Obituary: Mitchell Adelbert Poling

July 9, 1941–July 6, 2019

Mitch Poling

Mitch Poling died peacefully in his sleep of metastatic cancer on Saturday, July 6, 2019 at his home in Port Townsend, Washington. He was lovingly attended by his wife Sandra Smith-Poling, his daughter Victoria Poling, and his son Andrew Poling.

Mitch was a kind, generous, and gentle soul with a willing spirit and inquiring mind who was faithfully devoted to his family, his community and to his craft. He was known as a builder, teacher and writer with a passion for Alutiiq (Suqpiaq Aleut) baidarkas and angyaks (traditional Alaska Native kayaks and canoes). His thoughtful and insightful presence as a community leader and volunteer will be missed in many local organizations.

Paul Trumblee, left, and qayaq instructor Mitch Poling work on building a qayaq during the second day of the Ilanka Cultural Center’s boat building class. (Photo by Brooke Johnson/for The Cordova Times)

Most recently, Mitch volunteered as a boat builder and teacher at Nuuciq Spirit Camp with the Chugach Heritage Foundation. In Port Townsend, he was active in the artist co-op Gallery 9; the Point Wilson Sail and Power Squadron; Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship; and the Affordable Housing Action Group. He dedicated many volunteer hours to the Port Townsend High School boat building program.

Mitch was born in Ketchikan, to John M. Poling and C. Lucy Poling, school teachers who were stationed throughout Alaska. He grew up in the native village of Chenega, where he first paddled baidarkas at age 5 and was baptized by the Russian Orthodox lay priest, Steve Vlasoff. The family later lived in Metlakatla, Quinhagak, Juneau, Nenana, Fairbanks and Nome.

Mitch studied chemistry at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and earned his bachelor’s degree at Stanford University in 1964. He served two years in the Peace Corps as a school teacher in Ogwashi-Ukwu, Nigeria from 1965–1967. Torn between pursuing a graduate degree in education or chemistry, he entered a PhD program in organic chemistry at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1972.

His decision was a good one. Mitch was fond of telling the story of how he met his wife and soulmate Sandra Smith, of Burbank, California. He showed her his research, and she showed him where he was missing information. She was both brilliant and beautiful — it was love at the first meeting of minds! She helped him finish his PhD, and he supported her in going to medical school at UC Davis.

When their children Victoria and Andrew were young, Mitch and Sandra shared child-raising and worked part-time. Mitch taught community college chemistry classes throughout the Seattle area and published a popular book on remote-controlled Electric-Powered Model Aircraft. In 1989, Sandra’s career as a physician with the U.S. Air Force led the family to Germany. During this time Mitch embraced new roles as a military spouse and stay-at-home Dad. He greatly enjoyed the benefits: travelling throughout Europe, sight-seeing and taking photos for Sandra’s watercolor art.

Having sailed to Port Townsend during graduate school, Mitch and Sandra dreamed of living there after their active military duty. They built a home and moved in 1996. Mitch began engaging in the community, tutoring at the high school, becoming a Scoutmaster with Andrew’s Boy Scout troop, and supporting Victoria’s violin playing.

In 2001, Mitch saw a skin-and-frame kayak at the Wooden Boat Festival and was deeply moved. He felt drawn to build one—a call that reached back to his childhood in Chenega, Alaska. While building a replica of Steve Vlasoff’s baidarka, he felt his hands being guided. Mitch spent the next 18 years on native heritage preservation, travelling to museums in Canada, Europe, and Russia to record, photograph, and measure native boats taken from Alutiiq villages. From this research, he reconstructed Alutiiq forms of boatbuilding, and returned that knowledge to Alutiiq builders, including youth and adults. He completed his largest building class in Cordova, AK just weeks before he died.

He is survived by his wife Sandra Smith-Poling of Port Townsend, Washington; daughter Victoria Poling of Seattle; son Andrew Poling of Port Townsend; and brothers Don Poling of Haines, Alaska, and Jack Poling of Anderson, Indiana.

A palaaq (canoe) made by Tina Fox and Aaron Bowman, and a qayaaq (kayak) made by Delores Taylor sit on display ready to be launched for the first time. Photo by Bree Mills/for The Cordova Times

Mitch, we wish you fair winds and calm seas on the next leg of your paddle journey! Please save the date: a memorial service and potluck celebration will be held on Oct. 5, at Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, 2333 San Juan Ave, Port Townsend, WA 98368. To contact the family, go to classicpaintings.net. In lieu of flowers, please make memorial contributions to:

Chugach Heritage Foundation, at chugachheritagefoundation.org or send checks c/o John Johnson, 3800 Centerpoint Dr., Suite 1200, Anchorage, AK 99518. Please earmark all gifts in honor of Mitch Poling—Boatbuilding.

Port Townsend School District, 1610 Blaine St. Port Townsend, WA 98368. Please earmark all gifts in honor of Mitch Poling—Boatbuilding.