Sitka and Petersburg. A week in each has reacquainted us with these two gems in Southeast, as Alaskans call their panhandle.Both enjoy Tlingit culture, huge fishing fleets, and miles of docks along which you can stroll and talk to fishermen. But they’re quite different.
Sitka looms large in American History as the capital of Russian Alaska and the place where Alaska was transferred to the United States in 1867. Sitka’s multilayered past comes alive as you visit the National Historical Park with its totem poles, Castle Hill, St Michael’s Cathedral, the Bishop’s House, and the Sheldon-Jackson and city museums and attend performances of the Naa Kahidi Tlingit dance troupe, the New Archangel Russian dancers, and summer chamber music festival.For natural history, there’s the Alaska Raptor Center, a bear rescue operation, and the extraordinary Sitka Sound Science Center, to which the locals attribute their children’s documented high levels of science literacy. Everyone should spend a week in Sitka.
For me, Petersburg stands out as a bright story of immigration to America. It was founded by Peter Bachmann who arrived from Norway in 1897. He chose the site because of proximity of fresh ice from the nearby Le Conte glacier. In time recruited hundreds of his impoverished countrymen, who built houses on pylons and great wharfs with canneries over the waters of Wrangell Narrows.
Okay, you say, Norwegians settled many places in the Pacific Northwest; so where’s the story?Well, Alaska produces about 60% of all US seafood and Petersburg a good portion of that. The old canneries now house modern fish processing operations to which the catch is delivered 24/7 during the summer. People walking down Nordic Drive speak Tagalog, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Slavic Languages, and varieties of Englishes (thatfor Number 45, with his preference for Norwegian immigrants, mark them as potential terrorists from “shithole countries”).More than any agricultural community in the Central Valley, Petersburg hammers home the reality that workers like these, who willingly leave home to follow the harvests, are the heroes of our national food system. They are responsible for the food security we currently enjoy.
I talk about Sitka here; let me just share some photos of Petersburg this week.
Tuesday 3 July 2018 Appleton Cove on Peril Strait57º25’N 135º15.7’W
In Sitka we take shore leave from the comfort of our home base on Aurora. On terra firma our minds and muscles get a different kind of workout. For the first time in ten days, Jack and I spend some time apart – more than forty feet!I ride my bike to the laundromat or the library, clear email, have phone meetings, ensure distant aspects of my life are on track.Jack scoots all over town, works out at the community gym, and anguishes briefly over news from Washington that tumbles in all at once. We bathe in chamber music. We walk the docks talking to crews of trollers, gillnetters, seiners, recreational boats, and large tax-haven flagger yachts waiting for their guests. We revisit favorite sites: from the deep dark forest floor we gaze up at the totem poles and the eagles circling, singing above as ravens call out to us. We spend time with Sara and Brian, Gus and Emma and pepper them with all our unanswered questions.
We’d arrived thinking this is the last time we’ll visit Sitka on our own keel.We leave thinking it won’t be.
The clouds hang heavily over the spectacular peaks that rise sharply behind the city the whole week. Twenty minutes after we cast off, dawn breaks, enveloping us in its warm embrace.
We leave as we came, spending just enough time on the buoy at Schultz Cove for lunch and naps before transiting Serguis Narrows at slack.Going through we pass Teas for Two and wave to Helen and Ian, who call on the radio for a brief chat.
Whales, porpoises, dolphins spout and jump. The air is bone dry.Appleton Cove’s Alaska State buoy is unoccupied.Where are our fellow humans?
Wednesday 4 July 2018 Baranof Warm Springs 57º05’N 134º49.9’W
Another beautiful morning on Chatham Strait.We arrive at low tide and Jack turns Aurora 180º with inches under the keel for a starboard tie on the north side of the dock.We head for the bathhouse and get very clean.
