The Bridger Canyon Whale

Angie Ripple  |  Thursday Feb. 27th, 2014

My first ascents up Bridger Canyon Drive to ski at Bridger Bowl began in 1996, most of them with my significant other Brian, and sometimes with some of our local friends. It was certainly within the first few trips up the canyon that the legend of “The Whale” was brought to my attention. Just over 11 miles from downtown Bozeman, now sitting high atop a 20 foot pole carved with the words “Guardian Spirit” sits the whale. The legend, thought to begin in the late 70s or early 80s, was told to me a bit differently than many I spoke to while researching for this story. The legend was passed on to me as something like “Hail the Whale!” as the vehicle I rode in was passing the whale going 55ish mph. “What?” “Hail the Whale; wave at the whale so it will bring more snow.” “Ok.” Salute. Rest assured, although I have been ‘hailing the whale’ for the past 18 years on my drive up the canyon instead of ignoring him on the way up and acknowledging him on the way down I have had no major injuries while skiing, and many epic days.

In this game of telephone we play sometimes things don’t get to the end quite the way they start, this is often the case with legendary tales. “We do not look at the whale on the way up. We salute it on the way home.” Kevin Wiesner, owner of PhD skis in Bozeman attests. Kevin has been friends with the son of the whales creator since they were both kids. George Rice, a former MSU professor of psychology, is the creator/carver of the roughly four foot wooden killer whale. A trip to the Pacific Northwest in the early 70’s stirred an interest for Rice in the whale motif created by the Native Americans there. The whale is a symbol of good fortune and well being. Animal totems in general were believed to have spiritual significance and watched over the family, clan, or tribe symbolizing their guardian spirit or helper. Upon his return to his home in Bridger Canyon George saw a large log on his property, and thought ‘I’ll carve a whale out of that’. In 1973 the unpainted carved whale was placed on a fence post just off the road, and so the Bridger Canyon whale saga began.

Although George Rice created the whale he did not create the legend as we know it today. Kevin at PhD mentioned the name Matt Crane to me, which led me to the crew at World Boards who consider Matt an “epic Bozeman legend” in his own rite. Matt, now living out of state, gave me his take on the whale legend, and a decent line to follow. “If I had to venture a guess as to the origination of the salute - I would probably attribute it to a group in the mid 80’s called “Wild Style Freestyle”. These were the forefathers of what is now the BSEF freestyle program. This group included the Papke brothers (Ron & Mike who is now BSEF Freestyle director), Mike Leslie, Curtis Johnson, Tony Gilpin & Mickey Price among others. The roots of the salute possibly go back further to a group in the 70’s known as the BBLPA. The members know who they are if their memories are intact.”

Tony Gilpin, one of the founding fathers of freestyle for the state of Montana, and current BSEF Freestyle coach, believes the superstition of the whale goes back before his time on the “Wild Style Freestyle” team, and before his rides on the ski bus beginning in the early 1980s. The “Wild Style” group rode the ski bus to Bridger Bowl together every weekend and holiday; a loud, rambunctious group of boys who would all look away from, or shield their eyes from, the whale on the way up the mountain. As soon as the bus was past the whale the crew would look back and pay their respects. As long as you didn’t look at the whale before you passed you could look back and still have a great day on the mountain. “It was a really big deal for everybody on the bus” Tony says, “I don’t think the kids on the team today associate the whale with a particular superstition.” He hasn’t heard much of the whale from current ski team kids they see it “more of a monument now, than a superstitious whale” he figures.

Mike Papke BSEF Freestyle director tells his story this way: “I am the youngest of 3 brothers. We would drive past the whale every weekend since I was 5. I could not put a year to [it] but I would say that for the past 30 years I have been paying respect to the whale. I personally believe that the original whale had more powers. [Before the whale was stolen, dismantled and put back together]. I remember being a cocky 18 year old, and member of the US Freestyle ski team thinking that nothing mysterious could effect my day. I flipped it off on the way up and had the worst day of skiing of my life. There were no injuries but everything I did went wrong. I have been a freestyle coach for the Bridger Ski Foundation for the past 20 years and all of the athletes that have been a part of my program are aware of the whale. This tradition of the spirit of the whale has been a fun superstition; if you believe in it or not. I personally always do not look at it on the way up and salute it on the way down!

The “original whale” Mike refers to, the one placed by George Rice on the fence post just off the Bridger Canyon road, has been stolen a couple of times. In 1999 public outcry for the return of the whale helped find it, in four pieces, on the back deck of an MSU students home. The whale was returned to the Rice’s, and George put it back together, painted it teeth and all, and placed it further back on the 
property atop the “Guardian Spirit” post.

It is assumed that George Rice carved his whale to look over his own property and family, but the Bridger Canyon whale has become a much larger symbol that has inspired immense respect from an entire community and generations of Bridger Bowl skiers.

A big thank you to Glen Stark for suggesting this story, Ruth Hall current custodian of the whale, Kevin at PhD, Matt Crane, Marc Parent, Tony Gilpin and Mike Papke for their input, and George Rice for allowing us to all share his whale.   

Angie Ripple is doing her best to ski her Bridger Bowl pass off this season in between wrangling her three small children and making sure Bozeman Magazine gets to you each month. “Hail the Whale!”

About the Author(s)