Note: Paperback includes map, Kindle digital version does not, suggest getting map below.
If you are on an Alaska ferry or a small cruise ship, chances are you’ll travel through Wrangell Narrows to Petersburg. Set in one of the most dramatic landscapes in the region with 10,000’ Kates Needle rising spectacularly behind, the town is known as Little Norway for its original descendants, who settled here after coming from the old country.
With strong shrimp, salmon, crab, and halibut resources close at hand and icebergs very conveniently drifting right into the boat harbor from nearby Le Conte Glacier, it was a commercial fisherman’s dream: before the advent of refrigeration, locals would ice their fish with iceberg ice and ship them south to Seattle markets. Eventually, three salmon canneries, a shrimp processor, and a cold storage plant served the needs of its fishermen.
I first skippered a ‘big boat’ here – a 60’ fish buyer or tender. My boss, John Enge, grew up in Petersburg. Before he started school, he only spoke Norwegian, learned at home, and Tlingit, learned from his native playmates. Until about 1985, the Petersburg fishermen mostly worked the waters of Southeast Alaska. With markets for Alaska seafood expanding with the robust Japanese economy, Petersburg fishermen and a locally owned cannery, Icicle Seafoods, made a major expansion into fisheries in the remote areas of western Alaska, particularly the Bering Sea and Bristol Bay.
When many seafood markets weakened in the 1990s with the major slump in the Japanese economy, Petersburg fishing companies were mostly able to survive, while some others in Wrangell, Ketchikan, and Juneau had to close their doors.
Compared to British Columbia, the salmon stocks of Alaska have proved remarkably resilient over the years. 2011 was a particularly good year – a number of seiners had caught a million pounds which pencils out to a $55,000 crew share each for a summer’s work and the word on the street was that there was at least one boat that had caught two million. A number of men have careers and families in other parts of the country, only to return to Petersburg each summer to get in on the commercial harvest.
Today, while tourism plays a huge part in the economy of most towns in the region, here it is conspicuously absent. The harbor isn’t large enough for the big ships, and candidly, the town fathers prefer to concentrate on what they know best: fishing. Nevertheless, small cruise ships—100 passengers and less—often stop here, as does the Alaska ferry.
It’s not all just commercial fishing – Petersburg is both the jumping off place for several remote lodges, as well as remote cabins that you can rent through the US Forest Service: www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass/cabins/cabins.shtml. If you do visit, stop by the harbormaster’s office, just off main street, with canneries on either side. There you can pick up a town map, etc.
Two big events are the Little Norway Festival celebrating Norwegian Independence Day in mid May, where traditional costumes and crafts are in evidence, and Fourth of July, a bit more raucous, as the fishing fleet is usually in town. Hammer Slough is close by with the Sons of Norway Hall and Sing Yee Alley, an excellent place for local crafts, and the Clausen Museum celebrating local commercial fishing.
A nice stroll is just along the waterfront, north out of town. On the right you’ll see the homes fishermen and processors built overlooking Frederick Sound and the entrance to Wrangell Narrows. From their view homes it was a short walk down to either the boat harbor or ‘cannery row.’ Not a bad life.