Boats come and go, leaving a mostly convivial crowd for Fourth of July celebrations. The exceptions are a couple of larger boats with commercial guests and generators running.While barely audible above the roar of the falls, they spew fumes. Ted, the retired resident who helps collect moorage for the Sitka Harbormaster, requests they desist and they do. But after dark when the last of the outdated, disposable marine flares soar above the bay, the gensets come on after we go to bed. (Which inspires Jack to complain to the Sitka Harbormaster, who replies that a sign with the rule is a good idea.)
Friday 6 July 2018 Cannery Cove in Pybus Bay57º18’N134º08.7’W
There are a dozen seiners in the Bay when we leave Warm Springs, their crews sleeping off a couple of days of fishing. It was so much fun the last time when these big ships flouted the rules and rafted side by side from the float out across the Bay.
Saturday 7 July 2018 Unnamed Cove on Tracy Arm57º48.5’N133º38’W
Monday 9 July 2018 Cleveland Channel
Rather than go on to Portage Bay on the south shore of Frederick Sound, we decide to break the trip to Petersburg in two passages of approximately 5 hours each. So we drop anchor in Cleveland Channel at southwest end of Stevens Passage just north of Cape Fanshaw.
When we check the weather during before dinner drinks, all reports have been updated. It seems rapidly moving low pressure system is on its way, predicted to blow though and wear itself out in about 36 hours. We’re okay with small craft advisories of 15 to 25 knots of wind. This report, however, specifies gusting to 40 knots. And we are not yet around Cape Fanshaw at the point where two huge bodies of water meet: Stephens Passage and Frederick Sound.
We go to bed with the prospect of having to spend a day waiting out the storm and expecting to be awakened by wind starting in the middle of the night.
Tuesday 10 July 2018 Petersburg
We wake up early to the eerie calm that proceeds a storm. It looks like we’ll have no trouble rounding Cape Fanshaw and getting into Frederick Sound. By 5am the anchor is up and we’re underway. Before leaving Stephens Passage we see a couple of humpbacks, the only whales we see in days on two vast bodies of water known for their whales. On a previous trip through Frederick we had to wend our way through dozens of half-sleeping whales.
Soon enough it begins to rain and we lose visibility while neither the wind nor the sea state is troublesome. We don’t see a single ship until we approach Petersburg and find ourselves in the company of a large fuel barge on starboard and a tug and tow on port. Looks like everyone is on target to enter the Wrangell Narrows on a high tide at slack. No sooner do we enter the channel than the tug skipper, who had been shortening his cable, announces to “all concerned traffic” that he’s coming through. We scramble into low water on the side as the huge tug and barge slide by a boat length away.
We head for the fuel dock where the enormous tanker is already unloading gas and diesel. We fill up to ward off winter condensation that will put water not our diesel. I ask the attendant how the fishing is. Not too good. And where are the whales? “Yes. Where are the whales? I’ve been here ten years and a couple of times each week would see groups of humpbacks or orcas head down the Narrows. Not this year.”Aurora’s new home is stall 106 right in front of Ocean Beauty’s huge fish processing operations.
We’ve been moving between bergs and burgs. You never leave the wilderness here in Southeast Alaska, even when you finally see other boats or get cell service, If anything, you grasp the of the wild when you tie up somewhere and talk to folks who have carved out a life within it.
In the rest of the Pacific Northwest, we talk about resilience. Here that’s a fundamental given; the skills you need are for subsistence.
Another of my misconceptions fell and broke just this morning. I’d been under the impression that the subsistence lifestyle was that of Alaskan Natives, the folks here from American pre-history, many of whom self describe as Indians. But it’s far broader. Any rural Alaskan has access to fish stocks and game populations “customarily and traditionally” used for subsistence. Take pukka Petersburg, founded in 1896 by a handful of Norwegian pioneers led by Peter Buschmann, who emigrated to Port Townsend and headed north. Norwegian flags still fly here. Employment is mostly commercial fishing and federal, state and local government jobs. But with only 3000 people and no road connections to any other place, Petersburg is one of the subsistence communities we’ve visited: people proud of their ability to live off the land and sea. (More on legal aspects of Alaskan subsistence here and here.)
