It has been a looonnnng time since the aurora forecast has lined up with clear skies here in Hoonah, so when they finally did this weekend I wanted to make the most of it! Although I do not often focus on writing about photographic techniques on this blog, I thought I would focus on some creative photography techniques I employed and how they can expand your shooting opportunity. Read along to learn about some skills to expand your nighttime shooting (foreground composition, focus stacking, panoramas, light painting) or scroll along to check out some of the images from the night.
Foreground Composition & Light Painting
When I am out photographing a scene I am forever on the hunt for interesting foreground elements. Of course the definition of word “interesting” is determined by the photographer, but I search for elements that capture the essence of the scene, amplify the impact of a phenomenon, or create a pleasing set of lines that lead the eye. On this particular night I was drawn to a rock face that was draped in large icicles. They were translucent and I knew that I could shoot the aurora through them – they were also perfect as a piece of the scene because they provided texture to the aurora’s light and were a part of the essence and juxtaposition where the ocean meets the shore. I call the resulting shot “Aurora Light Sabers” and am thrilled with the unique perspective it provided to the landscape and aurora. Not all foreground elements are so well lit, so you may consider bringing a flashlight along to help paint the scene.
Modern cameras are incredibly adept at picking up light, however, moonless nights in regions with truly dark skies will still leave foreground elements black unless you use a bit of focused lighting and enhancement. Thus, the creative photography technique “Light Painting” can help you emphasize and highlight your foreground elements.
On this night I brought a very unique foreground element with me. This model (maquette) of the Goonz Totem Pole in Hoonah, Alaska is an exact, 18″ replica of the life-sized pole. It was used to guide the carvers as they brought the full sized pole to life and it was truly a privilege to have the maquette with me. I set the maquette up close to my camera and began to shoot, creating the illusion that a full-sized totem was in front of my camera. I used a light panel and bounced the light off the surrounding snow to softly light the totem. Without light painting, the totem would have been completely dark and blank – simply a silhouette against the sky.
This it the full-sized Goonz Pole located in Hoonah, Alaska
You can expand your depth of field and create sharp images using a technique called focus stacking. I am a novice at the technique and referenced this article.
One of the disadvantages of using such a small maquette is that I had to be very close to it to take the shot and make it a significant foreground element. The close object brought the stars far out of focus (as seen in the maquette image above). To get over this hurdle, I shot multiple images of the totem at different focuses in rapid succession and then combined them in Photoshop. Through focus stacking I was able to have my cake and eat it too – I created an image with a dominant maquette in the foreground and sharp stars in the background.
Often scenes are so expansive that they cannot be captured in a single image, and that is where a panorama can be very helpful. As I stood on the beach and photographed I knew that I wanted to capture the Milky Way and the Northern Lights together (about 160 degrees field of view). I created the panorama below using 6 images and a 24mm, Sigma f/1.4. Each image is separated by 20 degrees using a rotating ballhead. I used 20 degrees because I know it provides ample overlap in the image for Photoshop to align and stitch with. You will need to change the amount of rotation depending on the length of the lens that you use. Using the panoramic technique expanded my field of view and helped me capture all of the celestial elements that I had in mind as well as the mountains of Homeshore and the mainland.
The Take Away
I am always learning new techniques and refining ones that I already know. Thinking outside of the box and on your feet during a photography session can expand your shooting opportunities during a single night. As I like to say “pixels are cheap”, so be sure to make lots of pixels as you shoot more creative photography.
A few months back I was walking the shores of Hoonah, Alaska with my wife when we saw a furry brown streak shoot out of the rocks along the ocean. With smiles of pleasure we watched as the mink dove under a thick bed of green, leafy, rock weed that covered the rocks exposed by the low-tide and erupted from it a few feet from where its nose had entered. Like a swimmer diving through water it dove and emerged again and then it changed tactics. Like a cat playing with its paws inside of an empty brown bag it shuffled and flipped the weeds looking for any wriggling food underneath. I knew that the weeds hide small fish, crabs, and sea-cucumbers and any of those would have been a feast for this small mammal.
