Highlights: Experience a little bit of what Ketchikan has to offer in the Ketchikan Highlights and Totem Pole Park combo tour. See some “guns” at the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show as two opposing teams of timber sport athletes compete in a variety of different events. Then, board a motor coach for a short city tour and a 30 minute drive out to Potlatch Totem Park. This park, built on the grounds of Tlingit natives, contains a large assortment of totem poles including several authentic replicas and tribal houses.
What’s Missing: The Potlatch Totem Park does contain many unique and wonderful totem poles, but all of them have been carved in modern times. In fact, all of the totem poles seen throughout Ketchikan are modern day replicas. Most ancient totem poles were either lost to deterioration or were destroyed by missionaries when converting the native people to Christianity. Further, this excursion’s description indicated that there would be a carving demonstration, but during our trip that was not the case.
Main Takeaway: While we enjoyed the Ketchikan Highlights and Totem Pole Park tour, you can always create your own combo tour with some other options, especially when it comes to checking out totem poles. The Great Alaskan Lumberjack show is a highly entertaining show. For history enthusiasts, you can see actual remains of 150 year old totem poles at the Totem Heritage Center. It is less than a 25 minute walk from the cruise pier or you can take a free shuttle from downtown.
Ketchikan Highlights and Totem Pole Park
You’re the First Group, So You Have to Walk to the Show
You already know this, but it cannot be said enough, it rains a lot in Ketchikan.
We were lucky that it was not raining too heavily on the morning we arrived there on the Celebrity Solstice. Our tickets for the excursion told us to meet at the pier for 8:45am. We were off the boat early and did our usual pictures on the dock and surrounding pier, where we were able to grab a great shot of the Aleutian Ballad, the crab fishing boat from the Deadliest Catch.
After our short jaunt around the pier, we found our tour operator, holding her sign for the Ketchikan Highlights and Totem Pole Park excursion. We showed her our tickets, and her response was, “Great, you are on the first tour, so you just need to walk to the show”. Walk to the show in the rain? Doesn’t she know the Princess has been off the boat for 15 minutes and is already complaining she looks awful?
Ketchikan Highlights and Totem Pole Park – DB and the Princess in Ketchikan
The tour operator gave us a map and some verbal directions. It is no more than a 10 minute walk, she claimed, and we just needed to be there 5 minutes before the show started. Grabbing some more photos along the way including the Welcome to Ketchikan sign, the huge rain gauge, and the perch for Thundering Wings—though the eagle itself was currently removed for repairs.
We are Early and That Costs Me Money
We basically followed Front Street all the way along the pier, until it turned left. As we turned left, we could see some other buildings along with the sign for the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show. I knew the attraction said it was near the cruise ship terminal, but it is literally built right next to the docks. We would find out later that this was the former grounds of a saw mill.
Entrance to Lumberjack Show – Ketchikan Highlights and Totem Pole Park
We entered the main building and walked right into the gift shop. Great, more opportunities for the Princess to spend money! A few other folks were already there, but they were not letting people into the “stadium” yet. As the wife walked around the shop, she found the “perfect” souvenir for our two-year old nephew, some lumberjack pajamas. In all fairness, they were pretty cool–if you are 2 or 32.
Yo Ho! Let’s Cheer for Dawson Creek
Before long, the doors were opened, and we headed into the grandstands. Even though it was slightly raining, you do not need to worry about that as the seats are covered. There are also overhead heaters that they actually turned off because everyone was complaining it was too warm. Half the seating was roped off, and by the time the show started, the theater was barely a third full–one of the benefits of going toward the end of the cruise season.
The show started, and we were introduced to a young lady who was our announcer and the official judge. She divided the crowd in half with the left side cheering for the USA camp: Spruce Mill, and the right side cheering for the Canadian camp: Dawson Creek. We were rooting for the Dawson Creek boys with the traditional lumberjack, “Yo Ho”. Now, we were ready to get this show started.
For the next hour, the show proceeded in a highly scripted manner. At some points, it was obvious that the teams were letting each other win certain events to keep the score close. After a camp won an event, the winning lumberjack offered a signed picture to the fan that yelled and screamed the loudest. The wife did a bit of fanfare, but she was not crazy enough, at least for the lumberjacks, as she did not walk away with a signed photo. Who needs that anyway when she is married to me!
Throughout the show, there were also comical sidebars and heckling between the four lumberjacks and even the crowd. Our side was much more rowdy than the Spruce Mill camp so the lumberjacks were poking fun at that a bit as well.
Cut Them All Down
Not all of the events are staged-this is not the WWE. Some of the more thrilling competitions involved axes, saws, and logrolling, oh my!
The first event was the underhand block chop, where the competitors stand on top of a log and chop it in half between their legs. There was also an axe throwing event and the springboard chop, where the lumberjacks stand on wooden springboards that are about nine feet off the ground and cut through a log starting with their dominant hand and then their non-dominant hand.
There was also plenty of sawing during the competition including the 2 man buck saw and the one man buck saw, as well as plenty of loud and loaded chain saws.
