Wintering in

Totem pole removed from Auke Recreation Area for refurbishing

Posted: Friday, December 10, 2010

One outdoor fixture will be spending the winter indoors, as it dries in preparation for refurbishing next year.

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Abby Lowell / Juneau Empire
Abby Lowell / Juneau Empire

The 69-year-old Yax Te' totem pole stood at Auke Recreational Area for decades and has survived abuse from wind, rain and even arson in 1992 when a good portion of the base was set ablaze. But the latest attack on this 48-foot, 4,700-pound red cedar totem came from an insect infestation, which expanded an area of existing rot on the backside of the pole.

Concerned that the pole would topple due to lack of structural integrity, the U.S. Forest Service, who is overseeing the care of the pole, arranged for it to be taken down this fall after crews noticed the rotting wood and insect residents.

Up close, the pole smells like warm earth, and it's easy to see the tooled markings that cover nearly every inch of the carving. A raven with outstretched wings tops the pole, then the magpie, Ha-Sha-Kcqw - a figure resembling an eagle with a human face, the robin, blue jay, Yey-ku-du-hits - a small black-eyed bird, and the princess of the first people who lived at Auk Village.

Tiny lichens and mosses hunker in the cracks.

Myra Gilliam, an archaeologist on the Juneau Ranger District, has been charged with keeping history on the pole. She said it's understandable the wood would deteriorate as it has due to its moisture-laden environment.

"It's been in the ground (at Auke Rec) for 20 years," she said. "It's in a natural setting and surrounded by vegetation, so it's not getting great air circulation. That moist environment creates wonderful habitat for insect infestation."

Frank St. Clair, a Tlingit from Hoonah, originally carved this pole, also known as the Big Dipper totem, in 1941. At the time, two other Tlingit men serving in the Civilian Conservation Corps assisted him. That same year, the pole was erected by the Indian Division of the Civilian Conservation Corp under the direction of Linn Forrest, who worked as a landscape architect. Locally, he is perhaps most famous for designing the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, the Hurff Saunders Federal Building and the Alaska State Museum. He also designed Timberline Lodge, on Mount Hood in Oregon.

Historically, there are several versions of the story related to the Yax Te' design. One account states the Yax Te' or Big Dipper crest was thought to honor Auk Village warriors after a battle near Klawock, a village located on the west coast of Prince of Wales Island. The crest was adopted by the Auk clans and appeared in community houses, on war canoes and as part of blanket designs. The area surrounding the location of where the Yax Te' pole stood was once the site of a winter village established by the Auk Kwan, a Tlingit group originating from the Stikine River area.

Now, laid on its side and shrouded in Visqueen in a Forest Service warehouse, the totem is being prepped to stand erect once again.

"When we first took it down, the moisure content was between 18 and 20 percent," Gilliam said. "So, we're keeping it in a dry and constant environment. The idea is that (keeping it covered) will slow the moisture release."

Gilliam said this drying step is necessary before a restorer can go to work, but the process is tedious. Should the old wood dry too fast it will crack, too slow and it will mold.

"The front is not damaged by insects," she said. "But once we got it down, we saw it was somewhat damaged by woodpeckers, or some kind of bird that has pecked into the wood. There are at least five or seven holes near the top."

But Gilliam said those holes will likely be left hollow.

"Filling them will cause another area for trapped moisture to hide," she said. "And trapped moisture is not our friend."

This winter, the Forest Service plans to continue exploring the best way to care for and refurbish the pole. The organization will also explore other areas to reinstall the totem. Gilliam said she's been in contact with various local and regional experts on how to best approach the project.

When the pole was restored in 1992-93, Arnie Dalton, a Wrangell Tlingit, did the work under a $22,500 contract with the Forest Service. He was 49 years old at the time, but has since died. Hence, Gillian said the Forest Service is leaving it up to the Auk Kwan to recommend an artist to complete this second overhaul.

Gilliam said the project could be completed as early as this spring or as late as next fall.

In the meantime, an artifact that has spent decades standing tall against a variety of assaults will get a respite from the elements.

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at

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