Whispers of wind blew through clumps of sagebrush and dry, crackling grasses Monday — a beautiful day on Wenas Mammoth Mountain.

But not ideal conditions for welding.

Ten students from Perry Technical Institute and their supervisor, Clayton Houston, were ready, however. The Wenas Mammoth Foundation had asked them to erect a massive steel silhouette of a bison antiquus — an ancient, extinct species of bison that lived in North America around 10,000 years ago — and they were going to do it.

“When we get this thing up in the air, it’s going to be like a kite,” Houston said, referencing the occasional gusts of wind. “But if we wait any longer, after it’s dried out even more, then we would have another set of dynamics.”

Houston paused, looking out over the dried landscape through the shield of his dark glasses. “Like setting the hill on fire,” he said, grinning. “So we have to do it now.”

The bison will be the second metal silhouette on the hill, set back several hundred feet from the other — a beloved replica of a mammoth — which stands watch at the start of the hill leading up to the Wenas Mammoth Foundation’s archaeological dig.

“We’re all excited to be here,” said Bryce Lyon, a third-quarter student at Perry Tech helping out with the project. “This is a great opportunity.”

Building a bison

Perry Tech instructor Leonard Thompson oversaw a separate team of students who executed the design and cutting of the silhouette.

Thompson said the design started with a rough sketch of the bison, which was then filed in the institute’s CAD program. The welding instructor team and Thompson’s daughter, Amanda, who will be attending Perry Tech in June, spent months fine-tuning the file into a final rendering. The steel then went into a plasma machine to turn it into a cut file, Thompson said.

The bison silhouette, which stands more than 8 feet tall, had been cut into four separate slices of steel. To start the construction process, teams of three and four students carried the flimsy-looking but deceptively heavy pieces to a metal frame supported by welding jacks.

They lined up the pieces, made sure they were flat, then used Bessey and vice grips to clamp the pieces together. A student snaked a hose through the labyrinth of sagebrush and hosed down the yellowed grass under the welding site. Other students propped two-by-fours against the welding jacks to further stabilize the contraption.

Heavy leather jackets and gloves: check. Protective eye gear resembling motocross helmets: check. Shielded arc welding tools: check.

A great rumbling sound, then spurts of white-blue flame and showers of orange embers erupted from the stick electrodes held confidently in the students’ hands as the welding began.

Houston said the third-quarter students had a solid foundation in cutting, blueprint reading, pipe-welding, shielded metal arc welding technique and tungsten inert gas — or TIG — welding.

“It’s great getting them out in the field. This is real-world work right now,” Houston said.

Houston, a professional welder for more than 20 years and a teacher at Perry Tech for close to three, said he knew he wanted to be a welder when he was 5. His father welded a bicycle frame together for him, and when Houston went over a jump, the frame broke.

“I knew then that I needed to learn how to weld, and how to do it right,” he said. “It’s a cool job to work with these students, to know that these guys will be able to go out in the world and get whatever job they want.”

Good welders need the ability to pay attention to detail, Houston said. They also need to be dedicated to the profession and working under less-than-ideal conditions.

“If it was 100 degrees out, we’d still be out here. If it was snowing, we’d still be out here,” Houston said. “I don’t know many people who would want to work in those conditions, but for me, there’s nothing like it.”

Education and outreach

Bronwyn Mayo, president of the Wenas Mammoth Foundation, said she and her husband, Doug, wanted to erect the mammoth silhouette in 2016 to answer a common question encountered during educational activities and outreach.

“People want to know how big they were,” she said. “That’s why we wanted these silhouettes.”

Mayo used to work at Perry Tech. She thought that the construction and welding work required to create the mammoth — and then the bison — would be good real-world opportunities for the students to use their skills.

“These students get to use the skills of the trade in a way that the public can see it, which is not usually something that happens with welding,” Mayo said. “Anything we do here, we want to make sure has an educational value, and Perry Tech has been so supportive.”

Mayo also wanted to thank the Fresh Hop Group of Yakima, which awarded a $3,500 grant for the bison.

Sean Hawkins, president and committee member of the Fresh Hop Group, said the committee admired the Wenas Mammoth Foundation’s work to provide science-based educational opportunities for children. The foundation’s track record of excellence, wise use of resources, and reach also made the nonprofit stand out.

“We certainly loved their thrifty nature and how many children they touched on an annual basis through their programming,” Hawkins said. “They were a model program in our eyes and one we wanted to support.”

The Fresh Hop Group also awarded $2,500 to the Wenas Foundation in 2017 for updates to its mobile educational exhibit and another $3,500 for this year’s summer camp.

Mayo hopes the foundation will be able to continue adding to its silhouette menagerie.

“It’s education, it’s history, it’s about raising awareness about the uniqueness of the site and our community,” Mayo said. “We hope our efforts will also encourage youth to pursue careers in science.”

To that end, the foundation will continue its efforts to engage and inspire youth, Mayo said. The foundation has two events coming up: a STEM teacher camp June 1 and a summer camp for children in third through ninth grade.

The STEM camp allows teachers to earn academic credit while becoming immersed in local history, Mayo said. The summer camp teaches youth the skills they would need on an archaeological dig, from setting up gridlines and using hand tools to properly documenting their finds.

“The word is getting out now about the camp,” Mayo said, smiling. “With the interest we’re getting, we might have to add an extra week next year.”

The foundation also will host its annual “Day at the Dig” event in October, a family-friendly event with vendors and earth-science related organizations in attendance.

For more information about the Wenas Mammoth Foundation, call 509-945-4921, visit the website at https://www.wenasmammoth.com, or follow the organization on Facebook.

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.