In its focused pursuit of food, the Mink payed me little regard as I moved closer. Soon I was within 10 feet of this active animal. I followed it along the shore for 50 yards enjoying and watching its behaviors. I had not considered how many holes were in the rocks until the Mink poked its head into nearly every one of them systematically! The Mink disappeared into a rock outcropping thick with rock weed and emerged with a sculpin as its prize. Although sculpin have heavy spines in their head, the mink crunched through the whole carcasses and even the bony head before heading to another rock outcropping to find some more.
The Mink disappeared under a large bolder laced in blue mussels. I made my move and walked across the beach and stepped on top of the bolder. When the Mink reemerged it looked up and me and ducked back into the rocks. Obviously unsure if it was safe to come out but too curious to care it soon reappeared, took a glance at me, and then started to forage in the rocks under my feet. I was only 7 feet away from the lithe body as it scurried and poked and made me smile.
I’ve thought quite a bit about that Mink in the mussels since then because the opportunity was, well, opportune and I took the chance to watch and learn. In a world where everything is the next biggest priority this Mink was a reminder to stop and smell the roses. My advice to you is when you have a chance to sit, watch, and learn, take it. Whatever comes next can wait a bit.
A mink comes out of the rocks after scouting around for food. I watched this cute little bugger dive around in the rocks for almost 40 minutes.
2017 is officially in the books and it has been a tremendous year! Thank you to all who follow along on this blog or at www.facebook.com/ianlww! Your engagement in my work has been amazing! Your support is one of reasons the reasons that I stay out late shooting the Aurora Borealis and get in front of bears with my camera. This gallery is features my “Best of Photography 2017” and I hope you enjoy. I’m looking forward to bringing you more in 2018!
Aurora Borealis, Juneau, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Hoonah, Alaska
I am very intrigued by this design. It shaped like the cosmos, but I wonder what it actually represents?
A tall and ornate totem in the village of Kasaan.
A Least Sandpiper amount the mountain scenery of the Chilkoot River.
A rainbow high-lights the amazing scenery around Haines.
In the north end of Southeast Alaska lies Yakutat, Alaska. The community sits in a cathedral of mountains that make up Kluane National Park and Reserve. Among its peaks, Mt. Saint Elias soars to over 18,000 feet, earning it the title of second highest mountain in the U.S. and Canada.. All of the mountains are snow covered and laced with glaciers. They create remarkable, never ending scenery when the sun is shining and at night they provide a remarkable backdrop for the Northern Lights.
Forty-five minutes outside of Yakutat plus a 20 minute hike will bring you to Harlequin Lake. The lake is at the outflow of Yakutat Glacier, possibly the fastest retreating glacier in the world, which dumps a constant supply of ice into it the lake’s waters. We arrived at 10PM as the aurora was starting to intensify into a solid green band. Icebergs floated in the lake like ice cubes in a drink. They were about 30 feet from shore which left me in a dilemma – go into the lake to bring the icebergs closer in my photos, or be happy with images from the shore? As the aurora exploded overhead into pinks and greens it made my choice clear.
My boots and then socks came off quickly and I sucked in my breath as I stepped into the frigid water. It crept over my knees and then to my mid-thighs before I finally stopped wading in. The aurora was still dancing overhead and the adrenaline kept my mind off my numbing feet. I stepped out of the water a few times to warm up, but was forced back into the water by the beauty of the combination of ice and aurora. The fifth time back in the water was nearly unbearable! I finally conceded that it was time to warm up, not knowing the climax of the night would come after I put my boots back on.
When a glacier “calves” a chunk of ice breaks from it and crashes into the water forming a bouncing baby iceberg. It was evident from the gigantic sound coming from across the lake, that Yakutat Glacier was calving off a behemoth chunk of ice. The cannon-like roar that boomed across the lake accented the dancing Northern Lights overhead. The goosebumps stood up on my arms from the power of the moment. It was a fitting end to one of coldest and most memorable nights of Northern Lights watching that I have done.
