Ketchikan, Alaska has many claims to fame. Established in 1885, it is the North Star State’s first city, it is the salmon capital of the world, and since it rains at least 240 days per year, it is also the rainiest place in Alaska. In and around Ketchikan is also where you’ll find one of the largest collections of totem poles in the world. Perhaps the best place to see 14 colorful poles and a clan house for FREE is at Totem Bight State Historical Park, located about 10 miles north of town.
The park’s waterfront site along the Tongass Narrows was once a fishing camp for the Tlingit and Haida Indians, and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If it’s a typical weather day when you visit, you’ll find that the dripping evergreens and light fog make a moody backdrop for the interpretive signs and poles you’ll pass along a half-mile gravel path. Pick up a trail map at the entrance to the park to better understand the meanings behind the carvings— killer whales denote strength and eagles stand for peace and friendship. Contrary to early belief, totem poles were never worshipped; they originally served as silent storytellers when there was no written language. Keep in mind that because of the soggy climate, these cedar sculptures would last only between 50 and 70 years, therefore, most of the poles here have been repaired or re-carved by Native artisans using traditional tools and paint colors.
This totem symbolizes thunder, belonging to the Thunder House people. Story has it that four brothers were changed into thunderers, and like thunderbirds, they create thunder and lightening and live high in the sky and on the mountaintops.
A community house or clan house such as this would have sheltered 30-50 people. Inside is one large room with a central fireplace surrounded by a planked platform. Each family would have been allotted its own space, but shared a common fire. Although this recreated clan house is beautifully decorated, the front of most original native houses would not have been painted unless the families were very wealthy.
This Tlingit grave marker depicts a man from the Bear Clan wearing a large carved wooden hat surmounted by a bear’s head and surrounded on the brim by painted whales. The hat would have been worn at important occasions during which stories were told or dramatized.
IF YOU GO:
There are no roads leading to Ketchikan from major Alaskan cities, therefore, all visitors arrive by plane or boat. The Alaskan Ferry leaves out of Bellingham, Washington and can accommodate RVs of all sizes. http://www.akferry.com/rv.html
Totem Bight State Historical Park
9883 N Tongass Hwy
Ketchikan, Alaska 99901
Phone: (907) 247-8574
Open daily 7 am – 6 pm
In addition to writing about her travels, Denise Seith is also a treasure hunter and loves a good latté. She and her husband own an online gold prospecting and metal detecting equipment store found at GoldRushTradingPost.com