Neighbors Magazines

Art among the wild in Brighton Estates

Jade Whirley and Blaire Dernbach traverse the line between rugged and refined

By: Eric Ramirez, Neighbors of Heber Valley

Tracking their movements using Global Positioning, Jade Whirley and his fellow hunters step on new dirt each time they pass through a search area—a technique of tracing grid lines in the wilderness, familiar to search and rescue operations. But the Whirley group isn’t hunting for people (or anything alive, for that matter). Instead, they’re searching for fallen antlers from members of the deer family (Family Cervidae, as it’s known in science circles), which includes, among others, elk and moose. Often called shed hunting, this is more than a pastime for Whirley.

The effort to find antlers on the forest floor, high in the mountains of Southern Utah or Montana, fuels a unique passion that has become part of a greater vision. During the summer of 2022, Whirley realized what some only dream of: earning an income from selling his art. While a small enterprise, the financial benefit is enough to justify searching for more antlers with which to craft. 

Photo: Jade Whirley

Outside of his workshop—a Tuff Shed housing propane heaters, wire, tools, snowmobile parts, fuels, and antlers—the forest creaked, a woodpecker knocked, and Whirley educated. “Antlers that get left in the sun too long start to deteriorate,” he said. “They make great garden pieces, but that’s why we head out early, so we can find them shortly after they fall off.” The fresher the shed, the more likely Whirley can use it for a new piece—a work of art—a satisfaction that carries with it the thrill of the hunt. 

Whirley grew up hunting every autumn, to the point his family never ate domesticated meat—a lifestyle that influenced his formative years. While he still believes eating wild meat is unique (and, from a health standpoint, more nutritious), Whirley’s stance on hunting big game for sustenance has changed, fostering a tender appreciation for their lives and letting them be. 

Shed hunting fulfills Whirley’s drive to be out with the animals in their space and ecosystem. He still enjoys getting close to the animals—witnessing how they live and behave and sometimes even taking their picture—but today, they seem more like friends and neighbors than ever before.

Stepping outside their a-frame mountain home, Whirley and his fiancé need only wait moments until deer, moose, or even a black bear arrive and snack on the fledgling aspens, fauna, or, in the case of the bear, a sack of birdseed. 

Photo: Take a Hike Photography // Lexie Larson

An A-Frame Home

For Whirley and his fiancé Blaire Dernbach, morning coffee at 8,500 feet above sea level is ritualistic—taken on the porch as weather allows. Not much will keep this hardy couple from enjoying the scene that encapsulates their home, where birds chirp as they gather around seed-laden bird feeders scattered throughout the property, and the snow gets so deep it brings the ground level up to the porch (normally 8 feet above the dirt and wild grasses). A teardrop of packed snow where snowmobiles, not trucks, are parked forms their driveway. 

Living in a community where snowcats groom neighborhood roads and snowmobiles are the lifeline to doctors’ offices and grocery stores, everyday chores like washing dishes become trivial to concerns like water pressure failures, electrical grid outages, or keeping enough chopped wood to heat the house through an unforeseen number of cold, winter nights.

The peace that comes from watching snow fall in big flakes beside dormant aspens, as magical as it is, resides on a thin line, a barrier between the tumultuous wildness of the world and the hard-earned comforts of home. Looking out the living room window from comfortable sofas surrounded by his own artwork, Whirley stoically offers that “living the dream sometimes turns into a nightmare,” a reference to clearing the snow from their deck by hand during last year’s epic winter when, as Whirley explains, the deck was surrounded by 15-foot-high walls of settled snow. This winter, when the well pump went out, repairs involved digging a giant hole in the snow to access and repair it. All done by hand.

Like everything else, wood for the fire was hand-hewn. The embers of their wood-burning stove sent smoke up the chimney pipe, heating the whole home with the crackle of flame on wood. The warmth wrapped around our cold outerwear like a heated quilt, warming and drying out damp gear.

Luna, their dog, had gone outside to keep her grounds, but she was back, gently scratching the glass door to come back in. “She knows how to let herself in; she can open the door,” Dernbach said. It seems Luna has made a game of feigning interest in returning to the warmth of the house. As Whirley got up to let her in, she took off, a testament to how well they all know each other. 

