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.
Friday, June 6. Dixon Entrance and Foggy Bay. 54º56.9’N 130.56’W We leave Prince Rupert at 5:30 am and wend our way through Venn, head north past Dundas Island and over the border where Jack and Cruz lower the Canadian pennant with ceremony and glee.
As soon as we pickup cell phone signals the blissful ignorance of Canada is replaced with pinging messages, Tweets, and emails. We also call US Customs for permission to moor at Foggy Bay, which is granted. Everyone knows us, we’re tracked by officials both sides of the border. Track record is good: we don’t smuggle cheap US booze and finish off produce purchased on one country before crossing into the other.
Dixon Entrance is beautiful. Clear skies, and flat windless seas. Foggy Bay is a sweet little anchorage. Two other sailboats are ahead of us; must have left Prince Rupert really early.
Saturday, June 7 Ketchikan 55º21’N 131º41’W In Ketchikan they measure rain in feet not inches. Thirteen in the past year.
So here we are, back in the cloudy drizzle that characterized our whole last passage to Alaska. Damp, dank, dusky, musty, moldy everything. We get a solid 36 hours of drops. We’re moored at Bar Harbor rather than up downtown because we again have chores to do and the chandleries and markets are nearer. Turns out I need to make two trips back and forth from town. Through a mid-day dose of driving rain the wets to the skin two additional sets of clothes in addition to the fouliess that are already hanging outside under the dodger.
Then it stops. I get back on my bike and go back downtown in quest of the Portland Loo. It’s on the other side of downtown, south of The Creek, in the area of the waterfront where Stedman meets Thomas Street. This is where the Asians were forced to live. That is until the Chinese community was decimated by the Exclusion Act. Which left a bit of elbow room for Americans from Japan, until they were booted out to desert camps by FDR in 1942. In their wake came folks from the Philippines and they seem to have kept coming ever since. When we stop for lattes at McDonald’s to survive a drenching, all we hear is Tagalog. Ketchikan’s Filipinos are everywhere! They seem so upbeat. Maybe that’s just the way they are, or maybe it’s worked out. They have clubs and churches and normal teenagers and jobs and history. Middle class; don’t live south of the Creek anymore.
South of the Creek there’s a traditional-and-contemporary Skid Row, a national Historic District, and a tireless neighborhood association. Does this sound like Portland’s Old Town Chinatown, our old neighborhood? Yes. And the Portland Loo is on the dock right between the Salvation Army and the Salvation Army Thrift Store. It’s the Stedman-Thomas Neighborhood Association that inspired the partnerships and raised the funds to purchase and operate the Loo.
Monday, June 9. Meyers Chuck 55º44’N 132º15’W Folks here do things so nicely. For example.
There’s US mail on Tuesdays. There are only a handful of year-rounders. Others are fisherman or just fans. The wood smoke from their chimneys and the flags flying let you know that they are here.
Daryl is third generation and full time Myers Chuck except for construction work gigs that take him away. He first came here to visit his grandfather. Then his parents had a summer house here. In time, he just decided it just was his kind of place. Upon hearing we’re from PT, he scratches his head and says think a couple of women come here from there summers.
He’s building an angled set of stairs up from the main path as we chat. New house or what? Land sale he says. State needs money so they sell off mental health lands. What? That’s what we call them he says. So everybody has a generator? Almost. What about toilets? Most of the year-rounders have flush. It goes into the bay. Flushes from three sides. But I’m a honey bucket guy. You don’t mix pee and poop, do you? Course not. I pee on my garden.
Tuesday, June 10. Wrangell. 56º27.9’N 132.22.9’W Wrangell Harbor Master says Petersburg has renovated their docks. About time I say. And since they raised their fees, lots of their boats come here now. New marina looks great I say. And the brand new red and white travel lift, which announces Wrangell, Alaska, Home of the Wolves. But as for us transients, so glad you’ve left space right here in the middle of things.
Nice mix of neighbors. Troller Hornet waiting for flood tide to put it up on grid and ebb so they can get bottom work done. Annie B. from Port Angeles featuresTom Pope, Marine Surveyor. We’ve seen his name on bulletin board in PT. He and Lillian had just adopted a pup – sort of a wire haired terrier named Sport. They ware thinking of changing his name to Peter because he tried to walk on water. Seems he took a running bound off the stern not understanding that water isn’t hard. Got fished out; all it took was a boat hook under his collar. Brown Sugar, a gill netter without a gill net, crewed by a couple, busy and cheerful, endlessly fixing things. First time the boat’s been in the water in four years. Then there’s a big Grand Banks from Napa CA. Polished people drinking chablis on the fly bridge started in Anacortes and are turning around here. The only other sailboat is Black Bear. More on Skipper Steve soon.
