Exploring our own backyard

Two recently published books with a Southeast focus make a good case for taking on the role of tourists on our own turf — and for remembering to peruse the travel guide section of our local bookstores.


The first is Aldona Jonaitis’ “Discovering Totem Poles: A Traveler’s Guide” and the second is Larry Johansen’s “The Alexander Eighteen: The Story of Eighteen Wilderness Areas in Alaska.” Both focus on aspects of our region that are unique, and both offer potential moments of discovery, even for those of us lucky enough to live here.

Here’s a closer look at each of them.


“Discovering Totem Poles: A Traveler’s Guide”

In Southeast, we have the good fortune to be surrounded by many examples — old and new — of a unique Native art form: the totem pole. We see them all over town — at the Juneau Douglas City Museum, Centennial Hall, the State Office Building, and the Governor’s Mansion, to name a few.

But familiarity and knowledge don’t always go hand in hand — and, in fact, totem poles’ frequent presence in the backdrop of our daily lives, combined with the apparent accessibility of their bold graphic designs, may in some cases lead us to believe we know more about them than we do.

Aldona Jonaitis’ new book “Discovering Totem Poles: A Traveler’s Guide” is, as the title makes clear, geared toward travelers, but there is plenty here to hold the interest of Southeast Alaskans as well.

One fact that may surprise readers: There are more totem poles standing today than there were a hundred years ago, Jonaitis writes in the book’s conclusion. Though it is tempting to think about totem poles as relics of a bygone age, and of new poles as replicas, Jonaitis shows that in most cases this is not so.

The most recent example — too recent to be in the book — is a Raven pole carved by Donald Varnell, raised in Saxman Totem Park earlier this month. The Raven pole is one of two he carved to stand at the park’s entrance. Though designed to replace poles that previously stood in this location, the poles incorporate Varnell’s own designs, as well as the influence of his teachers and the feel of the other Saxman poles — they are not replicas.

In an interview with Ketchikan’s Sarah Culksa at community radio station KRBD, carver Varnell talked about the idea of regeneration through art.

“I’ve always enjoyed the idea of my piece falling apart rotting, and in 70-80 years, some young artist has to replace what I’ve done,” Varnell said in the interview. “And I hope he doesn’t copy my work, but is inspired by it.”

In this way, the art form, like the pole itself, takes on new life with each iteration, with each carver’s approach.

Another interesting fact about totem poles that may surprise some readers of Jonaitis’ book: The oldest known poles have been traced to this area: to the Tshimshian of northern British Columbia and the Haida of Haida Gwaii, later spreading north to the Tlingit, then south to the Nuxalk, Kwakwaka’wakw and Nuu-chah-nulth.

The book is organized geographically, like a travel guide, moving from Seattle, through British Columbia (Victoria, Vancouver, Vancouver Island, Prince Rupert, Haida Gwaii) and into Southeast (Ketchikan, Sitka and Juneau). But rather than making a long list of all the poles in those areas, Jonaitis picks just a few to describe in some depth.

Of the 25 poles listed, three are in Juneau: Richard Beasley’s culturally modified trees at Mount Roberts, The Waasgo Pole at the State Office Building and the Wooshkeetan Pole by Nathan Jackson and Steve Brown outside Centennial Hall. In describing each of these works, Jonaitis chooses not to “unpack” the stories and clan crests visible on the poles, citing respect for clan and family ownership of crests and stories as a major reason for this. Rather, she presents the history and cultural context of each pole, with a particular focus on the way the intersection of Native and Western culture has influenced the form over time.

Jonaitis’ descriptions of the art form, the carvers, and the cultures they are part of make it clear that these pieces are not something to be read like a storybook, or interpreted like a road sign, or even “understood” on a basic level. They are complex individual works, each occupying a unique role in Southeast Alaska Native history and culture.

Jonaitis, director emerita of the University of Alaska Museum of the North, previously published, “The Totem Pole: An Intercultural History,” in 2010 with Aaron Glass. This work — a much more thorough investigation of some of the ideas presented here — makes a great companion volume for those who wish to learn more. Both were published by the University of Washington Press.

For more on this book, visit www.washington.edu/uwpress.


