Photo: An old pole in the forest at the site of the Howkan village.
The dinghy skimmed through smooth water, a rocky shore with tall spruce on one side and a kelp bed offshore on the other. The passage reminded me that I had once read that the early missionaries to these waters had written of journeying for miles in water protected from seas by offshore kelp beds. When sea otters had been hunted to extinction, the kelp had disappeared. Now sea otters were back on the coast and the smooth passages were back too. The water was so still inside the kelp that we could see a perfect reflection of the trees.
Photo: Protected water inside a band of kelp
We were looking for the former site of the Howkan village, one of three Haida villages whose inhabitants had moved to Hydaburg to provide better schooling for their children (the other two were Klinkwan and Sukkwan.) See https://vilda.alaska.edu/digital/collection/cdmg21/id/9883/ for a photo of Howkan when poles and houses still stood). Rick, one of my readers, had told us of seeing an old totem pole still standing there. Most of the old poles had been removed to either repair them or replicate them for the Hydaburg totem park. The poles that now stand at Hydaburg are the second generation, in some cases the third, of those poles. Finding an old pole was a rarity.
"It was at the village site," Rick had told us. "I had to go behind the trees to find it."
We anchored Osprey
at Mission Cove, more of a nook than a cove, but it offered protection from south winds, which were blowing lightly that afternoon. The village site was south of the Cove, indicated on the chart as, "Howkan, Abandoned." Steve, who had suggested coming here today, was now skeptical. "I don't want to tramp through the woods. The pole could be anywhere along here. I don't see how we can find it."
We'd come this far, I didn't think we should give up without trying. We were now looking for something that hinted at a village site.
The shoreline was solid rock backed by what looked like solid trees. At a break in the rock, I pointed, "Could that be a canoe skid? Maybe we should be looking for a canoe skid." (A strip of beach cleared of boulders for bringing in canoes.)
"They'd need a bigger beach than that," said Steve. "Let's keep going."
We passed a small point, then a larger beach opened up. "There," I said.
"That looks good, I just want to go a bit farther," said Steve. But the beach gave way to rock again and Steve turned the dinghy back.
We landed on a beach large enough for dozens of canoes. We found a rock large enough to tie the dinghy to and headed up the shore. Tall spruce trees towered above us, their boughs heavy with cones. We stepped under their overhanging boughs, then over a series of fallen tree trunks. Suddenly we were in an open forest, its floor carpeted with thick moss and ferns. Steve stepped on something that crackled. He reached down to pick up an aluminum can. "Someone else has been here and recently; we must be in the right place."
Beyond the row of spruce, the trees gave way to hemlock, tall and straight and healthy looking. We followed what looked like an old trail leading away from the beach. As I walked, I found several pits in the forest floor. Were they places where totem poles had been removed?
Photo: The forest at Howkan.
"Let's go back to the water," I told Steve. I knew that the pole would be close to the beach where it would have been visible from passing canoes. As I approached the beach, I looked down toward the water and saw what looked like a tree trunk with a knob on top. Excited, I moved quickly downhill. "I found it," I cried.
The pole had been pushed aside by a spruce tree growing up next to it and small hemlocks sprouted from its top, but it was definitely a totem. Its back showed the unmistakable shape of carving and the top appeared to be a head.
Nearby we found two memorial stones one dated 1901, the second not very legible but it also looked like a1900 date. Occasional pieces of pottery and stove pieces stuck above the moss. But more important was the open nature of the forest with a lack of underbrush and trees far apart. I had no doubt that I had found the village site with a totem pole and the forest.
You won't find Howkan or the Kaigani Strait on Google Maps but you can find Long Island, Alaska. Howkan is on the west side of Long Island, just below a small notch, Mission Cove.