Sunday, June 15. Appelton Cove, Rodman Bay, Peril Strait. 57º28’N 135º15.7’W We leave Kake at 5:15 am in anticipation of Frederick Sound and Chatham Strait. Isn’t this supposed to be all about strong winds? Not for us. Strong seas for sure, especially where the two large bodies of water meet at Point Gardner, the south tip of Admiralty Island. We rock and roll, taking it wide, too far off shore to see the sea lion rookery on the island just south of the point. We give Baranof Warm Springs – and the promise of a warm soak – a miss and continue up the Strait. In time, the sun burns off the mist on the Baranof peaks, improving the scenery but dampening chances of a breeze and making us feel sleepy.
But then comes the narrow Peril Strait that separates Baranof and Chicagof Islands and a swimming mammal show that doesn’t quit. First we pass a pod of orcas on port, right where they were when we went by two years ago! We give them some distance only to see a group of spouting humpbacks on starboard! There are six of them and they are bubble feeding as they move into the strait. We make sandwiches and enjoy an hour-and-a-half lunch together, humans and humpbacks all moving along at a lazy 3.7 knots. With remarkable regularity, every 4 to 6 minutes, they perform a 60 or 90 second show. There’s spray, a ruckus of glistening grey backs, splashing and churning as they sound, their marvelous flukes in the air.
In the course of our transit of Peril Strait a pair of frolicking sea otters swim past, harbor seals play the shallows, a solitary sea lion powers through the current looking a bit like a bear and three large mother deer who, at the narrowest part of the strait, walk into the water to cross. And then the sudden sound, a snort, a nasal rush of air. Midships starboard. I rush forward to see the first one announce its presence. Suddenly there are five synchronized swimmers diving into our bow waves. A celebration of explosive joy. In a minute or so, they are off. What are they? Pacific wide-sided dolphins with short attention spans? Or the larger, more powerful Dall’s porpoises, also at home in these waters? A cameo performance but I can’t identify the actor. (Note to self: To learn to discriminate among waterborne choreographies, try YouTube. Oh, and get some video from our lunch with the whales up soon.)
Monday, June 16. Sitka.57º03’N 135.21’W There’s too much to say about Sitka. Above what I’ve said before here and here and here. This is largely thanks to Cruz’s old friend Gus and our new friend Sara and stepping into the world of normal/exotic Alaskans.
So I won’t say anything except that after a Sitkan had asked where we were from, I commented that their town was “the second best on the Inside Passage”, only to be corrected. “But we’re on the Outside.” Yes, remote, far away, outlying, off any track, beaten or otherwise. Peripheral, almost extraterrestrial in sense that Sitkans are half oceanic.
Sunday, June 22 Appleton Cove, Rodman Bay, Peril Strait. 57º28’N 135º15.7’W One amazing sail across Hoonah Sound. Gusts to 25 knots and the rail practically in the water. Rough, invigorating. But then we lose sight of a sailboat we’d seen dangerously over powered. We search with the binocs. Then in the distance along the far shore, we spot the little boat (maybe 25 feet?), bare poles now. An hour later, Canadian flag flapping, it passes us! Is this some magical back eddy? Is that outboard supplementing a diesel engine? What about hull speed?
The next morning, we raise anchor before 5am and see the sail covers on the little vessel, its dinghy drawn abeam covering half the length of the hull, its astute crew sleeping off their adventure. We look for the but do not see them again.
