Norway in the Northwest

This picture says it all. I’m too short to have noticed the wharf railing post not far from the Sons of Norway Hall with the Viking ship parked out in front, left over from the US Bicentennial, but Piers isn’t and he took this shot.
Petersburg, Alaska is one of those towns that wears its heritage on its sleeve and gets away with it.  In fact, it’s a pretty direct line back to 1897 when Peter Buschmann started building his Icy Straits Packing Company.  He’d come from Norway and after briefly reconnoitering out of Tacoma, Washington settled on a site that resembles the fjords of his homeland. A man who knew what he wanted and worked hard for it, he seems to have been a role model for subsequent generations.  While the thousand miles of coast we have journeyed are littered wit defunct salmon canneries, Icy Straits works round the clock, as do two other large outfits in Petersburg, during the summer salmon season. A endless succession of fishing boats pulls up to the docks to unload.  Crews that want to keep fishing and save time and fuel sell to “packers”, or “tenders”, 70 to 80 foot boats that circulate among among the fishing grounds.  Over a thousand workers, many who live in dormitories, process the fish, most of which leaves on fast barges in huge freezing containers.  In 2007 the town of 3000 people processed 75 million pounds of fish valued at $42 million.  That puts Petersburg 18th in the US for volume and 16th for the value of the catch.
So today’s Petersburg would probably make old Peter Buschmann proud, as it undoubtedly does all the folks who bear his name and the names of those who  followed him. The city’s most important festival is May 17, Norwegian Constitution Day, and all year long they practice their Leikarring dancing and make sure that costumes passed along the generations fit.
Are there other American towns so tightly linked to their ethnic origins?   For some it may be a way to attract tourists, but this is certainly not the case for Petersburg.  There is nothing remotely resembling a cruise ship dock and no marina for recreational vessels.  Nope, the odd cruisers like us – and by now we know most of the northbound ones – become part of the working waterfront, thrown together with hundreds of trollers, gill-netters and purse seiners.
Which is very good for the imagination because Norwegians founded settlements up and down the coast.  I’m curious about Poulsbo, although today it looks like the rest of Puget Sound suburbia.  And from a hearty pair of Norwegian explorers we learned about the disappeared fishing community on Campagnia Island, British Columbia.
On the Fourth of July – a day we encountered nary another person from the US – we invited Inge and Bjorn for supper after we were all assaulted by a swarm of black flies.   The very tall and fit father and son were on a family history tour, with their gear on their backs, camping on waterfronts waiting for the passenger ferries serve the smallest communities of the coast that once or twice a week.   A local Hartley Bay man, a spirit bear tracker, had taken them in his boat to the remote site of a fishing community where their father/grandfather had labored for a number of years before returning to Norway.  While Inge and Bjorn practiced an extremely modest – if not downright uncomfortable – style of travel, they did remind us that little Norway is a petroleum rich country.  I suspect that the citizens of Petersburg, while they do not woo tourists, remain in touch with their European kin. In any event, along the Wrangell Narrows are a lot of finely kept fishing cabins and small lodges flying the flag of Alaska and the red-whites-and-blues of Norway and the US.
The Cannery
Inspired by fisher/author Jon Upton, I want to tell you about the cannery we visited near Port Edwards, British Columbia.  But first I’ll let Upton set the scent.   His poetic, informative Alaska Blues is the finest overview of what it’s like along this coast.   In a chapter entitled the “Ruins”, he writes:
When we’re running past bay after empty bay, the country here seems lonely and desolate.  But if we go ashore and poke around in the underbrush, we learn a different story.  I’ve been in hardly a bay that didn’t show some signs of previously settlers if I looked around long enough.  And for the most part, the stories of these places seems to  be the same:  of fishermen and prospectors, of trappers and miners, all trying to make a go of it in an inhospitable land, and almost all failing.
In the last century, and the first part of this one, prospectors combed the region, looking for gold and minerals, even for good marble deposits.  When the finds were promising and the price right, they dug a mine or opened a pit.  Some mines were small, just a shaft and a shack, and others were whole towns in themselves, with docks and railroads, stores and schools, spread out out the shores and hills of an entire bay.  But few lasted more than 10 or 20 years, and most less. The deposits were thin, the market collapsed, or the prospector’s luck ran out.  When it did, the towns died.  There was nothing to keep the men, and greener pastures beckoned….
Themink and fox farms went pretty much the same way… If you didn’t mind the isolation, a man with a family could have a pretty good life. But then the prices fell, the government said it was illegal to catch the fish for feed, and pretty soon the farms were all abandoned, the families moving on to something else…
Most of the larger ruins are not farms but fish plants of one sort or another: salteries, canneries, whaling stations and herring plants.  To travel through the bays is to go back through the history of the fisheries in the region.  All boomed for a while, and little settlements dotted the coast.  But the fishermen put no fish back and saved little for the future and pretty soon there was nothing to catch and the plants were abandoned and the forest took over….  Southeastern Alaska is a hard country to make a living in, and the ruins in bay after bay are constant reminders of it.
The cannery we visited was built in 1889, about the time of the canneries at Astoria and along the lower Columbia River. For Canadians North Pacific is “the oldest cannery on the West Coast”; for all intents and purposes that coast includes Oregon, Washington and Alaska.  By adapting to odd niches in the economies of fishing, it managed to functioned until 1980.   Now a valiant band of preservationists is writing its story and fighting to keep the forest and sea from reclaiming the remains of a unique community.

