HOW TO TAKE DOWN A TOTEM POLE

Ellen Carrlee, Conservator, Alaska State Museum

2003 move of the Auk Tribe Pole from Centennial Hall in Juneau, Alaska. Now located in the Juneau Douglas High School.

In the period of 2000-2010, I have seen four totem poles moved in Juneau, Alaska.  Because totem poles continue to be made and placed in outdoor environments, deterioration will eventually occur and totem poles will need to be taken down for treatment or relocation.  This posting is written to help folks charged with the care of historic totem poles to prepare for the slightly nerve-wracking experience of taking down a totem pole.  Once you’ve identified some professional expertise (a structural engineer and a rigging specialist are good folks to have on your team) here are some considerations.

SAFETY FIRST

In the case of a 4,500 pound chunk of wood hanging from a wire, this is especially crucial.  There ought to be one person who is calling the shots, and one of the most important shots is, “SLOW DOWN!”  Taking down a totem pole takes around three to five hours if all goes smoothly.  There is a tendency in the excitement of the moment to rush.  Checkpoints for human safety ought to include:

Four Story Totem pole coming down. Photo courtesy of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum

EVALUATING THE POLE

Condition of the pole should be documented beforehand as well as possible, using digital images and binoculars.  Try to determine any areas of rot or parts like wings and beaks that may be separate pieces.  Those joins are sometimes weakened over time.  Note the locations of areas of carving, paint, and particularly protrusions that will need to be protected.

Height measurement is needed to determine things like how the pole might fit on a 40’ flatbed truck, what building it might fit into, if corners can be turned, and so on.  An inclinometer is a device to take that measurement.  Occasionally there is historical documentation from when a pole was carved and erected that describes its full height.  Newpapers, for example, are one source of that information.

Weight estimation is useful to determine how much stress will be placed on trucks, wheels, floors, lumber, etc. Western Red Cedar, a common wood used for totem poles, is approximately 23lbs per cubic foot with specific gravity of around 0.32 and 12% moisture content.  Wetness of the pole adds some weight and can be measured with a moisture meter.  The calculation is most securely done by an engineer.  For the YaxTé Pole in the Tongass Rainforest near Juneau, US Forest Service engineer Scott Jackson estimated the pole to be 47 ½ feet high using an inclinometer and measured a moisture content of 18-20% near the surface and around 35% in its center.  The estimated the weight of the pole (with its support beam for lifting) to be close to 5,000 lbs.  During the move, the crane computer indicated the pole weighed around 4,500lbs (+/- 200lbs)  The stump had a moisture content around 32%.  The measurements when the pole was down indicated the pole was actually about 48 feet high with a base diameter of 2’9”.

Measuring moisture not only helps you determine the weight of the pole, but also how rotten it might be.  There are two main kinds of probes, a pin probe for measuring the surface condition and the hammer probe for measuring deeper.

Pin probe for measuring surface moisture content

Hammer probe measures moisture content deeper in the wood

VEHICLES AND SUPPLIES

Bucket lift. This is helpful in performing inspection of the upper areas of the pole, where the lifting is most likely to happen.  The lift is also to put on the padding material and placing the straps for lifting

Bucket lift with plywood in place to protect the grass

Backhoe Could be helpful to dig out around the base of a pole that has been erected directly in the ground.  Not strictly necessary in all cases

I didn't know what exactly a backhoe was until I had a two-year-old son. Now I can recognize one half a mile away.

Boom truck or crane. A boom truck typically has a long arm with one pulley/hook at the end for lifting.  A crane is usually much bigger and can lift in several places if necessary.

The boom truck or crane will work together with the manlift.

Flatbed Truck. Typical size is 40 feet.  May be called a “40 foot flat” or sometimes a “lowboy” if the wheels are on the ends and the flatbed is closer to the ground.  A lowboy is often used to move around backhoes and other heavy equipment to construction sites.  Flatbed trucks are also used to move around large shipping containers, for example.

This flatbed truck from Alaska Marine Lines is usually used to move shipping containers that come to Juneau on the barge.

Strongback This is usually a wooden beam or box beam that goes up most of the height of the pole to act like a splint.  A box beam is a beam that has four sides like a box and is hollow in the middle.  A beam might be a long 4×4 of solid wood, or it might be a glu-lam beam (made of many pieces of wood laminated together with glue in a factory.)

This beam up the hollowed back is lag bolted to cross braces, then spacers of wood were put in the gap, and the whole thing held with straps around the pole.

Straps. Wide nylon straps (at least 3-4” wide so it doesn’t bite into the wood) are used to lift the pole.  Sometimes they are fashioned into a loop and lift the pole that way (sometimes called a choke or choker.)  Sometimes a slip buckle is used.  A slip buckle has the advantage of releasing tension when it is not weighted, but it is usually metal and care must be taken to protect the surface of the pole from damage.  The strap will be hung from the hook of the boom or crane, but there is usually a heavy metal ball above the hook, so sometimes an extension is put on the strap to keep the ball away from the pole.

