When you think about it, an influx of Norwegian fishermen to a salmon-rich community in southeastern Alaska shouldn’t have been all that surprising.
Petersburg is known as “Alaska’s little Norway.” Located on the fiord-like Wrangell Narrows at the northern end of Mitkof Island, it was founded at the end of the 19th century by immigrant fisherman Peter Buschmann.
Determining it to be the perfect place for a colony of anglers accustomed to the blustery conditions of the North Sea, Buschmann established the Icy Strait Packing Company. Within 10 years, 350 permanent residents were employed by the salmon and halibut fishing fleet, two salmon canneries, six salmon salteries and a sawmill.
Today, about 3,000 people make their home here, in a town that is 1,700 miles north of Seattle and is accessible only by air or water. The fish-processing plants — Petersburg Fisheries, Trident Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods — are still the major employers, and surnames like Enge and Haugen, Clausen and Halingstad, still predominate.
As a man of Scandinavian descent (albeit Swede-Finn rather than Norse), I feel right at home in this tidy settlement. I first visited in 1985. I paid my fourth visit this week.
The center of activity remains the Sons of Norway Hall “Fedrelandet 23,” a national historic site built over Hammer Slough in 1912. Its window shutters brightly painted with traditional rosemaling floral patterns, the large wood-frame building is the place for community feasts and for performances by the Leikarring Dancers, a troupe of teen-aged dancers.
Outside the Sons of Norway Hall, a miniature Viking ship, the Valhalla, stands at the heart of Bojer Wikan Memorial Park, commemorating the lives of fishermen lost at sea. Extending north along the waterfront is Sing Lee Alley, a rare exception to the Norwegian rule here.
A century ago, many of Petersburg’s residents were Chinese, working in the canneries, running restaurants or laundries. Sing Lee was a benevolent merchant whose unsolved 1932 murder is still fodder for discussion here.
Perhaps he ran afoul of the bearded, sasquatch-sized logger who once tried to pick a fight with me in Kito’s Kave, also on Sing Lee Alley. I avoided the confrontation, and I never met Kito, but his bar is still the place to go for a cold beer, a round of pool and a little local music on weekends.
If you stop in Petersburg for a day or two, I recommend staying at the Scandia House (www.scandiahousehotel.com). Located in the heart of downtown — which is, to be honest, only three blocks long — it is close to the Trading Union, a quaint department store where you can buy anything from groceries to a fishing gear and a good flannel shirt.
For food, I suggest Inga’s Galley, recently offering Thai-style Norwegian halibut on its specials menu, or Helse, which serves great homemade soups and bread.
There’s a fine little museum of local history and culture, the Clausen Memorial Museum. And the Petersburg Visitor Information Center (www.petersburg.org), distinguished by the Tlingit totem poles beside Nordic Drive, will tell you all about hiking, kayaking and other outdoor opportunities in Tongass National Forest, which covers most of Mitkof Island.
Bears are not a huge problem here. But you’ll want to watch out for moose.