vikingThis picture says it all. I’m too short to have noticed the wharf railing post not far from the Sons of Norway Hall with the Viking ship parked out in front, left over from the US Bicentennial.  But Piers isn’t and he took this shot.

floatsPetersburg, Alaska is one of those towns that wears its heritage on its sleeve and gets away with it.  In fact, it’s a pretty direct line back to 1897 when Peter Buschmann started building his Icy Straits Packing Company.  He’d come from Norway and after briefly reconnoitering out of Tacoma, Washington settled on a site that resembles the fjords of his homeland. A man who knew what he wanted and worked hard for it, he seems to have been a role model for subsequent generations.  While the thousand miles of coast we have journeyed are littered with defunct salmon canneries, Icy Straits works round the clock, as do two other large outfits in Petersburg, during the summer salmon season.

dock

A endless succession of fishing boats pulls up to the docks to unload.  Crews that want to keep fishing and save time and fuel sell to “packers”, or “tenders”, 70 to 80 foot boats that circulate among among the fishing grounds.  Over a thousand workers, many who live in dormitories, process the fish, most of which leaves on fast barges in huge freezing containers.  In 2007 the town of 3000 people processed 75 million pounds of fish valued at $42 million.  That puts Petersburg 18th in the US for volume and 16th for the value of the catch.

So today’s Petersburg would probably make old Peter Buschmann proud, as it undoubtedly does all the folks who bear his name or those of his close associates who  followed him. The city’s most important festival is May 17, Norwegian Constitution Day, and all year long they practice their Leikarring dancing and make sure that costumes passed along the generations fit.

dock with cannery

Are there other American towns so tightly linked to their ethnic origins?   For some it may be a way to attract tourists, but this is certainly not the case for Petersburg.  There is nothing remotely resembling acruise ship dock and no marina for recreational vessels.  Nope, the odd cruisers like us – and by now we know most of the northbound ones – become part of the working waterfront, thrown together with hundreds of trollers, gill-netters and purse seiners.

Which is very good for the imagination because Norwegians founded settlements up and down the coast.  I’m curious about Poulsbo, although today it looks like the rest of Puget Sound suburbia.  And from a hearty pair of Norwegian explorers we learned about the disappeared fishing community on Campagnia Island, British Columbia.

IMG_8140On the Fourth of July – a day we spent in Hartley Bay and encountered nary another person from the US – we invited Inge and Bjorn for supper after we were all assaulted by a swarm of black flies.   The very tall and fit father and son were on a family history tour, with their gear on their backs, camping on waterfronts waiting for the passenger ferries serve the smallest communities of the coast that once or twice a week.   A local Hartley Bay man, a spirit bear tracker, had taken them in his boat to the remote site of a fishing community where their father/grandfather had labored for a number of years before returning to Norway.  While Inge and Bjorn practiced an extremely modest – if not downright uncomfortable – style of travel, they did remind us that little Norway is a petroleum rich country.  I suspect that the citizens of Petersburg, while they do not woo tourists, remain in touch with their European kin. In any event, along the Wrangell Narrows are a lot of finely kept fishing cabins and small lodges flying the flag of Alaska and the red-whites-and-blues of Norway and the US.

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