Monday, June 23 Tenakee Springs.57º46.69’N 135º12.22′ Travel took us east out Peril Strait to Chatham. then north, then west 9 miles to Tenekee Springs, population 98. The tiny city is stretched out along the shore on either side of the mid-town: the dock, the float plane landing, the store, the bakery, a cafe, and the bath. There’s no natural harbor here, just nice wide floats behind a couple of floating breakwaters. You write your boat’s name on a used envelop crossing out the previous name, leave some money and write yourself a receipt. It’s a rather expensive for Alaska $0.60 a foot. We forego electricity, which costs another $20 because Tenakee has to make all their own, currently by diesel generator although they are going to supplement with micro hydro. Other infrastructure: a combined city hall and library, a fire station and a school, which closed last year when a family decided to home school but which will open in September as there are again enough kids. The bakery serves breakfast 9 to 2. The Blue Moon café serves food “when Rosie feels like cooking”, according to an old Southeast guidebook and “on several hours notice,” according to Rosie, a fixture here for 58 years.
At the library, I join another reader, settling in with an intriguing mid-century biography of La Pérouse and a collection of essays on Alaska by Alaskans, designed to counter dubiously informed views such as mine. “Two readers of real books!” exclaims the librarian, most of whose other interactions are chat about the latest films on DVD. I’m actually there to learn about this strange, endearing town, so she gives me a fat three ring binder with several years copies of The Store Door. Issued by the Tenakee Historical Society, it includes obituaries, historic photos, excerpts from old newspapers and current projects, the most ambitious of which is the recent renovation of the bathhouse.
Tenekee sprouted up in the 1870s or 80s, balm for discouraged Gold Rushers. Seems today it provides respite for Juneau folks weary of cruise ships, part-timers though with admirable kitchen gardens. The ferry calls twice a week, going to and coming from Juneau. Passengers only; Tenekee is carless.
Some of the year rounders, like the librarian, live “off grid”, that is a mile or so by skiff beyond either end of the path. Everyone is high on the place. It seems to have just the right diversity of age and Native blood and, like Meyers Chuck, a balance of tiny and not so tiny houses. Gentrification-immune, it has the usual amount of surplus stuff, charmingly overgrown with salmonberry bushes and cow parsnip. An outhouse on a dock above the beach behind the fire station is its only public toilet.
After supper, I hear snorting and take my book up to the deck. A humpback is swimming in the opening between the breakwaters. No wonder, herring are jumping out of the water all around the boat. I wait to see if the beast will come into the harbor but with bounty everywhere, there is no need. I watch him blow through the former-nose-evolved-to-the-top-of-the-head until the light dies and I turn in, closing the hatch to block out the snorts.
Wednesday, June 25 Funter Bay, Admiralty Island. 58º14.6’N 134º52.9’W A rare perfect wind took us up and across Chatham Strait on a broad reach. Lines taken by Bea, half of the crew of Salty, a tiny, well-used, outboard from Juneau that was drying out after a wake wave had drenched sleeping bags and everything else in the boat the night before. She’s Asian, Brian a blue-eyed blond, celebrating 20 years together. When I awoke from an I was sad to see this welcoming, upbeat couple had pulled out, presumably to drop the hook in some romantic anchorage known only to them.
Funter Bay has a nice 150′ government float, though a bit too shallow on the shore side to get out on the next morning’s spring low. So we switched sides and took Salty’s place behind two larger boats. A Juneau banker – and climate change denier – remarked nostalgically that back when the state floats were built, they’d accommodate far more boats. 21′ footer s like Salty being more the rule.
Thursday, June 26. Juneau58º18’N 134º25.7′ An early morning departure takes us up Chatham into Lynn Canal. The Fairweather, the catamaran ferry that links Juneau to Sitka, As we turn into Auke Bay, as we turn into Auke Bay. For once we run into it in ample waters, although we’re so taken with the hanging glaciers we hardly notice. Since the day is still early, we decide to go around Douglas Island and up Gastineau to Juneau rather than tie up with the big boats at Auke Bay. It’s a quick decision we will later reevaluate.