The aurora storm (kp5) lasted for another night and aligned with clear skies – a two night feature of cloudless skies which is unusual for Yakutat in October. There are many areas close to town that are devoid of light pollution, and I departed to Grave Yard Beach outside of Yakutat which is most famous for its surfing. Adding to the sound of the gentle surf, the ocean-side location provided open skies for the aurora to dance, reflections in the sand, and a moonrise over the mountains. Whenever I return to Yakutat again, it will be impossible not to think of these two remarkable nights in the darkness and under the lights.
Everyone knows that some mushrooms are edible, but did you know that certain species of fungi and lichen can create dye for yarn and other materials in every spectrum of the rainbow? When Bessette wrote her book “The Rainbow Beneath My Feet: A Mushroom Dyers Field Guide”, she was being quite literal! I had the unique opportunity to scout for local dyeing mushrooms as part of a workshop led by SE Alaska mycologist Karen Dillman. We used the newly acquired mushrooms to dye yarn and silks. There is no doubt that I look at the forest floor with a different level of detail now! I think I may be hooked on this unique form of creating color.
Picking the right fungi or lichen for the right color is a crucial first step in producing your dyes. Fortunately the old growth forests in Southeast Alaska are ripe with many colorful species of fungi and lichens (a side fact – there are thousands of species of fungi and about 1000 documented lichen in Southeast Alaska). For each of the species of fungi that we dyed with during the workshop I have included the color they produce and the general region they may be found.
Lobaria pulmanaria – browns (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called “lungwort”
Lobaria oregana – browns (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called “lettuce lichen”
Letharia vulpina – bright yellow and green (Idaho up through the Yukon)
Parmelia saxatillis – apricot and rusty browns (Southeast Alaska)
Orsalia (Umbillicaria genus) – purples (Nova Scotia), Rock Tripe (Umbellicaria) found in Southeast Alaska can produce purples as well.
Hydenellum peckii – blue (Southeast Alaska)
Hydnellum regium – black (Southeast Alaska)
Phaeolus schwinitzii – golds and greens (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called the dyer’s polypore
Dermocybes spp. – oranges and yellows (Southeast Alaska)
Fungi and Lichen are picky about the habitats they live in. Most species strongly associate with certain plant communities, individual species of plants, or types of food (wood, bone, sphagnum, and many other things). For each of the fungi and lichen above you can increase the efficiency of your search by understanding their ecology. Dermocybe species are found at the bases of old growth spruces and hemlocks and the Rock Tripe (Umbella caria) lichen is associated with rock faces, and often grow in the alpine. Of course, mushroom diversity differs by region, so as you are walking around take note of the locations you find your dye mushrooms and look for similar features elsewhere.
The Process of Dyeing With Fungi
Dyeing with mushrooms is actually quite easy – in many ways finding the mushrooms and getting them in enough quantity to dye with can be the difficult part! The most important thing is to add equal parts fiber (yarn, silks, grass, cedar bark) and mushrooms. The amount of water will not lighten the color of your dye because the dye is attracted to the mordanted yarn, so be sure to add enough water cover your fiber. Once the mushrooms are in the water, bring the water to a boil. As it heats you’ll immediately see the colors extruded from the mushrooms. You can boil the mushrooms for various amounts of time, and the longer you boil the more intense the colors will become. Straining the mushrooms from the dye is optional. Add the fiber to the dye and simmer the fiber for awhile – it will transform from white to bright!
When you first begin you may be uncertain of which color will come from each species of mushrooms. To save some time and precious mushrooms you can boil up a bit of water and pour it over a mushroom sample. After 10-15 minutes the color should be evident if the mushroom is useful for dyeing. To test lichens, try adding them to a bit of bleach (be sure it’s newish bleach, old will not work) to extrude the colors. If you like the colors produced by the test you can boil up the rest of your mushrooms right away or preserve them for later by drying or freezing.
In order to derive the most vibrant colors and best results, you will need a bit of luck, some patience and a small knowledge of chemistry. Several of the mushrooms and lichens that we dyed with could be modified by adding alum or iron to the water. These two minerals are preferred because they are non-toxic and can be dumped out safely after the dye is used up. Adding iron to yellow dyes will generally make them turn brown. By changing the pH with soda ash to basic water (pH 9 or 10) you can transform the colors from black to blue when dyeing with Hydnellum suaveolens. You can keep experimenting to find new chemistry that changes the color – just be sure to closely document what you did!
