Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Totem Bight State Historical Park (Blog Hike #353)

Trail: (unnamed)
Hike Location: Totem Bight State Historical Park
Geographic Location: northwest of Ketchikan, AK (55.42124, -131.77154)
Length: 0.4 miles
Difficulty: 0/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: July 2011
Overview: A very easy hike featuring Tlingit totem artwork.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: Ketchikan, AK is accessible only by boat or seaplane. From downtown Ketchikan, take the North Tongass Highway north 9.2 to the park entrance on the left.  The hike starts at the Visitor Center.

The hike: Located just north of Ketchikan, Totem Bight State Park has its roots in a 1930’s effort by the United States Forest Service (USFS) to preserve and restore decaying totem poles originally erected by the Tlingits.  The totems, an American Indian art, had been left to decay in Alaska’s forests after the Tlingits moved to cities to find work.  By using money from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), in 1938 the USFS hired skilled Tlingit carvers to restore the totems and recreated a Tlingit village on Mud Bight to put the totems in their historical context.
By the start of World War II, a clan house and 15 totems had been restored on this land, and the bight’s name was changed to Totem Bight.  (Side note: a bight is an inlet of a larger body of water, the Pacific Ocean in this case.)  When Alaska became a state in 1959, title to the land passed from the federal government to the state’s new Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation.  Thanks to the USFS’ and CCC’s efforts, visitors today can admire the restored totems by hiking the short, flat, gravel trail described here.  I hiked this trail as part of a shore excursion on my Alaska cruise and had a fun time learning about and admiring the totems.
Eagle totem outside Visitor Center
            From the trio of totems outside the Visitor Center, two trails lead to the bight.  Our tour departed on the left trail and used the right trail as the return route.  The wide trail heads into a dark forest dominated by hemlock and spruce.  In 0.2 miles, the trail comes out at the grassy exhibit area featuring the clan house and several totems. 
Entering the totem exhibit area
              There are two types of totems: honor totems and shame totems.  Honor totems can be any color, while shame totems are always red.  The colors you see in the restored totems are more pronounced than in the original totems.  Dye was hard to come by for the Tlingits, whereas paint is plentiful for us.  Each clan had a symbol (eagle, raven, salmon, etc.), so the various carvings represent various clans and people in them.
At the center of the totems lies the reconstructed clan house, a wooden structure in which one Tlingit clan would have lived.  Original clan houses had only one small front door.  In case of attack, the clan could retreat into the house. Any invader trying to enter the house would have to crawl to enter.  Thus, an invader would be in no position to fight when he made it to the interior.  Fortunately, a larger side door permits easier access for visitors today.  Step through the door to see the clan symbols on the inside of the clan house.
Front of clan house
            Behind the clan house lies the tallest totem in the park.  On my visit, a bald eagle was perched atop this totem.  To the right of this totem lies a boardwalk that gives great views of the bight to the left and the totem area to the right.  After walking across the boardwalk, pass several more totems, including a shame pole to Seward, the man who purchased Alaska for the United States.  After the purchase, Seward visited several Tlingit villages, each of which threw a potlatch, or major party, for him.  Unknown to Seward, guests to potlatches were expected to bring gifts for the host clan.  When Seward failed to comply with Tlingit custom, this pole was erected in his shame.
Tallest totem in park
Boardwalk with views of Totem Bight
            After passing the remainder of the totems, look for a brown sign that says, “Exit Trail.”  As you would expect, a left turn here and brief walk back through the forest on another wide gravel trail will return you to the Visitor Center and complete the hike.

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