The route along Douglas is long and Gastineau seems endless. The weather’s been hot and the seas calm so there’s no excuse for impatience. It’s just that 11 hour days are tiring. In fact, it’s almost worse without the adrenalin of facing continual challenges or simple driving rain that calls for hourly soup, ginger tea or hot chocolate. You find yourself complaining, like a spoiled child.
We’re barely by the cruise ships, when Jack hails the harbor master and Cruz and I get the fenders and lines ready. Remembering the strong currents we encountered entering the Harris docks four years ago, I note it’s slack and ought to be okay. We pass smoothly under the bridge that links Juneau to Douglas, but what’s that scraping sound? Yikes. It’s a high slack and this is Alaska! We tie up and assess the damage. Gratitude that it’s minor mixes with alarm at my/our, well, mindfulnesslessness and I start to cry like a child.
Within minutes, Cruz has rigged the bosun’s chair and we hoist him up the mast using our two spare halyards. (The tallest mast north of the bridge, we now note.) He bends the wind vane so it rotates again but has to remove the 10 inch cylinder that contains the white anchor light and the tricolor for sailing nights off shore. The plastic attachment ring has snapped, sacrificially. A sailor from Bellingham comes from across the docks to send up the tools we lack. We let Cruz down, he spends the rest of the afternoon fashioning a fix with epoxy, and – after a night on the town – goes up the next day to put the light in place.
By then I’m off hiking. I arrive at Mendenhall Glacier on the first bus, determined to get a good leg stretch. A girl in a National Forest Service uniform gives me a photocopied trail map and I’m off. The 3.5 mile circle route is lovely I pass only four people: a young Tlingit couple and an Alaskan grandmother pointing out her grandchild how far the glacier has receded. I’ve add another two or three miles by branching off on the Nugget Creek Trail, where I find myself crawling across fallen trees. When the trail meets a lake above the waterfall and I’m even farther away from vistas above the tree line so I retrace my steps, figuring the NSF greeter must be a summer intern.
Later, a mature ranger says, “Nah, nobody much does the Nugget Creek Trail. Brown bear up there.” As for the the loop trail, it’s designed to be short enough for cruise ship visitors. I mention I didn’t see a single one “They just get overwhelmed.” Yeah, I get that. And down near the lake, I see a lot of strollers and hear a lot of Japanese and Hindi. But a couple or three miles of wheelchair able trails that make a 13-mile blue glacier accessible to everyone? You can’t knock that.
The Mendenhall is special and everyone should visit. And it’s especially special to the residents of Juneau, despite a their abundance of outdoor options. How good to see bathing-suited families lying on the beach, kids building glacial silt castles, toddlers splashing around in water liberated after thousand of years in the ice field. I want to return to Juneau in the winter and join these folks in their little sliver of daylight to drive along a city street to the lake to walk or skate among the blue bergs to look the glacier right in its towering face.
Saturday, June 28. Snug Cove on bay behind Gambier Island off Admiralty Island. 57º25’N 133º58’W.
The scenery along Stephens Passage south of Juneau is overwhelming. This is the Alaska of the State Ferry and the big cruise ships if the weather is perfect, with just a few clouds for effect. As I sit on the spinnaker box, leaning on the mast, wandering, wondering musings take over. This is no time to write.
We puzzle about a couple of large islands in the middle of the passage that are not on the chart. They turn out to be ice bergs, better known as “bergie bits” since they’ve calved from glaciers. They are not at all bitty but big. The one in the photo has about fifty Glaucous Gulls on it and they are big birds – over two feet from head to tail.
Our attention turns to navigation as we approach Snug Cove, a little nook on a bay in Admiralty Island behind Gambier Island and a string of reefs. It’s a wonderful place with good mud holding the anchor. Real wilderness. A day from Juneau and a day from Petersburg, with nothing but wildlife in between. Would like to spend a week here sometime.
