Uniquely Basque; Volunteers restore Whiskey Creek shepherd’s camp | SierraSun.com
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Uniquely Basque; Volunteers restore Whiskey Creek shepherd’s camp

Sherry Mays

The Basque culture has been a part of American history since the 1800s but it remains unknown to many.

The University of Nevada, Reno, is specifically addressing the importance of this mountainous culture and how it has become a part of everyday American life.

“Most people know about our food, but nothing about our culture,” said Jose Mallea, UNR’s Basque Studies professor.

Eating at Basque restaurants is one way to experience a part of the culture, another way to is to visit the Whiskey Creek sheep camp in the Granite Chief Wilderness, four miles in from the Five Lakes trailhead in Alpine Meadows.

The camp, which was first settled with sheep and herders in 1909, was later developed with the addition of a residential cabin, a storage cabin, and a uniquely Basque oven in 1954.

The Ibarra brothers, Juanito and Severino, who now reside in Reno, helped to build the camp in 1954.

Born in Navarre, Spain, the brothers came to the United States in 1952 and quickly joined the sheep herding effort that Basque people are famous for. Both brothers retired from the sheep herding trade and began working in Reno with Sierra Pacific Power Co. and Helms, respectively.

The camp, which remained a main stop for sheep herders coming in from the coast until the 1970s, sits on U.S. Forest Service land. The camp was recently questioned by the government as to its importance and cultural value. The Truckee Ranger District and its archaeologists spoke up and pointed to the incredible cultural value that the cabin and surrounding camp holds, USFS archaeologist Carrie Smith said.

Smith took on the fight against removing the cabins and oven.

“This site, unlike other hut systems in the Sierra, holds unique cultural values,” she said. “The oven, alone, is a unique Basque structure. We need to protect more of these types of sites.”

Mallea agreed.

“It is so exciting to find structures like this in such good shape,” he said. “I hope more people can learn about the camp and the Basque culture.”

This past winter left the camp in disrepair. A tree toppled over during a storm and demolished the roof of the storage-type cabin. With the help of the USFS, the North American Basque Organization, based in Elko, Nev. found volunteers to help with the repairs.

Smith facilitated the venture by coordinating the efforts, but left the real repairs to the Basque volunteers.

“This is really their project,” Smith said. “We are here to help them, but we don’t want to get in their way.”

Although the six Basque men and one boy working on cabin repairs came from Elko, Winnemucca and Reno, they worked with a ferocious sense of camaraderie. As soon as the men set up their camp in the trees of Whiskey Creek, they unloaded their tools and got to work.

A Successful Restoration

Mallea said the weekend was a great success.

“We accomplished everything we wanted to,” he said. “And we sang around the campfire until we were almost asleep.”

The sense of team effort and hard work permeated the camp. Two men from the USFS Forest Hill office joined the effort, as well as four archaeologists and two members of the Back Country Horsemen of Nevada. The latter packed in supplies for the weekend with two saddle horses, four pack horses and three separate trips along the five-mile trail.

The volunteers rebuilt the storage cabin’s roof and door, fixed the main cabin’s door and built a hatch for the oven, which sits in the front of the camp like a granite soldier.

“The oven made this camp uniquely Basque,” Smith said. “The architecture is special.”

The oven, which is built of granite and lined with red bricks, sits low to the ground with a metal roof to deflect the snow. Mallea said these ovens are rare finds.

“We need to protect ovens like these,” he said. “I met a man (Poulsen) in Squaw Valley and he told me there used to be an oven just like this in the meadow. I wish he was alive to show me where it once was.”

The archaeologists assisted with work around the base of the cabins. Smith said they shoveled away the dirt to help direct water from the wooden foundations.

“We want to help keep this camp in good condition so many people can come and enjoy its history,” she said.

In an attempt to help maintain the good quality of the camp located off of the Pacific Crest Trail, the USFS has restricted camping within 200 feet of the cabins. In the past, horsemen and campers compacted the land around the cabins with their animals and equipment to the point where no vegetation could grow, Smith said. Today, the grasses are growing naturally and the only signs of improper camping are the deformities left on the surrounding trees from tethering animals.

“The camp looks so much better than it used to,” Smith said. “The soil is coming back to life.”

Not only are the grasses around the Basque camp growing, so is the interest in Basque culture.

UNR is the only university with a Basque studies program.

“We are offering history classes and some literature classes now,” Mallea said. “The interest in Basque information is growing.”

Mallea said Basque people originated in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. They lived in the mountains and mostly herded.

“That is why the Basque culture remained such a mystery in America,” Mallea said. “We are quiet people.”

He said the first Basque immigrants probably came to America in the 1600s with Coronado from Spain.

“The Basque had ships and the Spanish needed them for expeditions,” he said. “The Basque went with the Spanish and were the first to bring sheep to America.”

Mallea said the Basque are also famous for using lots of garlic in their cooking.

“Everyone thinks that the Italians are the only people that use garlic,” he said. “Well, we use more. So much, we can’t live without it. Garlic ended up in the grocery stores because of the Basque.”


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