Airship Goes to Alaska
We left Meyers Chuck this morning and headed out into Clarence Strait and headed for the village of Kasaan, across the Strait and on the east side of Prince of Wales Island about 30 miles northwest of Ketchikan.
Kasaan (population around 53) is one of the only two Haida villages in Alaska, and gets its name from the Tlingit word meaning “beautiful place.” The Haida people migrated north from Haida Gwaii and established the village Gasa’aan, now known as “old Kasaan” on Skowl Arm seven miles from today’s Kasaan.
We tied up on the public float, which is very nice. In many of the reviews about Kasaan, there’s talk of how bad the dock is (things like “awash in anything but fair weather” and “a disaster waiting to happen” etc.) but from what we can see, things have been much improved since those reviews were written. The dock portion we’re on appears like new, and the other sections must have seen some improvements in recent years.
We headed up to explore the village, and find the trail to the once abandoned, now being restored Haida longhouse.
Boardwalk trail along the waterfront:
The trail took us through rainforest, along the water, and over streams (with salmon still heading up ’em):
This longhouse is Alaska’s oldest Haida longhouse, called Naay I’waans (“The Great House” — also known as Chief Son-i-Hat Whale House), originally built by Chief Son-i-Hat in 1880. (Although Son-i-Hat is a Tlingit name meaning “well respected,” both the Chief and his wife were of Haida descent.)
There were 32 (I think) clan members who originally lived in the house. After Chief Son-i-Hat’s death in 1912, the family moved out of the longhouse and the structure eventually deteriorated (wood + rainforest = eventual ruin). The Civilian Conservation Corps rebuilt it in the late 1930s. (The totem pole in front of the house was carved by James Peele in 1939 during restoration, copied from the original.)
But of course the house would eventually need further restoration and repair, and in November 2013, the restoration project received a $450,000 grant from the Rasmuson Foundation. (The Rasmuson Foundation is an Anchorage-based private foundation to promote better lives for Alaskans, with focus on areas such as arts & culture, health, and social services).
The lead carver on the Whale House restoration project is Stormy Hamar, working with apprentices Eric Hamar (his son), Harley Bell-Holter, and Justin Henricks. We were greeted by Harley Holter who was super nice and from this spot on the roof gave us a thorough rundown on the project and some history of the longhouse and totems:
The totems inside the longhouse with the white faces are the originals from 1880, and the one in the center is much older. (I don’t think we learned where the center one came from, just that it was probably a couple hundred years old.)
They are all in remarkable condition considering their age!
The smoke hole in the center of the roof:
The view from in front of the longhouse, looking out into Kasaan Bay:
Birds on a log:
In the forest surrounding the Whale House are more totems:
Skáwaal Pole (below, aka First Eagle Pole). This pole is about 50-feet high and was one of two poles which stood in front of Chief Skáwaal’s Rib House. When the pole was moved to New Kasaan, the thunderbird figure at the top was replaced and the surface was carved down to solid wood during the CCC restoration. The carved figures below the ring appear the same for each pole: Raven with the moon in its beak; Raven holding his beak bent down in his hands; and at the base, a bear with cubs in its mouth. This pole was removed from the village and restored at New Kasaan:
The 40-foot Spencer Pole (below) was raised by Kate Gamede, a Kasaan woman of Táas Láanas clan, as a memorial to her husband, a photographer from Victoria, BC. The image of Mr. Spencer appears at the top of the pole; below appear scroll patterns; Raven carrying the moon in his mouth; and Black Skin, the strong man, holding the sea lion. The last figure illustrates a story familiar to the Haida and Tlingit; a weak boy who trained and finally overcame all of his stronger relatives. His chief exploit was tearing a sea lion in two to the consternation of his companions. This pole was taken down on December 22, 1938 in Old Kasaan and barged to the new site where it was adzed and re-carved by David Peele. [source]
Killer whale grave figure (a CCC reproduction):
Here are a couple of photos of old Kasaan, for reference:
The goal is to finish the Whale House restoration by December. We told Harley we’d come back next summer to see it, and he said we should come back for the big potlatch on September 3. (He also said to just beach the boat over in front of the longhouse, and that many people would be arriving by canoe.) We’ll definitely come back, but perhaps not beach the boat.
We walked back through the village and stopped at the carving shed and chatted with Justin. He was hand adzing some wall boards, but seemed happy to give it a break to show us some of the projects they’ve got going in there:
The curl on the sides of this canoe is from the tree’s original shape. To do the final shaping (so it’s not just a rollover-machine) they’ll take it out and fill it about half full of salt water and then place hot lava rocks inside, creating hot water and steam that will enable them manipulate the wood.
The carving shed recently hosted a free paddle workshop. So cool!!
After we left the shed we walked up to the school to check out the Unity Pole (raised in 2007) carved by Tsimshian master carver Stan Marsden (1930 to 2015). The pole’s base depicts a bear holding up a healing man with a basket of roses (also referred to as the “uninvited guest” who appears with a rose for everyone — the rose representing love, peace, and beauty–the guest is asked to stay). It also has a killer whale, eagle, raven and thunderbird, with three watchmen at the top.
On the way back to the dock, we saw a giant white slug (two of them, actually):
The weather just keeps improving, which is great because there’s a good chance for more Northern Lights tonight (if the sky is clear enough to see them):
Looking from the trail toward the public dock:
We are back at Airship now doing some work and our plan is to head over to Ketchikan tomorrow to start the watch-and-wait for a good Dixon Entrance crossing (and to do some laundry, and get some mail, and more groceries, but not the stuff we can’t take into Canada, like eggs or potatoes or garlic or lemons).
Not sure what we’ll do for dinner tonight yet, but it’s beautiful out, so we probably should take advantage of that and grill something.
Today’s route from Meyers Chuck to the village of Kasaan (our track in green, about 30 nautical miles):