Most of the fiber materials are “raw” and need to be prepared to accept the dye. You can mordant wool yarn with iron or cream of tarter to achieve different colors. However, mordant is not necessary for lichen dyes, only mushrooms!
We used the dyes that we created to stain wool yarn and silk scarves. We also experimented with chiton shells from gumboots, and spruce roots. The results were incredible and stunning! Each skein of yarn extracted from the water baths was draped over the back of a chair to dry and added to the spectrum of color created by it is predecessors. We were pleased to see that some of the dyes were penetrating enough to color the bone-hard chiton shells and the tough, lignin of the spruce roots. I am a novice knitter, and the incredible vibrancy of the colors produced got me thinking about my next project – whatever that may be.
All of these colors and more can be produced by mushrooms and lichens. Colors vary on species and treatment of the fungi while boiling.
Thank you to Karen Dillman for introducing these techniques to us! Also thank you to Ron Hamill for his unwavering and undoutable knowledge of fungi. Karen attempted to pass on years of learning and experiments in a short day. To learn more about dyeing with fungi and lichen check out the resource books she recommended.This unique form of creating color is a learn-by-doing process. So, I hope you get out there and do it!
In Wrangell, Alaska the Petroglyph Beach Historic Site is a rocky beach that stretches to the north of the Wrangell Island along the coast. Among the field of kelp, sand, shells and slate-gray rocks are carved the testaments of early Tlingit people from 8,000 years ago. In fact, with over 40 known petroglyphs, the beach contains the highest concentration of petroglyphs in all of Southeast Alaska! These carvings were undoubtedly significant to history Tlingit people, but their true meaning has been lost and shrouded by history.
I enjoyed carefully walking around the site to discover new designs in the rocks. It is hard not to be in awe of this location when thinking about its relation to early human events. Globally at 6,000 BC, the pyramids of Egypt had not started construction, and people were only just starting to practice agriculture. It wasn’t until about 5,000 BC that basic crop cultivation began, and in ~5,700 BC the eruption that formed Oregon’s crater lake began – certainly the Tlingit people felt that blast reverberate up the coast! The carvings are a testament to the long history of Native Alaskan occupation of Southeast Alaska, and their rich cultural history. Even without fully understanding their meaning you can grasp at their significance.
Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska is the furthest north city in the United States, and just a few miles north of that on a small spit of land is Point Barrow where you can go no further north and still be on U.S. soil. At that point, the expanse of the ivory ice of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas stretches in front of you further than the eye can see. Looking south you will see no hills greater than a few feet tall – a tundra so flat that it seems like a wasteland. However, the tundra is fueled by perpetual sunlight for over 65 days each season and becomes an oasis for dozens of species of birds that come from multiple continents. With the flocks of birds come the flocks of birders to watch and observe their beauty and behavior under the midnight sun. We birded from June 16th to the 20th, recorded total 41 species of birds (although I think we missed a few on our final list) and 9 “lifer” birds which we had never seen before.
I realize not all of you reading this article are birders, so you may be wondering, “why would you take the time, hassle, and money to travel to the furthest point in the U.S. just to look at birds”. It’s because the birds are at their very best. You can think of this way : there are always cherry trees in Washington, D.C., and they are very beautiful to look at year around. However, during spring when they are in bloom the common cherry tree is transformed into an incredible spectacle. The birds in Barrow are the same – each is dressed to the nines in order to attract and breed with a female. They also show off behaviors and calls which you will see at no other time of the year.
The first owl we saw was the whitest owl (perhaps even bird) that I’ve ever seen. Typically Snowy Owls have some black in their wings, but this bird was almost sheer white with a few specks of black. The lack of color is indicative of the age of the bird and sex. Males are whiter than females and older birds are whiter than young birds. We can conclude from those two facts that this incredibly beautiful individual is an old, adult male.
