A To Z Alaska-Style: Day 2 B Is For The Bears of The Bremner

There is no place more beautiful on Earth than The Bremner Gold Mining District. I say that and the National Park Service (the land manager for The Bremner) will hate me forever for it. Why? Because you might want to visit and that would be counter to their management plan…

So, for starters, I should mention how I came to know The Bremner and why Bears are the other “B” of this post. I’m a former Parkie. I’m a recovering Parkie, but that’s not the point of this post. In 2004 I went out to The Bremner with NPS Historian Geoff Bleakley and NPS Landscape Architect Samson Ferreira to conduct a preliminary analysis of artifacts curated on the sub-arctic landscape and assess how monitoring processes and procedures could preserve these mining artifacts while allowing visitors a “sense of discovery” (NPS-speak) when coming upon places like Yellow Band Mining Camp and the Lucky Girl and Sherriff Mines.

The Bremner is remote. Access is either on foot—walking the 35 miles outside of McCarthy, Alaska, or by bush plane that lands on one of the more unnerving landing strips I’ve ever encountered (just south of the one that gave Alaskan Bush Pilot “Mudhole” Smith his moniker). Timing is everything, and as the clouds move in and the fog descends, sometimes getting out of The Bremner is as tricky as getting out of Southeast in the winter.

It’s tundra (and alders), the main drainage is Golconda Creek, which contains some of the sweetest “you don’t have to boil this stuff” water I’ve ever tasted. I was able to go back in 2005 with a conservator (and to pick up the data from my monitors) and NPS Mining Historian Logan Hovis.

We stayed at the Yellow Band Bunkhouse, and that was part of the real beauty of The Bremner—a wonderful Artist & Writer was the Site Hostess. I packed in eggs (because she needed eggs) and broccoli, sugar snaps, spinach, and rhubarb from my garden, and spices and, um, sun dried tomatoes, and everything else she requested. Hikers who happened upon the Yellow Band Bunkhouse after days and days of eating freeze-dried and powered and jerked whatever were in for a treat at what became known as The Bremner Café. At the bottom of this post, you’ll find the recipe for the Broccoli Sauté from The Bremner Café.

Beyond everything, The Bremner is a gold mining landscape. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places, having been landed there by the National Park Service in March of 2000. For a quick history—there were two historic mining periods in the area—the earlier epoch, dating from 1902 until about 1931 was primarily placer mining (streams), while the second epoch, from 1931 until 1942, was characterized by lode mining (diggings).

The Lucky Girl Mine and Mill dates from that later period, as does the Sherriff Mine (1939-1942). 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The mine I didn’t visit is The Yellow Band Mine (not to be confused with The Yellow Band Camp).

Dating from the early 1930s, the Yellow Band Mine’s structures include a tramline (if for nothing else, you have to go there to see the insanity of the tramlines) and tent structures stretched above low-lying rock-piled walls. As for the earlier mining areas, the most prominent is The Golconda Mining Cluster (1911-1914), which is a hydraulic site along Golconda Creek (where they used pressurized water to blast away the rock—not with the “Giants” you see in the old photographs, but pretty close).

There are bears in The Bremner. They’ve got both kinds—Black Bears and Brown Bears.

In 2004, my then-four-year-old daughter, before I boarded the plane in Chitina, put her hand on my arm and whispered, “I scared of bears.” I knew what she meant. She meant she was scared a bear was going to eat her mom. I kissed her cheek and whispered that line I always paraphrase from Gone With The Wind: “Mama can shoot straight if she doesn’t have to shoot far…” Actually, as a prerequisite to going to The Bremner, our team had to shotgun-qualify under the tutelage of the NPS Rangers. Turns out mama can shoot straight even when it is quite far and she has to combat load that last round….

The appeal for the bears in The Bremner is two-fold: there are blueberries EVERYWHERE. Unholy hell, that was a draw for me, too! But, the second draw is Brown Bear-specific: Parkie squirrels.

Now, I always thought they were called “Parkie Squirrels” because they lived in a National Park (yes, I’m an idiot). It turns out they’re called that because they’re the type of squirrel the Natives use to make parkas. The reason the bears so desperately need them is one of those “nature-is-kinda-warped-like-that” things: without the Parkie Squirrels, the bears will die. Yes. Die. The squirrels contain an enzyme the bears need in order to survive. Get a lot of Parkie Squirrels together and you’ll find a place crawling with Brown Bears—especially toward Fall (which begins in late-July in The Bremner) when the bears are gorging themselves on everything. As it turns out, I only saw one bear (a little black bear), and it was far away on the side of a far slope. I did, however, learn a little bit about hiking etiquette when I called out to Geoff and Samson as we hacked our way through a tangle of alders, “Hey! Is that a bear?!” They started and spun back toward me thoroughly alarmed, and then looked off to where I was pointing. I smiled sheepishly, “Um…waaaay over there…?” Not since Samson had run off through the tundra, bouncing across the stones of one of the creeks with Geoff muttering something about “shooting that boy in the kneecaps” had Geoff greeted one of us with such an icy stare. I probably should send another email to apologize …. Again…

The Bremner is (ahem) the location of the Online Novel I’m writing. There is a hike that takes about 10 days from Iceberg Lake into Yellow Band Camp. I got the 1,000 calories/day idea from Geoff because he and a friend of his made the hike doing something calorically similar.  Somehow, I don’t think they had these results. Here’s hoping it’s as scary as I’m seeing it at the moment. And, here’s hoping I’ll be able to go back out there and not be terrified as the fog closes in and the critters come out….

Broccoli Saute from The Bremner Café:

2 heads of broccoli separated into florets

2 TBPS olive oil

3 cloves garlic, smashed

Tumeric and Kosher Salt to taste

¼ cup of sun dried tomatoes (with some liquid)

½ cup of shelled walnuts (chopped)

Best cooked over a pocket-rocket, best served in the wilderness with lots of laughter & friendship.