Rescued FROM Time

Historic Ketchikan totem poles lowered for restoration

Posted: Sunday, July 20, 2008

KETCHIKAN - The lofty poles at Totem Bight State Park retain an aura of grandeur, although rain, insects and time have taken a toll.

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James Poulson / The Daily Sitka Sentinel
James Poulson / The Daily Sitka Sentinel

Inches under their painted surfaces, rot is eating many of the approximately 60-year-old poles from the inside out; top and bottom, moss and other vegetation has taken root, literally.

A few poles were close to toppling, prompting park officials to take down three in late June.

It's perfectly natural for wood to rot, especially in a rainforest. Traditionally, Southeast Native tribes allow their totem poles to "go back" to nature, leaving the tall, carved cedar logs to decay and provide sustenance for future flora.

The Totem Bight poles are different. They are not owned by a Native tribe, but by Alaska State Parks; and the poles have significance beyond their age and artistic value, because they are among the totems carved by local Native artists in the late 1930s and early 1940s through the federal Civilian Conservation Corps program.

The collection also is very popular with local residents and visitors. Many weddings take place at the park, either outdoors or inside the clan house; and tourism statistics have shown Totem Bight is one of the most-visited sites in Alaska.

Ketchikan State Parks Ranger Mary Kowalczyk said the local park system has made efforts over the years to preserve the totem poles, and will continue those efforts. The 16 totem poles, including the carved posts on the clan house, will be cleaned with soap and water, she said, and any vegetation found will be removed. Park employees then will apply an environmentally safe insecticide to the poles, she said, followed by a coat of water repellent to keep the insecticide in and (try) to keep water out.

The poles that were lowered will need a little more work, though. Those are the Pole on the Point, designed for the park and erected around 1940 in front of the park's clan house; the Blackfish Pole, a copy of one from Tongass Island also raised around 1940; and the Halibut Pole, which was copied in the early 1970s by local carver Nathan Jackson.

Kowalczyk said the Halibut Pole - a long support pole with a carved halibut on top - needs only a new support log for the fish.

"The halibut itself is fine," she said. For the other two, "We're hoping to have them hollowed out in the back and check the integrity to see if they're (stable enough) to have a support post put in and have them re-erected."

That plan is the recommendation of Ron Sheetz, a West Virginia-based conservator who specializes in totem poles.

In a telephone interview from his home, Sheetz said that, when examining the poles, he used a manlift, started at the top of each and worked his way down.

"One of the surprising things with these poles (is), the base of the poles seem to be in pretty good condition," he said, especially considering their age. "They've been taken care of by the State Parks."

That said, Sheetz noted serious fungal growth, splits in the wood, leans of up to 3 feet, and general decay.

For example, he said, the watchman at the top of the Sea Monster Pole has a split of about three-quarters of an inch, and the split continues down to the wings of the eagle figure underneath the watchman. That split is bad news, he said, because it allows moisture to get into the wood. During winter freezing and thawing, the split will worsen.

"That one will have to come down in time or you'll lose the top figure," Sheetz said, although he noted that the pole is not a falling risk.

Others were.

Sheetz said the Blackfish Pole was leaning 2 feet to the right of its base, and 3 feet backward. It also was wicking up moisture at a rapid rate, to the point where water was coming out of a knothole on the side of the pole, several feet above the ground.

"Water was shooting out like a little spout," he said, laughing. "I hadn't seen that before."

The Pole on the Point had excessive insect infestation at the base and fungal decay, he said, and only a small amount of pressure was needed to move the Halibut Pole one direction or another.

Sheetz is retired from the National Park Service, where he specialized in conservation of furniture and wood objects. He said he worked on furnishings for the Bishop's House in Sitka, and in 1988 traveled to that city to help install the furniture.

While there, he said, he was asked to take a look at the poles at the Sitka totem park, run by the National Park Service.

"That's where I really got involved with ... trying to prolong the life of totem poles," he said.

Kowalczyk said Alaska State Parks officials are working on a draft plan for Totem Bight, which will include plans for the poles. She said that draft is scheduled to come out at the end of this summer, at which time the public can comment.

She said money to preserve and, she hopes, restore the poles likely would come from state deferred-maintenance funds.

"They're pieces of art, and we're trying to preserve them as long as possible," she said.

A worthy goal, but Sheetz suggested the park also have detailed drawings made, at least of the most deteriorated poles, because, eventually, fresh copies will have to be carved.

"You can't save them for eternity," he said.

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