“The Eiders” and Other Waterfowl
Eiders are a family of sea-duck with four different species, and a circumpolar distribution. Each of the species is stunningly colored and have incredible plumage and sexual dimorphism (i.e., the males are dressy, the females are plain). Barrow provides relatively easy viewing of all four species of eiders in one place. We found Stellar’s, King, and Spectacled Eiders feeding in shallow ponds in the tundra. Each of them were paired and simply waiting for the snow to melt further, and the tundra to sprout before laying eggs. We observed Common Eider flying over the Chukchi sea on their way to different breeding grounds. Many other species of ducks and geese were found throughout the tundra to compliment the eiders.
Shorebirds in Barrow have their tuxedos on, are wearing Rolexes, and are ready to do whatever it takes to impress their female counterparts. They are a far cry from the drab, brown birds they become any other time of the year. The breeding displays vary from puffing out chest feathers, strutting with quivering wingtips, or taking to the air and flying high for all of the females to see. While we were there, the most vocal were the Pectoral Sandpipers. Male birds flew over their territories with chests feathers puffed out and made an indescribable-in-words galunking sound.
There was much more to see than just the breeding behavior of the shorebirds, and probably the most entertaining of these small birds were the phalaropes. Both Red-necked and Red Phalaropes feed by standing in shallow water and spinning in circles to stir up the bottom with their feet. They push their bill and head under the water to pick up their unsuspecting and confused prey. Their behavior reminds me of a dog chasing its tale, and its very hard not to smile when watching them.
North of Barrow is Point Barrow. This small spit of land has been used for millennia to capture whales and sea mammals for subsistence by the Iñupiaq people, and I was astounded by the number of Bowhead Whale skulls and bones along the beach (just for the record I 100% support this subsistence and cultural way of life). The bones helped answer some of the questions I had about whale structure and morphology.
Baleen is a key feature of non-predatory whales, but I’ve never quite understood how it was arranged in the mouth. In the jawbones of a couple of whale skulls, I saw that multiple (>50) plates of baleen lay parallel to each other on the left and right side of the mouth. Their arrangement allows the tongue to slide between the plates to push the water out and capture their food.
The many bones along the beach also put into perspective just how huge Bowhead Whales are. Jawbones may reach 13 feet in length, the vertebrae can be 20 inches or more wide, and the ribs can be 10 feet long. These are incredibly huge animals that must have been difficult to capture with seal-skin boats and bone-tipped spears. But somehow, in the face of this immense challenge, that is what the ancient Iñupiaq were able to accomplish.
Across the expanse of the sea-ice were cigar-shaped black specks. Most of the specks turned out to be seals. These seals provide a food source for humans and bears. I believe the most common species we observed were the Spotted Seal, but three other species may are present in the region. Although we scanned the ice pack for Polar Bears, there were none to be found.
In the summer, Barrow is the city that never sleeps. We were amazed at the amount of activity at all hours of the day throughout the community that can be attributed to the never setting sun. 24 hours of daylight ensured that the birds were active and visible during all parts of the day. We “Barrow-ed” our time schedule by staying up until 2AM or later on all of the nights we were in town. After four days we were exhausted, but thrilled to had a glimpse of this incredible area and the birds it holds.
Species list (some likely missing) from June 16 – 20, 2017:
A couple of weekends ago I had the opportunity to tour Glacier Bay National Park with Hoonah’s 5th and 6th grade class. The trip was the culmination of their “Plumes of Glacier Bay” curriculum where they had been studying the species of birds within the park. As an avid birder I was thrilled to bring these 16, rambunctious kids on an ecology trip into the park on the “Dayboat”. The boat travels into the park to pick up travelers and provides an 8.5 hour, 130+ mile cruise to tidewater glaciers with opportunities to view tons of wildlife.
Its not always (one might say rarely) sunny in Glacier Bay. The cold waters and moist air cause rain and fog to form quickly within the park. However, we started out our day under high clouds with small patches of blue sky. Just after launching, we encountered some choppy water in the passage out of Bartlett Cove. Our on-board park ranger, Jenny, explained that the bottom of the ocean had striations in the sediment from the receding glacier that pushed the water up, often making it choppier than the wind would merit. After 45 minutes of cruising at 20 knots, our first stop along the way was at South Marble Island. This small island offers refuge to nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes, Tufted Puffins, and other colonial sea birds looking to nest away from predators. It also has huge haul-outs of Stellars’s Sealions. The gigantic animals that I like to call “sea grizzlies” because of their immense size (up to 2,000 pounds), lay on the rocks in the sunshine like sausages. The dominant males sat with back arched and head erect. Their enormous size compared to the others around them made it easy to see why they were the boss.
Nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes at South Marble Island
Bald eagles feed on the carcass of a dead sea lion.
A young bonapartes gull flies over.
A Black Oyster Catcher flies by.
Our boat cut through the water past South Marble Island, and we moved up the fjord. As we did, the mountains became more jagged and covered in snow. At the mouth of Glacier Bay most the mountains had been covered ice during the last glacial advance which rounded them off over time, but the terrain became more jagged as we moved past mountain tops untouched by the glaciers. An exception to the jagged mountains was the round, granite dome named “Gloomy Knob”. On that granite dome were well manicured lawns of grass with sporadic cottonwoods growing in the crevices. The lawns were kept short by overwintering Mountain Goats who grazed the pastures. Just after the spring thaw is the best time to watch the goats, and I think we counted 20 of them on Gloomy Knob. Many of them were feeding their kids, and we got some insight into the bonding of goats with their mothers – one made a spectacle by climbing onto its mothers back.
The goats were not the only four-legged mammals on Gloomy Knob. High up in the granite cliffs we spotted a family of four Coastal Brown Bears. They lounged on the rocks, sleeping, perhaps 1,000 feet above our heads. During our passing they roused and moved along the ridgeline. They even passed by a goat on the ledge below them. Although the grizzlies took a look at their potential meal, the Mountain Goat seemed to know it was safe from the predators above, as it never moved a muscle.
Sixty-five miles from where we started in Bartlett Cove we finally reached the end of the park. Marjorie Glacier stood in front of us like icy walls. The glacier face is about 350 feet tall and extends nearly a mile from left to right. In many of the pictures, you can see pin-sized Harbor Seals with their pups on the ice flows to lend the glacier some size perspective. Two times the glacier let go of new ice bergs by “calving”. The roar was like thunder of an approaching storm. The glacier, which is currently 21 miles long, has retracted 65 miles. In 1750, it was responsible for pushing the Huna Tlingit from their homeland. Since the retreat has happened so quickly, there are many studies within the park boundaries to understand how recolonization of rock surfaces occurs. Also, the land around the glacier is springing back up from the weight of the ice in a process known as isostatic rebound. The land rises almost an inch a year which may cause river drainages to change and coast resources like clam beds to come out of the water.
The students gave the whole boat a treat by performing traditional Tlingit songs at the glacier. Their pounding drums mixed with the grandeur of the scenery for a truly memorable end to the day. The trip into Glacier Bay was an incredible introduction to this vast and wild park. I look forward to the day when I return for a more detailed look at its beauty.
Seals float on the ice bergs near Marjorie Glacier.
An eagle takes advantage of a floating platform of ice.
Last year when Xunaa Shuká Hít was built in Glacier Bay National Park it was a joyous day. This incredible structure reconnected the Huna Tlingit to their traditional homeland, but it was still missing a key part of a tribal house : it’s totems to tell the stories of those within. On May 20th, 2017, the citizens of Hoonah returned again to their homeland to celebrate raising two totems in front of their tribal house.
Arriving at The Tribal House
It was a moody day with gray clouds and no wind as our catamaran pulled from the dock, sped through Port Frederick, and crossed into the expanse of Icy Strait. Each of the 130 passengers on board were familiar with the trip, and we passed all of the familiar landmarks along the way to mark our progress over the 25 miles : Hoonah Island, Flynn Cove, Eagle Point, and then Point Adolphus. Off the right side of the boat, in the distance a Humpback Whale began to breach near Pleasant Island. It rose from the water eight times in short succession before it stopped its gigantic splashing. The spectacle had the kids and adults on the boat watching out the window with exclamations of delight. The excitement of the return to Glacier Bay was growing with each mile closer and each new wonder.
