From the 7.4.12 edition
By Jack Durham
It’s not easy being the McKinleyville Totem Pole.
Buffeted by wind and rain, hammered by hail, and pecked by birds, Ernie Pierson’s monumental masterpiece endures all sorts of abuse.
Sometime in the third week of June, the elements were too much for the hat that crowns Thunderbird, the top-most character on the World’s Largest Totem Pole. A piece on the south side of the copper hat lifted up and now projects upward like an ear on a dog.
I first noticed the anomaly while driving by the totem pole while treasure hunting at garage sales on Saturday, June 23. “There’s a bird perched on top,” I told my wife, who patiently puts up with my obsession with what is arguably the greatest work of art on display in Northern California. Well, if not the greatest, it’s certainly one of the largest.
A few days later I looked up and noticed that what I thought was a bird was still there, and in a location where I’ve never seen birds perch. How could this be?
Upon closer inspection it became clear that it wasn’t a bird; it was a wardrobe malfunction.
From down below, one perceives that the protruding copper plate is small, maybe 6 inches. But that’s an illusion caused by the height of the pole, which is 144 feet and 8 inches from the bottom of the pole to the top of the hat. (As reported in the Feb. 22, 2012 edition of the Press, the pole was measured in December 2011 by David A. Crivelli and Michael D. Pully, professional surveyors of the Points West Surveying Co. Visit www.mckinleyvillepress.com to read that article.)
Keep in mind that Thunderbird’s wingspan is 12 feet, big enough that two average size adults could stretch out, end to end, over the length of the wings. So the protruding copper is fairly large, although how large is anyone’s guess.
The damaged hat joins a few other broken items at the top of the pole. There used to be two antennae sticking up at the top. In 1999, one of the antennae flopped over and dangled from the top. Sometime later, the second antennae did the same thing. So the tallest point on the totem pole is the little metal rod sticking up, which is at 159 feet, 5 1/2 inches.
There are also several holes in the totem pole, including one right in Thunderbird’s eye. Birds nest in the holes. Sometimes you can see chicks sticking their heads out the holes, while their parents perch on Thunderbird’s colorful wings.
The damage, though, does not distract from the landmark. It only makes it more interesting.
It’s not a static work of art. It’s ever changing, with nature interjecting herself into the viewing experience.
On a clear morning, the pole is bathed in an orange light. Grizzly Bear, Redheaded Woodpecker and Beaver – characters repainted by Duane Flatmo in 1998 – take on a warm, cheerful glow. As the sun reaches its zenith, pinline shadows are cast in the carved outlines, giving the pole contrast in the harsh light. By evening, the pole becomes a silhouette.
The sky is always part of the viewing experience, providing a backdrop of process blue, or cottonball clouds, or, more often than not, a sea of gray. Sometimes the weather acts as a filter, with Crow and Blue Jay visible through gauze-like layer of fog.
People meander in the shadow of the totem pole every day, but often forget to look up. Their faces are buried in their mobile devices absorbing digital transmissions. But above them lurks a wondrous piece of folk art, erected 50 years ago in 1962, but still changing and evolving with Mack Town.
So next time you’re there, stop for a moment. Gaze up. Admire.