Sunday, June 29 Petersburg. 56º48.8W 132º57.6’W. Yet another 11 hour day motoring on flat seas, though broken by encounters with humpbacks. By now, the Captain knows he can push the crew so rather than drop the hook and laze around Portage Bay, we press on through Frederick Sound until dropping south into Wrangell Narrows. We call the harbor master as we wind thought the northernmost aids to navigation, including red 63, a sea lion bunk bed buoy.
It’s barely and hour after high slack so Peterburg’s legendary currents should be relaxed. (The last time we were here the stream has slammed the Alaska State ferry into its own dock, disabling it; other errant ice bergs have ripped through pylons)
At that moment it begins to pour. Straight down hard. We head into our slip and find the opposite half empty. A blessing as the current pushes us to the wrong side. No problem, Aurora’s worn teak rub rails are in the right place for the new docks. We back out and try again, succeeding with the help of extra hands which suddenly appear on the finger to catch our bowline. When I go to register, and express my surprise at the current, the harbor master explains that all the rain rushing into Hammer Creek suddenly flows into the harbor. A large power cruiser with bow thrusters doesn’t even try to come in, but spend the night outside on the end float.
Nonetheless, the new docks at Petersburg are generously designed with lots of space. Broad tenders share space with slender wooden schooners. Lighting, fire hose connections, electrical outlets are state of the art. At night the place looks more like my idea of Saint Tropez than the rough and tumble fishing port that it is.
Tuesday, July 1. Wrangell 56º27.8′N 132.22.9′W We had a civilized morning today waiting for slack before navigating the 70 or so aids to navigation that guide us through the Wrangell Narrows. It’s low tide, in fact a negative tide. The crab pots are sitting on the mud next to their buoys.
At last we emerge into the open waters of Sumner Strait and the peaks of that tower over the Stikine River Valley come into view. The Stikine ice field, which is shared with Canada, has the southern most tidewater glaciers and is even larger than the Juneau ice field (which is the size of Rhode Island.)
The Wrangell docks finally have some rec boats in addition to transient fishing boats of all kinds. This week there are openings for seiners, gill netters and crabbers and the ubiquitous trollers seem to fish all the time. There’s no room for us near town so we tie up across the way.
Wrangell has the best laundromat in Southeast, it’s open until 9 pm and I’ve got three weeks worth of dirty clothes and linens. I get on my bike and ride past houses festooned with bunting and bows for the Fourth of July. I mentioned, didn’t I, that Wrangell claims to have the best celebration. Wish we didn’t have to move on, but we’ve miles to go.
This is the classic American journey everyone should take. Public transportation through the wilderness. The highway through roadlessness. Part pajama party, part hootenanny. The dreamers, those weary from work, the hopeful unemployed, ordinary folks going home or leaving home all in the same boat. In how many places in America do you find yourself traveling alongside locals, particularly locals who can spot a grizzly on a far shore or predict exactly when the humpback will dive right under your nose?
For an overview watch our slideshow. Music is Jack’s composition Petersburg from the CD North to Alaska.
The journey offers amenities in just the right doses. The 400-odd foot long M/V Matanuska has three levels above the car deck, all served by multiple stairways and a single elevator. Kids range freely, the sporting do laps on the deck. If you pay a modest bit extra for a cabin, you get a berth with proper linens on good mattresses and your own hot shower. If you’re traveling with your own gear, you stretch out on deck chairs in the heated solarium or pitch your tent on the deck. Or you leave your stuff in a locker, sleep wherever you like inside and then freshen up in one of the public shower rooms. Why can’t we live this way on land?
A DIY ethic seems to be built in. As you pull through the setting sun beyond Bellingham, Washington’s pretty little harbor the Purser kindly asks nurses, doctors and medics to introduce themselves. After supper, the First Mate plays his banjo and other musicians join in; by the third evening they are a five-person orchestra. The pudgy guy with the unruly mustache in a fisherman’s faded plaid shirt shows up on Sunday morning in a clerical collar as its announced that Episcopal Reverend so-and-so will lead a non-denominational service in the cocktail lounge at 9 am.
