The Village of Kasaan

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:


Kasaan-9293Cool stuff, this way:


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):

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Hoonah, AK

Airship Goes to Alaska


Today was a rainy rainy day in Hoonah. (That's the view from Airship's galley, above.) 

But we had things to see, so we suited up "full Alaska" (rain pants, rain jacket, hat, Xtratufs) and headed out to do some exploring. First up at 9am was a visit to the carver's studio just up the road, where local native artists Gordon Greenwald, Herb Sheakley and Owen James are working on the cultural elements of the traditional Huna Tribal House being built in Bartlett Cove in Glacier National Park.

Our tip from Sherrie--the harbormaster here--to get there at 9am when they opened in order to beat the cruise ship crowd was a great tip! We heard later from some boat neighbors who went later on that there were about 20 people in there when they visited. We were the only ones at 9am, and spent a lot of time chatting with the carvers and learning about the project.) More info about the project is here if you're interested.

I took a bunch of photos, but even shooting RAW the white balance was so hard to get right in the final photos. The light was a mix of natural light and giant green fluorescent jobbies hanging from the ceiling, so I'm giving you the black and white versions (which look much better).

These panels make up what will be front of the tribal house:


The panels are all hand-textured, and the texturing alone takes about 12 hours per panel:


Handmade tools for the job (the one on the far left has an antler for a handle...the rest are from tree trunk/branch sections):


This is carver Gordon Greenwald, telling us how they make the tools, and why the wood handles are better than the antler handles (because they're softer and have a little give when you're using them, and the antler handles are too hard, and the impact transfers more into your hand when you work):



We also got to see the four interior house posts, each one representing one of the four original Tlingit clans. The clans are the T'akdeintaan, (Raven), Wooshkeetaan, Chookaneidí and Kaagwaantaan (all eagle moieties). The central pole carvings are a goat, a shark, an octopus and a wolf, respectively. Each image has to do with the history and stories of that particular clan. 

Here's one color shot that turned out okay, so you can see the paint colors (that's the shark, and the spine of the shark which is important for the story of this corner house post, but I don't know that particular story). They're using consumer paint to match the traditional pigments (and not, for instance, salmon roe mixed with saliva):


On the corner post next to the shark...this story I kind of know. It's story of a giant octopus who was snatching villagers as they went about their daily fishing and gathering. Since the clans get so much of their everything from the sea, they could not go on being afraid of the water.

A boy (I forgot his name) tied a spear or a knife to his hand, killed a dolphin to use as bait, and went out in his canoe to attract the giant octopus. He threw out the dolphin parts and the giant octopus showed up and grabbed the bait and the boy and the boy was never seen again. But soon, the carcass of the tentacled monster washed up on the beach and the young man's body was found inside.


This one tells the story of the glaciers in Glacier Bay advancing (at the speed of a running dog). Some young men were hurrying to tell the rest of the villagers to flee, but the glacier was moving too fast and swallowed them up before they could warn the others. 


The orca's blow hole is often depicted as a face, because the spray of the whale's breath is like a spirit that radiates from the blowhole and without it the whale could not breathe.

Traditional tribal carved headwear, some with fur:



Gordon was so nice to spend so much time with us and share so much information with us. Follow along with the progress of the Huna Tribal House here on facebook, if you're interested. I think we won't get into Glacier Bay this trip. We'd like to have more time to spend in there, and I'm doubting there's much in the way of internet so we'll aim for next summer and as a bonus, we'll probably get to see this work on the actual Tribal House there in Bartlett Bay when it's finished.

After the carver's studio visit, we headed down to Icy Strait Point to get in a bit of touristy activity at the cannery (about a 2 mile walk from the marina).


The bummer about the cruise ship(s) being here is that the town is flooded with (a minimum of) 2,500 more people. The benefit of that, however (besides the economic impact is has on a small Alaskan town of 750), is that many of the places that would not be open on a "no cruise ships day" are open. (Like, the baleen and fry bread place, for instance.) 

The cannery museum and shops and restaurants (and zip line, of course) were all open today, so we grabbed some halibut fish & chips and a beer and had a fun conversation with some other diners from the cruise ship. (Seven days! All they get up here is 4 ports in 7 days!)

They've got a bunch of the old equipment in there with a ton of info about how they processed and canned salmon when the cannery was a working cannery:




I even bought a touristy thing in the gift shop. (Well, I bought for Tiffani and Deke, since I'm pretty sure if they'd seen it, they'd have gotten one for themselves anyway.) Click to enlarge, for full detail. :)


The woman working in the gift shop was super nice and gave us a good tip for a breakfast spot (and what to order) tomorrow morning before we take off for Elfin Cove. (Everyone we've met here in Hoonah has been so nice and friendly. This is a sweet little town and a recommended stop.)

Our walk back in the rain was wet but pretty:



The forecast tomorrow looks good for Icy Strait so we'll head to Elfin Cove and then on to Pelican if the Icy Strait/Cross Sound conditions stay chill. After that, I think we'll start heading....I know, please no, but we have to....south. Slowly, very slowly...south. :( I have to stop thinking about it now. 

