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Culture

The Vikings of Blacktail Mountain

Twin brothers Nick and Andy Bertrand are local builders, carvers and Norse enthusiasts who recently began their lifetime project — bringing an immersive Viking experience to the Flathead Valley

By Micah Drew
Brothers Nick and Andy Bertrand seated on thrones in their Norse garb on their land in Lakeside. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

We missed the turn, as is often the case when navigating backroads in Montana. It took two U-turns before Flathead Living photographer Hunter D’Antuono successfully found the wooded property owned by Andy and Nick Bertrand. 

After driving a few minutes up the mountainside, Hunter parked the car next to a partially constructed building and one of the Bertrand’s trucks, decaled with the Bertrand Brothers Landscaping & Construction logo. 

“Hey there!” came an enthusiastic call. 

Turning uphill, we beheld a Viking striding toward us through the woods. Clad in a black tunic and pants with a thick hooded wool cloak over top, Nick Bertrand had come to greet us. 

Behind him strode his twin brother, Andy, resplendent in a lighter colored attire. White furs wrapped his calves, two carved silver brooches pinned his tunic, and a sheepskin covered his shoulders.  

With identical braided beards adorned with intricately carved antler beads the brothers looked every bit the Norse warrior from legend.

“Welcome, friends, to Valhalla.”

Andy Bertrand. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Our Norse guides led us through the woods away from the construction site until we emerged into a clearing pulled straight from an epic Scandinavian poem. 

Two carved wooden thrones sat side by side, a matching table between them adorned with fox furs, two Viking helmets and a warrior’s axe. Looking down on the scene from an overarching tree trunk was an elk skull covered in runic carvings.  

“Our father will sometimes ask us if we’re ever going to grow out of this phase,” Andy said as we surveyed the scene. “And I’m always like, ‘I’m all the way grown up, I’m at the adult part of life, and it’s only going to get more and more like this.’”

And with that, the Vikings of Blacktail Mountain cracked open a beer on the head of the axe and sat down to share their saga. 

The Bertrand brothers grew up near Bemidji, Minnesota, the state with the highest concentration of people who claim Scandinavian ancestry. Compared to more than 1 million Minnesotans, Montana, has just around 130,000 people who listed a Scandinavian country as part of their ancestry, according to the 2020 census. That’s still enough people to rank the state fourth in the country for the highest percentage of Norse-descendent residents. 

For Nick and Andy, their Norse connection comes from their father’s side of the family, a mixture of Swedish and Norwegian ancestry. Their mother’s family is fully Irish, giving the brothers complementary Celtic-Norse influences in their upbringing. 

“We always listened to Celtic folk music around the house, and my mom was into Celtic art, so there were always Celtic knots around,” Nick said. “I was intrigued with that art form at an early age. The aesthetic is really cool and always drew me in.”

As kids, the brothers read the old folk tales and, as they grew up, delved deeper into Norse and Celtic legends, as well as the wide world of fantasy literature. The twins are self-described Tolkien nerds who routinely work while Lord of the Rings audiobooks play in the background. 

“Tolkien’s Silmarillion reads just like the old Norse epics,” Andy said. “They’re confusing, there’s so much happening, but there’s also just such a wealth of stories and art and music in the history, so many good things to inspire our work.”

A Viking axe and helmets sit at the foot of wooden thrones carved by Bertrand brothers. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Bertrand brothers specialize in construction, landscaping and stonework. Their love of woodworking and building stems directly from their family with both their father and grandfather making livings as carpenters, leaving the twins to pick up the trade at a young age working on houses and doing summer landscaping jobs. 

After picking up degrees from Bemidji State University, the twins took up the family business. While they will tackle any project, from construction to roofing to bespoke furniture and elevated decks, they tend to focus more on outdoor work. 

“I can lay stone for patios all day long. It’s pretty great doing work like that outside,” Nick said. “But we also want to spin a bit of our own flavor into it.”

The early interest in Norse and Celtic history and art turned into a passionate hobby throughout the brothers’ 20s. The Bertrands began carving stone, bone and wood in their spare time, replicating the intriguing form of the Celtic knot and Viking-era relief carvings, and leaning more heavily into the aesthetic each year.  

“It’s really awe inspiring, and we wanted to get more and more into that world, and find ways to participate and honor it,” Nick said. “There’s such a wealth of artwork, and you can really go back into the history behind it. It’s fun to do this kind of work and be breathing new life and new ideas and new forms into a pre-existing art form.”

About eight years ago, the brothers relocated to Montana, after a few college-era snowboarding trips to the Flathead hooked them on Whitefish Mountain Resort and nearby Blacktail Mountain Ski Area. 

Nick Bertrand. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Montana has a well-known aesthetic when it comes to sculptures and art, Andy acknowledges — there’s a lot of wildlife and cowboys around.  

“We can meld them together a bit. It’s pretty easy to add a little Nordic flair to a wildlife carving,” Andy said. “But I also think we could use a little dash of culture in Montana beyond cowboys.” 