“The Alexander Eighteen”

Local author Larry Johansen and the Wilderness Act of 1964 will hit the half century mark within four years of each other -- and a conversation with Johansen reveals that they grew up together. Whether it was his childhood explorations of the Ketchikan forests, his work as a tour guide in Southeast, or his artistic explorations of the landscape through his camera, the wilderness has been Johansen’s constant companion.

As they both neared the 50-year milestone, Johansen decided to celebrate this relationship the best way he knows: in a book. Scheduled for release July 20, “The Alexander Eighteen” combines Johansen’s words and images, the result of his travels to each of the 18 wilderness areas in the Alexander Archipelago. It is part history, part travel journal and part guide book, leading the reader through these unique locations while weaving in personal observations as well as larger issues that face wilderness areas in Alaska and elsewhere.

“There are lots of issues that may have affected all of the wilderness areas, but I tried to pick one that best told that story or illustrated that issue (for each chapter),” he sad.

For example, in the Tracy Arm and Ford’s Terror Wilderness, he focused on the visitor industry, posing the question: “can we love wilderness to death?”

In the Karta River chapter, he focuses on encounters.

“I talk about the different user groups I came in contact with and how that is carefully considered in trying to maintain what the Wilderness Act intended the wilderness to be, which is a place where man comes and goes but does not remain,” he said, paraphrasing the language of the 1964 act.

In other chapters, Johansen’s approach is much more personal, perhaps most notably in the Chuck River chapter. Here, far from the tourists and kayakers, he writes about some of the intangible benefits of spending time in the wilderness.

“A lot of things are revealed to you when you’re isolated and by yourself and left to your own thoughts, and I think that was one that illustrated that as well,” he said. “The value in being able to go to a place like that and discover what you may discover; soul searching is enforced upon you by your environment.”

One of the pleasures of writing the book, he said, was the opportunity it provided to experience the distinctive personality of each of the 18 areas in the archipelago.

There are actually 19 wilderness areas in Southeast, but the 19th — the Russell Fjord Wilderness — isn’t in the Alexander Archipelago, so he purposefully left it out, much to the dismay of some of the rangers he met along the way. A special web chapter on the 19th area is in the works, and may be included in an appendix of future printings.

The Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, after being signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, setting aside 9 million acres and establishing a workable definition of wilderness for the country. Many more acres were added in subsequent legislation, the largest of which was the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) of 1980, which added more than 56 million acres to the system.

There are currently a total of 757 wilderness areas in the country, 48 of which are in Alaska, but in terms of land, Alaska contains just over half of the country’s wilderness.

Johansen said that though he doesn’t lay claim to being the first person to visit all 19 of the wilderness areas in Southeast, he has yet to meet anyone else who has done it — a fact that surprised him.

“When I started off, I had this impression that a lot of people had been to all these wilderness areas. But it’s been a year and a half to two year project and through the course of it I have not met anybody else who has been to all 19.”

He got the idea for “The Alexander Eighteen” book while having dinner with friends in Seattle.

“They were all shouting, ‘Yes, you should do it, you should do it, you should do it!’” he said. “But how many times in somebody’s life have they said, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna do it,’ and the next morning they wake up and say, ‘Oh well, that was a good idea.’ ... When the book came and I had a tangible object in my hand, it was a good feeling to be able to say, ‘Yup, I did it.’”

Johansen said since his retirement he’s been able to devote more time to his photography and his book projects; his third book, on the Sandy Beach pumphouse, is already under way. His first book, “XTRATUF: An Alaskan Way of Life” was published two years ago, and, like the others, focused on a defining feature of Southeast. But “Eighteen” is for Johansen more personal, bringing in his own history and experiences.

“What’s different about this book ... was that I was able to provide a perspective of the topic that is uniquely my own.”

Though Johansen is a lifelong Alaskan, there were plenty of discoveries along the way — such as the vibrant fall foliage in Endicott River Wilderness, and the natural “almost fairyland” formations on Coronation Island.

He hopes to inspire similar moments for his readers, and encourage a lasting appreciation for these natural wonders that are right in our backyard.

“I still find discoveries and I think there is discovery left in everybody,” he said. “It’s pretty special.”

The book will be available this weekend at Hearthside Books, and is also available as an eBook.

For more on this book and other projects, visit Johansen’s website, www.rowdydogimages.com.


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