They're fun, functional and fashionable Tepees hit perfect pitch By Jack Cox
Denver Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 18, 2002 - They may not be as upscale as jetted tubs or big-screen TVs or monster ovens, but tepees just might be on the verge of becoming the next must-have amenities.
Post / Brian Brainerd
|Juliane Von Pichl, 16, and her brother Dominik, 16, listen to music in the fully-furnished teepee constructed by their father, Alex, on their ranch northeast of Franktown.
The stately, cone-shaped shelters, once seen mainly as havens for hippies or come-ons for curio shops, are popping up in the yards of mainstream Americans, who use them as personal retreats, spare bedrooms, New Age offices, party spaces, children's playhouses, swimming-pool cabanas, massage parlors or even as oversized pieces of lawn art.
Mindful of their origins, fans of the venerable structures often decorate their tepees with Native American motifs and outfit them with Indian-themed items such as drums, buffalo hides, peace pipes or dream-catchers.
But tepees also are being furnished with such decidedly modern conveniences as electric lights, cable TV, VCRs, mini-bars, full-sized beds, semi permanent floors, indoor-outdoor carpeting and gas-fueled fire pits.
Most owners think their tepees are "way cool," as longtime Parker resident Annika Clark describes one she installed in her backyard last year. "There's something spiritual about a tepee that's very peaceful," she says. "It's great to watch the ribbons fluttering in the wind."
Fellow aficionado Ray Baron, a Houston businessman who spends summers in Aspen, feels the same about his tepee, which he has hand-painted with images of animals and Indian dancers. "It's very quiet inside," he reports. "You hear the wind blowing and see a little bit of sky. There's something very peaceful and calming about that experience."
John Drew, an Old West buff who lives in the Black Forest area northeast of Colorado Springs, waxes even more poetic about the tepee he put up about two years ago as a sort of centerpiece for his 5-acre property.
"On a foggy morning, it looks so neat and mysterious out there, you can actually picture an Indian brave on his war pony coming through the mist," he says.
"It's Native American, so everything about it speaks to our heritage. It does the same thing to me as the American flag I have hanging on the house. It gives me chills."
Adds Joe Riddle, a lawyer and mediator who has just put the finishing touches on a new tepee outside his house in rural Boulder County, "It's a connection with a simpler way of life. You see all these 5,000- and 10,000-square-foot houses going up, and you wonder how much you really need."
Modern tepees (or teepees, or tipis; all three spellings are acceptable) are typically modeled after authentic 19th-century designs and made of heavy-duty white cotton duck - the same kind of naturally water-repellent canvas, ironically, that some of the Plains Indians obtained from traders for use in covering their own lodges.
"It's lighter, lasts longer and is less work to create than animal hides," says Mr. Reese, a Colorado Springs manufacturer and tepee expert. "Many Indians were living in canvas tepees before they ever saw the white man."
Reese, a Utah native whose family tree includes a pioneer who came west to supply horses for the Pony Express, is head of Reese Tipis, an eight-employee firm that is one of two major producers in Colorado (the other is Montrose-based Earthworks), and one of about a dozen in the country.
The company, which made 63 tepees for "Dreamkeepers," a TV miniseries being shot in Alberta this summer, is also one of the best-known, thanks in part to a user-friendly website (www.reesetipis.com) that contains a primer on the history and construction of the portable dwellings. There's more tepee information here on the Don Strinz Tipi Web site.
Tepees come in sizes ranging from 9 feet to 28 feet across at the base, but on anything larger than 24 feet, Reese says, "the structural stresses are such that there is little durability." His most popular model, 19.5 feet in diameter, sells for about $1,800, including poles and delivery on the Front Range.
"That's about the same as you'd pay for a wall tent of the same size," he notes. "Yet you get something a lot more aesthetic. I hate to use the word spirituality, because it's overused. But you don't take pictures of a wall tent at sunset. A tepee fits in with the environment."
Because of its airy good looks and evocation of a more exotic lifestyle, a tepee also can be highly romantic. As Reese discovered while hauling two tepees around on a camping excursion in Europe some 20 years ago, "They're great for picking up women." Or, as Nebraska tepee maker Don Strinz advises in a tongue-in-cheek message on his website, "Warning! The surgeon general has determined that camping in a Don Strinz tipi may increase the size of your family."
Bob and Sandy Pennick, co-owners of Cascade Escapes, a bed-and-breakfast inn west of Colorado Springs, say weekend guests almost always spend at least one night in the tepee that stands year-round in their side yard off the Pikes Peak highway.
Some neighbors recently confessed to the Pennicks that they sneaked into the 20-foot-tall neighborhood landmark for a couple of hours one night, and even the innkeepers have succumbed to its charms on occasion.
"It's really a fun deal. We like to come out when it's cold and just snuggle up and read," says Bob, showing a visitor the gas-log fire pit he has installed in the tepee along with a full-size bed, TV and VCR.
Not surprisingly, the tepee has also proved irresistible to kids. "We had eight 9-year-olds in here for a birthday party. Their parents painted them up and put feathers on 'em, and they had a blast," Pennick says.
Teenagers also seem to love tepees, says Alex Von Pichl, a Franktown horse-trailer dealer who has erected a large Reese-made lodge outside his earthship-style home north of Elizabeth.