The Bertrands work in myriad mediums, including wood, stone, antler and bone, crafting under the name Brilliant Raven Workshop. Several skulls scattered around the outdoor throne room have intricate Celtic knots carved into them. There are also masks replicating Norse deities or portraying owls and deer in various hues of wood. 

A favorite material is diamond willow, which they harvest in the north woods of Minnesota. The two thrones are carved from the uniquely patterned wood, which has contrasting red and white diamond-shaped segments, a result of a fungus that infects the trees. With a unique twisting grain and sets of carved runes and draconic figures, the kingly chairs would not look out of place cameoing in Marvel’s “Thor” films. 

Bits of Nordic flair occasionally seep into the Bertrands’ day jobs as well. 

While the bread and butter of their 50-plus-hour workweek is landscaping and construction, the Bertrands have gradually been leaning more and more into the “frivolity” of carving, incorporating some Norse themes into the occasional deck railing. 

Last year they constructed their own sauna, one of their favorite projects, replete with twin carved stags on the roof.  

“Something that has a little utility — we use the heck out of the sauna — and can also be adorned with art is pretty special,” Nick said. 

This summer the twins upped the ante and launched their “lifetime project.” 

The outdoor throne room where the brothers held forth sits halfway up a 30-acre plot of land the twins bought several months ago. What is now just two chairs and a partially constructed house in the woods, will eventually become a fully-fledged Viking village in Montana. 

“We want to be able to contribute something unique, something that hasn’t been done around here,” Nick said. “It would be fun to share it with everybody and have a place where people can really dive into the Nordic and Viking culture. We’re looking for it to be a full immersion experience, a full step away from the modern world”

The village will include a big mead hall to use as a gathering place as well as several Nordic-inspired cabins that will be used as short-term rentals. Visitors wandering the property will stumble across giant rune stones and carved relics, paying homage to Norse gods.  

The goal is for the village to become a community gathering place — picture a year-round Celtic festival or renaissance fair. The Bertrands have like-minded friends around the Flathead Valley and the country they want to bring together to celebrate their passions.

“We’ve had so much fun connecting with other characters like ourselves,” Andy said. “We’ve got buddies in the valley who do similar art, shield crafting, soap making, guys who make essential oils and beard products, guys who brew their own mead, it’s a really cool community. This will be a great place to elevate that and celebrate the Celtic and Nordic cultures.”

The Viking village will take a decade or more to complete, with a goal of completing one or two new buildings each year. 

“We’re working 50 hours a week at our day jobs, and then we go home and get right back into the same work until dark,” Nick said. “It’s been a grind this year, but we’ve wanted to do something like this ever since we moved to the Flathead.”

There is some struggle with having a hobby analogous to their day job, but the juxtaposition between designing patios in Whitefish and carving, say, 16 dragonhead braces to support the deck of their home in the Viking village, keeps the work enjoyable. 

“We’re always making sawdust or stone dust in our work, so we might as well have fun doing it.”  Andy said. “Now that we have our own piece of ground, it’s going to be kind of a full circle where we can take all of these passions and roll them into something that’s our own.”

A carved ram skull by the Bertrand brothers. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

With a lifetime project, the Bertrand brothers don’t plan to stop at just a Viking village. Their dreams and designs are grander than that, though most of them are scribbled “on the back of unopened bills.” 

Phase two will fulfill every Tolkien nerd’s fantasy. The brothers, who share a birthday with the fictional Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, plan to turn a meadow higher up on their property into the Flathead Shire with some Hobbiton-style in-ground homes. 

“We’re excited to be able to show people this entire world we plan on building,” Andy said. “We want every piece of our property to have a story or represent a character from mythology and be a fully immersive experience, so as soon as you turn off the road, you’re not in Montana anymore.” 

Brothers Andy and Nick Bertrand display their hand carved Norse masks. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As the sun set behind Blacktail Mountain, Andy and Nick lit a fire in the clearing. Sparks and smoke drifted upwards as they unwound the tale of Ragnarok, the Norse mythical end of days. 

According to legend, a catastrophic series of disasters will engulf the world — the burning of all life, epic wars, the death of the gods, a blackened sun, a never-ending winter, mighty earthquakes and a global flood.

“It’s fun to have an immersive passion project like this, but doing it in modern times and not having to actually experience all aspects of Viking life,” Andy said. “The old sagas are fun to listen to, but I mean it’s all pretty bonkers. I can’t imagine the horrifying reality of actually believing all of that stuff, where the best outcome in the afterlife is waking up in the Great Hall of Valhalla, preparing to fight to the death again.”

The myth that sticks closest with the Bertrands, especially as winter approaches, is that of Ullr, the Norse god of winter and snow sports. 

“We love to snowboard, that’s what brought us to Montana in the first place, and it’s our favorite thing to do each year,” Nick said, adding that they’ve thought of building a single run onto their sloped property.

If you’re shredding powder on Blacktail or Big Mountain this winter, keep an eye out for the Bertrand brothers. They’re easy to spot — in true Bertrand style, they can usually be found riding the lifts decked out in full Viking regalia. 

“We’re never simply living in the modern world,” Andy said. “It’s just not interesting enough for us.” 

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