The food is spectacular. Halibut burgers with mountains of french fries. Platters of fresh spinach topped with mounds of shrimp. A pair of huge pork chops, fresh vegetables and mashed potatoes that barely fit on the plate. We learned to order one meal and cut it in half. There’re daily specials, a very long a la carte list, a deli counter with soups, salads and made-to-order sandwiches, a hot table with too many choices and, best of all, old-fashioned short order cooks at the ready.
There is no Internet.
Every night is briefer than the one preceding it so you don’t miss much. You sleep through Seymour Narrows on night one, the border crossing through Dixon Entrance on night two and Frederick Sound on night three. But the route often dips far inside the Inside Passage, closer to the route Aurora took last summer than anything a cruise ship could manage. To our surprise and delight, our Captain heads into Klemtu Passage, greeting the inhabitants of one of Canada’s most isolated First Nations villages with three stately blasts of the steam whistle and giving us a look at their spectacular long house. He also navigates the shallow winding Narrows – which boast 62 buoys in ten miles – between the towns of Wrangell and Petersburg, which the cruise ships never visit.
But the best routes of the Alaska Marine Highway are the local ones. Our final stretch takes us on the three-and-a-half hour ride from Juneau to Hoonah on the much smaller M/V LeConte.
For breakfast I go for berry pancakes and Jack for the eggs, toast, hash browns, and bacon. The short order cook fills me in while I wait. Yes, the LeConte sometimes fills up with all 300 passengers for the Hoonah route. It did a couple of weeks ago, before the summer schedule kicked in bringing three runs a week. “On sellout days we just hope it doesn’t rain so people can spread out on the decks.” I ask how they manage to plan for meals and keep the wonderful short order service which slows any food line. “We just know,” he says. It seems enough people show up with their own copious meals – which they warm in on board microwaves – so everyone eats well and enjoys the trip.
When he flips my hotcakes I notice they’re still berryless and chid myself for yakking away and distracting him. Then he flips the first one onto a plate, tops it with a soup-ladle full of marion berries mixed with raspberries and blueberries, and puts the second pancake on top. As I admire the sandwich, another helping of berries is ladled on top. Oh my, delicious!
After breakfast, I stay in the dining area. The dreamers on the ferry are up in the bow quietly gazing out on the ocean, the convivial sorts are in the starboard lounge, where curtains are drawn to create the movie house the village otherwise lacks. But the dining area is the part of the ship where the industrious ones are: the accountant with a tabletop full of chits, an artist with a pad, a couple of folks with laptops, and people working on crafts.
A young woman sits fashioning a Tlingit quilt/ceremonial robe spread out on a four person table at a window booth. A little girl crawls onto the seat opposite, admiring and inquiring why she’s chosen bright turquoise bound with the broad black band instead of the traditional red. “It pops out. You notice it.” she says. As an employee passes her table, cleaning up after the wave of hungry breakfasters, she asks his name. They link up in mutual recognition when she introduces herself as the payroll clerk for the ferries. The man with the mop then strikes up a conversation with a bight eyed boy who’s just finished his sophomore year in high school. Taking a break from his work, the older man puts pen to napkin to share “the very cool way” that the early Greeks – “or maybe they were Arabs,” he says – used to come up with the mathematical concept of Pi. How good it is to see this: Elders claiming their space and kids joining them in it. In Alaska, the village raises the kids.
Finally, we round Icy Strait Point and the old cannery that has been lovingly restored by the native corporation. We disembark, grab our 42″ rolling duffel with the new nautical charts and set off through the village to the harbor. Everything is as we left it except for the early spring flowers and the snow on all the peaks. Heading down the ramp we see the fishing troller Happy Hooker still tied up beside Icy Lady, whose skipper busy getting her ready for the opening of the season. And there’s Aurora, looking beautiful and remarkably clean and dry.
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.
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.
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 with 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 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.
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.
On 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.