When we head home after drinks at Raymes, Wrangell’s finest dive bar, we find Jack’s scooter has given up the ghost and have to push him home. Cruz spends the whole next day taking it apart without riding anything amiss. In Southeast folks hang out on their boats so Jack can manage.
You can’t help but love Wrangell because Wrangell folks love it so much. They especially brag about having the best Fourth of July in Southeast. What a lead up to it! The weekly Wrangell Sentinel has given over three pages to introducing candidates in the Queen competition. Seems to be a singular Wrangell tradition. Candidates raise funds for the parade, for a favorite charity, and for themselves. Local businesses divide up their sponsorships am among them but the candidates put real effort. They make posters, and sell tickets and proffer sandwiches at food stands decorated with the stars and stripes. Candidates range from accomplished business women to a pair of twelve-year olds vying for the title of Co-Queens. With ingenuity like this, I figure they’ve come up though the ranks: another tradition is Lemonade Day, an entrepreneurship competition we’ve just missed.
Thursday, June 12. Port Protection. 56º19’N 133º36.8’W We pass Point Baker, once the summer home of fisher poet Joe Upton, and go on to Port Protection, so named by George Vancouver himself. The two communities are close as the eagle flies but connect only by sea. Steve of S/V Black Bear has recommended this place.
Friday, June 13. Kake. 56º56.8N 133º53.7’W We don’t register that it’s Friday much less the Thirteenth. Just as well as the long, formerly unnavigable Keku Channel and Rocky Pass is intimidating enough. The weather has turned and we need constant attention to tides, currents, charts and red and green buoys. Northbound seems longer than our last time through. We’re really tired when we tie up on the little Tlinkit village of Kake. Since the weather is rainy, cloudy and windless and dealing with various mishaps means we haven’t had a day off since we left PT so the Captain relents and we get one.
Kake is the perfect place for this. Its only claim to fame is an unattractive totem pole supported by guy wires which may possibly be the highest in the world. It’s not as tall, however, as the communications tower right next to it, which gives five bars of AT&T. We retether to the rest of the world.
In Southeast, transportation takes a backseat to all other uses of a car. For panhandle Alaskans, their vehicles have other roles. Waterproof shopping carts. Dog kennels. Moveable offices. Giant toolboxes. Ad hoc shelters. Bumpersticker racks.
They certainly have enough cars. Someone in Sitka said there were over twenty thousand vehicles in that town of barely nine thousand souls! And Alaska’s fourth largest city has a mere 23 miles of streets and roads. They go nowhere really. People in Hoonah brag that they have a road that can take them 14 miles out of the village to hunt and freshwater fish. But like the state capital, Juneau, most towns in Southeast are landlocked. You just can’t get there – or out of there – by car. Cars come and go only by barge, or by the ferries that make up the Alaska Marine Highway.
(The exceptions are the Southeast towns of Haines and Skagway, which connect with the AlCan Highway. Ambitious folks from British Columbia and the lower 48 arrive via the outposts Whitehorse and Dawson Creek to join car totting ferry passengers and the busses that meet the cruise ships. The result is to turn these two otherwise charming, walkable towns into parking lots.)
Prince of Wales Island is where inhabitants are really proud of their roads. Most of the communities of the third largest island in the US (after Big Island Hawaii and Kodiak) are connected to one another by road, the exceptions being Point Baker and Port Protection. This means a locksmith in Hydaburg can respond to a call in Whale Pass, a family from Hollis can buy groceries in Coffman Cove, and pet owners from most parts of the island can drive to Craig on the third Friday and Saturday of the month when the vet is in town. Roads bind Prince of Wales communities into a common local economy. “More than 2000 miles of roads reach into Prince of Wales Island.” boasts the 2012 Chamber of Commerce brochure. Then it goes on to say that only 105 miles are paved!
By and large, however, Southeast Alaskans go places on boats and planes. Your car is a runabout, a utility vehicle. It is enough trouble to keep it registered, licensed and insured. Indeed, driver lapses fill the police blotter of every small town newspaper.
So it was not surprising to overhear a Wrangell bar patron say, “Oh. Road trips are reallyhard on a car”. The bartender had mentioned that her sister wanted to borrow her car, take it by ferry down to the lower 48 and then drive to Montana! It just wasn’t feasible, was it? Her customers were utterly sympathetic. Use a car for a road trip? What would happen to the car? Just not part of the culture.
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.