The Totem Pole Quest

On July 28th I was sent on a quest by fellow Kiwi blogger, Gallivanta from Silkannthreades. A totem pole quest.

For real?


She dedicated a post to me in honor of the release of my third book, Nola Fran Evie. But the dedication came with a proviso…I had to locate a totem pole by Chief Lelooska somewhere in Portland.

The only clue Gallivanta provided was that a replica of the totem pole stood 7,000 miles away in Christchurch Airport, New Zealand. (Who knew?!)

And so I began my quest.

Totem Pole, I'm comin' to get ya!

Totem Pole, I’m comin’ to get ya!


Like any modern-day hero, I used my trusty compass, the Internet, to search for the totem pole. I wore a smug look on my face as I let Google do the work for me from the comfort of my home.

But, I couldn’t find its exact location.

However, I did step into the world of Chief Don “Lelooska” Smith, a great man who was given a great name at the age of 12—“He Who Cuts Against Wood with a Knife”.

And cut against wood with a knife is what he did…all his life in beautiful Oregon. The man carved thousands of masks and over a hundred totem poles, including the one I was hunting with the replica in New Zealand, until he died of cancer in 1996.

So, what’s with the New Zealand connection?

During the 1959 Oregon Centennial Exposition, the intricate pole was carved from cedar to honor Oregonian soldiers who participated in Operation Deep Freeze, a famous multinational series of exploratory missions to Antarctica during the late 1950s.

The base for Operation Deep Freeze was Christchurch Airport.

(And, you silly things never thought you’d learn anything on this blog.)

I was frustrated that I couldn’t find where the totem pole was today in Oregon and began to think that I was failing my mission. As I’m not the quitting type, I kept digging and digging and digging online, which eventually led me to…


Aha! I found you, Totem Pole!

Ecstatic, I called the zoo to plan my heroic visit. After weeks of online research I imagined staring proudly at the totem pole, and how I would gleefully show Gallivanta that I had completed the totem pole challenge in less than a month.

But…the totem pole wasn’t there.

I panicked. Surely the zoo didn’t get rid of this exceptional piece of tribal artistry that had been living there for decades. Surely not!

I talked to one person, then another person, and yet another person until I found Wayne, the mighty project engineer. He said…


Last year the Oregon Zoo began a major transformation to create the Condors of Columbia, which opened in May, and Elephant Lands, a project I’m very excited about which is opening in 2015. This expansion will quadruple the space the elephants inhabit, drawing on more than fifty years of research and science-based care to build a natural environment to honor the animals.

Come on, who doesn’t love elephants?!

During this time, the pole underwent a hefty restoration process—repairing cracks and rot, as well as painting, cleaning and detailing the carving. It was an intense team effort led by Lelooska’s brother, Chief Fearon “Tsungani” Smith, assisted by zoo volunteers, and overseen by the Lelooska Foundation.

This totem pole’s kind of a big deal.

Wayne and the Oregon Zoo were excited to hear about my totem pole quest and were generous to bring my husband, Mr. H, and I to the zoo when the totem pole was back in action.

It was finally happening. Now at the end of September, I was coming to the end of my quest. I was beaming with pride, eager to see the elusive totem pole I had chased for two months.

Then, I did something so typically Britt…


totem pole fail

Totem Pole Fail!

I went on the wrong day, before the pole was resurrected.

Good one, Britt!

I know, I know. But, we made the best of it and enjoyed a leisurely stroll through the zoo.

The bear and I had matching outfits.

This bear and I had matching outfits.

This goat trio looked like they were posing for an album cover.

This goat trio looked like they were posing for an album cover.

bobcat in cave

This bobcat let us hang out in his cave.

I skipped the carcass feeding. But Mr. H seemed satisfied.

I skipped the carcass feeding. But Mr. H seemed satisfied.


The following Monday I sheepishly admitted my mistake to Wayne from the zoo. He was nice enough to pat me gently on the head and invite us back for another visit when the pole was actually there.

Then finally…


Totem Pole Tada!

Totem Pole Tada!

This is truly one of the best zoos I have ever been to and I look forward to Elephant Lands opening next year. A big thank you to Wayne and the Oregon Zoo for being so awesome during the totem pole quest.

Gallivanta, you stinker…totem pole quest COMPLETED! 🙂


62 thoughts on “The Totem Pole Quest

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    That’s great you never gave up. Must’ve made finally seeing it that much more worthwhile, especially after you’d read about it and researched it. I love totem poles. We went on an Alaskan cruise a few years back. I really wanted a totem pole, but like I do with all souvenirs, I decided we didn’t need one. Now I wish I hadn’t been so practical. Of course, I would’ve had to have it shipped. Kind of difficult to pack a five-foot totem pole in my suitcase…

  2. Gallivanta says:

    Awesome, awesome, awesome. I agree with Danniehill; your name should be Beauty who never gives up. I am thrilled! Shall I repeat myself…I AM THRILLED. Thank you for taking on the quest.

  3. jmmcdowell says:

    Don’t you love the unexpected twists and turns that happen on a journey? Okay, they normally drive me crazy because I’m afraid everything will fall apart or go wrong. But everyone else should enjoy them. 🙂

    I’m glad you succeeded in your quest, and I’m also happy to have learned so much about the the artist, the connection to New Zealand, and the improvements at the zoo. 🙂

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      I absolutely do! It’s funny that I thought I would have this quest wrapped up in a week. Then weeks went by and months went by…hello! And, the failing part is very typical for me. I thought about keeping that out of the post to make me look “cooler”. But hey, we all do goofy things, don’t we? 🙂

  4. gabrielablandy says:

    Oh what an amazing adventure! I love that you went on the wrong day – this is just the thing I would do. Recently, I drove two and a half hours to drop my dog at my parents before going on holiday, but then realised I would have to turn and go home because I had forgotten my passport – adding another 5 hours to the journey. Not quite the wrong day, but a day of driving.

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Visiting on the wrong day was even more awesome since I had to admit what a goofball I was to my zoo liaison. I secretly wanted to leave it out of the post until I remembered that I’m not alone out there. We all do silly stuff like that!

      Dang, forgetting my passport is one of those things I’m afraid I’m going to do someday!

  5. Kate Johnston says:

    You can probably imagine I’m cheering and applauding the decision made by the zoo to expand the enclosure for elephants. Zoos often get a bad rap for poor care of animals, but judging from your post, it sounds like this zoo is a winner. Yay!

    I’m thrilled you found your totem pole. I love totem poles not only because they are beautifully artistic but also because they are meaningful. I especially love the background of this particular totem pole! Nice job on your quest.

  6. Browsing the Atlas says:

    I fell in love with totem poles when I lived (briefly) in Alaska. Being in that type of setting, living among many Tlingits, and hearing about the artistry and meaning behind them made it impossible not to be awed.

  7. Mary Jo Malo says:

    Delightful adventure! I love that you always include your goofs in recounting your activities, since it helps me to laugh at my own and not take myself too seriously. Two of my daughters have read this great find for parents and educators: Chief Lelooska: Echoes of the Elders which includes a CD featuring him reading his own stories. I appreciate the fact that he was originally Cherokee then adopted by another tribe.

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