As an intermission of sorts, one of the lumberjacks claimed he was a great woodcarver and was going to show us some of his work. He started out by making a rather lame looking rabbit, but in the end, he transformed it into a kid’s chair that he gave to a little boy in the audience.
The culminating events of the show were the tree speed climb and the log events. Spruce Mill won the speed climb by a mile. The boom run, the first log event, is when the competitors start running across the logs repeatedly, creating motion after each run. The first lumberjack to not successfully cross the logs was the loser. At least our camp, Dawson Creek, pulled out the victory in this event.
The final event, and the most fun to watch, is the log rolling. By now, the competition was all tied up, so it was winner take all. Unfortunately, Dawson Creek could not come up victorious this day. Spruce Mill won but you would never know it by the applause from their side of the crowd.
After the show, there was a photo op with the lumberjacks, so the Princess took a quick picture, then we headed back into the gift shop to purchase those pajamas for our nephew. Once outside, we were directed to our bus to continue our Ketchikan Highlights and Totem Pole Park tour.
A Drive on the North Tongass Highway
Here, we met our bus driver Branden, who provided some narration during our approximate 30 minute drive outside the city to Potlatch Park. He provided some facts about the island including that much of the land is uninhabited and that the soil is so rocky that nothing grows, therefore all goods have to be imported.
Ketchikan Highlights and Totem Pole Park – Entrance to Potlatch Park
Fog Woman, Raven, and a Host of Creatures
When we arrived at Potlatch Park, it was empty. We were the only tour bus in the parking lot. The park has no admission fee and is run by a native family. The patriarch of the family also has a penchant for historic vehicles, and you can see those strung throughout the park.
The tour began with Branden giving us a history on totem poles. Totem poles, as we have learned, are not for worship. They can have multiple meanings, from being a memorial pole, to archiving a family story, to even shame poles which were created to ridicule one who had wronged the family. The name Potlatch refers to the huge party that a family would throw when erecting their totem. These were elaborate parties that lasted for days and involved gifts and plenty of food for all invited. As these parties were so expensive, most people only threw one in their lifetime, and it was expected that if you were invited to one that you would reciprocate the favor.
As we entered the park, our guide highlighted some of the tales associated with various totem poles. There was a short walk down to the waterfront where a giant Sea Monster totem pole stands. Here, we got a quick bathroom break and then we were off up the main path. The Raven is a common character in the Tlingit totem poles, with one story telling of how he was able to steal the sun.
Further along the path, we entered a replica of a Tribal House. While it was a decent size, the guide described how a family of about 30 people would live in the building–and I thought our cabin on the ship was cramped! Of course, due to some modern building codes, the house has two full sized side doors, but a typical tribal home had a small, oval entrance in the front, often within a totem pole.
Ketchikan Highlights and Totem Pole Park – Tribal House Entrance
Branden further described how ancient totem poles had very little color due to the complexity of creating the shades. To create the different colors, which were mostly black, red, and blue, the natives had to chew salmon eggs and mix that paste with other natural ingredients. Thus, elaborate colors on a totem often signified family wealth.
Another significant totem involves Raven and Fog Woman. The legend goes that Fog Woman brought the Tlingit people an abundance of salmon, but Raven’s greed eventually forced Fog Woman to leave, returning only once a year.
Many totem poles also feature the Eagle, another prominent cultural figure. Often, the eagle is seen on top of memorial totems. The greater the space between figures on the totem signifies importance, with the eagle often being on top with great space in between like pictured on Chief Johnson’s Memorial Pole.
Ketchikan Highlights and Totem Pole Park – Modern Day Chief Johnson Pole
More History and a Gift Shop
There are other replica buildings on the property including a smoke house, depicting how the Tlingits would smoke the salmon in the open fire, and an odd display of whale skulls that did not seem to fit with the rest of the park.
One of the final exhibits in this section of the Ketchikan Highlights and Totem Pole Park tour was a carver’s workshop. There were two totem poles that were in the process of being built. Branden gave us the history of the poles, but there was no carver present. According to the excursion description, a carver would be present to provide a “demonstration” and answer questions. We were able to check out the tools, and I, of course, took this opportunity to pretend to be carving the totem pole.
No tour would be complete without a stop in at the gift shop. Here, we got an authentic, made in AK, totem pole ornament for our holiday tree depicting Raven and Fog Woman.
Back on the bus, I asked Branden how to get to the Totem Heritage Center and Creek Street, and he provided some basic directions for us. While we were supposed to be dropped off at the ship, he was heading back to the lumberjack show so let those who wanted the ride stay on the bus a bit longer. So, about half the bus got off at the ship and the other half took him up on the offer. Once we got dropped off, we started our walk to Creek Street and the Heritage Center to explore more of Ketchikan’s history. Thus, we extended our Ketchikan Highlights and Totem Pole Park with some sightseeing.
If you are looking for more great things to do in Ketchikan during your next visit, check out our top things to do in Ketchikan, Alaska on a cruise.
Have you visited Ketchikan, Alaska? Did you do the Ketchikan Highlights and Totem Pole Park tour or a similar excursion during your visit? Drop us an anchor below to tell us about your experiences visiting this port of call to help fellow travelers make the most of their time spent in Ketchikan.