Gimme shelter

Some Routt County residents call traditional teepees home


— Johnny, Gigi and Josie Walker peeked through the front door of their 18-foot teepee 15 years ago and watched a bear guzzle a box of wine and pass out drunk.

"When he first hit, he hit the jackpot. Once they hit the jackpot, there's no going back," Walker said.

That night from the corner of the teepee, 6-year-old Josie asked if she could sleep with mom and dad.

The Walkers named the bear Buffy, so the children wouldn't be afraid. And every night they went to their teepee, they would all tell Buffy to go away because they were arriving.

Their older daughter, Chula, was not there for the first bear incident, but became familiar with Buffy's routine visits.

Walker said the bear came back every night for about two weeks looking to get drunk on more wine. When a dog barked at the bear, Buffy growled right back.

It was only then that the Walkers became a bit anxious.

Walker found the bladder from the box wine high up in the woods weeks later. Buffy finally had left.

Recently, Gigi was up at the camp alone when a bear came and ate all of her European chocolate.

"She was mad because the bear ate all her chocolate. She turned around and the bear was right there. She just started screaming and yelling and stomping her feet. The bear finally left," Walker said of Gigi's experience.

The Walkers have owned a teepee on their two acres of land in Steamboat Springs for 19 years.

Walker said their children were raised up there when Gigi was a "stay-at-teepee mom."

And just like a typical American household, the Walkers go home to their teepee in the late afternoon, cook dinner, sleep and wake up and head to their jobs in the morning.

"We live there three months out of the year," Walker said of their summer house. "It's a way of being really outdoors all summer long, instead of just a long weekend. We even wash our dishes out there."

The Walkers built a fire pit outside of their teepee and a kitchen suitable for cooking a family dinner.

Walker said they don't set fires inside their teepee because of the smoky scent that lingers indoors.

Traditionally, Walker said teepees were built to have fires inside. Teepees have an air space around the base where the canvas cover is held up off the ground.

The interior liner of the teepee runs to the ground and goes up the inside about 6 feet.

"The air goes up the liner and creates a natural draft," Walker said.

Gary Hertzog of Dead Bird Tipi Company said the gap created between the liner and the canvas creates an updraft.

If a fire exists inside the teepee, the smoke naturally rises and escapes through the smoke flaps.

Liners also diminish the sight into the teepee from the outside.

"It creates a certain privacy," Hertzog said.

Lodgepole pines are used for teepee poles because they are numerous in this area, Hertzog said. Poles typically are about 3 inches in diameter at the base and end with a tip no bigger than the diameter of a human thumb.

Teepees begin with three poles laid on the ground in the shape of a tripod.

The tripod is wrapped at the top with a rope and lifted to create a three-pronged structure standing on the ground. After the tripod is set, more poles are added to the structure to create more stability.

Hertzog said a 16- to 18-foot teepee typically needs about 15 poles. Poles need to be about 4 feet longer than the length of the diameter of the teepee (a 16-foot teepee has 20-foot poles).

"(Poles) are steeper in back than in the front," Hertzog said, making the analogy of how a shirt is usually tighter against the back of the neck and looser in the front. "You want it tight back there so the rain doesn't come in."

A lifting pole sticks out behind the teepee that aids in raising the other poles.

The canvas is rolled up and attached to the lifting pole.

As the canvas unravels, it drapes the rear of the teepee and is pulled around the poles like a cape.

Hertzog said it takes him about a month to build a teepee due to his full-time job at The Industrial Company.

Teepee building is a hobby that comes off like a passion.

Hertzog and the Walkers are not the only residents of Routt County who find a certain mystique with teepees.

Six miles north on Twentymile Road, Susan Shoemaker's 18-foot teepee sits adjacent to her home and a bountiful garden of onion, bokchoy and sunflowers.

Shoemaker's teepee was built about 13 years ago when she first saw a friend's architectural wonder, as she calls it.

"There's a certain romanticism of the teepee. It's an awesome structure," Shoemaker said. "It's an admiration of how people in the old days lived. It's extremely efficient."

The Ute Indians that came to Steamboat Springs during the warmer weather built teepees near the river.

When the colder weather blew in, they would break down the teepees and carry them on their way to the Meeker area, Shoemaker said.

Hertzog said he knows that different Indian tribes used different styles of teepees, however the style he builds are fashioned after those of the Cheyenne and Sioux tribes.

"They wanted something that they could move with the herds," Hertzog said. "They were mostly used in the West."

Shoemaker said teepees were once a shelter for eccentric mountain men, but the popularity of wanting a camping-type atmosphere in one's own backyard is growing among people in Colorado.

Her waterproof, fireproof and ultra violet protected canvas pulls Shoemaker into a droning slumber when the rain falls down the teepee on a summer night.

"It's outstanding in the rain, I might add," Shoemaker said. "Any guest I have loves to go out and sleep in it. It's the best sleep anyone could ever have. I have to fight to get it back sometimes."

Shoemaker, like the Walkers, have a master bedroom-type setup in the teepee.

She also does not burn fires.

"It's like a big tent, an outdoor living area. I don't know if I'd like to live in one all winter, but I know some people who do that," Shoemaker said.


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