DESCHUTES COUNTY, Ore. — A mile and a half from the Virginia Meissner Sno-park parking lot, a dragon named Nance has emerged from the snow, with help from Josh Cook and a hundred or so volunteers.
Nance, a snow sculpture complete with a snout, tusks and a tail, is around 75 feet long and includes slides and staircases. It’s a sort of frozen wonderland for kids and families willing and able to trek deep into the Deschutes National Forest to reach it.
Nance is the brainchild of Josh Cook and is named after Cook’s mother, Nancy. Cook spent the weekend creating the sculpture in preparation for Luminaria, a cross-country ski and snow walking event held annually at the Virginia Meissner Sno-park. The event, planned for Saturday, Feb. 8, at 5:30 p.m., is held to promote health, well -being and family fun.
Luminaria is sponsored by the Meissner Nordic Ski Club and is open to the public. The fundraising event features lit-up snow trails, bonfires and snacks.
Dragon building is a passion project for Cook, 59, whose regular job is serious business — saving lives in the emergency room. But once a year the kid within bursts out, and he spends a few days volunteering to build the dragon.
“It’s pretty awesome to see this in the wilderness,” said Cook. “It brings out the kid in me; it’s meant to bring out the kid in everyone. We get too serious in life.”
The sculpture Cook creates every year at this time was not always so grand. In fact, the original dragon emerged from an adapted snow cave. Cook had experience in building snow cave shelters while attending the University of Utah in the early 1980s and wanted to do something similar while helping to set up a Luminaria event 15 years ago.
Once the project got going, Cook noticed parts of the cave looked like a dragon — the exterior seemed to have scales and the opening looked like a giant snout. The addition of some ears and a tail helped to complete the picture.
For years the dragon was a modest creature, built by Cook with a few shovels and some volunteers. It was sporadic too, some years Cook built it, other years he did not.
The game changed last year when a snowcat driver was enlisted to help with the project, allowing Cook to expand the size of the dragon. It’s a little ad hoc to start, depending on how much snow they can pile up and the shape it forms.
“There’s no grand plan,” said Cook, a full-time emergency room physician who splits his time between Bend and Newport. “It changes every year depending on the snow conditions.”
Cook said he also makes careful engineering decisions to ensure the dragon is stable and safe to enter. Still, he realizes, the dragon will eventually disappear.
“It’s an ephemeral thing, waking up the dragon for the imagination,” said Cook. “It’s just a really wonderful experience and that got me excited to go back year after year.”
An avid outdoorsman, Cook takes to the trails at Virginia Meissner on skis, bike or snowshoes. His three children are grown now, all in their early 20s, but he continues to build the dragon for other families with small children.
“Kids love it. It’s a fun event to see and be out there in the woods before it melts and it’s gone,” said Cook.
He began working on the dragon Saturday and continued through the night and most of Sunday too.
The atmosphere was magical, Cook said, with numerous strangers pitching in to help. Some stayed just a few minutes; others stayed for hours.
“One woman asked me why I do this. I looked over my shoulder and said ‘sheer joy’,” Cook said. “And she went silent and then after about 30 seconds she started to cry and she said she was praying for joy this morning.”
While he won’t be able to attend the Luminaria, Cook encourages others to visit the sno-park, bring a shovel and continue to build upon what has already been made. Meanwhile, he’s already looking forward to next year’s dragon.
“Now I know how much work we can get done in two days,” said Cook. “If I have the whole community’s support, next time I’d like the dragon to start from the parking lot.”