

Yes, Marion Howard is certainly one of the most interesting individuals I have ever met -- peculiar for sure. I suppose that there are people who might be less charitable in their comments about him, even possibly questioning his sanity. However, having done some hiking in the Inyos over a period of years, I am honestly quite impressed with his accomplishments and an unabashed personal admirer. We don't have many people like Marion Howard anymore. That kind of individualism, resourcefulness, self reliance, and character is all too rare in our world today.

Unwittingly, Marion Howard has, by his efforts, greatly enriched the history and lore of that unique range of mountains, the Inyos. It is a sad commentary that today with our heightened awareness of the environment and more rigorously enforced government regulations there will be no more Beekeepers of McElvoy Canyon (or others like him) out there in the Inyos anymore -- or, for that matter, in any of our other wilderness areas. Yes, another passing era.

I am proud to say that I know Marion Howard. His remarkable efforts in the Inyos, I think, should be better known and appreciated. I hope that through this writing I can contribute to making this happen.

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