Hey look! Another humpback! Shiny!! 

Ray Troll: The Man, the Myth, the Ratfish

You remember the ratfish incident in Port Harvey, right? (Click that link if you don't.)

Well the ratfish has crept into many conversations since then...the weird "girl grabbing appendage" (called a tenaculum) on its head that grabs with little Velcro-like hooks onto the fin of the female ratfish during mating, the long "graspers" that hang from beneath it to also grab the female ratfish during mating...there's a lot to talk about, about the ratfish. Ratfish belong to an ancient species of shark relatives--Chimaera--a very primitive group of fish dating back more than 300 million years. 

Our flotilla group has had many conversations about the ratfish since qw pulled one up on our crab trap: (1) that we should have a flotilla burgee designed with a ratfish on it, (2) that the secret "Waggoner Flotilla 2015 Greeting" should be a bent forefinger at the forehead, mimicking the protruding tenaculum on the forehead of the male get the idea. Lots of silliness.

The other night while having dinner at the Bar Harbor Restaurant, Brigette stopped by our table. Brigette Ellis is a friend of Mark's and the owner of the Alaska Eagle Arts Gallery with her husband, artist Marvin Oliver. She'd been having dinner a few tables over and stopped by to say goodbye. She happened to come by during another one of the ratfish conversations, and someone said "Hey! Do you know about the ratfish?" She said "Yes, but the guy who really knows about ratfish is Ray." She returned moments later with Ray (I assume he was dining at another table).

"This is Ray Troll. Ray, they want to know about the ratfish."

Well. This could not possibly have been a better set up.

Ray pulled up his shirt sleeve to show us his ratfish tattoo.


Ray gave us a little info about the ratfish, and I told him I'd caught one on our crab trap at Port Harvey and showed him the pics from my iPhone. He enlarged each shot to show everyone the tenaculum on the male's head as he explained different kinds of ratfish, their relation to sharks, how they haven't changed in 300 million years, and then said there is actually a ratfish named after him. For real. Check this out

Ray, demonstrating the "Ratfish Secret Handshake":


Ray Troll is an artist who has lived and worked in Ketchikan for the last 30 years, but his art reaches far beyond SE Alaska. You've likely seen his work. He calls himself a "fin artist" and his main subject is fish. The first time we ever saw his his work, it was the fish art t-shirts (years ago).

This is one of his most popular designs...(he's got a color version here as well):


But Ray's not just about art t-shirts. He has had many museum shows, a bunch of books, and he also has a band about to release their third CD. The band is called Ray Troll & the Ratfish Wranglers (of course).

In 2011 Ray and scientist Kirk Johnson (now the Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History) were jointly awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the Science Writing category to support their book project called “The Eternal Coastline: the Best of the Fossil West from Baja to Barrow.”

So basically, Ray's kind of a big deal.

We chatted for a few minutes there at the table and Ray said we should come by his shop the next morning and talk fish. So we did. He gifted me one of his CDs (as a new member of the Ratfish clan) and I told him I'd trade him a portrait, so we arranged to meet at his shop (Soho Coho, run by Ray and his wife Michelle) on Creek Street yesterday afternoon.


I was a little early so I could look around the shop a bit (definitely worth going by if you're in Ketchikan...lots of good Ray Troll stuff, plus the work of quite a few other local artists). Ray arrived and off we went to his studio. We got to the parking lot and he gestured to a car and said "This one's mine." The license plate is RATFSH. I said "Of course it is!" :) 

Ray's studio is a cool, contemporary vertical structure he designed and had built behind the home he share with his wife Michelle's, and it's got a fantastic view out over Tongass Narrows. 


We hung out and talked for a bit first and Ray taught me some cool things about his current obsession: the Helicoprion, also known as the "Buzz Saw Shark". He's got some pretty cool props inspiration in his studio, and we played with a bunch of it.


Two of Ray's friends stopped by and he opened up a jar containing a preserved ratfish and gave the three of us an impromptu lecture about ratfish! 


(Note the Buzz Saw Shark artwork in the background, and the ratfish hat on the table.) 

Describing the tenaculum:


Until next time, little ratfish buddy. Back in the jar you go!


Ray said he was really trying not to ham it up too much. He was charming and warm and funny (and he totally hammed it up and it was great).

We call this one "Look Into the Whorl" ... the visual of how the Buzz Saw Shark's teeth grow:


And here's the more serious portrait of Ray in his studio:


Meeting and photographing Ray was a blast. He dropped me off back at Airship, with one quick stop along the way to show me his very first piece of public art. On the side of the the Silver Lining seafood-processing plant you'll find Ray's first mural, dated 1984. He worked here on the "slime line" as a fishmonger when he first moved to Ketchikan, and traded that mural for some studio space in the adjacent building, where he was close to the fish (he could bring fish right up to his studio to draw them). He told me that the halibut in the mural are totally wrong though...they're facing left, but they're actually right-facing fish.

He knows that now.