fb pixel

Log In

Reset Password

Timberline Lodge bird carving part of stimulus

PINE GROVE — John Zipprich had to crank.

The season's first big blast of snow barreled toward Mt. Hood that fourth weekend in October, and if Zip, as friends call him, didn't finish his enormous woodcarving fast, he'd never get it installed before full-bore winter delayed that tricky operation.

His elegant, angular bird, carved into a massive slab of Douglas fir and paid for with $4,500 in federal stimulus money, was bound for a place built more than 70 years ago by another government-driven economic impetus. And it's one that feels its weather: Timberline Lodge.

Destined for a prominent spot above a lodge front door, Zipprich's piece would be among the last and most visible projects accomplished since 2009, when Mt. Hood National Forest garnered $4.25 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds for Timberline.

The money is a drop in the bucket compared with the $787 billion in stimulus money distributed nationwide, including more than $2.7 billion in Oregon. But it gave lodge caretakers the chance to catch up on a hefty maintenance backlog.

Among other jobs, workers restored the National Historic Landmark's stone chimneys, upgraded plumbing, installed energy-efficient windows, improved the fire-alarm system and painted the exterior stem to stern.

As they scraped off coats of pale gray, painters found trouble: a disintegrating lintel, or header, over the Roosevelt Terrace door.

The nearly 15-foot long, 3-foot high slab is carved with what's commonly dubbed Thunderbird — the spirit of thunder and lightning that in Native American lore takes the shape of a great bird, probably a California condor. Some Warm Springs elders once indicated the lintel carving might, instead, be a butterfly.

Wings outstretched over a zigzag pattern, the figure appears to protect Timberline and the entire Cascade Range, as it has since the lodge was built between 1936 and 1938 in the Mt. Hood National Forest.

But this fall, it looked like it wouldn't survive another paint job, much less another winter.

Allie Wenzl, a U.S. Forest Service historian, got the call in September.

"I ran up there and looked and said, 'Uh oh,'" Wenzl recalls.

The lintel was crumbling. In the mountain's harsh elements, long slivers of rotten fir had fallen away. Crusty paint held together what was left of the carving.

Linny Adamson, Timberline's curator, had worried about its condition; workers repaired the lintel over the years, but time took it's toll.

Money to properly restore the lodge's art, she says, typically is tough to come by — ironic considering that Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal Works Progress Administration, which built Timberline, valued decorative arts and crafts as much as basic infrastructure.

When painters declined to slap another coat on the Thunderbird lintel because the wood was too far gone — the carving 70 percent deteriorated — something had to be done.

Change comes slowly to Timberline, planted in the scree and snow at 5,960 feet. Decisions frequently are made by committee, with input from the U.S. Forest Service, longtime lodge operator R.L.K. & Co., the nonprofit Friends of Timberline and the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office. Sometimes, opinions differ.

With the lintel, Adamson says, "the forest service wanted to cut the whole piece out," an option that sent shivers down her preservationist spine. A replacement made from yellow cedar would last longer, some argued, but the state's historians insisted on sticking with fir.

Adamson called Zipprich, who works out of his home studio now but for 15 years did all manner of repairs as part of the lodge's maintenance staff. He refinished furniture and carved decorative ram and bison heads that hang on the walls. Once, he sculpted a new nose for an Indian head decorating a door after someone chopped it off with an ice ax.

Zipprich, 58, told Adamson long ago that if the Thunderbird lintel ever needed replacing, he'd be happy to handle the job.

The time had come and he had to make it snappy. Winter loomed.

While Jerry Gomes, a Sandy contractor, bolted the laminated, clear vertical-grain slab together, Zipprich thought about how to replicate a carving for which no original drawings are known to exist. Even the carver's name is lost history.

At the lodge, Zipprich unfurled brown butcher paper over the lintel. Using a cranberry colored lumber crayon, he made a rubbing.

Back in his garage studio, just steps off Oregon 216, where the mountain's deep green gives way to the golden expanse of high desert, it took four guys including the broad-shouldered, barrel-chested Zipprich, to manhandle the hunk of fir onto sawhorses. He's not sure what it weighs, but estimates 600 to 800 pounds — the biggest and most important carving of his career.

"I feel honored," he says, "to be chosen to do this."

From the rubbing, he traced the double-groove design onto the fir and lined up wood-handled skews, bench knives, firmers and other tools. He crafted a guide so his skill saw would cut each long groove to a consistent depth.

Under a bright shop light hanging from the rafters, with the air smelling deliciously of fresh-cut wood, he got to work.

A gregarious fellow with a curly mop of salt-and-pepper hair and a mustache worthy of a milk ad, Zipprich spills his story in a gravelly voice.

Born in Los Gatos, Calif., he was small when his family moved to Tualatin, where his father was mayor in the 1960s. But when the family spent a blissful summer in a Mt. Hood cabin, "nobody wanted to go back," he remembers. The Zippriches moved to Welches and John never really left the Cascade slopes.

"He's always been a pretty prominent character," Adamson says. "People know him on the mountain."

Those who don't may know his work, from carvings of Oregon-bred Olympic skiers hanging on the wall at Charlie's Mountain View, the classic Government Camp watering hole, to the primitive-style signs in that unincorporated burg, the gateway to western Oregon's ski country. He's carved Tum-A-Lum Lumber Co.'s Indian-head logo, a Gifford Pinchot National Forest sculpture commemorating a Native American treaty, and newel posts shaped like beavers and bears, which resided in the Mt. Hood Cultural Center and Museum until they were stolen.

Mostly, the self-taught carver's work graces private homes.

"I always had a pocket knife when I was little," he says, "and just started whittling stuff."

Zipprich's sidelight: He travels internationally to test his skill in snow sculpture competitions, as he plans to this winter in Japan.

In 1992, he moved to Pine Grove on the mountain's dry side, and as a single dad raised his two teenagers there.

Look around the little mustard-colored home he bought back then for $12,000, plus one of his eagle carvings, and signs of Zipprich's creativity and scrounging abilities are everywhere.

Two seats from a long-gone Magic Mile chairlift live on as a porch swing, for instance. In the driveway sits a 1939 Dodge flatbed he picked up for $50, no extra charge for the rust. And in the back yard, a trailer cradles a sailboat he took in trade for a fish sculpture.

To make ends meet between sculpture commissions, Zipprich works part-time maintaining the grounds at Maupin's Imperial River Co.

But the last few weeks, with his lumpy old Labrador, Charcoal, by his side, he trained all his attention on the piece that will be seen by the roughly 1.9 million visitors who make their way to Timberline each year.

His days ran long as he traced, carved and coated the Thunderbird lentil in the same gray latex that colors the lodge. A copper cap will help protect it from the elements.

Zipprich crafted the new piece to bolt right over the old one, so that decades from now when someone removes his lentil for repairs, he or she will uncover a surprise: an unknown carver's elegant, angular artistry, a piece as original as Timberline itself.