Donald Varnell is one of the many people working on this pole. He’s leaning into it with a chisel and hammer. He uses the chisel to peel back red cedar near the bottom of the pole, then hammers the slices completely off the pole. He’s working on a carving of a female figure representing the park.
“I’m not really liking this transition from the chin down, though,” Varnell says. “I was thinking it would be a robe within a robe, and the robe would be up by her chin, so she’d be staying warm. Now I think I should push this down and push this down a little further. This undercut’s going to look pretty sweet, though.”
Varnell is a professional carver from Ketchikan. He's been working on this pole for about 10 days.
“I’m pretty sore,” he admits. “But to sound optimistic, I’m still having lots of fun. This is great. I don’t want to make it sound …. I love Sitka and I like hanging out with Tom.”
Tom is Tommy Joseph, a Sitka carver and the designer of this 35-foot pole. He says work on this particular project has taken place in a very limited amount of time. Joseph says normally, he likes to have five or six months to do a job this size. For this pole, the entire carving process took place in the span of about three weeks.
Joseph says he’s brought in friends from Ketchikan and Kotzebue to work on the pole and had assistance from a number of community volunteers.
“It happens from time to time,” Joseph says. “Not a lot, but when it does happen it’s an awesome thing to have people show up. I tell them if you show up more than twice we’re going to put a tool in your hand and put you to work. It gives them a unique experience that most people don’t get to do and it’s fun for me to share that with them.”
Those community volunteers have included people in town for Sitka’s annual herring fishery.
“And last week we had four different fishermen here carving on the pole and just working on little areas. We’ve had a lot of visitors in the last couple weeks,” he said.
The pole includes depictions of Merrill Rock, a Haida totem pole contained in the park, some Russian artifacts, an eagle and a raven and a buffalo. Joseph says the buffalo is one of the symbols of the National Park Service.
“First time ever doing a buffalo on a totem pole for me. I’ve never seen one before,” Joseph said. “This buffalo is partially wrapped with a robe, a Raven’s tail style robe. One that Terry Rofkar wove last year for this very event, for the 100 year anniversary.”
The pole also depicts devil’s club and skunk cabbage – two common plants that grow in the park and throughout Southeast Alaska. Ashia Lane is sitting on the ground next to the skunk cabbage design. She’s spent hours here, with an apron full of brushes and cups half-full of paint.
“I’m kind of painting as they finish carving, and I think that wouldn’t normally be the case,” Lane says as she works. “It’s been a little challenging getting some good edges while the pole is shaking. But it’s been very fun. We’ve got more traditional colors at the top with the eagle and raven, and then we’ve put these bright greens on the devil’s club and the skunk cabbage which wouldn’t normally be there.”
Park superintendent Randy Larson says the pole will be on display along the shoreline, between the visitor’s center and the trailhead. It’s set to be raised on April 9th.
“We’re going to need hundreds of people to help pull up this totem pole,” Larson said. “We have a really good plan for that morning, but we need people to help us raise the totem pole.”
Larson says a ceremony will happen around 9 a.m., and then the pole goes up around 11 a.m
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