The wooden whale that’s looked toward the Bridgers for more than 40 years and gained mythical status among locals is back. While the connection of a creature of the sea to those who play in the mountains is unclear, its return nonetheless has Bozeman skiers rejoicing.

It was 1996. Kevin Sullivan was in a car loaded with gear and the type of people who pray for snow when he was told to avoid eye contact with the sculpted whale. Perched on a 20-foot-tall pole, its wooden eyes pointed to their path along Bridger Canyon Road.

The story was, look at the whale and risk a good day on the mountain. And after leaving Bridger Bowl, show the guardian respect with a salute on the way home.

“I’m not a superstitious man, but I did what I was told,” Sullivan said.

With that, he fell into Bridger Bowl skier folklore. Like most, Sullivan can’t explain why he does it, but he religiously sticks to the routine. So does his 10-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son.

“I didn’t even teach them,” Sullivan said. “I just asked one day if they knew about the whale and they did.”

George Rice carved the giant of the sea in 1973, inspired by a trip to British Columbia. When he put it in his front yard, those who made the trek to Bridger Bowl built their own tales. Leave it to Bozeman snow lovers to include a wooden whale in the season’s ceremony.

Logan Leachman picked up the legend as a Bozeman transplant in 1992. When he and his wife Jamie bought the home that serves as the whale’s base last year, they realized it was hurting.

“We were sort of inherited guardians of the whale,” he said. “I have no idea how it started, it’s a completely random, unique thing on the way up to Bridger Bowl. But it’s now a fun piece of Bridger and Bozeman, a tradition.”

Seasons of snow and rain weathered its body. Its features softened and its wood turned to dust where birds burrowed into what was once its all-knowing eyes.

“You could put your hand through it,” Leachman said. “We started thinking of restoring it but didn’t dare touch it during ski season.”

When the snow melted, the whale came down and a sign “gone fishing, back by winter” went in its place. It’s not the first time the whale left its post.

The last repair was in 1999, when its original carver Rice gave it some patchwork, a new tail and back. The whale’s gone through at least four repairs, been stolen twice and burned once, according to Chronicle whale reports of the past.

“Rumor has it, the times it was stolen it didn’t snow,” Leachman said.

Leachman, a senior partner at JLF and Associates Inc., recently began working with Dovetail Construction in Bozeman. Just so happens, Sullivan works for the construction company and is a hobbyist wood carver in his time off.

Dovetail donated the time and labor as Leachman put up the parts to return the tradition to its full shape. Or at least, something like a 300-pound cousin to what’s watched over those heading to the mountain. Most of the whale of the past couldn’t be restored. It was worn enough Sullivan mistook the once orca for a pilot whale, a close relation to the “killer whale.”

It took Sullivan roughly 70 hours to build his model and work a block of Alaskan yellow cedar with chainsaws and chisels. Though the model before it was hollow, he built the current whale solid to last through Montana winters.

Sullivan added his own take on the whale’s personality with a wide smile and creased “wise, aged eyes.” He was able to keep the tail from 1999 and the original sculptor’s signature that crosses its belly, right above the addition of Sullivan’s name.

Tuesday morning, a crane lifted the newest guardian into the sky with the snowy Bridgers as its backdrop.

Logan Leachman’s 23-year-old son Chandler stood to the side with his camera in hand. He’s looked to that spot since he was 7.

“It looks good, a bit different. It will take a few seasons for it to be the same whale,” Chandler said.

He said with the whale back, the ski season can start. Those ready to share in the legend, remember not to look for it until the trip home.

Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628. Follow her on Twitter @K_Hought.

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