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Travels With Skip…. Petersburg — Alaska’s Little Norway

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One of the features of the ship’s itinerary is to make a couple stops at the local villages so that we might get the flavor– experience the ambiance– of the area. One of the towns is Petersburg, settled by Norwegians in the 1800s.  We motored for about three hours south of Juneau on the inland waterway passage of Frederick Sound.  This is part of the inland waterway that stretches from Seattle to Alaska. You can travel all the way and never be exposed to the open Pacific Ocean.  Among other benefits, the water is much calmer than the open ocean.  It is also a world class prime grounds for sighting whales (inset photo) , seals, sea lions and other marine mammals. The water is deep—sometimes 2000 ft. in places but most often 400-600 feet deep.  It never freezes over, and is in the temperate zone where, despite many snowcapped peaks on all sides, the temperature never goes below zero in the winter and summer temps are in the 60-70s.  There are about 110 inches of rain per year making this a temperate coastal rainforest. There are more than 18 hours of daylight in June and 6 ½ hours in December—you can read the paper by natural light at 3 AM in the morning during the summer. The tide can vary as much as 23 feet in one day from high to low tide. If you, perchance, dock at say, high tide, you will undoubtedly have an alpine climb down to your boat if you return 10-12 hours later.

We docked at Petersburg, another village that you can only get to by air or by sea. It is one of the very few outposts of modern civilization in coastal Alaska, most of which are likewise accessible only by air or water. Technically, it is on an island, one of truly countless many in Alaska. (You can’t drive to Juneau, the state capital, either, mostly because of hugely high snowcapped mountains, glaciers and other insurmountable natural barriers.) Fishing is the backbone of the economy, producing 36 million dollars worth of  seafood each year.   Petersburg is an ancient village, the roots of which go back many hundreds of years to when only Native Americans inhabited the area.  Native American Tlingit tribes used the area to fish for salmon and halibut and hunted in the area all year around

These days, Petersburg is a city of about 3000 people.  80 % are Caucasian, 10 % are American Indian and Alaskan Natives, and 10% others. The federal, state and local governments are the largest employers and fishing is the driving force in today’s economy. The town’s seafood processors employ about 1100 people.  Besides fishing, tourism and timber also drive the economy.

As you approach the harbor from the water, at a mile away you begin to make out the masts and deck cranes protruding from many large ocean going fishing boats.  As you get closer you see row upon row of fishing boats like you see on TV’s Deadliest Catch. The vast majority have extremely high bows to fend off large ocean waves and swells.  This is an indication that they don’t just fish the inland waterways but frequently venture out into the open ocean. They are smartly painted, have a couple deck cranes to hoist the nets and crab pots, and are in good repair.  These boats are each worth well over a million dollars and the majority are family owned.

The whole village is about 8 blocks long and three blocks deep—maybe as big as the village of Fairport Harbor on Lake Erie. But the many rows of these magnificent fishing boats are the most impressive sight.

According to the Petersburg Visitors Guide here are some of the more (some less??) memorable things to do in Petersburg: 1) Adventure Tours—local companies can provide Wilderness tours by land sea or air. 2) Fish for king salmon.  3) Bird watching. 4) Nature walks.  5) Check your E-mail. 6) Eat Lutefisk.  7) Restaurants (two). 8) Visit the Viking Ship Valhalia in the Sons of Norway parking Lot.  Checking your E-mail might seem one of the more mundane if not ridiculous options to list……until you realize that you haven’t been able to have any cell phone reception or E-mail reception for 4 days because you are so far out in the bush/mountains/uninhabited water ways.  Eating lutefisk……let’s just say that following the bears to the garbage dump to wallow in dead fish and rotting vegetative matter is a very similar sensual experience.