"It's decked out pretty neat," he says. "It stays up year-round, and in the winter we heat it with a propane heater. The kids (13 and 16) use it for parties. It's got lights, a disco ball, chairs and a bar. I mean, it's a rockin' tepee."
Not all tepees are mere pleasure palaces, of course. Some are used for more practical purposes, like the one John Holtzen has just put up on his property near West Creek to replace an old one he lost to the Hayman fire. Holtzen intends to use the new structure as headquarters for a replanting effort he hopes will help keep erosion to a minimum on his and his neighbors' burned-out lands.
In the mountain town of Minturn near Vail, mechanic Jonathan Christiansan keeps a tepee on hand for family get-togethers and camping and hunting trips.
"I bought an old '76 plumbing company service truck with racks on the front and back bumpers to carry the poles around. That way, I can haul everything I need in one vehicle," he says.
"It was kind of enjoyable learning how to set it up," he adds. "The first few times took longer than the two hours they advertise. But I've got it down to where I can have it up or down in an hour and a half."
Jan Streets, an interior designer in Woodland Park, says it took her and two friends six hours to erect her new tepee this month. "But we had fun, and we had a dinner party in it afterward to celebrate, using a log for a table and beach chairs. And that night I slept in it with my husband and my dog," she reports.
"I think of the tepee as a sculpture in my garden of life. It's something fun and frivolous, and that's very relaxing."
A tepee cover, which forms a large semicircle when laid out flat, typically folds up into a bundle about the size of a large sleeping bag. But the long wooden poles that hold it up - actually the trunks of fully grown lodgepole pines, trimmed of branches and bark - aren't quite as portable; they have to remain in one piece because sectioning them would compromise their structural integrity.
Collapsible graphite poles might work, Reese says, but with the 17 poles needed for a typical tepee (three for the basic tripod, two to control tent flaps, 12 more for support) they would be prohibitively expensive. Metal poles also could be hazardous during lightning storms, he admits.
Man-made tent fabrics such as nylon are unsuitable as tepee covers for similar reasons, he adds. While they are much lighter than canvas, they don't "breathe" as well as cotton, nor do they stretch to become as wrinkle-free. And neither do they absorb smoke, which can help extend the life of cotton canvas by inhibiting the formation of mildew and shielding the fibers from the sun's ultraviolet rays.
Normally, a tepee left up year-round will last about five years, but removing the cover from the frame and storing it during periods of non-use can double its life span, says Art Goguen, a Monument resident who installs and maintains tepees on weekends when he isn't attending a mountain-man rendezvous.
Drew, the homeowner in Black Forest, says his tepee has survived two Colorado winters in better shape than his house and his Jeep, which both suffered hail damage in a storm last year while "the tepee was fine."
In addition, he says, "Now that it's been out there a couple of seasons, it looks even better because the canvas has weathered. It's got its own personality ."
A teepee is usually sold with a liner that extends 6 to 8 feet up from the ground, helping to keep the interior cool in summer by channeling warm air upward and out the smoke hole, and helping keep it warm in winter by holding an insulating layer of air against the exterior wall.
Even with a fire burning inside, however, a tepee on a cold winter day is "not exactly toasty," says Del Hensel, a bison rancher who has pitched a 24-footer in the front yard of his house north of Denver International Airport.
"It's better than being in a tent, but you have to be close to the fire," he says.
"If I was going to get another one, I'd get a smaller one, because a big one is really hard to heat."
Here are some assorted tidbits of information about tepees, America's original mobile homes:
Because they could be packed up and hauled by horses, tepees were ideal dwellings for the nomadic tribes of the Great Plains. But they aren't the same as wigwams, which were more dome-shaped, bark-covered lodges developed by tribes on the Eastern seaboard.
Tepees are canted slightly backward, to provide extra headroom at the rear and allow adequate space for the fire and air vent at the front. This makes their floor space egg-shaped rather than circular.
Tepees are traditionally erected with the entrance facing east, partly to capture the warmth of the rising sun (and sometimes for religious reasons as well), but mainly to keep the prevailing westerly winds from filling the interior with smoke and ash from the fire.
The lodgepole pines that grow in Colorado don't make good tepee poles because trees of the proper height are usually too thick at the base. Lodgepoles found in Montana tend to be closer to the ideal thickness of 2 to 3 inches, owing to that state's colder and drier climate.
The ribbons, feathers or horsetails that typically flutter from the tips of the poles may help identify the inhabitants, but their prime purpose is to keep birds from landing atop the structure and soiling the canvas.
A tepee is sized according to its base diameter from front to back, rather than its height, with the most common sizes ranging from 16 to 24 feet. The poles, lashed together in a kind of super tripod, usually extend 4 to 5 feet beyond the top of the tent.
Tepee prices range from under $500 to over $3,000, depending on size, quality and other features, such as chemical treatments for flame and water resistance. Custom paint jobs can double or triple the basic cost.
A tepee can be constructed as a do-it-yourself project, but a commercial sewing machine is usually needed to handle the double or triple thicknesses of canvas involved. Similarly, poles can be trimmed and debarked with an ax and draw knife, but the 24-foot lengths needed for a typical 191/2-foot tepee usually can't be transported without a pickup equipped with an extra-long rack.
- Jack Cox
© 2001 - Frank Reese - All Rights Reserved.