Fetching Ketchikan

For centuries—long before art became objects at auctions or entered studios and performance halls—drawings, carvings, music and dance were the way to share life’s experiences. Pass along history and traditions. Tell stories. Give information. Simply put, to communicate.

Totem poles, carved and painted by Pacific Northwest coastal native tribes, are beautifully enduring works of art that tell stories and share history in a most unique way.

On a recent cruise stop in Ketchikan, Alaska, I learned a few things about these spectacular carvings, along with the migration of settlers from the lower 48, and the impressions left behind by one key US government official—recorded forever at the top of a towering cedar trunk…

Tall carvings

The year: 1868. The place: Portland Canal, in the new Alaska Territory. The visitor: Secretary of State William Henry Seward. His hosts? The Tlingit people, Tongass tribe. Welcoming Mr. Seward and celebrating his arrival with a total of four potlatches, they looked forward to successful trade relations between their tribes and the United States.

The Tlingit even erected a totem pole in his honor. But when Mr. Seward neglected to return the favor—that is host the same number of potlatches honoring the native tribes—his likeness was marked in red. Something akin to indicating cheapness. Oops…

Walking around the Saxman Native Village, I noticed bare trunks that featured an animal or a person only at the top. I soon learned that all totem poles tell a complete story, which doesn’t always involve carving the entire log. And no sanding—carving tools only, with paint as a finishing touch.

Six feet of the trunk is buried in the ground for stability. And when the totem would fall, it was left as is to “return to the Earth.” Nowadays, many totem poles are being restored, anchored by a sturdy base to prevent rotting. True artistry and skill are apparent in each standing pillar of history—each a tall wooden, timeless storybook. I was mesmerized…

Long boardwalks

Leaving the village, our guide dropped us off in town to further explore on our own. The wooden structures—especially along Creek Street—made me think of the “Old West” (substituting tall evergreens for tumbleweeds).

Elevated boardwalks meandered along Ketchikan Creek, allowing for easy access to hillside residences, shops and businesses, as well as providing excellent views and vista points.

Seeing salmon swimming upstream and eagles attempting to disrupt that process, just by leaning against a nearby shop railing, seemed a bit surreal. Wildlife doing its thing alongside tourists doing theirs…

Big business

Happening upon a shop called “Christmas in Alaska,” I couldn’t resist. In addition to finding wonderful souvenirs—and holiday trinkets I suddenly couldn’t do without—I discovered something called Devil’s Club. Native to Alaska, its salve is great for things like calming the itchy bug bite on my hand…

Something else I learned: this store isn’t open during the holidays; it is only open for tourist season. Cruise ships have a huge impact on the economy of this otherwise small Alaskan town.

Heading back to the pier to board my floating hotel, I thought about what it must take for this beautiful coastal community to be showtime ready, May through September. Maybe, one day, there will be a totem pole to tell that story to future passers by. Hopefully without featuring a lot of red paint…J 🎨

3 thoughts on “Fetching Ketchikan”

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