Photo: Take a Hike Photography // Lexie Larson

Love Over Beer & Jerky

Whirley began working at Brighton in 2015, building jumps in a snowcat under the stars, shaping them the way that he was personally most interested in riding. Dernbach, an avid snowboarder on an epic road trip in 2018, parked her car at Brighton Ski Resort and took to the mountain. It was in that snow-covered pocket of the Wasatch Range, over some beers and jerky, that the two carved their way into each other’s lives. 

Together, after chasing endless winters that included obtaining work visas at a New Zealand ski resort, the pair made a unique decision to buy a home in Brighton Estates from the 41° parallel south. It was a once-in-a-lifetime situation where the current owner of the a-frame cabin was willing to make special financial accommodations.

The home purchase marked a waypoint on their journey together. When Whirley and Dernbach returned to the States in late 2019, title in hand, they entered the old cabin with no other place to sleep. Move-in conditions were not desirable, and winter took hold while renovations began. No one had lived in the cabin for many years prior and a combination of rotten furnishings and rodent infestations forced an entire rebuild of the cabin’s interior. 

Rather than making trips to the hardware store, Whirley resupplied their lumber needs at Wellers—yes, the off-road powersports dealership in Kamas—repurposing wood from snowmobile pallets and other goods from ReStore in Park City. In March 2020, both Whirley and Dernbach lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. Foregoing the job search, they scaled up their remodel. 

“Every piece of wood, all the cabinetry, the fridge, the oven, everything came towed in behind a snowmobile,” they remember. “Nature made it. I’m just accenting it,” says Whirley, describing his inspiration to add refinements to their home

The artist inside Whirley stirred as the cabin came together. Two walls have stained tongue and groove panels assembled to resemble mountains. The accent to their living space is beautiful, but also helps hold heat in the home. In a quest for more refined accents, pictures were hung on some walls, old snowboards on others, and all at the roof angle, as the interior of an a-frame cabin has no distinction between wall and ceiling. Whirley then crafted a Durango Chandelier, made from one antler, hung by chains from the ceiling above the kitchen. Then, he crafted another.

From that moment forward, the evolution of his art really became unique. Whirley laced a mountainscape, wire was introduced to replace string, resulting in added visual texture, and in 2022, at the Big Cottonwood Canyon Flea Market, Whirley sold nearly an entire 10-piece sampling of his work on his first weekend there.

Photo: Jade Whirley

Because of this new side hustle, an unintended result of seeking art for their mountain home, Whirley now sells his pieces at Wild Earth on Park City’s Main Street and at the Park Silly Market every Sunday this summer. 

Whirley enjoys his craft but maintains his current job at Wasatch Excursions as the “On-Mountain Manager,” located at Wasatch Mountain State Park Golf Course, where he trains and guides on his preferred transportation: a snowmobile. Many guests have no idea that many of the safety protocols implemented by Wasatch Excursions are a result of his efforts. Whirley’s goal is to create a memorable, one-of-a-kind adventure, so he and his crew maintain hand-built snowmobile trails complete with tree pruning and trail benching (a process of building up the downhill side of a trail so those traveling it feel more secure traversing a hillside). By changing the routing of the guided snowmobile traffic, those residing in the winter months in Brighton Estates feel more separation from the snowmobile sightseers and noise.

Thanks to his efforts, everyone living in Brighton Estates has quieter mornings and more peaceful afternoons. The “neighborhood roads” are safer for children to play on.

Dernbach is the general manager at Alpine Distilling: Park City Social Aid & Pleasure Club. Owners Rob and Sarah Sargent have been distilling Whiskey and Gin since 2016 near Lush’s Tennessee Barbeque in Silver Creek. The club allows them to showcase their award-winning spirits. Dernbach took the job there in November 2023 as a bartender but quickly filled the manager role. Often, her commute involves a snowmobile ride to a Park City bus stop, where she takes public transportation the rest of the way.

On occasion, Dernbach stays overnight in Park City, waking to the sound of commuters scraping windshields or buses driving by—a stark difference from her mornings at home waking in Brighton Estates. “We wake up to avalanche control bombs,” she says. You get used to those.”

Jade Whirley and Blaire Dernbach have unveiled the realm between survival and refined living. When asked about the experience of coming home from work, they simply reply, “Magical.”

The two represent the kind of people who trace life in the mountains from point to point, satisfying each bend and staying the course until the next turn or event. Like the wire with which Whirley shapes contoured mountains, captivating fish, or the silhouette of the deer from which “found” antlers grew, the ethereal connection between rugged mountain life and refined artistic beauty comes manifest in a single piece.

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