Story: Betty Lease Photos: Dennis Pool & Larry Rogers
JOHN WELCH'S REPAIR OF THE ANIMAL COUNCIL TOTEM POLE
When John Welch oversaw the October 1999 installation of his Animal Council totem pole in Shingletown, he never imagined he’d have to do the whole process over again 13 years later.
Welch, who turned 78 on June 30, designed and carved the 60-foot totem pole for his community, a seven-month labor of love that stood as a majestic triumph near the Shingletown Medical Center on Alpine Meadows Road, just south of Highway 44. But the pole – carved from a “hazard tree” that had to be felled – was no match for the birds and insects that ravaged its backside.
The totem pole proved to be very attractive to woodpeckers, and as Welch says, “They moved in and built their apartments.” The resulting wood chips and the birds’ droppings lured beetles, carpenter ants and termites. The pole became so compromised that Welch estimated it would have only been several years before it was completely ruined. Instead, Welch has spent a good chunk of the last year and a half repairing the massive pole.
“I was devastated when I had to take it down,” Welch says. “This has not been a pleasant job, but there’s a sense of satisfaction in getting it done.”
To say it hasn’t been easy is putting it mildly. Moving the 25,000-pound pole requires the assistance of heavy equipment, and all the repair work had to be done outdoors. That means Welch and his helper had to cool their heels during the rain, snow and cold weather not only for their own comfort, but because the glue they used would not set up in the cold.
During the work period, the pole sat horizontally on support logs (it was protected by tarps during bad weather) at the property of a friend, Ron Smith, who allowed Welch to run electrical cords to a workshop. Most of the work on the pole – done with chainsaws and hand tools — was done by Welch and Sam Smith, a retired engineer who volunteered to help after reading a newspaper article.
“He has been a godsend, a tremendous help,” Welch says of Smith.
Smith may have been Welch’s primary assistant, but the Shingletown artist received lots of help in the form of donations. Sierra Pacific Industries donated 3,000 board feet of Douglas fir, and Vic Hannan Landscape Materials delivered the wood at no charge. Gorilla Glue provided 36-ounce glue. Perma-Chink Systems donated long screws, stains, sealers and more.
“We’ve just been blessed with all kinds of people helping us,” Welch says. “There’s no way on earth this project could have been done without the help.
After making superficial repairs on the pole’s face, it was rotated and the men began cutting, scraping, chiseling and gouging out all the damaged parts of the pole, which measures 22 inches in diameter. In places, they had to dig down as deep as nine inches. They painstakingly inserted chunks of Douglasfir – a stronger wood than sugar pine – and bonded it all together with glue and hardware. As they worked, they tried to preserve the carvings so minimal restoration would be needed. The final step was repainting.
Now, the Animal Council Totem Pole stands tall again, Welch says – a perfect birthday present to himself. That’s how the pole began more than a decade ago – as a gift for the community. After deciding that he wanted to do “something big,” Welch thought long and hard about the story the pole would convey. He carefully wove aspects of American Indian tradition with Shingletown history in a folksy voice, ultimately creating a story that featured a raven, grizzly bear, thunderbird, beaver and Steller’s Jay. The animals’ job is to look after the town and its people so that all can prosper.
“The native Indians didn’t have a written language,” Welch says. “Totem poles were their way of communicating and telling stories.”
Welch retired at age 51 from the U.S. Forest Service to devote time to his art. Primarily a lost-wax bronze sculptor who definitely favors big projects, he’s eager to finish the World War II memorial he’s creating for the Northern California Veterans Cemetery in Igo.
“And then I think I’ll go fishing,” he says.