How to Make a Totem Pole: Part One

He’s going to die soon— my dad— at least relatively soon, so we’re making a totem pole.

He’s 84 years old, past the actuarial predictions for most humans like him, and while he eats well and exercises okay, he also has a knack for close calls.

There was the time Dad and my nephew Denny and I bushwhacked across an island in the border waters of Minnesota, just for the heck of it. My brothers had taken the canoes and were paddling around to the other side where they would set up camp for the night. With Denny leading, my dad in the middle, and me, bringing up the rear, we picked our way through the dense pine forest, thick with an undergrowth of wild blueberries.

Endless hours backpacking and camping made a home of the woods for me and my dad, the Scout Master. His footsteps along the surface of the fallen tree we were using as a bridge were as familiar as the beard he’s had on his face since I was seven.

“Careful Dad.”


Also as familiar is seeing him in trouble. It was a tidy fall. His feet slipped, and somehow his body missed the log on his way down. Six feet later he landed flat on his back in a soft bed of bushes and pine needles. Denny and I peered down, balancing above him.

“I’m okay!” he assured us.

He was.

Then there was the time he slipped backwards off a ladder and smashed his head through his living room wall. We decided he was lucky he’d missed the wooden studs.

And the time he drank a glass of bleach.

“That’s not beer!”

And the time he almost broke his neck in a bicycle race. That’s a great story.

My Dad has a knack for close calls, and so we’re making a totem pole. The idea of wielding a chainsaw to battle with an live old cherry tree fits right into his way with the world.

Our plan goes something like this:

  • Get each of his sons to make a drawing of an eagle.
  • Build a scaffolding.
  • Transfer the drawings to the tree.
  • Go at it with chain saws and chisels.
  • Invite his sons to help.

“Make a Totem Pole” is our stated goal, but there’s something else going on. My father lives in Florida, and his sons hardly ever get there to see him one-on-one. Dad could use a magnet.

Visit How to Make a Totem Pole: Part Two

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Leave a comment5 comments on "How to Make a Totem Pole: Part One"

  1. We want to see more totem pictures. I love the anecdotal stories. There are so many great stories we collect through our lives. The totem is a great enduring symbol. Thanks for sharing

    • Did you read the title sir? “Part One” Jeesh. 😉

  2. Very cool!

  3. Nothing like “He’s going to die soon” to get my attention.
    Nothing like repeated falls to make vivid memories.
    Nothing like a family totem to get a son’s attention.
    Nothing like for totem images.
    Nothing like David for implementing my “magnet.”
    Thanks David!
    Love ya,

  4. Really illuminating story about my dear friend Charlie and his sons.

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