Restoring Basque culture in the Granite Chief Wilderness
A second, more intensive and involved attempt to restore and protect traces of Basque culture in the American west is in progress this week in the Granite Chief Wilderness area.
The Whiskey Creek sheep camp, located four miles in from the Five Lakes trailhead in Alpine Meadows, is home to a unique Basque sheepherder camp. The camp, which was first settled by herders in the early 1900s, was furnished with a residential cabin, a storage cabin and a Basque oven, built with Old World craftsmanship.
According to U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Carrie Smith and University of Nevada, Reno Basque Studies professor and historian Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe, sites like Whiskey Creek help to preserve the role Basques played in the development of the American west and an important piece of their culture.
“This was a place where Basque sheepherders and a camp tender was based during summer months,” said Smith. “For me, the Basque people really contributed greatly to the development of the American West. They’re not really recognized for this part in the development because they were not in a high-profile industry. They have this hidden history. Saving places like this and projects like this really recognizes their place in American history and I think that’s important.”
Traditionally, these camps served as summer bases, where camp tenders could store supplies and bake bread every few days. They would use pack animals to deliver bread and other supplies to their herders once or twice a week.
“It’s (Whiskey Creek) one of the few intact sheep camps in the Sierra. It’s even more unique because its at such a high elevation,” Smith said.
Two summers ago, Smith and Mallea-Olaetxe organized the first restoration project, where volunteers from the North American Basque Organization and U.S. Forest Service employees hiked in to the camp to remove a large fallen tree from the storage cabin, repair roofs and window hinges and dig a small ditch around the structures to help prevent snow damage at the base of the structures.
This year, NABO volunteers, volunteers from the Basque country, and Passport In Time (U.S. Forest Service) volunteers hiked four miles to join Smith and Mallea-Olaetxe in a week-long effort to replace the rotten logs at the base of the structures.
“This is the biggest effort and the end of the effort of restoration (for this site),” said Mallea-Olaetxe.
The crew of volunteers jacked the residential cabin up on 12 20-pound jacks on Monday and also cut trees to create new logs, with which they will replace the rotten logs.
The work is intensive, largely due to the fact that the volunteers can only use hand tools. Because of the camp’s remote position in a designated wilderness area, no mechanical tool such as chain saws are allowed.
One tool, a huge cross-cut saw that must be used by at least two people, is known as the “misery whip” because it is so hard on the back.
“We’re using different muscles than ever before, but it’s not too hard of work,” said Oyvind Frock, a 71-year-old PIT volunteer from Reno. “This is the first time I’ve done a lot of things I haven’t done before … carrying logs and such.”
One of Frock’s favorite things about this project is learning from the Basque volunteers.
“They’re practicing their English and I’m practicing my Spanish,” he said. “I grew up with Basques in Phoenix, so I’ve been familiar with them all my life.”
Throughout the rest of the week, the group will work hard to replace the logs, which will have to be shaven down to fit with the rest of the structures. They will also dig larger ditches around each structure and make other small repairs.
According the Basque historian and writer Nancy Zubiri, the survival of the Whiskey Creek site is unusual because the two structures and the oven were slated for demolition in 1992 because the area’s wilderness designation does not allow for man-made structures. But Mallea-Olaetxe and other Forest Service employees successfully argued for their protection.
“For at least 100 years, the Basque and the federal government haven’t been the best of friends. The Basques were accused of being hard on the land. Now, they work together,” Mallea-Olaetxe said. “Artifacts can become historically significant over a period of 50 years.”
Later this week, the group will bake bread in the unique Basque oven, a symbol of their hard work for helping to preserve the site.
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