The Story Pole Comes To Alaska

Last winter I told about the carving of a story pole for Keene Channel Lodge in Alaska.

Richard, Kim, Phil and Sky at work on the pole in Kim’s shop on Whidbey Island.

Richard, Kim, Phil and Sky at work on the pole in Kim’s shop on Whidbey Island.

Inspired by a desire to create something special in memory of my son Alex Hoelting, who died in 2017, a group of ten woodworking friends got together on Weds. nights for six months on Whidbey Island, beginning last January, to carve a story pole. The pole is in the spirit of Northwest Coast cedar totem carving, to tell the story of important events in the life of a family or community. This pole honors some of the iconic animals who live in the vicinity of Keene Channel Lodge, including Dungeness crab, halibut and salmon, black bear and wolf, and raven. The lodge is where I work in the summer leading kayaking retreats. It was a place of special heart connection for Alex. Carving the pole was a powerful experience of friendship, craft and community..

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In June and early July we completed the journey by shipping the pole on an Alaska Marine Line barge to Petersburg, Alaska, then following it north as a group to bring the pole by skiff on the final leg of its journey to Keene Channel Lodge, where I lead my Inside Passages kayaking mindfulness retreats.

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I asked asked a few of the carvers to reflect on their experience, beginning with my brother Kim and brother-in-law Doug, who launched the idea for this project in the first place. Here is what they had to say:

Kim Hoelting using a draw knife

Kim Hoelting using a draw knife

Kim Hoelting: “My domain is all of woodworking, from the forest floor fungi to the finest expressions of wood art.  It has never been possible for me to compartmentalize into smaller pieces. I think it begins with my basic nature of curiosity, but was ignited by two grandfathers who had simple work benches in their basements; especially grampa Hoelting, whose bench was filled with exotic hand tools from his homesteading days in Montana.

It is an incredible feeling to be able to imagine something and then physically construct something useful.  I remember the thrill of learning the peculiarities and uniqueness of every species, grade, and dimension of wood.  . . .

This carving project was a beautiful way of remembering Alex, and of being with very important old friends who have shared much of my journey with wood. “

Doug Kelly roughing in one of the salmon

Doug Kelly roughing in one of the salmon

Doug Kelly: “I have never made a living as a carpenter, but I now find myself seeking to cultivate the art and craft of wood as a true, and now old, novice. My wood fascination has for years fueled  my curiosity about Nortwest Coast First Nations art. Hence I was glad to see the Story Pole embraced by those whose skill I deeply respect, advised by a truly gifted carver Nathan Gilles.

My greatest love of woodworking, put most simply, it is the transformation of a living being into a creative gift. The capacity we have as humans to shape trees, into tools, furniture, structures, houses, and mythic art.

The Story Pole project has allowed me to create art through wood for the sake of creating beauty in a form. In particular, art inspired by the art of this place, the Northwest coast where I, and all of the guys on the project, live. In the shared work there are opportunities to learn and grow and explore both our inner and outer worlds. In the end we know we are seeking to create a thing of beauty for its own sake, as well as to mark Keene Channel Lodge. Finally for me it is a fitting tribute to Alex, for the life he lived, and whose legacy inspired this idea.”

Richard Merrill carving rot pockets in his cedar rendition of a SE Alaskan hemlock snag, true to form.

Richard Merrill carving rot pockets in his cedar rendition of a SE Alaskan hemlock snag, true to form.

Richard Merrill: “My interest in building came at an early age when we as a family didn’t have a lot of money, so in order to have things to play with we had to build them. Well that quickly evolved into discovering that the building was the play and so I just kept doing it because it was fun. I was a decent student in school but in college I decided that more book learning was not going to lead me to be able to do the things that I loved; working with my hands and being outside as much as possible. 

I consider trees to be the truest form of architecture in existence, but am fascinated by the fact that they can be reshaped with relatively simple tools into so many different forms and structures.

The story pole project reminded me some of my start in woodworking, carving redwood slabs in a madrona forest in the the Santa Cruz mountains in California (a mystical hippie experience for sure) but with the added pleasure of rubbing elbows (sometimes actually) with people I respect and admire. I started out with only a vague notion of what to carve but thinking of Alex’s tragically short life and the tree’s long life I gradually came to a theme of life and death, decay and rebirth, and the circular pattern that is everything. I found it humbling and a challenge to try to recreate what I see in nature by my own hand (again, that perfect form) but I think that we all have created the most fitting tribute to Alex and to the tree, and I am proud to be a part of it.”

Christine Greene & Sky Hoelting at the workshop

Christine Greene & Sky Hoelting at the workshop

Christine Greene: “I learned a lot over the past few months—a lot about carving, how to sharpen tools, about having patience with the tools and with the wood, and most importantly about everyone who participated, every Wednesday night. 

We all have different backgrounds and different lives, but we’re all artists in one way or another and will forever share this experience. 

It’s fascinating to me how such art is created by putting together a group of talented, creative, and imaginative minds in one space. Everyone thinks differently, but the outcome is most often always spectacular.

From the “stars of the sea” to the “stars of the sky,” I really enjoyed laughing and creating with all of you!”

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Alex would be so proud of what his life and death have inspired, and the form it has taken at Keene Channel Lodge, a place that epitomized Home for him.

Alex’s Story Pole in place at Keene Channel Lodge

Alex’s Story Pole in place at Keene Channel Lodge

Alex would have been so proud of what his life has inspired.

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