There were many drums on the boat, and they started to pound and the students and travelers singing started as we approached Glacier Bay. Each drum was hand-crafted and the baton resulted in an echoing boom that filled the ship. Even in the top deck you could hear the drumming below. We reached the border of Glacier Bay National Park along with a second catamaran from Juneau. Tobacco offerings were made to the ocean to welcome the ancestors of the Huna Tlingit, and a song that was sung expressing the sorrow of leaving the park 250 years ago as the glacier advanced was. It isn’t as often that songs of mourning are performed, and the slower drum was syncopated with a melody that easily conveyed the sorrow of departing their homeland even if I did not understand the words.
Our catamarans crossed the park boundary, and in front of us, two, 42-foot, red dugout canoes came into view. Colorful, hand-carved paddles splashed in the water to propel the boats, and soon the canoes were between our catamarans. Each canoe’s speaker welcomed us to the homeland of the Huna Tlingit and then we were led to shore.
Raising A Totem
This might be an obvious statement, but totem poles are not light. Each of poles (one of Eagle Clan and one for Raven Clan) weighed about 2,000 pounds and was carved from the trunk of a red cedar. Although some of the pole had been hollowed out, 12 feet of the pole maintained a solid core. The weight presented a couple of unique challenges – you have to be able to move it, and you have to be able to control the weight when standing it up. In order to move it, we slid poles under and 18 people stood on each side. It was truly an honor to be one of the members lined up on along the totem pole to deliver it to Xunaa Shuká Hít. We were reminded as we entered, that each one of was participating in history. We could all look back on the pictures of the day and tell our grandchildren that we were there the day the poles were raised. Thinking that to myself made my aching arms seem like much less of a burden.
Each of the poles told the story of the two primary clans (Eagle and Raven) and each clan married into them. Many of the stories are passed down through the clans and cannot be told to the public. However, representatives from each clan briefly explained the significance of the totem’s art. Before each of the poles were raised into place, their names were repeated three times by the entire crowd to breath life into them.
Traditional pole totem pole raising may last up to a week with many feasts, speeches, and longs nights of singing and drumming. Large poles raised in the traditional method require a huge amount of engineering to leverage the pole into place. As it was explained to me, there are many ways to put up a totem pole, and the method you choose is dictated by your resources and experiences. The totem pole raising at Xunaa Shuká Hít also used the resources available. To ease our backs and ensure safety, a large crane positioned the pole onto its metal backing where it was mounted into place by master carver Gordon Greenwald. Each went up and smoothly. With the poles in place in front of the tribal house there was only really one thing left to do – go inside to eat together, to sing, and to dance.
The tribal house smelled strongly of pine. I think the smell was exacerbated by the heavy rain that fell outside and the humid conditions inside. I love the smell of the tribal house! Every corner was packed with people, and and the red, blue, and black regalia worn by many offset the yellow, wood walls. As lunch finished, a group of traditional Tlingit drummers, singers, and dancers from Sitka performed for the audience. Their drum echoed through the house, and the mostly male chorus was very powerful to listen to. The music and the atmosphere caused my skin prickle and my hair to raise on my arms. Each performer was equally impressive to watch. Their colorful, yellow, white, and blue Chilkat robes twirled with each step and movement. We ended the day with an hour (or more? I lost track of time) of dancing from the community. The joyous songs brought all members of the house to their feet to join in the festivities.
Dancers in Xunaa Shuká Hít
Dancers in Xunaa Shuká Hít
Dancers in Xunaa Shuká Hít
Dancers in Xunaa Shuká Hít
Dancers in Xunaa Shuká Hít
The power of a day like this is hard to convey in writing and in pictures. If I were to think of an analogy that I hope makes you feel how I perceive the Huna Tlingit to feel, imagine going home for Christmas after being gone for 5 years in a foreign land. In your grandparents house, the Christmas tree reminds you of the last time you were there. Many of the sights an smells are familiar and memories of your childhood of opening presents and eating pie Christmas morning obligate you to tell stories to the young people around you of Christmases past. You realize, that although you are home for Christmas, the true joy is in knowing that you are passing on the tradition and stories to the next generation. Perhaps that’s true reason you are home for Christmas. Passing on stories and traditions were a big part of why the Huna Tlingit raised their poles. That ideal of creating a place for their children to return to in the future was the unifying theme of the day. Although not all of our elders will be here in coming years, the totems at Tribal House will stand the test of time and tell the story of the Huna Tlingit for many generations to come.
