Ketchikan, Alaska: Totem Poles & A Town On Stilts

posted in: Alaska | 4

Ketchikan is a city on Revillagigedo Island (that’s a fun name to try and say – Rah-villa-gi-gay-doh) at the southernmost entrance to Alaska’s Inside Passage. Only accessible by sea and air Ketchikan (much easier to pronounce) is one of the rainiest cities in America and receives 261% more rain than the national average. Average annual rainfall of between 140 and 160 inches per year. We packed our rain gear but guess what? NO need for any of it! It was another beautiful day, really beautiful.

What to do with our time in Ketchikan? It is a very popular and colorful cruise ship port with a “touristy” side, but Ketchikan is also known for the many Native American totem poles. We chose Totem Bight State Park, an 11-acre park displaying totems and a Clan House that sits along the Tongass Narrows in a lush rainforest setting.

In the early 1900s, Native villages in Southeast Alaska were on the decline as people migrated to towns to find work. The villages and totem poles were left behind and were soon eroded by weather. In 1938, the U.S. Forest Service began a program to salvage these monuments by hiring skilled carvers from among the older Natives, and young artisans to learn the art of carving totem poles. Fragments of old poles were laid beside new cedar logs, and every effort was made to copy them faithfully. By the end of World War II, the community house and 15 poles had been made. Totem Bight was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. 

The tradition of pole carving has been kept alive by elder Tlingit and Haida carvers who have tutored young artisans in the art and craft. The entrance to the park is marked with replicas of two Haida totem poles. I am with a replica of Eagle Grave Marker from an old Haida village. Al is standing with a replica of Thunderbird and Whale, a Haida mortuary pole.
The walk through the this part of the Tongass Rain Forest was quiet and felt magical.
Our guide, Chris, pointed out how new trees grown over the stumps of fallen decayed trees. When the stump decays away, it leaves a very interestingly shaped new tree.

The history, culture and art represented by the totem poles is absolutely fascinating. I could have easily spent days just studying and learning abut the Tlingit and Haida tribes.

Totem poles serve different purposes. Some are a recording of important events, telling stories of the families and clans they represent. Some are a memorial to an important person and serve as a memorial. Many tell the stories of important myths or legends. Native wildlife such as bears, wolves, eagles, killer whales, and ravens are featured on totem poles. Totem poles were originally carved by hand from western red cedar trees using sharpened stones, sea shells, bones or even beaver teeth, taking between six to nine months to create. 

The palette of colors used for the Northern tribe totem poles consisted only of black, red, and teal (greenish blue.) The black color is created from graphite and carbon, the teal from copper ore, and the red from hematite, a red iron oxide. The minerals were mixed with fresh salmon eggs and saliva to bind them together into a tempera-like paint. Chris said the native women would chew the salmon eggs in their mouth to mix it with saliva.

Walking through the rainforest with our guide, we were led to the clan house and the circle of ten totem poles in a large clearing.

Man Wearing Bear Hat   A replica carved of a Tlingit grave marker, depicting a man of the Bear clan wearing a large, carved wooden hat surmounted by a bear’s head and surrounded on the brim by painted whales. 
Standing at the edge of the clearing is a replica of a 19th century clan house, living quarters that would have been shared by 30 to 50 family members of the same lineage and led by a house chief. 
The Clan House is made entirely out of Western Red Cedar. The marks on the wood of the Clan House are made by an adze, a tool similar to an axe. The marks on each board are different. Every adze is hand-made and each of the different carvers has their own signature style.
Inside the house is one large room with a central fireplace surrounded by seating and a platform. Carved house posts, front and rear, support those massive beams.
Al is exiting the clan house through the very small oval door. This was purposely made small forcing a person to enter head first, a vulnerable position. Those inside could easily knock an intruder on the head as they came inside.

The totem poles around the clearing stood tall like sentinels guarding ancient grounds. (Warning: Next comes seven totem pole photos with names and descriptions. It’s the only way I will ever remember all of this.)

Pole on the Point This 68-foot pole was an original design by Charles Brown. At the top is the shaman, dressed in ceremonial garb, which can barely be seen at that height. He is wearing a headdress of bear claws and a fringed leather apron. A carved club in his hands symbolizes one of his spirit powers. The figures below him represent several Tlingit legends. 
Land Otter Pole This Haida pole was designed and carved in 1947 by John Wallace and then replicated by Nathan Jackson in 1996. The pole tells the story of a man captured by the Land Otter People. The hero is depicted at the top of the pole wearing a dog-skin headdress. 
Master Carver Pole This pole represents the story of a master carver who, in Haida legend, taught woodworking to the Haida people. It was designed and carved by John Wallace in 1941.
Sea Monster Pole  Carved by John Wallace, this pole resembles an original pole from the deserted Haida village of Klinkwan. A village watchman stands guard at the top with two eagle crests, but the rest of the pole depicts the undersea world. 
Raven at the Head of Nass  Copied from a Tlingit pole on Tongass Island, a chief in a spruce root hat tops the pole. At the base is the chief, Raven at the Head of Nass, from whom Raven stole daylight to bring to the world. 
Kaats’ Bear Wife  This pole, from Tongass Island, depicts a bear and tracks (black paw prints climbing up the pole.) Kaat was a character out of Tlingit mythology known throughout the region and claimed by many as an ancestor.

There are ten totem poles in the clearing, but I only had photos of six. I needed the park brochure and the internet to identify each. I do think it is a beautiful and unique art form.

