The Totem Parks of Ketchikan Alaska

Clan House at Totem Bight

It has been a rainy week in Ketchikan as we wait for packages to arrive from the lower 48.  While waiting we decided to check out the city of Ketchikan’s mass transit, so we can visit the two different totem parks nearby. One is on an actual native village site, while the other is a park dedicated to preserving and commemorating Alaska native culture.  Both totem parks were easy to get to and unique in their own way. 

Saxman Totem Park

The first we visited was the Saxman Totem Park.  It is located 2.8 miles south of town, on the South Tongass Highway.  Saxman is a village that was established when the two Tlingit villages of Cape Fox and Tongass decided to merge into a single community on the edge of Tongass Narrows.  A sawmill was built to supply lumber to the growing area around Ketchikan.  The lumber and fishing industry of the day allowed the new town to grow and thrive.  By 1900 there were 142 residents in the town of Saxman.

After getting off the bus, we walked up the hill toward the clan house, on Totem Row.  We admired all the poles that lined the street.  In total there are 29 poles in the park.  All poles are hand carved from cedar trees and replicated the old designs and techniques of the Tlingit and Haida people.  Supposedly this is the most extensive collection of poles in world.  

Totem Row

At the top of the hill was the “Beaver Clan” house, a replicate of an old Tlinkit house. When we were there, it was only open to private tour groups.  As I approach, I could hear drums from a presentation going on inside.  

“Beaver Clan” house

Next to the clan house was the carving shed.  Which also was only open to private tour groups.  Since we were on a self-guided tour, we were only able to look through the windows to see the current carving project.  I have always liked the fragrant of cedar.  I notice it on almost every beach we explore.  But at the carving shed, the cedar smell was much more noticeable and provided some rich native culture to go along with the aroma.

Totem Bight State Historic Park

The second park we visited was Totem Bight State Historical Park. It is about 10 miles north of Ketchikan. In 1938 the U.S. Forest services realized the old totems in the original vacated village of the native Alaskans were rotting away.  In order to preserve the heritage and culture of the native Alaskan people the park was established.  The park was set up to model a native village, with poles and a clan house. Today the park contains 14 different poles and one clan house.  Each pole tells a story.

Some of the poles at Totem Bight

Old fragments of rotten poles from various abandon native villages were brought to the park.  These original poles were used as templates to commission new poles.   By the end of World War II 14 poles had been replicated and the name of the park was changed from Mud Bight to Totem Bight.

Our bus stopped right at the park.  Our stroll through the park started by passing a couple of mortuary poles.  One of them being a Thunderbird, with a killer whale being clutched in its talons.  The original mortuary pole was from the old native village of Klinkwan, on Prince of Whales Island.

Thunderbird Pole

A gravel path meandered through the lush Tongass rain forest down to the clan house.  The ground and trees along the trail were covered with brightly colored green moss.  You could see evidence of early logging.  Some of those old stumps provided nutrients for the next generation growth.  

Old Stump Nursing New Grow

Our trekking to these cultural sites was a great adventure in itself. We timed it perfectly, “No Rain”.  If you are ever in Ketchikan Alaska and want to see some totems, I’d recommend visiting Saxman or Totem Bight State Park, or both.