Example of a strap used as a "choker" to lift the pole. Photo courtesy of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum.

 

Instead of a loop around the pole, these straps have slip buckles

Extra extension on the strap keeps the ball away from the pole

Cribbing It is a good idea to have plenty of wood scraps on hand, 2×2, 4×4, 2×4, plywood etc that can be used to support or “crib up” the pole when it is coming down.  In the case of the YaxTé Pole, the USFS had an entire pickup truck full of wood, and it was very useful.

Having a variety of scrap wood on hand allows you to custom fit your cribbing under the pole as it is lowered slowly onto the flatbed.

Padding This is one area where the artwork issue really comes into play.  Packing blankets, soft foam, and carpet squares all make good padding and should be used wherever rigging and strapping materials could damage the pole.

Ropes are needed to help secure padding to the pole as well as belay ropes tied around the base

PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) Wearing hard hats and orange vests help maintain visibility, remind people to focus on safety, and to make people who may walk into harm’s way stick out because they are not wearing protective gear.  Gloves prevent splinters, rope burn and can improve grip.  For chainsaw operators, the gear will be more extensive, such as chaps.

Also handy: radios or walkie-talkies, binoculars, cameras, tape measures, traffic cones, Do Not Enter tape, duct tape (who knows?  Always have duct tape in your uh-oh bag).

WORKING WITH A CREW

Again, remember it is crucially important for someone to be in charge, indicate when things need to slow down, supervise safety and make sure the effort is happening in a controlled manner.  The person in charge ought to be assigned that task by the legal owner of the pole, since this is the person who will probably deal with the fallout if things go wrong.

A good crane or boom truck operator has great skill and regularly performs delicate maneuvers.  Obviously, one should not offend the operator by telling them how to do their job.  However, most have never dealt with moving artwork, which has specific requirements and fragility.  The museum professional and the rigging professional come from different worlds, and ironing out the plan ahead of time will be invaluable.  The day of the move, there is adrenaline and momentum that takes over and makes it difficult to slow things down or change course in a thoughtful, deliberate way if things are not going smoothly.  Prepare for this.

STABILIZING THE POLE

The strongback is the most essential element to moving a pole.  A wooden or metal beam or box beam acts like a splint and augments the strength of the pole to help it move safely.  The moving process tries to put the stresses on the strongback instead of the pole as much as possible.  The beam is held close against the back of a solid pole, or secured in the cavity of a pole that is hollowed out in the back.  Additional cross bracing and spacers may be needed to help the beam stay in place inside a hollow and deal with compression forces as the pole is moved.  The entire strongback structure may be strapped to the pole with nylon straps and tightened with ratchets.  It is a good idea to put padding between the nylon straps and the wood surface, and especially behind any metal elements.  Of course, if the pole already has a strongback of some kind, that can be utilized in the support structure for moving the pole.  A strongback can easily add several hundred pounds to the overall weight.

Padding is one of the aspects that is often overlooked.  Carving, painting, deteriorated wood and weathered surfaces are all vulnerable to damage by gouging and abrasion (or worse) during the move of a totem pole.  Anywhere metal comes in contact with the pole ought to be padded, and places where straps may put compression forces on the pole are also good locations for padding.  Consider where the crane’s overhaul ball may be.  That is the stabilizing ball just above the hook that keeps tension on the line when the hook is not loaded.  You don’t want that smacking into your pole.

If you cannot arrange to have the ball clear the pole, be sure to protect the pole with padding.

There are several ways to lift a pole and put it horizontally on the ground or lay it on a flatbed truck.  There is usually one “pick point” near the top of the pole where a strap is placed on the pole to lift it up.  Sometimes that is called the “choke” or the “choker” because it squeezes around the pole and makes compression forces.  Padding the pole at that point and anticipating where the ball might be is key.  Often the tops of poles have beaks, wings, or other protruding elements that must be protected from damage, especially during moments when the pole swings free.

Several belay ropes ought to be placed at the bottom of the pole with people manning them from a safe distance.  This will allow for control of the base of the pole when it is freed from the ground, and prevent the pole from swinging or spinning.

REMOVING THE POLE

No need to rush here.  Human safety first, protecting the pole next.  Once the pick point is set on the top of the pole and belay ropes are ready, the pole can be freed from the ground.  Sometimes a pole is not buried very deep, so it can be dangerous to dig up the support around the base of a pole without having another way to prevent the pole from toppling over.  If the pole is still in the ground, it is a good idea to dig down far enough and wide enough to allow a chainsaw to cut off the pole at least 6” below ground.  A backhoe can help with some of this chore.  More can be trimmed off later, if necessary.  There is often an area of rot right around ground level, down 12-18” or so, and then further down the wood tends to be sound again.  Trying to pull all the “root” of the pole out puts stress on the pole and is not necessary, since the recommendation is to mount reinstalled poles with a strongback and a gap between the support under the bottom of the pole and the ground to prevent future rot at the base.  Sometimes, as in the case of the Four Story Totem, a crane allows for a second pick point to be placed near the bottom of the pole, so it can be lifted into a horizontal position right away.

