One of the things I most love about my work at Keene Channel Lodge in Alaska is that I get to combine so many parts of my life all in one place. When groups arrive at the lodge I get to step into my roles as a mindfulness teacher and kayak guide, parts of my life experience that I love to share as a former clergyman, long time Zen student, commercial fisherman and wilderness guide. But in between, and around the edges of these retreats, there is a ton of work to do.
Since the lodge is off the grid, and fourteen water miles south of the town of Petersburg, I have to make runs to town at least once a week in my skiff, for food, gas, propane, general supplies and building materials. Every year I also have at least one shipment of bulk food and supplies that I send up on the barge from Seattle. All that stuff has to be hand loaded into my 18’ Lund skiff and brought down the Wrangell Narrows to the lodge, then hand carried up the beach and stowed.
My skills as a carpenter, plumber and electrician are constantly pulled into the mix of what needs to be done. Firewood has to be bucked and stowed a year in advance, so that it will be dry and ready when I arrive back at the lodge in the spring.
Luckily, it is all stuff I love to do, and I revel in the off-the-grid lifestyle. But in recent years - as I get older and smarter - I’ve come to my senses and started to pull in some help. My brother Kim Hoelting is a builder and woodworker, and he has really stepped up, coming to help me with work the past two summers, and bringing some of his best carpenter buddies to the lodge for a serious work party the summer before last.
We’ve made some big improvements, re-siding the lodge with hand milled old growth red cedar, and installing beautiful hand-made entry doors. The front of the lodge is a high prow, and my old friend and carpenter mentor Phil Stringer came up with the idea of carving a story pole to adorn that front prow.
We were all reeling that summer from the recent death of my son Alex, and this could be a way of honoring his memory. Keene Channel was Alex’s favorite place in the world, and a story pole should be carved in his memory.
Well, that was the kind of idea that rolls off the tongue easily in the flow of good work. I was moved by the suggestion, but ideas like that are usually quickly forgotten. I never heard it come up again. But while I was in Alaska last summer, the idea got legs. When I returned home to Whidbey Island last fall my brother informed me that this was to be our group project for the coming winter. Who am I to stand in the way of an epic creative initiative like this?
Among our group of local Whidbey island woodworkers is my neighbor Nathan Gilles, who has emerged as a premier Northwest Coast carver in recent years. It has been our great good fortune to have Nathan join us as an advisor and teacher on this project. This picture shows Nathan at work on a recent totem pole project for the Jamestown S’klallam tribe on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.
So here are a few images of our work in progress. I am incredibly excited that this work, and the spirit of friendship and craftsmanship that lies behind it, will soon grace the front of Keene Channel Lodge, to be enjoyed by all who come there. Click on the images below for a view of the story pole in formation. These images show me, Kim Hoelting, Doug Kelly and Richard Merrill at work last week. It is our hope that the pole will be in place at Keene Channel Lodge next summer in time for my Inside Passages retreats.