“If there’s one thing that I want you to come away with from my presentation today, it’s that we do not worship totems”, stated Fred Olsen, Jr. , a native Haida of Kasaan. In front of us, the one of the totems from Chief Son-I-Hat’s Whale House stood proud among towering spruce trees. This house pole was among several totems at the Kasaan Totem Park to be rescued and preserved in this still grove of evergreens. Like the other Haida poles in the park, this one was moved from the village site of “old Kasaan” and moved into the totem park in 1938. The ornate carvings of these original totem poles, represented the status and rich history of each clan house or the story to honor a deceased elder.
The effort and time to carve a totem is not lightly undertaken and only occurred for special events. As we walked from Chief Son-I-Hat’s totem to the next shorter totem, Fred began to explain some of the reasons totems would differ in size or purpose. Totems could be carved in honor of a deceased elder, to demonstrate the rights that a person acquired over their lifetime, or to symbolize the generosity of a person who sponsored a Potlatch. As Fred explained, Haida culture was not concerned with the amount you owned, but rather in your generosity in giving back. Hosting a Potlatch required a tremendous amount of resources, planning, and leadership. A successful potlatch could last for several days, earn you the respect of your community, and at its conclusion a ring could be added to the top of your house’s totem. An extraordinary demonstration of this generosity was visible in eight rings at the top Chief Son-I-Hat’s pole. The eight rings symbolized that his house had hosted eight potlatches. Because the rings showed off the status and generosity of Chief Son-I-Hat, they ensured that incoming travelers and traders would seek him out first among the community. The furs he gained through their business contributed his status as one of the wealthiest of the Haida chiefs.
For the Kasaan Totem Park, which winds nearly a half-mile through an incredible and vibrant forest, the journey is also the destination. The totem trail concludes at a cobbly beach with distant views of the mountains. On its shores are the bleached remains of spruce trees and boulders. Near the shore a seemingly impossibly-tall totem rises rises from the ground in front of the Kasaan Whale House. What we now call the “Whale House” was built in 1880 and was named ” Náay I´waans” (meaning “Great House”). This was the first of two clan houses built by Chief Son-I-Hat. The Whale House underwent a full restoration starting in 2011, the results of which are truly remarkable. Inside and insulated by its thick, wooden structure, is is much cooler than the warm day outside. It smells earthy and wonderful. Light streaming from an open roof vent streams onto the floor where it is easy to imagine hundreds of Haida gathering to listen to the stories of their elders and smoke rising from the fire in the central pit. Listening to Fred’s words fill the space provided a meaningful end to a day of serenity in this beautiful place.
Orcas frequent the waters around Kasaan, and are a important part of the Haida culture. This formline orca was an amazing piece of art.
The sun highlights one of the faces at the Kasaan Totem Park.
The sun highlights one of the faces at the Kasaan Totem Park.
Capturing the detail of the totems while giving them perspective is a difficult task. You can see the ornateness of the totem and understand its height in this image.
Each of the totems at the totem park are placed among the tall spruces.
A memorial pole for a deceased elder.
The house pole of Chief Son-I-Hat.
The house pole of Chief Son-I-Hat.
A tall and ornate totem in the village of Kasaan.
It should be noted that I’m not an expert or knowledge base on Haida Culture; all that I can pass on is what I’m told or what I read. It was actually Fred’s opening words in front of Son-I-Hat’s house totem that inspired me to write this blog because it was new knowledge to my limited understanding of Haida culture. I’ll paraphrase them as, “Our totems are not our religion, but our stories and our culture. It’s that message that I wish everyone knew”. If there’s nothing else you know of totems, I hope that Fred’s words will stick in your mind, so that you will have learned that even without visiting this incredible monument of the Haida culture.