Fallen totem poles in the forest. I can’t recall why these were just laying there, although we did learn that totem poles were not and are not preserved or restored. Historically, they aged and decayed naturally.
Totem Bight State Park overlooks the Tongass Narrows. What a day – no rain at all!

The park had a combination museum/gift shop that was unusually nice. In my search for only authentic mementos to bring home to the children, I looked for a small totem pole. I did read that hand-carved Native American totem poles can cost $3,000 per foot. Once again, that wasn’t what I was looking for. 😉

I finally settled on this small totem pole carved in Alaskan by an Alaskan but within my budget for a 9-year old boy, plus a book that tells the stories and legends.

It was too wonderful a day to go back to the ship after the excursion so we set out to explore Ketchikan. It’s easy to do because the cruise ships are docked just a block away from the main street of town.

Naturally we began with the waterfront. We found a sailboat for sale – perhaps we need a west coast boat??? Southeastern Alaska (and Northwest U.S) look like stunning cruising grounds for small boats, not just cruise ships.
It’s not often one sees stained glass decorating the waterfront docks.
Sometimes it is just the quirky things that catch your eye.

Revillagigedo Island is one massive rocky volcanic piece of land so many businesses and homes are built on pilings over the water of the Tongass Narrows. 

The main waterfront street is built on hefty concrete columns, but some sections of the lower town are just on wood pilings.

Main Street, Ketchikan is one block up from Front Street and the waterfront promenade.

Alaska’s First City and known as the “salmon capitol of the world.” It was too early for the salmon to be running so we missed seeing that.
In the center of downtown Ketchikan is “The Rock,” a sculpture of seven figures. Six of them represent prototypes in the Ketchikan’s history- a fisherman, a minor, a logger, a bush pilot, a frontierswoman, a Native drummer. The seventh represents a real historical figure, the Tlingit Chief Johnson, standing on top of the rock, symbolizing the fact that his people were the first to make their home in Southeast Alaska. (I could not get a decent photo of this so these are from the web. Mea culpa.)
We chose Annabelle’s ” Famous Keg and Chowder House” for lunch.
It would have been great to eat Alaskan King Crab, but at those prices, we were satisfied with chowder and crab cake sandwiches washed down with Alaskan beers.
Stedman Bridge, an antique red trestle bridge straddles Ketchikan Creek. Fisherman stand on the bridge hoping to catch a salmon and kids jump off into the water to cool off on hot days (are there hot days here??) 

The main attraction in Ketchikan is historic Creek Street, also built over the water because of the rocky hills surrounding the creek. Colorful buildings line the boardwalk path along Ketchikan Creek.

Creek Street, although touristy now, was a nice place for a stroll on the boardwalk.
Dolly’s is a little museum representing Creek Street’s time as a red-light district. At its peak, Creek Street was famous as the place where “both men and salmon went upstream to spawn” and as home to 30 brothels and 100 working girls.

During prohibition, bootleggers would smuggle in Canadian whiskey to supply the houses of prostitution and backroom saloons. The bootleggers would simply wait until high tide and row their rowboats right up the Ketchikan Creek to deliver their contraband under the cover of darkness. Deliveries were made through hidden trap doors underneath the houses.

Views of Creek Street built on stilts above Ketchikan Creek.
Ray Troll’s artwork is all over Ketchikan, his home town. He is best known for his “scientifically accurate and often humorous artwork.” His most well-known design is “Spawn Till You Die.”
Salmon spawning season is in July and August. Ketchikan Creek is then filled with the fish. It would be amazing to see that!

During our excursions in Alaska we heard the story of the Alaskan state flag many times, and it’s a nice one. Before 1927, Alaska, as a territory, did not have a flag and flew only the U.S. flag. In 1926, a contest open to all Alaskan children in grades 7-12 was held to design Alaska’s new flag. Benny Benson, a 13-year old 7th grader from an orphanage in Seward won the contest. His design featured the Big Dipper (“Ursa Major” or “Great Bear” constellation) as a symbol of strength, and Polaris (the North Star) as a symbol of Alaska’s northern location. The blue background represents the sky, sea, lakes, and wildflowers of Alaska. When Alaska became a state in 1959, Benny’s flag was officially adopted as the new state’s flag.

We really wanted to take “the tram”, formally named The Cape Fox Hill-Creek Street Funicular up the hill to look out over Ketchikan. The tram runs 211 feet from the boardwalk up to the Cape Fox Lodge on top of the hill. It was closed and gated. I was disappointed. 😏
That evening, I took a swim in the outdoor pool on the upper deck. The pool was once again crowded. Not.
As the Nieuw Amsterdam departed Ketchikan, we witnessed the best sunset of the voyage.
A beautiful evening for a walk around the deck.

Ketchikan was the last Alaskan port on the cruise. Like the ports before it, we could have easily spent days exploring more. Next stop, two Canadian ports!

4 Responses

  1. Robert Dyet

    Yes I’m biased, SE Alaska has some of best boating in the world.. your on an amazing long trip and your doing such a great job sharing all your photos and some great information.

    Thank you for sharing your trip with us

    • watsons

      After our travels up and down the East coast and the Bahamas, I’ve realized that there is no place like home, like our New an England cruising. But, after seeing southeast Alaska, I’m very impressed!

  2. Ellen R Seltzer

    I went to a Native American Museum and tribal land display when we were in Alaska…very similar to your experience. I loved it. Learned so much and actually got to speak with a young native who led a tour through some of their ancient homes. So glad you enjoyed your trip and the many facets of it! Glad to have you home too! 🙂

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