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Totem pole cleaning process almost complete: Repair process to ensue
Tlingit carver Tommy Joseph carefully removes a piece of the Chief Johnson pole, carved by Israel Shotridge, on Wednesday. Joseph is working on the pole, which was taken down in late September for restoration. Staff photo by Taylor Balkom

Daily News Staff Writer

Anyone familiar with the Chief Johnson totem pole might be in for a surprise when it's raised again at its location near Centennial Square in downtown Ketchikan.

On Sept. 27, the totem pole was taken down to start a cleaning and repair project on the pole. On Wednesday, a group of people gathered at the former Ketchikan Fire Department station on Main Street, where the pole is being cleaned, to get a glimpse into the project.

“I want to say it's a whole new pole,” said Hayley Chambers, senior curator of collections for Ketchikan Museums.

Since being taken down, the pole has changed from an almost black color toward the top to a bright piece of cedar. Carver Tommy Joseph, who has been contracted to do the work, said the cleaning process is almost done, and he will soon start on the repairs to the pole.

“It was slimy, grimy, there was so much mud that came off of this — dirt  — I call it mud, but it's the dirt and algae and stuff,” Joseph said, explaining what he had to scrub off of the pole with detergents and soap.

Joseph, a Totem Heritage Center instructor, is originally from Ketchikan and now lives in Sitka. He has more than two decades of experience with totem pole restoration, and has been cleaning  the Chief Johnson totem pole for a week now.

However, the cleaning of the totem pole is only one facet of the project — next comes repairing the collapsed and rotten wood, and treating the wood to prevent further deterioration.

“We did an assessment last year on the pole and the recommendation was to have the damaged pieces recarved,” Chambers explained.

Last year, a piece of the central portion of the pole, the raven's beak, had fallen off. Joseph said he's going to recarve a beak from a piece of wood and attach it back onto the totem pole.

He said currently, there's nothing to hold the new beak onto the pole. Joseph will have to put a new foundation for the beak on the pole before he can build off of it.

Along with repairing and repainting the wood, Joseph said there is a carpenter ant infestation that, although minor, will need to be taken care of. Once he pulled off the moss and lichen growing on the pole, he saw the ants, and other organisms that feed off of rotten wood, scurry away.

To treat the wood, Chambers said Joseph will apply Bora Care and Total Wood Preservative — a common wood preservative that can be used for wooden decks, shingles, doors, shutters and more.

“That will help with the bugs coming out of it,” Chambers said. “It creates this layer on top of the pole, so as the bugs start coming out, they'll encounter that, they'll eat it and they'll quit reproducing.”

She said the ants will still be in there, but after a while, their reproduction will halt and they will die off. Additionally, she said the preservatives will also help control moss and lichen growth.

The museum has budgeted six weeks worth of work on the pole, according to Chambers, and Joseph said he might be finished within four to six weeks.

Ketchikan Museums is working with the Tongass Tribe for the Chief Johnson totem pole's repair and maintenance, “as an act of stewardship of Ketchikan's history,” according to a previously released statement from the museum.