Crane with two pick points on the Four Story Totem pole. Photo courtesy of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum.

In the case of the Auk Tribe Pole, only one pick was used at the top, and then the base of the pole was set on the ground and the top slowly lowered to cribbing on the ground.  After it was on the ground, a second strap was placed near the bottom and the boom truck lifted the pole in its horizontal orientation and placed it on a flatbed truck.

Slowly lowering the Auk Tribe pole, with the base on the ground and cribbing ready to support the pole.

Two picks used unload the Auk Tribe pole from the flatbed and set it on a rolling dolly.

The YaxTé Pole method was to have a pick point from the top using a boom truck, and then use the snatch hook on the bucket of a backhoe to lift the strap on the lower part of the pole.  On this pole, the lowest 25% or so of the pole was riddled with carpenter ant damage, and it was not certain there was enough structural stability to pivot from the base and be laid down on the ground.  In most cases, the cranes, boom trucks, and other lifting mechanisms are used to hold the pole in the air in a horizontal position until the flat bed truck can be driven underneath and then the pole is gently lowered onto the flatbed.  Supporting the pole underneath in as many positions as possible is very important, and this is where a large supply of cribbing material comes in handy.

Snatch hook on the bucket of a backhoe used to lift the end of the YaxTe pole. A little longer sling would have given a more comfortable clearance between the teeth and the pole.

The boom truck lifts the top of the pole and a sling on the backhoe lifts the base while the flatbed is backed underneath

THE HORIZONTAL POLE

If the pole is simply to be laid on the ground and worked on nearby, adequate cribbing below, covering from the weather, and protection from vandalism are the main aspects to consider.  A pole will be the most stable flat on its back, so cribbing at a height that workers can access the back of the pole from beneath is an important consideration.  If the pole needs to come indoors for work, there are a few more steps.  One is to build a strong dolly to support the pole on wheels in order to roll it indoors.  Heavy duty dumpster wheels are very strong and rated for big loads.  Having a dolly the full length of the pole provides another kind of strongback for the pole, supporting it fully and maximizing maneuverability.  Smaller individual dollies may also work, but can be more difficult to control and don’t provide as much support.

Dumpster wheels attached to the underside of a full length dolly.

Smaller individual dollies can also be used, but if the ground is uneven and some of the wheels come off the ground it is a little harder to maneuver.

 

In the Tongass Rainforest of Southeast Alaska, totem poles are often quite wet and need a few weeks indoors to slowly dry out and come to equilibrium with the indoor temperature and relative humidity.  Cover the pole loosely with plastic sheeting to make sure that process does not happen too quickly, and if possible, turn down the temperature indoors to the 50-60F range.  If the drying process goes too fast, the pole is at risk of additional cracking and damage.

Auk Tribe pole on dolly inside the atrium of the Juneau Douglas High School

Plastic sheeting over the Auk Tribe pole to slow drying. Barrier around pole to prevent touching or vandalism.

My sincere thanks to several people who have helped me to understand this process.  Bob Banghart is the Head Curator at the Alaska State Museum and was in the private sector as Banghart and Associates for many years previous.  He has moved several totem poles since I’ve been in Juneau and  is the first person I go to with rigging questions.  It was my realization that he won’t be around forever and someday I might be asked how to take down a pole that led me to write this posting.  I’m also grateful to Ron Sheetz for his wisdom and generosity regarding totem pole conservation.  He has taken many poles up and down throughout Southeast Alaska.  He is a “retired” furniture and wooden objects conservator who worked for the National Parks Service for many years.  He still comes to Alaska to take care of totem poles and try to pick his brain the best I can at every opportunity.  Al Levitan and Andrew Todd are two other conservators with lots of totem pole experience, although I have not been lucky enough to pepper them with questions as I have Bob and Ron.  Addison Field, curator at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, has also been very helpful in sharing his experiences in caring for the Four Story Totem pole at his museum.

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4 Responses to HOW TO TAKE DOWN A TOTEM POLE

  1. Hi Ellen,

    I would love to put a link to this post on the new PACIN website.
    http://www.pacin.org
    Is that OK with you?
    We love this kind of stuff!
    Thanks,

    Ashley

  2. ellencarrlee says:

    That would be terrific! I love PACIN! Say, I should put up a link to you folks…

  3. Helen Alten says:

    Ellen,
    Great job with this. I think I have a series of slides from a traditional pole raising in Ketchikan about 15-20 years ago. Interested? (Can’t believe it has been so long ago!)
    Best,
    Helen

  4. ellencarrlee says:

    Thanks, Helen! And yes, I would love to have anything you might be willing to send from your Alaska days…

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