This is prime whale watching water. Of the estimated 6000 humpback whales in the North Pacific about 1000 of them spend the summer feeding in Southeast Alaska and they enter through the Frederick Sound on which Petersburg is located.  On this trip we encountered myriads of whales frolicking about, feeding, and having a gloriously good time totally oblivious to our presence. The captain would stop the ship and we would expend thousands of photos trying to get just the right picture of a whale breaching or rolling or bubble hunting!  What?? You don’t know what bubble hunting is? I confess, neither did I.  So let me explain.  Whales frequently hunt in packs or pods. When they find a school of fish they will surround it, dive down under it and begin blowing a screen of tiny bubbles thus creating a surrounding wall much like a net, driving the school of fish closer together. Then they come up from under it with their mouths open until they reach the surface with mouths full of fish, krill and other things (lifeboats, Pinocchio). As they hit the surface there are 4-6 whale mouths and upper bodies protruding skyward out of the water for an instant.  The trick is to snap that photo at just the right moment, and why all of us on the boat have hundreds of shots of ……water, having just missed the correct timing. This pod hunting may go on for hours and hours. It takes a while to fill up a 40 ton animal.

Hump backs may reach 55 feet in length, the average being 45 feet.  Whales frequently travel in pods of several whales, often related to each other. (I don’t really know how we know that—maybe the biologist do DNA sampling, or when you get your whale driver’s license you have to submit to a DNA Test).  They may stay submerged for up to 30 minutes.  Frederick Sound humpbacks have been tracked to Maui, Hawaii where they make a 2800 mile migration and can do it in as little as 39 days.

The last page of the visitors guide has the obligatory warning to be cautious around the bears (grizzlies) which are numerous in this area  Don’t feed the bears….garbage addicted bears become nuisances…….. Don’t set up your camp where there are signs of bears eating, and imitating a bear’s sounds ranks as one of the most foolish things a human can do!

Bears are very nice. Bears and I have a love-hate (fear, actually) relationship going back to a trip to the Canadian Rockies some years ago when a lovely grizzly left a smoking 25 pound turd right in front of us on the wooden walkway “just so we knew he was there”. It apparently wasn’t enough that he was shaking trees and creating havoc in the skunk cabbage like a herd of wrestling wolverines.  I like to see bears often—most often from the short side of my long binoculars with me on the short side, or from my 400 millimeter telephoto lens. The bear warning page of the pamphlets on the ship warns strongly not to leave any garbage out that bears could get into.   Bad bears that have eaten garbage quickly become addicted (apparently garbage is to bears what heroin is to humans). Then they have to be whisked away, sometimes to the other side of the earth so that they don’t come back to that spot for a fix.  Often though they have been known to somehow make their way back home again, oh, by hopping a tramp steamer, hiding in the wheel wells of jet planes….who knows how they do it, but getting back to that garbage dump in Petersburg, Alaska is all-important.  So don’t feed the bears, or be the bear’s feed!

 

 

Do you fish, hunt, trap, travel, camp, go for nature walks? What else do you do outdoors? Drop me a line at THE VILLAGER, 8088 Main Street,  Garrettsville 44231. E-mail me at Skipstaxidermy@yahoo.com or give me a call at 330-562-9801. I’d like to hear from you.

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Skip Schweitzer, of Mantua, can be described from early on in life as an avid outdoorsman and old car restorer and aficionado. He comes from a long line of great lakes fishermen and hunters. He is a taxidermist and a retired psychologist. His grandfather Charles, a machinist and fisherman who fed his family with fish during the Great Depression, was one of the original auto restorers at the Thompson Auto Museum, now the Crawford Auto Aviation Museum. Skip learned to hunt, fish and restore cars from his father Roy and learned the value and appreciation of antique automobiles from his grandfather. Skip has, over the years, restored upwards of 25 automobiles including many Fords, Studebakers, Buicks, Jeeps and VWs. Skip has written extensively on automobiles and outdoors for several newspapers, magazines and auto publications this past 20 years. His current antique automobiles include a 1930 Ford Model “A”, and a 1970 Volkswagen Cabriolet. Skip’s most frequent bylines are, Outdoors With Skip, and The Old Road.